David Bowie turned being alone into a kind of transcendent isolation – friend and photographer Mick Rock was just one soul ignited by his jet stream.
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It’s 11am in New York – time enough to rise, drink some coffee, and peruse the latest dystopian headlines. Over in London, we’re waiting. Mick Rock has decided it’s time to talk. There are tales to be told, he insists, and stories to recount. So Clash does the dutiful thing, dials the number, and waits for an answer. “Oh, hello darling...” purrs a voice on the other end of the phone.
Mick Rock has lived and breathed rock ‘n’ roll for decades, and along the way his lens has nailed down the sharpest, most evocative portraits possible of the dilettantes, wastrels, and burnt out souls who pepper its most powerful moments. He’s worked with them all – if they were worth the time – and lived to tell the tale, his life and work adorning countless books and an acclaimed documentary.
But this time it’s personal. This time it’s about David Bowie. The two had an association, a friendship that lasted for almost 40 years, commencing with the stratospheric birth of Ziggy Stardust and finishing with Bowie’s death in 2016. Throughout it all, Mick Rock viewed David Bowie as a person, as a friend and confidant – but he also watched him become an idol through his photographer’s lens. “I always say that him and Debbie Harry are the two perfect subjects!” he says, his voice crackling with the energy of twilight seduction, tall tales, and his later-life fondness for yoga.
Mick Rock first met David Bowie shortly after the release of ‘Hunky Dory’, when Ziggy was still a spark in an imaginary rocket-ship. The pair bonded through Mick’s friendship with mercurial Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett, and the photographer was initiated into Bowie’s inner circle. “I would take pictures and also do an interview,” he recalls. “It was a way for the magazine to get a cheap package. So I got to know his way of thinking, too – it wasn’t just about the photographs. And that somehow sealed our relationship.”
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Hauled into the star’s orbit, Mick Rock watched as Ziggy Stardust conquered the globe, with David Bowie becoming a phenomenon. Capturing images along the way, he amassed a colossal personal archive, something he dived into for the making of inspirational new book The Rise Of David Bowie – an intimate, fly-on-the-wall portrait as the English icon’s cosmic genius burned up into a supernova. “I could shoot David anytime, anywhere,” says Mick, “and he was always comfortable, it seems, with me shooting.”
In the endlessly beige, corduroy wasteland of the early 70s, only a handful of outsider aesthetes and libertine talents shone with any kind of light and colour. Once in Bowie’s coterie Mick Rock was introduced to Lou Reed and Iggy Pop – indeed, he shot the covers for Reed’s album ‘Transformer’ and Iggy & The Stooges’ punk blueprint ‘Raw Power’ in the same weekend. “They were in fact shot on successive nights!” he laughs. “I used to call them the Terrible Trio… and then later, I started calling them The Unholy Trinity.”
On a weekly basis David Bowie would adorn the covers and inside pages of the music press, lighting up the imaginations of lonely souls across the land. Blinking like a satellite over a landscape blighted by endless strikes and IRA bombings, his searingly intelligent quotes would be augmented by pictures from Mick Rock, the two shattering expectations of the way rock stars could communicate.
But Ziggy’s messianic message wasn’t embraced by all. Famously, David Bowie’s performance of ‘Starman’ on Top Of The Pops – louche arm grasping garishly, tantalisingly on to the shoulder of guitarist Mick Ronson – caused uproar in playgrounds across the nation. “I do remember going into a theatre once with David and someone yelling out: ‘You fucking poof!’ And David thought ‘oh very nice… at least I’m a fucking poof!’ It was such a different time.”
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With his camera clicking amid the maelstrom, Mick Rock seemed to capture iconic moments on a weekly basis – with the ghosts of the 60s receding, Bowie was ready to ignite a fresh revolution, causing cultural ruptures with his gender-bending rock glamour. “It was highly experimental and David was right in the centre of it,” he recalls. “And that summer it was like David was the Master Of Ceremonies. Culturally, the sands were shifting all the time… which was the fun of it. And then later along trotted punk with Johnny Rotten, with his red hair looking like a fucked up Ziggy Stardust!”
“Somehow, I managed to get a reputation, too. Thanks to David, of course! It just kept going after that. We were all relatively innocent,” he says, before that crackling laugh returns: “Well, Lou and Iggy weren’t!”
It’s difficult from a modern perspective to truly grasp the ruptures that David Bowie caused with the release of ‘The Rise And Fall Of Ziggy Stardust And The Spiders From Mars’. An outlandish opera driven by Mick Ronson’s metallic guitar and Bowie’s intergalactic rock star persona, there was a time when nobody – literally nobody – had ever seen anything like it. Except Bowie wasn’t content to wait around and let others catch up – leafing through Mick Rock’s new book is to watch a soul in perpetual evolution.
Even at the time, Bowie’s frenetic futurism dazzled all around him. “Well, he wasn’t Mick Jagger, who’s just been doing the same thing his whole life!” barks the photographer. “I once counted that in a couple of years of Ziggy he wore 72 different outfits. Often he’d just wear ‘em one time. Some things he wore regularly. For instance, the suit that he wore in the ‘Life On Mars?’ video – which I put together – he only ever wore it that one time... and yet it was perfect.”
As a result, the period is afforded a sense of timelessness that Bowie’s contemporaries often lacked. It’s as if his decision to condense so many ideas, so many incarnations, into one space has somehow created a time loop, jettisoning him outside of the cultural narrative. “One thing I noticed,” Mick Rock reflects, “is that the pictures don’t look that old. They look like they could have been taken yesterday from the way they’re dressed. David always did have an instinct for the future”.
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Eventually, Mick Rock and David Bowie went their separate ways, embarking on different paths. The two kept in touch, though, and when Mick Rock became ill in 1996 and was forced to undergo serious heart surgery one of the first letters to his hospital bed came from David Bowie, offering assistance in any way possible. That moment is something Rock only half-jokingly refers to as his “Resurrection” - in a prosaic but very real way it’s the point that takes him to this book.
“Having survived the slings and arrows of outrageous lunacy over the past God knows how many years,” he says, before his voice begins to trail off. He starts again: “It’s almost exactly 48 years since I met David – March 1972. So it’s hard understanding it all; even from my perspective, knowing the details. I mean, my involvement in that whole glam, punk stuff… that was just my inclination. Whatever made a lot of fuss, I was interested in. Certainly if it was good-looking, that helped. I’ve been around a lot of things – whether it’s Queen or Debbie Harry or Rocky Horror or Lenny Kravitz or Mark Ronson – and you don’t really know where it comes from... you just kind of live these things.”
“What conclusions do I come to?” Mick ponders aloud. “David was very articulate, he was very intelligent, and he did great interviews. So that helped a lot. He would talk about the future – he loved science fiction and philosophy. David was a very avid reader. He was highly self-educated. He was a man of great curiosity. He wanted to know about things. And of course he pushed it all forwards – not just music… but culturally in a huge way. And his legacy is amazing. It doesn’t stop. People’s interest in him is as high as it’s ever been.”
“But I loved him,” Mick adds, with an assertive bite to his voice. “He was a very kind man. He was personally very kind. He was very inspirational, and of course he was physically a very good-looking man. Which was a nice thing for photographers!”
There’s a sense of moments slipping away into the ether as our conversation draws to a close. “It was a magical time for me, and David was the most magical of them all,” he says. “And I miss him.”
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Words: Robin Murray
Photography: Mick Rock
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