contributing editor: mr. rock

Mr. Rock
Mick Rock is “The Man Who Shot The Seventies.” Just don’t remind him.
by Alison Baenen
photographs by Mick Rock

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Mick Rock is “The Man Who Shot The Seventies.” Just Don’t Remind Him.
By Alison Baenen

Mick Rock is on his way to a yoga class, but first, he wants to show me his brain machine. A portable device (Rock carries his in a large Ziploc bag), a brain machine is meant to synchronize brain waves and foster a spirit of tranquility; wearing one, I imagine, is also something like being on acid. Rock uses his all the time, he says, to focus before a photo shoot or zone out on a plane ride. At the new age-y restaurant next door to Irving Plaza where we meet for coffee, Rock untangles the contraption and slips on the light-emitting sunglasses and squishy deejay headphones that emit sonorous, whooshing noises. “It’ll change your perception,” Rock says when he’s done, passing the machine across the table.
Perception is a fraught topic for Rock. Best known for the era-defining photographs he took of rock stars in the seventies – David Bowie, Syd Barrett, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Mick Ronson – he’d rather not talk about the past. “It’s like being known as a great lover from 25 years ago,” he says. “That’s not really going to help me today.” To wit, his iPod touch, which served as a digital illustrator of Rock’s present-day demand during our conversation, is loaded with photos of a younger set – Sienna Miller, Adam Green, Lady Gaga, Riley Keough – many of whom, like Georgia Jagger and Django Stewart (Dad is the Eurhythmics’ Dave Stewart), are the progeny of Rock’s original subjects. “The young acts like to shoot with me,” Rock says. “I think it’s because of all that glammy punk stuff I did in the seventies.” Vestigial fame has its perks.
Scroll further through Rock’s portable photos and classic images surface. There’s Syd Barrett lying supine on the hood of a car; Queen emerging from darkness on the cover of their second album; and – the money shot – David Bowie on his knees plucking Mick Ronson’s guitar strings with his teeth. “They just came as they were, they wore what they wanted,” Rock says of the players. Bowie, in his Ziggy Stardust phase, presumably put a little more time into his togs, but Rock stresses that it was never about following trends. “Bowie was thinking about the way he was dressing, but he wasn’t thinking about fashion,” Rock distinguishes. The trends, of course, followed Bowie, whose on-stage persona launched an androgyny fad that Marc Jacobs embraces today (his penchant for skirts and high heels is well-documented); and a sprayed-on sci-fi look menswear newcomer Gareth Pugh embraced down to the eyeliner this season. “Bowie was projecting forward quite heavily at the time,” Rock says, who sees his friend’s look reinvented at the clubs where he occasionally deejays. “His instincts were quite remarkable in retrospect.”
Remarkable enough that Rock, whose interest in fashion is professedly low, took pleasure in Bowie’s reinventions. “It was always much more about, ‘I would like a bit more of that, please,’” Rock says of his reactions to the scene. “For me, the constant novelty in my life was always stimulating. I was always about today rather than yesterday.”
Today Rock’s own look hews faithfully to what is was four decades ago; his uniform of layered denim work shirts and jeans is utilitarian and definitely not trendy – he was wearing Ray-Bans long before Mischa Barton got her hands on a pair. “I don’t look unfashionable, and I never did,” Rock says, flipping through his digital album to a decades old self-portrait – a skinnier version of his present day self. “I think I’ll always live in a state of transcending fashion.” Rock does admit to experimenting with “a little kohl, and a little lipstick or rouge” in the past, but to hear him tell it, that was about as out there as bell bottoms; still, we’d like to think of it as a measure of Bowie’s sartorial clout.
For Rock, his contemporaries’ platform shoes, unkempt hair, and metallic, second skin crotch-huggers were part of a generational fixation with experimentation. “Young people were living very much day to day, and that was enough,” he says. “It gave us an enormous amount of freedom. We were writing our own destiny.” Rock credits this attitude for the right-place-right-time kismet of his career. A student of modern languages at Cambridge, Rock’s first idols were poets: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Byron, Shelley, Keats, and Coleridge. “Mostly they seemed to have a lot of sex and get high all the time,” he says of the Romantics. Xanadu and its pleasure dome proved less alluring than real-life rockers, specifically Syd Barrett, who Rock met at Cambridge in the 1960’s. Photos were shot and Rock abandoned academia without a clear plan for the future. He found himself at the epicenter of a major music moment. Alone. “I didn’t shoot stuff that made more money at the time, but I shot the cutting edge,” Rock says. “I suppose I was a few steps ahead of other photographers. For whatever reason, I was the only one on the scene.” In addition to musicians, the scene comprised artists and designers like Bill Gibb, Ozzie Clark, and Zandra Rhodes. “We were running a parallel universe,” Rock says. “You’ve got the structure over here –” he gestures vaguely to the status quo, “and that had nothing to do with us.”
Hard partiers and readers of Romantic poetry alike are familiar with willingly suspending their disbelief, but Rock’s summons to reality came after his quadruple bypass surgery just over a decade ago. He’s been clean ever since, and a steady diet of yoga, acupuncture, massage, and the brain machine has rendered drugs superfluous. “I’m in hot pursuit of the altered state,” Rock says. “But now I’d be really stupid to pursue it artificially. I’m no longer trapped by the chemical devils.” That’s one vestige of his past career Rock has been able to discard, but the fascination with his first works – which is sure to peak now that rumors of Ziggy Stardust headlining Coachella are rife – is so not easily dismissed. “Sometimes, a weighty past like I have can be a drag,” Rock admits. “But I’ve learnt to be cool about it, and respectful to other people. I suppose it’s cool that they care.”