“I need a piss,” announces the ‘the man who shot the 70’s’, in what is perhaps the most rock’n’roll finish to an interview, maybe.
Sat on a pair of vintage orange chairs, Mick Rock – the infamous (and aforementioned) photographer whose lens has long documented music’s heavyweights, Lou Reed and Debbie Harry amongst them – and John Varvatos, a designer whose aesthetic similarly positions itself alongside rock’s finest, are semi-recreating the previous night’s endeavours before Clash, that is, talking a, about their relationship, and b, Rock’s latest book on Bowie.
Released initially last September, The Rise of David Bowie (the all new trade edition) boasts a sassy pink interior and turquoise exterior, the front of which is stamped with an XL holographic of Bowie images.
That our meeting takes place then, in Varvatos’ London flagship – a store whose staff wear leather jackets or ‘rock star does award ceremony’ blazers, where the walls are covered with iconic imagery, and, perhaps most notably, in which tables are the IRL embodiment of a music fan’s wildest coffee table dreams (read: A3 books aplenty), is only fitting.
Below, Clash listens in on “a conversation between buddies”.
Mick: I’m a New Yorker, have been for over 30 years, although I do sound like a Londoner. Because my (American) wife would put me out with the rubbish, if I started talking like an American. I go see an old Jewish guy in the Bronx every so often to brush up on my British accent. I’m not sure if you get that? It’s sort of a New York joke.
You’ve adopted their humour then?
Mick: Well New York humour’s a little, I mean British humour is… a lot of humour doesn’t cross. The thing that always amazed me, and he was on mainstream television, was how big Benny Hill got. Of all the mainstream comedians in their period, of course Monty Python – are still huge – but they crept in through BBS, like an arts channel, whereas he went straight to mainstream.
John: Yeah he was quirky, and then they brought him over to the States, I guess we’re talking about how humour transcends…
Mick: A lot of visual humour.
John: Yeah, he did have an audience in the States, it wasn’t huge, but that was the first kind of comedian that really connected, so it is weird that there is, I never really thought about that, but it is weird that the sense of humour isn’t always the same globally.
Quite. So when did you guys first meet and start working together?
Mick: It’s always, it’s been kind of organic. Did I come up to see you once, because you wanted to just meet.
John: We met, like 12 years ago, and we had a meeting talking about shooting and there was an interesting connection. We have a lot of mutual friends, we’d see each other and then we started getting together having dinners, and then we shot a bit.
Mick: You bought a load of prints from me, for the Hamptons right?
John: Yeah, but mostly we were just friends. We did a show at our store, but early on, but it’s really just, now…
Mick: Also he had really good marijuana.
John: I did a book a couple of years ago, and he came out on my book tour with me, you know he’s got some of his pictures (in the book), but he came out with me to make the tour more fun, more interesting; we’d go to different cities, we brought other people in too, but it was just a friendship thing, so we were on the road together.
Mick: But you’ve been running, I mean you have a lot of great books in the store – he’s a huge fan of rock’n’roll photography – but the thing I remember most from going out, must have been in Chicago and Gene Simmons pinching my arse just as we went on stage. I thought, that’s nice Gene. Then I knew he really had a great sense of humour.
So last night you were in conversation, discussing The Rise of David Bowie...
Mick: Well, you know this was the second book? The interesting thing about doing (the Moonage Daydream book), because he was in a different state of physical health, he actually wrote a lot of that text. This one, he absolutely approved everything, when they (Taschen) approached me about doing it, I said, well, we’ve done it, and they said ‘well we know you’ve got a lot more pictures and we want to do our own version’ and they even sent me a contract. And it was decent money for a book, and I said, I’m not doing it unless David gets on board or gives it his blessing. So I went to David, he liked the Taschen books, so the process started and I would send him pictures. David’s very easy to work with, he was always encouraging, and he was with other people, he was a great encourager of talent, known or not known, and he…
John: So was he a positive guy then?
Mick: Totally a positive guy, I always think they, Lou (Reed) and David were, ‘cause Lou can be quirky, I think they’re two sides of the same coin, Lou was dark and New York, David was light and London. And I’ve seen Lou be a little mean occasionally – especially to journalists – but David was never like that, David was always, he was a charmer, he was, well they were both very kind to me. But, yeah, David was a lovely man.
John: I’m sure working on the book there’s a lot of memories. It’s one thing to have the pictures, but when you re-explore them…
Mick: Yeah he’d talk about, how come I never saw a bunch of these pictures before. But that was the thing, I said ‘but David, I’ve got thousands of pictures of you’. There was never any time, even for me, I’d forgotten about a load of them; yes we got some classics, but he was moving at a hell of a pace and you know, that was like yesterday’s news – it was for me. Talk about the 70’s, what’s that all about? The man who shot the 70’s, I thought yeah, but I actually took a couple of pictures yesterday…
But no, he was kind to me, besides being an incredible artist. I mean when I was having a bad time too, you could scrape me off the walls back in a certain period in the 80’s, he was like that though, he was a very positive force, he had a great sense of humour, and he was wild as they came. The problem was he was a bloody chain smoker, I don’t think that helped his health, but that’s another story. I don’t think it helped Lou either, it didn’t help mine, it’s just that I had quadruple bypass heart surgery that sorted me out, 20 years ago, but, you know, you meet certain people in your life. It started with Syd Barrett with me, through him into David into Lou into Iggy… I remember Lou one day, in more recent years, calling me up one night out of the blue and saying ‘Mick, you know we had a hell of a run back then’, and I thought, did I? I mean you do what you do, I said I’ve had some rough years too Lou, so I don’t know, and the timing was insane, I mean I’m glad we did it (the book), because of what happened. And Taschen did a wonderful job, they showed the respect.
John: I mean just looking through the book I was telling you yesterday, the quality of – what do they call this, the street edition or whatever?
Mick: The trade edition.
John: I mean just with the holographic cover and everything it’s so well done, for £49 or whatever.
Mick: They’re giving it away.
John: No seriously, I’m not selling because it’s not my book or anything, but I was just so blown away, the way everything’s printed and the paper, it’s very unusual too.
Mick: I mean, that’s really ‘cause it’s David, I just happen to have the pictures.
John: But in a moment when everyone’s remembering what affect he had on their life and he affected so many people in so many different ways, from music to style and – to culture – and he was a chameleon, so he had so many different personas over time, stage personas and music personas, you know he was very avant-garde, so certain people that maybe didn’t connect with Ziggy Stardust connected with the Thin White Duke or later in life or whatever, because his music changed and evolved. A lot of bands from that period, they’re still making music trying to sound like they did in 1972, he had no interest, even after he did Ziggy Stardust he walked away from it.
Mick: That was right at the peak.
John: He didn’t want to be Ziggy Stardust any more, he wanted to be something different.
Mick: He thought it was a trap, he kept thinking these things were traps and he’d look over there or look behind him.
John: 99.999% of people in general, when something’s working that good they want to do more of it. Yeah they want to accelerate it, and he just closed the door, said I did it I’ve moved on you know, crazy.
Mick: Look what he was doing in Berlin, in the 70’s.
Both of your careers focus on the creative but are lived through a rock’n’roll lens. What does the genre mean to you?
Mick: Without rock’n’roll I wouldn’t have been a photographer; I think without rock’n’roll he wouldn’t have been a designer.
John: I think that’s pretty true. I might have been a designer, but I probably still would be working for somebody else, because it helped create my handwriting, even though it isn’t totally what I do, there’s something, a sprinkle of magic dust that went over what I do, and understanding the rebelliousness of rock’n’roll and pushing the walls out, and change and that type of thing.
So why do you think style is such an important vehicle for musicians?
Mick: Well it’s always been there hasn’t it.
John: I call it incestuous, because fashion, style and music are intertwined and it becomes part of the personality, persona.
John: Emotion, connection with the… if you only heard it it would be one thing, but when you visually take in an artist and what they represent – like this artist Sia right now, with the hair – whatever it is, there’s a connection with people, so it’s totally incestuous and every generation embraces it that way and makes it their own.
Mick: I couldn’t say it better myself.
And how do you think contemporary rock’n’roll compares to say, the 70’s?
Mick: It is what it is, I accept it. I mean you’ve got all the old stuff, what’s wrong with the new stuff.
John: There’s some new stuff that’s bubbling up you know, and I think the problem with the market – if you’re just talking about rock’n’roll – is not really the problem, but if you look at the music market today, it is almost all pop, it’s all about the single, so it really is about the moment today more than anything else.
Mick: And the access, the immediate access, and you can hear it: you want to hear it, you hear it.
John: I mean he took all those amazing pictures, but we only really saw bits and pieces of them, because there were only a few publications in the day. Today, you see a show, within minutes online it’s everywhere, both people doing it socially and the photographers who put stuff up on Getty or whatever, back then you had to dig for it, today it’s overload.
Interview: Zoe Whitfield