Mick Rock: A Personal Remembrance of the Man Who Shot the World
Lonn Friend is a music industry mainstay. The journalist was a regular contributor on MTV's Headbanger's Ball, earning his own segment called "Friend at Large." He spent seven years as the executive editor of RIP Magazine and has had his writing featured in Rolling Stone, Hustler, Relix and other publications. His memoir, Life on Planet Rock, was released in 2006; a follow-up, Sweet Demolition, was published in 2011.
Friend's long career has put him face-to-face with some of music's icons. Among them, Mick Rock, the legendary photographer who died on Nov. 18. Below, Friend remembers Rock in an exclusive piece for UCR.
Michael David “Mick” Rock’s photography is a visual mural of my teens. Like the family photographer at a holiday gathering, he was integral to the 70’s British rock scene, capturing moments that only the honored visual documentarian of the inner sanctum has access to. “I don’t think I have a style,” he once said, “but I do have an attitude. It varies, depending on the circumstance and subject.” Mick’s openness and ability to relish the moment enabled him to flow within the unfolding groove, snapping off split second frames, capturing a brief and exciting essence of evolving stardom for us all to vicariously devour.
While my first pubic hairs were sprouting, shape shifting, axe-slinging aliens were landing across Planet Rock, leaving one musical monolith after another. The original glam slam. I remember blaring Lou Reed’s Transformer out the window of my gold ’65 Chevy Malibu, slowing down as I approached the back side of Grant High School in Van Nuys so the unenlightened knucklehead jocks on the playground could clearly hear the do do do do do do do do do do’s of “Walk on the Wild Side.” My cassette deck was shitty sounding but extremely loud. “Holly came from Miami F.L.A., hitchhiked her way across the U.S.A., plucked her eyebrows on the way, shaved his legs and then he was a she.” Transgender, transformer, transcendent ticket to the nuanced dark side of rock for a sheltered, Star Trek-addled, vinyl-spinning nerd growing up in the least wild side of la la land.
Susan came from Waverly Place, NYC. West side, by the river. Lou and his wife, Laurie Anderson, resided nearby. I took her to Book of Mormon when it opened on Broadway, but it’s been years since we’ve seen each other, except on Instagram. When the news broke online of Major Rock’s ascension, Susan and I began exchanging messages about her dear old legendary friend and that one enchanted evening a decade ago in lower Manhattan. Her memory was sharp as the focus on Mick’s single lens reflex. “We went to the Bowery Hotel and ran into Jared Leto. He was in the lounge. He shared his appetizers with us. You and I introduced him to Mick.” Thirty Seconds to Life on Mars. Beam me up, Scotty!
Chilly clear night in Gotham, 9/11/11, 10th anniversary of the day the scary monsters blew up Wall Street, a perfect evening for an unscripted odyssey through the glass canyon unfolded. “We’re going out with Mick Rock and his videographer pal, Dean Holtermann,” confirms west-side Susan. “You’ll love them both. Mick is eccentric but really cool.” Talk about a towering understatement.
After a quick meet and greet and the nosh with the future Oscar-winning actor and alt-rock frontman, Mick, Susan and Dean and I settle onto a large, soft sofa and order tea. English style. Authentic. Milk and lemon. The elegantly appointed, leather and lamp-lined lounge is sparsely populated. I cozy up to the curly haired bespectacled guest of honor. Small talk gives way to big stories. And photos. Oh, the photos.
The once coke-sniffing mad-dog-turned-tea-totaling Englishman pulls out his early generation iPhone. So begins the intimate, four-inch gallery parade. Private, personal, precious. Mick swipes the screen and Lou appears, the iconic black-and-gold graphic Transformer album cover. My heart flutters as his fingers do the walking into my distant musical past. “You’ll like this one,” he grins modestly, acutely aware that his audience of one is about to be stunned. “Oh, man, the Ziggy Stardust phone booth; I remember the day I brought that album home from Moby Disc Records on my bike,” I wiggle. “Played it repeatedly; pissed off my mom big-time, and she had no idea what ‘Wham bam thank you, ma’am’ meant. Come to think of it, back then, neither did I.” We both laugh. He peers over his glasses and smiles. “OK, mate, hold onto your water.” Next several shots we see the thin white yellow topped duke standing on the sidewalk, outside the London booth, on approach. Kodachrome footsteps to eternity.
For the life of me I can’t recall the exact anecdote and won’t disrespect by inaccurately paraphrasing, but Mick said that Bowie was annoyed by something and didn’t want to get into the red box for the money shot. We moved on from immortal LP covers like Queen’s Sheer Heart Attack and Iggy Pop’s Raw Power to rare session shots of Pink Floyd’s crazy diamond, Syd Barrett, Blondie’s Debbie Harry, Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry and others. Droplets of Homer Simpson drool trickled down my jaw as one pop culture institution after another flashed across the smartest phone in the tri-state area. “The British mags were always my favorite back in the day,” I babbled. Melody Maker, Trouser Press, Kerrang!, Q - your work was ubiquitous.”
While holding the editorial reins at RIP Magazine between 1987 and 1994, I relied on one of Mick’s most notorious lens-wielding contemporaries, Ross Halfin, for several pages of stunning live and session hard-rock imagery each issue. A fellow countryman with an irascible sense of humor, the musicians adored Ross and let him deep into their sacred space. He had unrivaled access to the armored avatars of rock in the '80s and '90s like Mick had enjoyed in the '70s.
Rock history is dotted with dynamic lensmen. What made Mick special? He was the original prototype for dynamic rock photographers; the blueprint from which all future sonic shooters were built. Why are so many of his images so familiar, unforgettable and historically important? He had a sharp eye, razor instincts and a velvet trigger finger. His sense of timing and frame, light and expression, were ... otherworldly. But more significant, the artists felt comfortable in his disarming, flamboyant presence. Technically he may have been brilliant, but the real alchemy was that the rockers trusted him to get the shots.
Over the past year, I’ve been following his postings with enhanced fervor, for it appears that Mick has been consciously engaging his next generation of social-media followers while at the same time putting his incredible legacy house in order. Almost daily, we’ve been gifted glimpses of this extraordinary man’s extraordinary journey via frames from his Smithsonian-sized archive, always accompanied by short but thoughtful captions rich in provenance and perspective. Mick fancied himself as a writer, and, sure enough, his photos told stories. Under one festive capture of a notorious Sex Pistol, he modestly incapsulates his legacy. “People ask me why I have all the best pictures of that era, and it’s only because there were no other photographers around until Johnny Rotten and the punks stirred their own crazy publicity in the late ‘70s. Then the photographers came swarming!” Beneath a 1972 Haddon Hall shot of Bowie staring wistfully into a dressing table mirror, the caption reads: “I experienced David Bowie above all as a piece of living artwork, constantly modulating and mutating, like a series of startling reflections in a cracked mirror. He was fascinating.” And beneath a smoldering 1978 shot of Blondie’s blonde siren, he proclaims, “Debbie Harry is even more photogenic than Marilyn Monroe. She has a luminous quality to her.”
I was in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, crashing on my friend Harry’s sectional the night Bowie departed this mortal coil and returned to the Milky Way from whence he came. It was snowing in the Chi, flakes of sorrow, falling from above. Harry’s a collector. His vinyl, CD and DVD archive is massive. He still has banana crates, like my bedroom in the '70s. We binged multimedia into the wee hours. The Mick-directed “Jean Genie” video hits the mix. Promo clip was shot in October 1972 on the Karl Malden streets of San Francisco, mixing concert and studio footage of Bowie performing with Mick Ronson and the Spiders, along with location shots of the singer posing at the Mars Hotel with model Cyrinda Foxe. Bowie wanted the video to depict "Ziggy as a kind of Hollywood street rat" with a vintage era cinematic consort. Foxe flew from New York to San Francisco especially for the shoot.
I take a 60-second video selfie of me in front of Harry’s formidable plasma as the clip plays in the background and text it to Steven Tyler with the subject line: “Mourning the duke in Chicago.” In a rare immediate response, the acclaimed frontman fires back, “Yeah. That’s my ex-wife.” News to me. Cyrinda synchronicity. Who will love the lads and lassies insane?
I was hosting a semiweekly podcast called Energize in 2016. Shortly after the seismic news broke of Bowie’s departure, I emailed Mick, requesting a few moments on the phone to share some thoughts on the man who sold the world that he knew so well. He responded quickly and thoughtfully, confessing he’d been so bombarded by the media, he hadn’t even able to properly grieve the loss of his old friend. “Gimme a few days, and we’ll set something up,” he said. I let it go. Now I regret dropping that ball, because I never got to talk to Mick again and tell him, really tell him, how much he and his art have meant to me my entire life.
Mick had recently gone public in statements concerning his mortality; like his kidney transplant and quadruple bypass surgery. He was told he flatlined during one of the procedures. Like most people who have jumped off the grave digger’s handle, he confessed that after his brushes with death, life focused on about being present and taking care of himself. And despite his candle burning excesses of the past, Mick upped his wellness game. He had been practicing yoga - a combination of Kundalini and Hatha - since 1970, doing breath of fire and meditation. Same here. Since November ’98. Guru Singh, Yoga West. La La land. Where I once met (wait for it), Jared Leto’s mom.
I saw this shot once in a mag, can’t recall the publication, of Bowie and Ferry in the back of a town car. Just sitting and staring out their respective windows. The moment represents absolute ‘cool.’ It’s mod-rock Sinatra and Martin. Unfucking touchable. There’s absolutely zero recognition on either icon’s face that anyone else is inside the vehicle (besides the driver), certainly not a mop-headed photographer with a six-inch lens. That’s how good Mick was. He was Ali, silently floating like a butterfly and stinging that shutter like a bee.
“Here’s some lads you’ll recognize.” We’re coming to the end of the slide show. It’s past midnight, no longer 9/11. We’re all tired. Except Susan. Female energy. I peer at the tiny screen and smile wide. “The Crue, oh, yeah, I know this session. 1986. The bubble bath, Girls Girls Girls campaign, their final LP with producer Tom Werman before the Bob Rock Dr. Feelgood convergence. I was the fly on that wall, not with a camera but, rather, a notepad.” Wish I could’ve joined creative forces just once with Mick. Like Neal Preston and Cameron Crowe. What dreams and schemes may come?
“Mick was an endearing person,” recalls Susan in the grieving/celebrating here and now. “Dean became a dear friend. He always invited me along. I once went to the loft where Mick made his prints. The guy who ran the equipment was funny and often appeared at his gallery openings. Mick never seemed like a snob. He loved flashy personalities a lot. I’m going to miss him.” The beloved Sagittarian returned to stardust on Nov. 18, four days before his 73rd birthday.
Tryin’ to get to heaven before they close the door.
David Bowie’s version of the Bob Dylan classic was originally recorded in 1998 and officially released as a single on Jan. 8, 2021, two days before the fifth anniversary of his passing. David and Mick, together again. Neither of ‘em really had to try that hard.