If there was an important musical moment in the 1970s and ’80s, chances are, Bob Gruen was there. You may not know his name, but you do know his photography. We insist. Picture John Lennon in your mind. Is he wearing a T-shirt that proudly proclaims the name of his American hometown: New York City? Is he staring down the lens on the roof of a Manhattan high-rise? So yeah… You have Bob Gruen to thank for that.
His place in the history books would be secure even if that one Lennon photo was a fortuitous accident. But that would be like calling the Beatles a one-hit wonder. Gruen has been at the edge of the stage capturing moments that have changed our culture. Tonight at 7 PM on Showtime, the Don Letts documentary Rock ‘n’ Roll Exposed: The Photography Of Bob Gruen tells his incredible story. It all sounds completely unbelievable, except that he has the pictures to prove it.
His list of subjects is a fantasy jukebox: Lennon, Dylan, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, Queen, The Ramones, Joan Jett, Green Day… But don’t ask him to pick a favorite.
“I don’t make lists,” he says casually. “I’ve seen some amazing people, starting with Tina Turner. Ike and Tina were the first act I traveled with. After that I worked with Elton John, met John Lennon, and worked with Alice Cooper and KISS. I went to England with the Clash and the Sex Pistols and also worked with Blondie. Do you want to put them in a list and tell me who’s better than who?” Good point.
“I’ve seen a lot of clunkers too, because I see everybody,” he continues. “But I can’t list who was the best. Some people only see five shows and then they know which one’s the best. But if you see 5,000 and 3,000 of them are good, it’s hard to make a list.”
Even in his pre-pro days, the New York City native found himself in the front row watching history unfold. At 19 he attended the 1965 Newport Folk Festival where Bob Dylan famously “went electric,” ditching his acoustic guitar in favor of an amped up Fender Stratocaster. The show was a watershed event, heralding rock’s status as the music that spoke for the youth of ’60s America.
“I just went because I was such a big fan. I talked myself into getting a pass so I could get down front. I wasn’t working as a rock photographer yet. I took some nice pictures but I didn’t have anywhere to send them.”
It was this pure and genuine passion for music that launched him into showbiz: Ike & Tina’s tour bus, Led Zep’s private plane, the recording studio with John Lennon and Phil Spector, and more. “I got into photography because I’m a fan and I still do it because I’m a fan. That’s one of the reasons why my pictures are good. I know what I’m looking for because I’m a fan. I’m not just a journalist who’s trying to capture some guy and get the color of the shirt right.”
They say you shouldn’t meet your idols because they never live up to their reputations, but according to Gruen that isn’t (always) true. Certainly not for rock’s original crazy guy, Who drummer Keith Moon. “If anything he was more than his reputation! That guy was spontaneous and similar to Tre [Cool] from Green Day, actually. He would do anything, anytime, and usually get away with it.”
Shock rocker Alice Cooper, on the other hand, was a different character in person. “He plays golf. He takes his kids to church. It’s different from his stage act, but he’s always been a genuinely nice guy backstage.” Johnny Rotten, however, lived up to his rep and his namesake. ”The first time I met him I thought, ‘This is the most obnoxious guy I’ve ever met!’” Thought so! Elated to hear it.
He’s worked with everyone but his relationship with John Lennon is the most talked about. And it all started from being a good neighbor! Gruen caught Lennon and Yoko Ono outside the Apollo after a benefit concert in 1971. ”They were waiting for their car and people were taking snapshot pictures of them,” he recalls. “At one point John said, ‘People are always taking pictures of us and we never see these. What happens to these?’ I replied, ‘I’ll show you mine.’ I told him I lived around the corner and he said, ‘Just slip them under the door then.’” A few days later, that’s exactly what he did. “I just left the pictures. I didn’t try to meet him.”
A few months later, he went on a photo assignment with a music journalist. John and Yoko were doing interviews in a hotel. “I remember the writer meeting me in the lobby and telling me, ‘Look, they just woke up and they’re a little cranky because they didn’t know I was bringing a photographer. But just relax a while. They’ll wake up. They’ll feel better. They’ll let you come up. They’ll let you take pictures. They’ll probably like your pictures and they’ll probably like you. You’ll probably do album covers and become friends with them because that’s the way they are.’ I remember him saying that because that’s what happened.”
Gruen became the Lennon’s personal photographer and family friend for nearly a decade, capturing recording sessions, births, country jaunts, and John’s victory over deportation proceedings in 1976. The serendipitous nature of their meeting is a charming reminder of the warm human at the core of the Beatle, made more poignant when you consider that this openness contributed to his tragic death in 1980. A loss Bob Gruen still grieves.
By the late ’70s he was a friend of the Lower East Side music scene. He was taking gritty photos of CBGB and Max’s Kansas City regulars like Patti Smith, the Ramones, the New York Dolls, Talking Heads, Television and many more. Never one to live in the good ol’ days, Gruen continues to venture into the field and catch gigs. When asked if any new bands catch his ear, he mentions Kris Gruen, his son whose third album, New Comics From the Wooded World, is set to be released in the coming weeks. Music runs in the family.
He’s still active today, but Bob was also pleased to take a look back through this documentary. “I’m very happy because [director Don Letts] tells a story. It’s not just facts of my career. He interviews everybody about what rock photography meant to them, how they grew up looking at the images and how they were inspired by the images.”
“I tell people to take a lot of pictures. If they take a lot of pictures, they’re bound to get a couple good ones.” This tactic helped him achieve his most famous image: John Lennon in the NYC tee. “There were a lot of outtakes in that session. Don’t get it wrong. That’s the good one and that’s the one I show.”
Although he lived the rock life alongside stadium-packing acts, he insists it didn’t make him want to trade in his camera for a guitar. “I never wanted to be the guy in the band, I like to watch.” And did he ever. You’re repeatedly struck with the thought, this guy was actually there! Over the course of our conversation he regaled us with a phenomenal number of stories (the one involving John Lennon’s UFO sighting over the New York skyline was a personal favorite). Gruen is a living history book.
For a photographer who has seen it all, he does have one regret when his camera wasn’t close by. “I was at John and Yoko’s house visiting and Paul and Linda McCartney came by. It wasn’t a photo opportunity. It was two old friends visiting, having tea, sitting around and watching TV. It would have been nice if they had asked me ‘Hey, want to get a picture of us together?’ I would have had no problem. But it was one of those situations where you know it’s time to put the camera down and not intrude on a private situation. I wasn’t there as a photographer, I was there as John’s friend.” Despite the missed opportunity, being John Lennon’s friend makes up for it.
For more insider stories, tune in to Showtime tonight at 7 PM for Rock ‘n’ Roll Exposed: The Photography Of Bob Gruen! If you need a rock fix sooner, head up to the gallery, where Gruen reveals the stories behind 15 of his all-time favorite photos!
[Photo: © Linda Rowe Photography]