DATE July 28, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: John Powers discusses his new book, "Sore Winners"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
FRESH AIR critic at large John Powers has written a new book about our
increasingly polarized culture. The book focuses on the years of the George
W. Bush presidency. John covers what he describes as `the artificiality of
our political discourse, the shrieking of our pop culture and the babble of
information that bombards us every day.' The book is called "Sore Winners."
John writes a weekly column on media and culture for LA Weekly. In September,
he'll return to his position as film critic for Vogue.
Do you think that politics have become part of popular culture? Like, there
used to be this big, you know, delineation between politics and pop culture.
Do you think more and more politics crosses into the territory of pop culture?
JOHN POWERS (FRESH AIR Critic at Large; Author, "Sore Losers"): No, I think
actually that's one of the great transformations of my life--is that I think
when I was growing up, you actually had the political figures in Washington,
DC, and they were making their decisions, and then you had Elvis and popular
culture or The Beatles and popular culture. Over the last 40 years what's
happened is that the two have begun to mesh. And so what's fascinating about
it is that simultaneously popular culture carries more obvious political
meanings. And, actually, popular culture becomes a way that people talk about
politics. And at the same time political figures become more like pop culture
figures, so that Donald Rumsfeld isn't simply the secretary of Defense; he's
this great performer.
GROSS: So do you think, now that politics has kind of crossed over into the
world of pop culture, that the value of politicians is measured, in part, by
their value as celebrities?
POWERS: Oh, yes. I think if you actually look at the complaints that people
make about John Kerry, you know, there are the political complaints about him
being a flip-flopper and so forth, but there's also the complaint that,
basically, he's not an exciting, fun, entertaining guy. If you watched Bill
Clinton the other night, you realized that, `Oh, here's a guy who is, above
all, a star.' You know, he actually has all sorts of political virtues, but
he also has the charisma that makes him a celebrity. It makes people want to
see him. And that's truer and truer than ever. And I think that as people's
experience of politics becomes more and more through media outlets rather than
through their daily life of actually being active in politics in their own
community, that that's going to be truer and truer; that you actually have to
be a good showman, I think, to really get ahead, or at least you have to have
people who put on a good show around you.
I think probably the interesting thing about George Bush is that he's the
latter. Whereas Clinton was himself the show, I think what George Bush has
done is to make himself sort of the anti-show. He's the straightforward,
regular guy who, in fact, doesn't present himself as a show. But then he has
people around him, like his adviser Karl Rove, who know how to present that
regular guy image in the best possible way.
GROSS: Now you pointed out in a recent column that, `Presidential campaigns
have come to take on narratives as if they were Hollywood films.' What's an
example of that?
POWERS: Yes. Well, I think that, you know, if you look back at the 2000
campaign, when Al Gore ran against George Bush, what was fascinating was that
early on somehow it was decided--and it's never clear who quite decided it,
but it became the conventional wisdom that George Bush was a good regular guy
who wasn't so smart and that Al Gore was kind of a priggish guy who was smart
but also a liar. And no matter what happened during the course of that
election did either of those guys ever quite escape that particular
perception, so that anything that Al Gore said that seemed the slightest bit
suspicious was used as evidence of the fact that he's not honest, whereas
every time George Bush stumbled over a word, that was taken as further proof
that he doesn't know anything.
For me, the irony of that was if you actually looked back at that election,
the person who ran the dumb campaign and who was dumb during that election was
Al Gore. And the person who, I think, was actually not--who didn't present
himself quite as honestly is George W. Bush, you know. And so for me the
funny thing is that probably there was a flip flop in relation to what the
actual narrative was as opposed to the official narrative that was presented
by the media.
GROSS: In what way do you think Al Gore was dumb, and in what way do you
think George W. Bush was dishonest?
POWERS: Yes. Well, Al Gore was dumb in a variety of ways. I think one of
the major ways he was dumb was that he didn't realize, one, that you actually
have to get along with the media. He was actually very, very distant and
detached from the media. The second thing was he ran away from the Clinton
legacy. There's a remarkable moment in Joe Klein's book on Clinton where a
member of the Bush family says, you know, that they could never understand why
Gore didn't turn to Bush in one of the debates and say to Bush, `George, what
exactly is it you don't like about peace and prosperity?' But, in fact, Gore
was so busy making himself his own man that, in fact, he detached himself from
what was clearly the most winning thing that he had going for him, being part
of what most Americans thought of as a successful administration.
The Bush case is slightly different because Bush, for much of his life, had
been presented as a centrist and, in fact, in Texas had governed as a
centrist. But as we've seen over the last few years--that, I think, no one
either in left or right would say that George Bush is a centrist figure. In
fact, he's very much a man of the right. But in presenting himself as a
compassionate conservative, he was clearly doing the triangulation thing that
Clinton himself had done in the previous elections, which is to say you try to
stake out the center by taking over many of the issues that belong to the
other party and try to suggest that you are that centrist figure. In fact,
George Bush is not a centrist figure. In fact, you know, Al Gore was dumb
during that election.
GROSS: How do you think the narrative of the George W. Bush story has changed
in the past four years? When he was running for the presidency the first
time, he was for a lot of people the guy you wanted to have a beer with, you
know, a regular guy. But he's been the president for nearly four years, so
his `regular guyness' has probably diminished by virtue of having been the
president for several years now. So do you think the story's changed?
POWERS: Yeah, the story's changes several times. I mean, you know, one of
the fascinating things about any presidency--and, you know, the Bush
presidency is no different--is that we get various myths built up around the
president. At different points the media decides that, `This is how we're
going to present the guy.' You know, at one point he was dumb. At another
point he's a regular guy. At another point he was the CEO president. You
know, that one didn't last very long. But, you know, there was a time where
you kept hearing, you know, he went to Harvard Business School.
The big transformation in Bush's presidency came with 9/11, where he went from
a guy who was basically considered someone who was sort of an ordinary,
regular guy on the right to a wartime leader. And in the book I write about
the Prince Hal scenario, which is very much, you know, based on Shakespeare's
"Henry" plays about the young wastrel guy who isn't doing very much but who
then, because history demands it of him, rises to the occasion. And if you
look in the months after 9/11, it was--there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of
cases where important journalists would make reference to George Bush being
like Prince Hal in the Shakespeare play, a guy who was underestimated--or as
he like to put it, `misunderestimated'--but who then came through on the big
occasion to fight this epic battle.
The one that followed that was the negative one, which I call in the book the
transformation of Bush into Moby W. because among the people who dislike him,
he became a figure that transcended politics to become an almost metaphysical
figure, the white whale that Ahab is chasing; you know, that it's--you know,
one of the striking features of the Bush years is that the level of
polarization is so hysterical so that, you know, I know a lot of people who
don't just think that they dislike George Bush or even that he's a bad
president. They think he has to be the worst president in the history of the
country, and he's a genuinely evil man. You know, this didn't just start with
Bush. It was also true of the Clinton years.
GROSS: Now, John, this book is about popular culture and the media during the
Bush administration. Do you think that pop culture is affected by who's in
the White House?
POWERS: Yes. I think pop culture's partly affected by who's in the White
House. But I think that what's more important is the way that we think of pop
culture, depending on who's in the White House, you know. And it's an
important distinction to draw because, really, most presidential figures, you
know, don't have that much interest in popular culture. George W. Bush
certainly doesn't. You know, one of my favorite stories about him on the
campaign trail in the year 2000 was when somebody asked him about the show
"Sex and the City," and he got mad because he thought the person was prying
into his personal life. You know, that--Bush is not very interested in
But we tend to read the tone and feeling of the country through the
presidency, and that, therefore, we start interpreting the pop culture through
the feeling of the politics. And, in fact, then the pop culture starts
reflecting on the political figures as well. And I think that's precisely
what's happened during the Bush years--is that you see shows that clearly
George W. Bush didn't create; they weren't created in response to him. But
somehow some of those shows seem more or less metaphorically apt; they
actually resonate in a different way.
GROSS: What are some of the shows that fit that?
POWERS: Yes. Well, I think that one of the defining features of our time is
what I call, you know, populist social Darwinism, which is to say that we're
obsessed with the idea of winners and losers and, in fact, that one of
the--part of the genuine feel of the Bush years are all these reality game
shows, like "Survivor," like "American Idol" and like "The Apprentice," which
are basically all about creating this group of people who are clearly winners
and then other groups of people being treated as if they were losers. And I
think that that is one of the defining ideological features of our society at
the moment, which probably contributed perhaps to Bush's winning. It
certainly--you know, "American Idol" or "Survivor" weren't created by George
W. Bush, but they seem particularly resonant at the moment.
GROSS: How do you think winners and losers, in a larger way, is fitting into
American culture now?
POWERS: Yes. Well, I think that, you know, every culture always has people
who triumph and, you know, are successful. But I think we live in one of
those moments in history where the gap between the people at the top and the
rest of us seems larger than ever. And it's not simply a question of money.
It's a question of power, it's a question of fame. If you live now and live
in our media culture, you're bombarded 24 hours a day by stories about people
who are successful businessmen, who are political figures, who are
world-famous stars; that, in fact, you sense that there's this huge world out
there of winners, and, in fact, that makes the rest of us feel like losers.
The interesting thing about this particular moment is that even though we've
always had winners and people who feel like losers, the winners now are so
obnoxious, you know, that they're--you know, Americans used to be thought of
as really good winners. But, in fact, we now live at a point where actually
people, you know, aren't such good winners. You know, whether it's Donald
Trump, you know, making it with the tag line, `You're fired,' or whether it's,
you know, the young high school athlete LeBron James turning up at high school
in his brand-new, $40,000 car, you know, even though he's still another high
school student, or Bill O'Reilly telling you how many books he's sold or
Donald Rumsfeld, you know, basically dressing down reporters asking him
questions, as if they were no smarter than oysters, the official style of
winners these days is to be kind of a sore winner. They're not gracious;
that, in fact, they actually suggest that they should be winning, and if you
question that, there's something wrong with you.
GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR critic at large John Powers. His new book,
"Sore Winners," is about the intersection of politics and pop culture during
the Bush presidency. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR critic at large John Powers. He's written a new
book about the increasingly divisive nature of politics and pop culture,
focusing on the years of the Bush presidency. It's called "Sore Winners."
Now you say in your book "Sore Winners" that the media has a taste for extreme
positions. And you write about some of the either/ors that the media helps
force people into--either/ors fueled by the media's taste for extreme
positions. So--and you say these are specious either/ors. For example, you
either supported invaded Iraq, or you were pro-Saddam; you either dislike
frivolous pop culture, or you lack values. Can you talk about these
either/ors and what you think is presenting this kind of false dichotomy?
POWERS: Yes. Well, actually, you know, either/ors are very dramatic. You
know, that if you watched the good talk show hosts--you know, if you take
someone like Bill O'Reilly, who's a very skillful talk show host, he always
poses questions as an either/or question. Because if you say, `What do you
think about this?' someone might give you an answer that's neither either nor
or but something in between. And there's no drama in that. So that, in fact,
what you want, you know, in media coverage of things is to have a vivid
position which allows people to argue clearly and vividly because people
aren't always paying full attention. So you want that excitement that comes
from a head-on collision rather than a discussion of three or four or five
possible points of view.
If you take the example that you mentioned about either you support invading
Iraq or you're objectively pro-Saddam, you know, of course at some fundamental
level that's nonsense. You know, it's simply not true that you are
objectively pro-Saddam if you weren't for invading Iraq. There are many ways
you could have thought of trying to bring Saddam's regime down without
invading Iraq. But as we now discuss these things in politics, you actually
have to be that way. You know, you can flip it because the left is often as
guilty, maybe just as often as guilty of this, as the right--is that, I mean,
I knew people who opposed invading Iraq who would say to me, `Aren't you aware
that the United States helped overthrow Salvador Allende in Chile?' And I
would say, `Well, yes, I am aware of that, but that actually doesn't mean that
it's wrong if you wanted to overthrow Saddam. It's not the same thing.' You
know, in the one case you're overthrowing an elected official; in the other
case, you're overthrowing a dictatorship. Those aren't oppositions. But
we're now taught to think in terms of oppositions, and certainly the
successful media shows tend to push opposition, the drama and the conflict of
GROSS: It's also easier to get your position in a short answer, in a short
soundbite, if you're seeing things in black and white.
POWERS: Yes. You know, I mean, black and white is vivid, you know. And
political discussions, I think, often now take the form--you know, they're
kind of like movie trailers in a way. You know, there's that strange moment
in the history of movie trailers where the movie trailer became so important
that, in fact, movies began being shot in order to contain stuff that would
look good in the trailer. Similarly, in political discussions, ideas that now
come out are chosen because they will actually look good in the soundbite or
that you can actually advertise them as having something that's really
exciting and hot, that has a lot of pop, you know. So that the--I mean, the
idea that you would actually have a nuanced position on something, you know,
is a term of abuse. You know, even among Democrats you often hear people
attacking John Kerry on the grounds that he's too nuanced, which, you know, in
your normal life you would probably think, you know, `That's not so bad.'
If you think of, you know, being at your office with your boss, you know, you
probably don't want a boss who sees purely things in black and white. He's
either really happy with you or he hates you. You know, you might want a boss
who actually thinks, `Well, you're doing a good job some of the time. You're
not doing such a good job the other time. But, in fact, we're all for you.'
But in the world of media landscape, that kind of nuance is considered to be a
vice. You know, it's not simply a bore. It's considered a vice.
GROSS: My guest is media critic John Powers, and he has a new book called
Well, John, you live in Los Angeles, and you've written about movies and about
actors for years. Now you have a Republican governor who is an actor, Arnold
Schwarzenegger. And, you know, at the same time many conservatives see
Hollywood as the enemy of all the values that they hold dear. How do you
reconcile that there are several actors from Hollywood who have become
political leaders, including Ronald Reagan, Clint Eastwood, Arnold
Schwarzenegger, even Charlton Heston, who headed the NRA--how do reconcile
that with this sense that, you know, Hollywood is the anti-value place?
POWERS: Well, I think what's interesting about it is that, you know, the idea
of Hollywood as the anti-value place, you know, is a very complicated argument
for conservatives to make because, of course, Hollywood is also like one of
the great bastions of free-market capitalism, you know. And, you know, Daniel
Bell, the thinker, famously wrote, you know, about the cultural contradictions
of capitalism; that one of the fascinating things about the capitalist world
is that many of the values that traditional conservatives would hold dear are,
in fact, challenged by the very capitalist enterprises that they also
If you take someone like Rupert Murdoch as an example, you know, Rupert
Murdoch is not only the man who runs FOX News or owns FOX News, he's also the
person who put on "The Simpsons" and "Married...with Children" and "In Living
Color," you know. And many of the raunchiest shows that have ever been on
America TV come out of that same thing because it's about making money. And,
you know, so the conservatives--the Hollywood problem is that they actually
support the money-making aspect of Hollywood. They don't like the particular
products that come out.
If you move to the question of why so many of the people who've made it big in
politics have been conservative, I think it's because the myth-making
machinery of Hollywood is particularly good in political terms at
manufacturing iconic figures of authority and male power and responsibility.
And if you look at the Hollywood figures who've made it big, whether it's
Clint Eastwood or Ronald Reagan or Arnold Schwarzenegger, they tend to come
across as very male, very confident. They're confident in their authority and
their power. And then the Hollywood myth-making machine actually works to
enhance that to make them more powerful. And clearly that has a much greater
electoral appeal than, for instance, the neurosis and passion of a James Dean
or Marlon Brando.
Americans are much more drawn to iconic masculinity. And in an interesting
way, just in this year's presidential election, for example, you clearly see
that, you know, both John Kerry and George Bush are, in their ways, offering
different models of iconic masculinity. George Bush is the sheriff, you know,
that--he is the `wanted dead or alive' guy. He's the Texan who talks like a
Texan; that's very male authority idea. John Kerry's countering that by being
basically the war hero, another source of male authority.
GROSS: You know, we are told that we live in a very divided country now of
red states and blue states and so on. You live in Los Angeles...
GROSS: ...or just outside Los Angeles. Your parents live in Des Moines.
GROSS: When you go visit them, do you feel like you're visiting a different
culture? I mean, has the difference between Los Angeles and Des Moines
changed at all, in your mind?
POWERS: You know, I think there's almost no in some--you know, between Iowa
and Los Angeles in many cultural things. You know, the great illusion of the
red state-blue state idea was that somehow that if you went to Alabama, that
99 percent of the people voted for Bush and 1 percent for Gore, or that if you
went to California, it was the same thing. In fact, you know, that's a false
idea. The truth, you know, in the red state-blue state idea was that almost
all the red and blue states were extremely close. There were some exceptions,
of course. But, in fact, that in Alabama, you know, there are 40 percent of
the people who are officially `blue state' types. And in California, there
are 40 percent who are `red state' types.
You know, Iowa was an extremely close vote. And when I go to visit my folks
in Iowa, I'm struck by the fact that I don't run into, you know, people who
are incomprehending about what it could be like to live on the coast. You
know, I don't meet people who think--you know, who only watch FOX News, which
seems to be one of the great ideas that many people have--is that once you're
in the red state, everybody watches FOX News. You know, you don't find that.
What you find is something that is a farm state but that, in many ways,
resembles a lot of what I see in Los Angeles.
GROSS: John Powers, thanks so much for talking with us.
POWERS: It's my pleasure.
GROSS: John Powers is the author of the new book "Sore Winners." He's also
FRESH AIR's critic at large. He writes a column on media and culture for LA
Weekly. And in September he returns to his position as film critic for Vogue
I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, photographing David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, The Ramones
and Deborah Harry before they were stars. We talk with Mick Rock. His latest
book collects his photos of Deborah Harry and Blondie.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Mick Rock discusses his new book, "Picture This"
and his career photographing rock stars
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
When David Bowie was transforming himself into his androgynous alter-ego
Ziggy Stardust, Mick Rock was there to photograph him, helping to turn
Bowie and Ziggy into icons. Rock became Bowie's official photographer and
became an important part of England's glam rock scene. Then he moved to New
York in 1977 in time to photograph the punk and new wave scenes. His
photos are on the album covers of Lou Reed's "Transformer" and "Coney Island
Baby"; Iggy Pop & The Stooges' "Raw Power"; Queen's "Queen II" and "Sheer
Heart Attack"; The Ramones' "End of the Century" and Joan Jett's "I Love Rock
'n Roll." More recently his subjects have included Michael Stipe and the Yeah
Rock's new book collects his photos of Blondie and its lead singer, Deborah
Harry. It's called "Picture This." On the cover is a photo of Deborah
Harry that was first published on the cover of Penthouse.
Mr. MICK ROCK (Photographer): They put it on the cover of Penthouse clothed
in black to her neck, which Debbie and I thought was very entertaining, in
GROSS: Now in addition to being clothed in black, she has a scarf around her
Mr. ROCK: Yes, yes. Yes, minimum amount of skin.
GROSS: ...she's quite heavily clothed...
Mr. ROCK: Yes.
GROSS: ...which is very unusual for the cover of Penthouse. But what's
happening on her face that makes this so erotic?
Mr. ROCK: Ah, yes, yes. Well, it's the face and the hands, of course, and
the shoulders. The whole body language is so highly charged. An interesting
thing about Debbie, of course, is that I don't think there's any pictures
lurking about out there of her without any clothes on. I mean, I suppose when
she was a bit younger, she was a Playboy Bunny at the Playboy Club. But I
don't think anybody's ever seen Debbie's naked breasts, unlike a lot of modern
performers. So notwithstanding the fact that she's regarded probably as the
sexiest lady that ever came out of rock 'n' roll, she has done it all pretty
fully clothed. I mean, short skirts, you know--youth, obviously, but that was
about as saucy as she actually got. But the face, of course, is an
GROSS: Now in your Deborah Harry book, you write, `I responded strongly to
Debbie's libidinal pull. I knew that this was someone I could do some magic
with photographically.' What about David Bowie? Did you respond to his
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: And what did you relate to about his, like, makeup and
Mr. ROCK: Well, his androgynous thing.
Mr. ROCK: Well, you have to understand the spirit of the times, of course.
This was abroad, the whole gay liberation. There was--I had many gay and
bisexual friends, and so I was, if you like, already inculcated into a certain
sensibility, because for me, these were people who were like outlaws. These
were people who were exploring interesting terms, interesting realms
aesthetically. So the androgynous thing was something that was part of the
times, of which David was certainly the finest exemplar. But, of course, that
also embraced my dear friend Freddie Mercury and also Lou Reed and certain
other characters of that time. Look at early Roxy Music.
GROSS: When you were photographing David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust years,
were there things you tried to do with lighting or with camera angles that you
thought helped to bring out both his female and male sides?
Mr. ROCK: I think it was less to do with that than to do with the nature of
my understanding of him. He saw--I did some pictures in April of '72. There
are ones in the Pink Room(ph) which are quite well-known. They were actually
taken in his son's room at that time, his son's bedroom, and there's some
pictures of him--there's a famous one of him in the mirror, and it all looks,
in a way kind of--has a little pre-Raphaelite touch to it. And he said, when
he viewed that session, he said to his manager--and his manager I remember
coming out of a meeting and repeating it to me--he said, `Ah, Mick sees me.
In fact, he's the first photographer to see me the way I see myself.'
So clearly there was a sensibility link between the two of us that was very
strong from the beginning. So quite how it happened is hard to say. It's one
of those interesting old chemical things, you know. It's this kind of like a
plasma that oozes off the subject onto the film. But I think he has used--in
interviews I've seen him say that `Mick was very empathetic.' So I think
maybe that was key to what happened. He was able to allow himself to explore
the androgynous thing. I think he was less, in those early days, about the
lighting and the angles so much as the meeting of our sensibilities.
GROSS: Did you help him create the Ziggy Stardust persona?
Mr. ROCK: No. No, no, no, no, no. Tsk, tsk, tsk! David Bowie created the
Ziggy Stardust persona. I was an interpreter. I helped him get it over. I
took a bunch of key images at a key time that helped transmit, that helped
interpret the image, but absolutely not. Nobody created Ziggy Stardust but
GROSS: Do you have a favorite photo of him that you took?
Mr. ROCK: Mm, it's hard to say. There is a famous shot of him, which is
actually a performance shot of him, biting Mick Ronson's guitar. I mean, over
an 18-month period, I--quite a few of them, but there's a particular
black-and-white one of the first time he did it that was reproduced in an
English--full page--in an English rock newspaper called MelodyMaker, that
definitely helped get David over. It was like seeing Jimi Hendrix biting his
guitar or setting it on fire, or Pete Townshend smashing his guitar. It was
one of those classic rock 'n' roll moments, and of course, it fulfilled the
sense of androgyny that was in the air, because there was David Bowie,
apparently on his knees, gnawing away on Mick Ronson's guitar. So it had a
moment. It was like--it's hard to imagine that anyone would be shocked by
that today, but in those days, that was kind of shocking.
GROSS: You photographed the Ramones, and you write when you first saw the
Mr. ROCK: Ah, yes.
GROSS: ...you `thought they were very short on rock 'n' roll sexual allure,
which you considered a distinct drawback.' You say they struck you...
Mr. ROCK: At that time, yes.
GROSS: ...as `the least attractive band you had ever witnessed to that
Mr. ROCK: Yes, yes.
Mr. ROCK: But I think that remains true. However, as time went on, I grew
to love the music. I don't know that the way they look I ever found sexually
alluring, and probably nobody did. Their strength, really, was their music,
and of course, they did have a distinctive look. They exemplified, if you
like, American punk, which was not as fashionably sharp as English punk, and
as manifested by the Pistols or the Clash. But let's face it, their music's
GROSS: No, the Ramones were just like T-shirts, jeans and scraggly hair.
Mr. ROCK: Torn jeans...
GROSS: Torn jeans.
Mr. ROCK: ...of course. Yeah.
Mr. ROCK: Yes, you have to be torn to have the kneecap...
GROSS: Leather jackets. Leather jackets, yeah.
Mr. ROCK: Yes, and Converse. But the music, you know, you have to give them
the music. The music is just...
GROSS: Oh, absolutely.
Mr. ROCK: ...so--and remains, sounds so fresh to this day. But when I first
saw them, it was a bit like--I'd been used to photographing very beautiful
men, very androgynous men, and there were these four, who were not, you know.
I mean, the gayest person in the world wouldn't have gone home with any of
them, probably, maybe Dee Dee, you know, but that would have been about it.
GROSS: And you never suggested that Dee Dee or Joey put on eye makeup or
anything to ...(unintelligible).
Mr. ROCK: No. Dee Dee might have done it. There's some interesting stories
about Dee Dee out there, having been actually a bit of a male hustler in his
years, but that's a whole other tale, not for me to tell.
My guest is photographer Mick Rock. He's taken many image-making photos of
such performers as David Bowie, Queen, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Deborah Harry.
His new book collects his photos of Deborah Harry and Blondie. It's called
"Picture This." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Photographer Mick Rock is my guest, and his new book collects his
photos of Deborah Harry, and a previous book is called "Blood and Glitter."
Now in your "Blood and Glitter" book, which is your glam rock collection of
photos, David Bowie wrote the introduction, and I want to quote something...
Mr. ROCK: Yes.
GROSS: ...he says in the introduction. I love this. He says, "Glam rock
never made an impact on middle America to any extent. We were bookended by
Alice and KISS..."
Mr. ROCK: Yes.
GROSS: "...butch, manly glam with lots of guillotines and fireworks, muscle
and medal. No mistaking sexual bent of those fellas, nothing ambiguous about
our boys. That's the only way Ohio could accept lipstick on males."
Do you agree with that perception?
Mr. ROCK: I think so. I think David's very astute. I think David--and
interestingly, David, as he can be inside and outside something at the same
time, I would say absolutely. I mean, Gene Simmons with all the makeup on, I
don't think anybody ever thought he was androgynous. And even Alice--and I
love, believe you me, I love--I remember going with David in '72 just as Ziggy
was taking off, and Alice Cooper was the biggest band in the world, and it was
the--What was it?--I remember him singing "Dead Babies." What was it, the
"Killer" album? It was a great show, great theatrics, but not--even though,
yeah, they're wearing makeup, I mean, I don't think anybody thought of them--I
think it was theater rock. It was clearly a very theatrical thing. It would
be like--it's like Marilyn Manson, although I do believe he's a brilliant man,
Marilyn. I don't think--his androgyny is, in a certain way, closer to Alice's
than it ever was to David, because David was, let's face it, and remains to
this day, a very beautiful man by any standards.
But there was, in those days--let me let you into a little secret. The truth
of it was, in those days, is that boys that looked like girls got the hippest
girls, and that was a fact. So don't think that this was a lot of pauvery(ph)
going on, although there was a certain amount, but believe you me, there was a
lot of rabid heterosexual acts going on at that time, and the boys in
makeup--and that would have included myself at times, although not as overt as
some of my friends--were not left by the wayside when it came to hanging with
the ladies, let me let you in on a little secret.
GROSS: No, but getting back to what you were saying, let's keep this to
England, where you were at the time.
Mr. ROCK: Yes.
GROSS: Why do you think...
Mr. ROCK: Although I did tour America with David, and I did tour America
with Lou Reed...
GROSS: OK. So...
Mr. ROCK: ...in that period, too. So I did see what was going on in
GROSS: So why do you think men in makeup were so appealing to women?
Mr. ROCK: I think--well, it was an outgrowth of the hippie thing. Again,
remember everything--because the softening of the male. I mean, boys were
growing their hair long. Now today a boy with long hair doesn't necessarily
look effeminate or female, but I remember when my hair was starting to creep
down below my ears, I would get wolf-whistled all the time. So you know, one
got called `puffs,' or one got `Give us a kiss, mm, (makes kissing noises).'
All that stuff was going, just on the basis of long hair and not even hair
that was that long. So one has to remember the times, and so that soft boy
look had already been established as being heterosexually appealing. Then
there was bit of makeup and then, you know, the clothes started getting a bit
Then it was--and you also--the glam thing in England was also, if you like,
known as decadent rock, the idea of all these boys looking like girls, and it
was a very sexual period. It was very highly charged. There was a lot of
makeup, a lot of dress-up and a lot of heterosexual sex going on. Of course,
it was also the time of the emerging gay revolution, and so all these things
were all tangled up together, all at the same time, and I was living the
GROSS: I imagine there were a lot of secrets you had to keep during that
time. I mean, for instance...
Mr. ROCK: Oh, I still keep them.
GROSS: ...Freddie Mercury of Queen came out years later, but you know,
Mr. ROCK: Everybody knew--well, yeah, but...
GROSS: People in his circle probably knew, but I don't think...
Mr. ROCK: Yes.
GROSS: ...I don't think they necessarily wanted record buyers to know it.
Mr. ROCK: Oh, I don't know. I mean, I think--I mean, you've got to--I mean,
I understand what you're saying, and maybe that is true of America, and that
may not--I mean, I was touring in America but I wasn't living here at that
time. But Queen were called Queen. I mean, it was pretty clear...
GROSS: That's right, yeah.
Mr. ROCK: ...that Freddie...
GROSS: People could be really dense.
Mr. ROCK: ...was bisexual.
Mr. ROCK: It was pretty clear that Freddie was bisexual. When they came to
me, they wanted pictures where they looked like girls, and frankly, the
earliest pictures I shot of them they looked like a bunch of very kissable
schoolgirls, to be quite frank. So all of them, notwithstanding the fact that
the other three are absolutely not gay at all, but Freddie was living with a
lady, in fact, the lady who eventually he left his entire estate to, a lady
called Mary who remains a friend of mine to this day. He was living with her
when I first met him.
But you've got to remember also the power amongst the young, and it's probably
true today, but of course, I'm not quite as young as I once was. But being
hip, so if androgyny was the hip moment, you wanted to be androgynous, and if
the idea that you may or may not be bisexual was floating around, well, that
was all good for pulling the girls anyway. So, I mean, there's pictures of me
and David out there somewhere where we looked like a couple of schoolgirls as
well. So you know, I admit that I was working that off as not just in my
subject matters but also in the way I was presenting myself, but not as
extreme as a David. David was a very special, and a very theatrical case.
Mr. ROCK: David was steeped in theater, remember, from an early age.
GROSS: What kind of makeup did you like to wear?
Mr. ROCK: Well, I used to always wear a little kohl under my eyes. But I
was known--at parties, there would be a little kohl, you got a little rouge
and a little lip gloss. I mean, it wasn't--you know, I wasn't overly powered
it, like some people I knew, but definitely I always wore kohl, and if I was
at a party, I would be quite happy to slap--I would have a little thing of lip
gloss in my bag, you know. And of course, I was married already by about the
age of, I don't know, 21, so it wasn't like I--it wasn't clear, but every--you
know, no one quite knew. It was all so mixed and so--and it was also a time
of great exploration. The whole sexual thing had popped way out of the
closet, thanks to the hippies, and this was a time, if you like, of
consolidating all of that.
And you've got to remember, this was also, you know, a pre-AIDS period, so I
write in my introduction to the book, you know, `Everybody kissed everybody,
held hands with everybody and went home with everybody.' And therein lies a
truth, that there was a huge of amount of sexual experimentation amongst, if
you like, a core constituency of the hip community at that moment in time. In
fact, to indulge yourself sexually--and let's face it, we were young, we were
not so sophisticated as we thought we were--was in and of itself a statement,
a revolutionary statement, if you like. So the fact that it--you know, it's
different now. It's very--when you look back, one tends to look from the
perspective of today, but if you lived in that moment, it was very exciting.
There we were, upsetting people, and we were definitely in the upsetting--you
know, we're still trying to upset out parents. You know, we're still
distinguishing ourselves from an earlier generation. Today, it's very
different. It's not the same at all, you know.
Mr. ROCK: It's very hard to view it in the same way.
GROSS: You write that you stopped taking drugs and stopped smoking after
having bypass surgery in 1996.
Mr. ROCK: Stimulants, yes.
Mr. ROCK: Yes, yes.
GROSS: Did you ever try to do that before bypass? Like did it take bypass
Mr. ROCK: Yes.
GROSS: ...kind of force you to...
Mr. ROCK: Yes.
Mr. ROCK: Yes. To be candid, yes. It was God's way of straightening my ass
out. I think there's no--and of course, the beauty of it is that creativity
was something that I didn't have a problem with, but getting my life together,
I did. However, it cleared me out. It was like when they cut me open, all
the demons flew out, and after that I became much more clear-headed, and I
finally learned how to change gears so that life--before that, I think for me
the excitement that I got out of taking pictures, out of being around music, I
wanted that to go on all the time, and whatever I was going was an attempt to
constantly maintain that excitement.
What I learned as the result of a very painful experience, because yes, I had
bypass surgery, and some people, of course, recover quite quickly because it
is--but me, I was also detoxing, so it was very painful, but I actually
handled it very--if you like, very well. I kind of knew at the time that this
was the end game. I knew that this was it. But what it did was, it allowed
me, in a sense, to rebirth and that's what has happened. Now I can go into
the head now. I can go to places where I used to go with a little chemical
help without that help, nowadays. But of course, I do a lot of yoga and
massage and preparation, and I can go in--a little coffee helps, I will admit.
So coffee or a Red Bull. So it's not that I'm entirely, if you like, clean,
although when I do--it's interesting, you know, because if have been on a run
of interviews or working a lot and then I take a little break, with all the
yoga I do, I detox, and what I'm detoxing from is the caffeine or the guarana
or the taurine or these, you know, more recently discovered stimulants, and I
wish I'd known about it earlier. I would have saved me a lot of money.
GROSS: My guest is photographer Mick Rock. His new book collects his photos
of Deborah Harry and Blondie. We'll talk more about his photos of musicians
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of "Fame")
Mr. DAVID BOWIE: Fame, makes a man take things over. Fame, lets him loose,
hard to swallow. Fame, puets you there where things are hallow. Fame...
GROSS: My guest, Mick Rock, has taken many now-famous photos of such
musicians as David Bowie, Freddie Mercury, The Ramones, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed.
His new book collects his photos of Deborah Harry and Blondie. It's called
In your book, you quote Oscar Wilde...
Mr. ROCK: Ah, yes.
GROSS: ...as having said, "Beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only the
shallow people who do not judge by appearances." Do you think of yourself as
Mr. ROCK: Oh, no, I don't think so, although I think I as lucky that I
looked a certain way and in the wake of certain characters who come out of the
music business who, let's face it, by any traditional standards, a Bob Dylan,
a Keith Richards, a Mick Jagger, would not be regarded as either necessarily
good-looking or even sexy. Certainly in the '40s you couldn't have given them
away. By the time I came along in the wake of people like that, I had an
appeal, because I had a bit of an echo of these characters who'd been in some
way established in the hip sensibility of my generation as being attractive.
So I traded off that. I don't think--you know, so I just got lucky, and I
have been a lucky boy in many ways, but then, I've also been chastised well,
so--and that was my near-death experience when I--because I was on the brink,
apparently, so I did go to the edge. But it was not a drug overdose, and
certainly I was not deliberately self-destructive. I was just a constant
experimenter who got caught up in my own mythology and, you know, the calm
that comes with that.
GROSS: Do you think of beauty, now having photographed so many really
interesting rock stars, some of whom are just like born handsome or beautiful
and others who kind of created their image, do you think of beauty as
something that is physiological or something that you can just kind of create
through force of personality or through design?
Mr. ROCK: I think it's a combination of those two things. I mean, if
you're, you know, 5'2", 300 pounds, well--and bald isn't necessarily a bad
thing today, but maybe, you know, it's harder to project that. But I do think
it's a combination of things. I mean, there are--Debbie Harry is beautiful,
as far as I'm concerned. She will tell you that she didn't particularly like
the way--and she writes about it in the foreword to the book--she didn't
particularly care for the way she looked when she was young, but certainly she
became more, obviously, beautiful. One of the things she did, of course, was
to start dyeing her hair, and that really helped her. But it was obviously
always there, because look at the bone structure. But as her attitude
evolved, I think she became what she became, which is absolutely
unequivocally, you know, just the greatest blonde that ever rock, as I call
So I do think it's--I think simply--I mean, listen, there's loads of pretty
people out there, but are pretty people necessarily beautiful? You know, no,
not necessarily. They are pretty. Now you can be pretty and beautiful. You
can also be kind of off-center and beautiful. I mean, look at, again, take
Keith Richards. I mean, Keith just looks interesting nowadays, but you look
back to him, you know, around the time of Altamont and that period. I mean,
now you look at him, you go, `Wow, look at that.' He kind of defined the
beauty of the rock 'n' roll look.
Was Elvis beautiful? I think, yeah, Elvis was always beautiful, wasn't he?
He just was--but there was a moment in time when he was beyond beautiful, he
was completely fabulous. I think sometimes as the mythology accretes around
certain people, something happens to their sensibility, but something happens
in the way people view them. You can, if you like, impose--I mean, someone
who--I mean, she's not really that good-looking, and if you see her in the
flesh your wouldn't take a lot of notice of her, but Madonna's someone who
worked very hard at that. I don't think, because I remember meeting her
before she was known at all, and frankly, she was plain, you know. But she
learnt a lot of tricks.
In fact, let's go back to someone like Marlene Dietrich or even Greta Garbo.
You look at stills taken from early Greta Garbo pictures, in the '20s in
Sweden, or early films of Marlene Dietrich, even "The Blue Angel," which was
the one that put her on the map, and they were neither of them particularly
attractive women, so they learnt little tricks of makeup and certainly
Dietrich learned about lighting, and as their sense of themselves grew, and
their understanding of little tricks of makeup, of lighting, all this stuff,
so they became much better-looking.
There is a word, `photogenic,' as well. Some people in the flesh look
fabulous, and it's very difficult to get them on film. Some people in the
flesh look, you know, fairly regular. You get them on film, and they're like
magic. Some people look great in person and photograph like a dream. So, you
know, it does depend on the individual.
GROSS: Well, thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. ROCK: Listen, I had a lot of fun. You've been a lot of fun to talk to.
GROSS: Mick Rock. His new book collects his photos of Deborah Harry and
Blondie. It's called "Picture This."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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