Mick Rock and John Varvatos On Bowie and Taschen’s New Edition on Ziggy Stardust

Meeting the Legends

I’ve never been a legend in my own lunchtime, but I can now confirm that I’ve met two legends in my lunchtime thanks to David Bowie, in an indirect way of course. For the launch of his new book, The Rise of David Bowie, 1972-1973, published by Taschen this month, the legendary photographer Mick Rock and John Varvatos his friend and designer met at his London flagship store to discuss this breakthrough time in rock history.

Mick Rock and some of his extensive archive
Mick Rock and some of his extensive archive

Mick Rock (affectionately known as ‘The Man Who Shot the Seventies’) is one of music’s most notable mythmakers. He began his career as a journalist but turned his hand to photography in his early twenties after a mind blowing, reality warping trip (yes, the ingestible kind – more on this below). A backstage shoot with a relatively unknown David Bowie at a gig in Birmingham in 1970 was to change the course of his life. Rock became Bowie’s official photographer chronicling the rise of Ziggy Stardust during his two-year incarnation from 1972-1973. This alliance was to mark the start of Mick’s meteoric rise within the ranks of rock’n’roll history.

In the 1970s he photographed every rock legend worth obsessing about including Lou Reed, Syd Barrett, Iggy Pop and Blondie. He is responsible for Lou Reed’s Transformer album cover, as well as Queen’s iconic second album cover (Queen II) which famously shows the band shot from above, their faces lit in an otherwise blackened background. (The idea was later recreated for their classic music video Bohemian Rhapsody.) To claim that Mick Rock has lived a colourful life is about as fallacious as saying that Lou Reed liked to dabble in drugs. Thanks to his thousands of images, Rock helped to shape the legacy of rock’s most cherished musical icons. From behind his lens, Rock has become as legendary as those who have stood before it over the past five decades.

The photographer has produced a number of books over the years but his most recent tome, The Rise of David Bowie, 1972-1973 published with Taschen has already gone down in history. Bowie and Rock worked together on selecting the images for the book, half of which have never been published before. As Bowie’s last gift to the world – aside from his posthumous album – it will come as no surprise to learn that the book sold out on pre-orders (before Bowie’s death) when it was released as a limited run of 1,972 in spring 2015. Copies were presented in a box and were signed by both Bowie and Rock making it a double whammy of an heirloom for the lucky people who managed to nab one. The commercial version, priced at a more reasonable £50 (as opposed to £3K) is available to buy now and features the same images and hologram cover as the original.

To mark the release of the book, Mick Rock and John Varvatos his old friend – known for his signtuare rock’n’roll aesthetic – invited the photographer down to his flagship store on Conduit Street to talk music for a day.

Varvatos, a music afionado and collector of rare rock photography, collaborated with Rock on his 2013 book, John Varvatos: Rock in Fashion. There’s not much the designer doesn’t know about music’s glam era having weaned himself on Led Zeppelin and The Stooges as a child, in his hometown of Detroit. His Conduit Street boutique is designed to look like a private art gallery selling rare albums as well as limited edition photographs by the genre’s biggest names including many by Mick Rock himself.

It is in this magical basement setting, surrounded by old albums by Lou Reed and Iggy Pop that I meet the two men for an informal chat about Bowie and the sounds and sights of the ‘70s. Two legends in my lunchtime….

bowie taschen collage
Bowie Taschen Collage

So tell me how did Mick Rock and John Varvatos meet?

John Varvatos

I reached out to Mick. I loved his work and I wanted to talk to him about possibly working with us. Photographing for us. He came up to my studio and we hung out for a while and shortly after that we ended up having dinner and honestly now it’s been about a dozen years. I mean it’s a fast friendship that is very warm. I did a book a few years ago and Mick came out on tour with me. I mean I used his picture on the cover plus he has a bunch of pictures in it. He’s a character! He doesn’t mind me saying that. We’re out here to entertain right?

When they [Taschen] put this edition out, I said ‘we need to do something with you!’ It’s more than a Bowie moment. He touched so many people, the realisation and the reach was so big. It’s a moment that people want to share. Mick did the book with David before David died, so it’s even more poignant because those two were able to relive those moments together.

Mick Rock

It was almost sold out before it was published. That is the interesting part. It was sold out before he died. It really was.

John

We had the book in the store and in two days it was gone.

Mick

They did a beautiful job at production; they were great people to work with. I worked very closely with them but the cover [hologram] concept was Benedikt Taschen’s.The designer came up with the pink box. I did not interfere with the design at all. I didn’t think it was necessary. It’s like when I do a gallery show, I kind of prefer the people who have committed to it to get on with the hanging. I mean I reserve the right to comment of course [laughs]. We showed David everything. I did the paginating with the editor and the designer. It was his final piece of work.

John

For me the whole period was so unbelievable, I can talk through about 30 of these pictures that I think stand out. There’s the picture on the train…

Mick

Yeah! ‘Lunch On the Train to Aberdeen’, because David wouldn’t fly! Back in those days I used to do interviews with people, in the early ‘70s and he talked about it. He absolutely had a fear of flying. When he went to Japan we went overland through Russia, when he came to America he went on a boat.

david Bowie, Lunch on a Train shot by Mick Rock
Lunch on train, 1973 by Mick Rock

John

That picture captures a moment in time. It’s such an amazing moment. I wanted to be there. As a kid I was a big Bowie fan, I was too young to come over here, but Mick’s my fly on the wall because he lived it all.

Mick

Everyone was so young back then. The oldest person may have been Ian [Hunter]. I mean he had lived a real life before Mott the Hoople; Lou [Reed] was a bit older but everyone was in their early 20s. It was a young crowd. There were only 400 people when I first saw Bowie play. I came out of a different context. I mean Rob Freeman who did some of the early pictures of the Beatles, had also been to Cambridge, but most photographers hadn’t. Maybe the over education had something to do with [my fascination with musicians]. I was communicating ideas with these people as I was doing interviews with them. I did a stories for Rolling Stone, including the last interview that Syd Barrett ever did. David, Lou, Rory Gallagher, all those guys I wrote about.

John

But what was your favourite picture though? I want to come back to that! I was choosing pictures to go on the screen last night [for a slide show for a special guest evening] and another of my favourite pictures is the one with you in it. I’ve seen this picture before and I discovered it again the other day… just the look on David’s face!

bowie_taschen_collage

Mick

Oh yeah the one with David looking super camp in the background. I know the one you mean.

John

It’s just the most androgynous picture, with David’s arms over his head. Then you have you directing [the video] in the background. There’s an emotion there. Look at David Bowie, you can’t even really tell it’s him. So anyway Mick, you don’t have a favourite picture?

bowie taschen story
Bowie

Mick

With me it depends on the hour of the day, the day of the week or whether I am having my period! Us men do get them you know because of the moon cycle… I can’t say which is my favourite. It’s like asking ‘who’s your favourite girlfriend? I mean I love them all! You don’t want one of them coming out the woodwork! [laughs]

John

Of course this book has so many images that have never been seen before too…

Mick

We published a lot in Moonage Daydream [the book authored by Bowie with photography by Rock published in 1990]. I have over 5000 images of Ziggy Stardust as well as all the footage I have. I could do another book. You should see my Lou Reed collection! It’s ridiculous! There are pictures that nobody sees, not even my wife. There’s a certain kind of intimacy to them.

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John

I mean you had unbelievable access to all these artists. It wasn’t like when you go to a studio today to take the pictures. You travelled with them, went backstage, you went to their homes. And so a lot of stuff was captured that was intimate for that moment. I mean [when you say] 5000 images of Bowie, that’s on film. It’s not like today and digital where you can shoot 300 pictures in a studio in one day. When I did my book [John Varvatos: Rock in Fashion] I sat with this archivist called Lucky and then you and you both kept saying ‘this is just the small amount that we’ve uploaded’!

Mick

It would cost me a fortune to load them all. I never had the time or the interest really. Every so often I’ll come up with a new batch of pictures but I’m so busy I don’t have the time. I’m about to do a whole bunch of Lou Reed ones as we’re about to re-issue the Transformer book. But this [Bowie book] has overwhelmed everything. What with this book and the documentary [Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock, which will screen at the London Film Festival in October], it’s been crazy.

John

We showed the film a few months back in New York, and Mick and I did a Q&A about it which was fun. I mean it’s trippy! It’s a great story.

Mick

Well, it’s a tale of redemption. The rise and fall and the plummet [laughs] and then the resurrection and redemption, because I fucked up! Twenty years of cocaine you know.

John

I find you as intriguing as the people you shot. I’m still asking you questions about how being in this scene changed you! I mean forget about your style and the music; how did it change you as a person? You’re a colourful guy so this documentary reveals a lot about you.

Mick

Including still lifes of cocaine piles! Not people doing cocaine, I wasn’t interested in that. At first I refused but then Eddy Moretti [of Vice film fame] did an interview with me along with the director and he said ‘why won’t you give them [ the pictures] to us Mick?’, and I said ‘I don’t want anyone talking about all that bullshit!’ Anyway, he yanked it out of me. But they are beautifully lit and composed! They were taken late 70s and 80s. I reckon I could have been a great still life photographer.

John

You gonna do a book on them?

Mick

I want to do a book with Taschen called ‘Shot’. So a broader palette of what I’ve done over the years; a taste of the erotic, my [pictures of] my Kabuki theatre, maybe a few cat pictures [chuckles]. I’ve done a lot of photo art too. Some are like stain glass windows. I do have a large body of work because my initial interests was in the drug addled poets [of the 19th century]. You can see it a lot of [these references] my early work as a photographer; how I viewed musicians through that particular prism. Starting with Syd [Barrett] actually; that’s how I saw him from the beginning. I mean talking about David again, I saw him like a Picasso, because of the variety of his output. He painted in sound and vision. He was a true artist. Lou Reed was a great photographer which people don’t know and actually David was also a great painter. So was Syd! Today artists are more compartmentalised. You don’t want to confuse the money paying public. For these characters there was time to gestate. That summer of ’72…

John

Yeah, back then there was a nurturing of two, three albums. Today if you’re single doesn’t work, you’re done.

Mick

Yeah, I mean Mott the Hoople had done three or four albums with Island Records and they booted them. They had actually broken up when David met them. He was a fan.

John

Yeah, he was a fan and he gave them All The Young Dudes because he wanted them to record more music. So they chose that song out of all the songs he gave to them.

Mick

I remember him playing it to me while he was developing the song. Then Lou Reed, and the Velvets [Velvet Underground] had issued four albums, sold 34,000 copies between the four albums. I mean he was about to be dropped. Iggy was about to be dropped and The Stooges had been dropped because the record company didn’t know how to handle them and they didn’t make them any money. Even Bowie himself had been dropped. Before Hunky Dory was made he hadn’t got a record deal. That was brought to America. He couldn’t even get a record deal in England at the time because of The Man Who Sold The World. The record label didn’t appreciate it so the deal was actually done in America. Then it was pushed back to the English arm of the record label. I mean what David was doing that summer… I was seeing it but I can only appreciate it in retrospect. The summer of ’72! It put me on the map. The reverberations from that…well, that’s how I got to work with Queen; did all the pictures for The Rocky Horror Picture Show, all that. Then my nose starting to twitch for New York in the late ‘70s. It was so much naughtier in New York and it sucked me right in. I didn’t have an agent. None of us did. I mean if you asked people about a career as a rock’n’roll photographer I’m sure people would have laughed!

John

I mean the handful of greats that sit with you all say the same. They fell into it. They were taking pictures, They weren’t in it for financial gain or a career as such.

Mick

The word career wasn’t used at all! I mean without the music I would not have been interested. And the LSD of course [laughs]. My first picking up of a camera was on an acid trip. It was a friend’s camera, but without any film in it. I mean I wouldn’t have known because for one, I was high as a cuckoo, but also I wouldn’t have known what the tension should feel like as you wound it on. I was just excited about the framing. The way you could carve lumps out of reality. Every time I clicked, there was this little explosion. These feelings still exist in me. I haven’t taken an acid trip since 1971, but when I’m shooting my brain is still ‘whoopsie daisy’!

John

The first record that I played over and over was Led Zeppelin

Mick

Yeah you’re younger than me so I remember Buddy Holly!

John

I remember thinking I’d never heard anything like that in my life. I bought it with the money from my paper round. When I got home and I listened to it, I lost my mind to it at like 10 years old! I love music now as much as I loved it as a kid. I wasn’t a good musician. I mean you either have it or you don’t. I got into fashion through music because I wanted to wear what those guys wore on stage. I got a job at a men’s clothing store to get a discount and also to have some money to buy the stuff.  I didn’t think about becoming a designer until my late twenties. I really went to school for education, and first into medicine.

Mick

Medicine? I didn’t know that about you. Well I never had a real job! I always liked that Dylan cover because I loved the album as a kid [Blonde on Blonde]. It was slightly out of focus. I mean I liked Dylan anyway and I liked the hairdo, because I suppose my hairdo is like this [points to his fuzzy hair]. I liked the scarves too [he flaps his own scarf]. It worked for me that cover. I like what I like.

Interview and story A Zagalsky

Mick Rock and John Varvatos. Picture LA TImes
Mick Rock and John Varvatos. Picture LA TImes