“Don’t mind me I haven’t eaten today and they finally gave me a bowl of gruel,” Mick Rock says to me at the start of our interview as he begins to tear apart a blueberry muffin from Starbucks.
The legendary rock ‘n’ roll photographer sits across from me with his hair wildly flaring out and wearing a pair of sunglasses despite the relatively dim lighting in the room. The photographer of such icons as David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, and the Ramones is now the subject of a new documentary SHOT! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock from director Barney Clay.
“People have been talking to me about it for a long time, including the old BBC as you can imagine. Of course, there are a number of documentaries out there in recent times – I haven’t seen the Harry Benson one, an old friend of mine did a lot of like fashiony stuff. I don’t know but people wanted to do it and I was very reluctant for a long time,” Rock recalled of the long road to getting this documentary made.
Having photographed some of the biggest names in music over his career, Mick Rock was reluctant to point to favorites over his career. “That’s one of those tricky questions, isn’t it? We don’t want soul stirring in their grave and damning me for eternity,” Rock joked. “I think Karen O. is a fantastic subject. Of course, she’s in the documentary. Janelle Monáe, I think she’s fabulous. Snoop Dogg. Of course it’s hard to avoid certain of those early subjects. I mean, Lou, I loved working with Lou [Reed]. The cutest of them all were the double Ds – Debbie [Harry] and David [Bowie]. In both cases there are tons of fabulous pictures out there. On the other hand, they’re also mine.”
Times have changed in rock ‘n’ roll photography and Mick Rock has no problems reflecting on the difference he’s encountered. “Back in those days, one thing is I didn’t sleep as much. I had more time for hanging out. Two, I was a lot younger. Three, everyone else was, relatively speaking, younger,” he said. “It was different times. Nowadays, you see people taking pictures much more seriously. David always did. He always understood the power of the camera. Not that he was someone who would try to direct you how to take his picture. He came in, ‘What do you want to do?’ It was like that with Lou, all the pictures I took of those two. Debbie, that’s a gift.”
Just don’t expect to Mick Rock to throw any of his past subject under the bus. When asked about any subjects that might’ve been nightmares, the photographer played it rather coy. “I know everybody’s been asking but I can’t think of – well, I can think of a couple of people but they won’t mean anything to you because they were not particularly talented and I need the money so I took it. There was a time in my life I would’ve shot your pet parrot if you paid me in cash. There was a time when I could barely get a fucking blind dope to piss on me.”
I felt compelled to ask Mick Rock about one of the more fascinating moments in SHOT! which featured an audio tape from 1976 of Lou Reed bashing the Ramones. It totally contradicts an audio tape of Lou Reed from 1974 featured in the documentary Danny Says. “We’re talking about ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,’ which was a single they put out. Lou already did love the Ramones but at that moment in time – he might not have slept – but he was at the time that’s what he said. That wasn’t an absolute,” Rock recalled of his conversations with Reed.
“Even there’s a quote from me in there, you see me talking about the Ramones being the uglier – they should’ve left in the second part of what I said, you know how manipulative film – I said at the time they were probably the ugliest band out there but I also said as the years went on they started to look better, because rock ‘n’ roll changed,” Rock expanded his recollections of the Ramones. “The Ramones were very guarded. Danny Fields, a longtime friend of mine who was managing them at the time, I remember the brief was there were two or three sessions, they hate the pictures, we’ve got no money, they don’t like photographers, if they don’t like what’s going on they’ll leave, and if you’re luck you’ll get an hour. I said, ‘I’m on board.’ Plus it was produced by Phil Spector. Times change.”
We continued talking about the Ramones and this led to a moment where I got to impress a rock icon with my knowledge. “They do a fantastic version of ‘Needles & Pins.’ The Searchers’ version I’ve always loved. Do you know who co-wrote that?”
Without hesitation, “Sonny Bono,” I replied.
“Bingo. You’re the only other person I’ve ever met that knows that. Yes, Sonny Bono.”
My moment of glory was short-lived as we circle the conversation back to Lou Reed’s conflicting thoughts on the music of the Ramones. “Lou would fuck with everybody,” Rock dryly told me. “I’ll tell you who Lou did love, the Talking Heads. He took me down to CBGBs in autumn while I was working on the Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart Tour in ’76 and they were only a three piece. That was before Jerry Harrison joined them. And he said, ‘You gotta see these guys.’”
According to Rock, Lou Reed had a complicated attitude towards his being credited as one of the founding fathers of punk rock. “He was always denying it, denying it, denying it, being one of the twin godfathers of punk. Covering a different part of the terrain, namely having to do with the stripped down nature of especially the Velvet [Underground]’s music,” Rock recalled.
“Of course, the godfather was Little Miss Iggy, wasn’t it? And still going. That’s fucking defying all the laws of gravity. It’s probably criminal that he’s still around. I mean there’s something wrong with it,” Rock joked about the iconic rocker Iggy Pop. “If there was amongst the people I knew of the death row victims, he was well ahead – he was ahead of Lou, and he would’ve been pitched ahead of Keith Richards, too. Of course, look at him. I love him.”
Of all the acts that he’s shot over the years, I asked Mick Rock if there were any artists from the New York punk scene that he wished he had the chance to photograph. “I photographed the Dead Boys, the Ramones. I got some pictures of Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Talking Heads. Maybe Television, not because they were so dynamic to see on stage but they were certainly musically very interesting,” he said. “I didn’t shoot the Cramps, but they would’ve been worthy. You can’t shoot everybody. You can’t fuck all the girls you want, it’s the same thing just because you want to. If the stars aren’t correctly aligned, you know.”
The iconic rock ‘n’ roll photographer has an idea for a new book that’s had trouble getting off the ground, but it’s something that might actually be quite successful in the modern internet age. “I love cats. I wanna do a cat book and everybody just to pet me says, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll absolutely do a cat book, but can we do this other book first?’ A fucking rock ‘n’ roll book,” Rock said with a laugh. “But I wanna do a book now called SHOT! that reflects the breadth of my work. We would even include a couple a couple of cocaine still lifes. Because I took really fucking good pictures of cocaine. Yes, I was inspired by the subject. And yes, there was a certain level of stimulation going on. But I could, that was the one time in my life I could shoot still life.”
SHOT! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock is now in select theaters and available on VOD platforms.