To say we listen to music with our eyes would sound counterintuitive and foreign, but it wouldn’t be inaccurate.
Think about it. How different would the live music experience be if we didn’t have eyes? How would record collectors listen to an LP in their living room if they couldn’t hold the sleeve and analyze its contents? What cultural significance would MTV have had if Gen-Xers couldn’t watch the music videos to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage”?
Image matters. That may sound superficial, but anyone who would argue the contrary is faced with a burden of proof that is only made heavier with David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust alter ego, the album art for Lou Reed’s Transformer and Iggy Pop’s stage antics. These are each indubitable cultural icons, and they all have a common source: revered music photographer Mick Rock.
Rock was in Dallas two weeks ago to kick off an exhibit titled Mick Rock: Icons. The Joule Hotel’s Taschen Library was host to a book signing and artist talk that took place Sept. 12. The Joule’s Midnight Rambler bar hosted an after-party that followed an artist reception at The Public Trust art gallery on Irving Street, where the exhibition is being held.
The assortment of pieces that compose the showing are images you have likely seen — the artwork for Transformer, Queen’s Queen II, The Stooges’ Raw Power and Joan Jett’s I Love Rock ‘n Roll were among the 26 pieces displayed. Accompanying them were shots of, as the name of the exhibition implies, legendary icons: a 1978 picture of Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol conversing in a Manhattan restaurant. A closeup of Tim Curry’s Dr. Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. A shot of Madonna licking her shoulder that dates to 1980, the year she recorded the Pre-Madonna demos.
Twenty-six pieces in an art exhibition may not seem abundant, but those seven shots alone are more than sufficient to prove that Rock’s work is formidable. These were more than just visually alluring album covers, portraits and live concert shots. They were photos in which the subjects were in their element. They were pieces that evoked a sense of intimacy that made the viewer feel as though they were in the same room as these legendary figures. They were snapshots of artists in New York who raised hell and became load-bearing cultural pillars without even realizing it.
Unlike these people, Rock isn’t exactly a household name, but his is one that carries tremendous weight. Rock’s portfolio is the envy of all music photographers, and portions of it are so universally recognized that he has earned the title, “The Man Who Shot the Seventies.” Rock’s impact on pop culture as we know it cannot be overstated.
We talked to Rock on the phone in the days leading up to the book signing and reception, and we’re still blown away at the fact he shot the album art for Transformer and Raw Power within 24 hours of each other.
(This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)
If the Mick Rock of the '70s walked into a time machine and got transported to 2019, what would be the first photography-related thing he would notice?
He’d be like, “Oh, motherfucker. What the fuck is going on here?” [laughs]
Well, you know, so many things are different. Like the telephone. I’d be thrilled by the fact that I could take [shots] on my phone. I’d be thrilled at the fact that everyone is a photographer. Why not?
When I was young, there weren’t that many outlets for photography, and there certainly wasn’t much money in it, but none of that mattered. You could live in the middle of a big city back in those days for relatively [cheap]. I’m not sure how the kids do it today.
It’s such a radically different world in so many different ways. For me, it’s not bad — in fact, it’s pretty damn good. I shot Benicio del Toro yesterday and had a wonderful time. Do you know who he is?
No, I don’t believe I do.
You should know. He’s an amazing actor. He was in that film Sicario. He plays the hit man. He made a film called Che, where he played Che Guevara. You should check him online, he’s won Academy Awards.
Anyway, the key thing is that I’m still shooting. On the other hand, the past creeps up on me and won’t go away. It’s worth a ton of money nowadays, [laughs] for the couple dollars it made me years ago, it’s amazing how the value of it [increased].
People are much more interested in photography these days, and I think part of the reason for that is the internet and the telephone. Anyone can take a picture nowadays. But anyway, coming to Dallas … the last journalist I spoke to last week [laughs] said, “What’s the first thing you think about when you think of Dallas?” And I went, “Oh my god, what else is there to think about? Unless you’re from Dallas, it has to be JFK.”
[illegible] “So watch your language Mick, because they shoot people in Dallas.” So I’m not expecting to get shot. And I never talk politics, so the loony tuners will not find me.
It’s very interesting — do you have to stroll around stores with a gun in Dallas, or are they a little bit more grown up?
Well, you do run into open-carry people every once in a while, but it’s not like you go into a coffee shop and everyone’s got a gun. But there are enough people who carry guns to where it’s kind of alarming.
Well, in New York, fortunately it’s more tightly controlled.
But anyway, I don’t think anyone is going to want to shoot me.
So describe New York in the '70s to somebody who was born in 1993.
Oh, so you’re just a fledgling. In the early part, I spent most of my time in London. And I kind of fell in love with New York.
It had an edge on it that it doesn’t really have nowadays, I mean, it’s been so gentrified. You could walk around Times Square and stumble into drug addicts and pimps and hookers. Now it’s all tourists. And that also applies to the East Village area, which certainly had an edge.
What do you think music would be like if we didn’t have eyes, and therefore didn’t have visual art?
Well, I suppose it would all go in the ears.
I was at Cambridge University in the late ‘60s, and that’s when I picked up a camera on an acid trip, which got the whole madness rolling. We would look at album covers — there wasn’t a lot of TV. The magazines, there weren’t even that many — not even rock magazines. There weren’t that many outlets for photographs or even for rock 'n’ roll.
Photographers weren’t very high on the totem pole. Nowadays, it’s gotten fucking ridiculous. I mean, museums, galleries, cultural spaces all over the world. It wasn’t really supposed to be like that, at least not according to those of us back in the '70s. We thought we were outlaws on the edge, stowing it up.
Mick Rock: Icons runs from Sept. 14 through Oct. 19 at The Public Trust in Dallas.