THE TIMES - TheKnowledge
24th-30th September 2005
One flash of light, one Rock, one vision
On the eve of a major retrospective of Mick Rocks work, novelist J.T.LeRoy explains why he's still The Man.
Both our guest writer, the cult novelist J.T.LeRoy, and his subject, the photographer Mick Rock, have been to hell and back. J.T.LeRoy's childhood was filled with almost unimaginable abuse, and he started writing in his teens as an assignment from his therapist. His second book, The Heart is Deceitful Above all Things, was made into a gruelling film starring and directed by Asia Argento.
Such is his reluctance to be photographed that he disguises himself when appearing in public, and Mick Rock is the only photographer with whom he has become comfortable. He is still just 25.
Mick Rock not only documented rock's greatest decade of excess, but lived it to the full. As Rock says: "To survive as an artist it helps if you psychologically have absolutely no option, if you know that no matter what happens, however bad it all gets, that the only way out, the only relief, is the pursuit of an activity that opens up your glands and organs and nervous system and allows you to levitate a little, to penetrate a little deeper, that gives you that feeling of intensification.
"You do it because you need to do it. It's the only way out. And if you can make a living at it, what a privilege, what a lucky bastard you are."
"Smile baybee, smile!" The vigour of the photographer's command is quickly betrayed by his own face - a droll combination of the elongated grin of Stan Laurel, lit by the wide-eyed, curious warmth of ET. Mick Rock is tall, his wiry halo of hair like used pipe-cleaners snaking in a mound. It only adds to his imposing height. His hands flap like a child's foiled by too many ribbons on a gift.
This man is a legend, the Zelig of rock photographers. Mick Rock is - or has been - in your life. You just don't know it. His work is often copied, avidly collected by those in the know. The first I heard of him was when a magazine editor wanted to shoot me for my first book, Sarah. He was trying to convince me - someone who very much dislikes being photographed - that it would be arty, yet cool, chic and edgy... and then he introduced me to the term, "It will be just like a Mick Rock."
"What's a Mick Rock?" I asked.
"Oh, you know, Mick Rock!" And then he rushed off to find the rip-off photographer and I did some research. Didn't take long to recognise, I sure did know Mick Rock.
It's that photo of young Lou Reed on the cover of Transformer, staring out almost wistfully into a future that is ramping up fast towards him, with that huge guitar that seems almost nailed cross-like to him. It's that Freddie Mercury, ghostly glowing hands spread in a self-clasping embrace, gazing down from a surrounding darkness with the regality of a Pharaoh. Oh you know his Iggy Pop, his pictures of the Sex Pistols, or that famous one of Tim Curry from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Everyone claims to have been there at a rock star's first show. Well, Mick really was, and he's got the negatives to prove it. Mick possesses the intellect and discipline that his Cambridge education - studying "modern languages and the language of psychedelics" - assisted in reinforcing. David Bowie was just finding his stage legs when Mick found him. It was 1972 and Mick became part of a new kind of salon of literary rock stars; Lou Reed and Iggy Pop among them. As Mick says: "I saw the whole thing explode in front of my camera. How could I possibly have known so many of these people would become such a big deal? I just gravitated to the people who interested me and a lot of them were musicians."
Rock was trusted by everyone from Queen to Syd Barrett. Moving to New York, he found the same welcome world in the early punk scene, documenting Debbie Harry and her ascent to new wave goddess and beyond. The Ramones, Talking Heads, all the CBGBs alumni went through his lens first. Mick Rock does not practice the usual photographer strategy of being a fly on the wall. Mick Rock is a rock star, he joins in. As he explained to me: "I've never felt like a voyeur, although I've certainly done plenty of looking! I work from the inside out. Like a cook, I gather the ingredients and keep mixing the stirring and tasting until this kind of effluvia starts to rise, then I'm off to the races. It's an addictive feeling that I need a regular shot of otherwise I don't feel right."
Mick did not separate himself from the world of his subjects, he lived among them. Despite the loss of Freddie Mercury and many other close friends, it often takes the ledge crumbling under your own feet to make you choose a different way. In 1996 Rock survived a triple heart-bypass surgery and threw himself with typical enthusiasm, into a healthy lifestyle.
Mick's downtime is spent doing yoga, power breathing, spending time with his lady Pati and 15-year-old daughter Nathalie. He now prepares for shooting, he says, "by emptying myself out through Kundalini Yoga, meditation, massage and whirling, yes, whirling, like a Dervish. To me it is all play, juggling, changing gears, until that special stuff starts to happen."
Mick's work is as vibrant as it ever was. Now he is the go man for everyone from the White Stripes to the Strokes, the Killers, Razorlight. I knew I'd had enough of wannabe Mick Rocks, the day The New York Times sent the man himself to shoot me, my rock band Thistle LLC, and Asia Argento. With Mick there is no time to warm up, get acquainted, get comfortable, he jumps out full force.
"Smile baybee, smile!"
When you sit me down in front of most cameras, I usually ruminate on what Native Americans said when refusing to have their photo taken - that it would steal their soul. The invasive manner of it offends me, because it offers the presumption of describing all of who you may be in a photo. But that is where Mr Rock differs. He is not the silent genius hired to expose who you are, or who you think you are. He makes who he is a focal point to engage, his infectious joie de vivre making it easy not to take yourself so seriously. With Mick I felt safe, so I was able to have a blast.
The "scream" shot he did of me captures an absolute of emotion that folks can relate to who have never read a word of my books. I feel a flush of pride when says: "That photo is one of my all-time favourites and is included in every exhibition I do."
To be carried by Mick Rock is a gift, to know I can look back one day and see something I could not love at the time, but I gaze with his compassionate vision and at the very least, I will be able to appreciate his artistry and know, that was me.
Rock'n'roll icons: the Photography of Mick Rock will be at Urbis, Cathedral Gardens, Manchester
(www.urbis.org.uk 0161-605 8200), Sep 29-Jan 8, 2006