80 percent of success is just showing up.
I liked being there.
If you’ve wasted just a fraction of the time I did in my youth—hell, my entire life— reading rock magazines, popular music compendiums and studying the history of rock and roll with a myopic fervor usually reserved for religious vocation, then there is a better than two-to-one shot you’ve come across hundreds of images captured by the camera of Bob Gruen. For over four decades, the passionate eye of one of the world’s leading photographers has visually dissected the most important artists of the rock era—The Rolling Stones, John Lennon, KISS, Aerosmith, Sex Pistols, The Clash, Bruce Springsteen and Prince to name a few from prog rock to punk and beyond. A new documentary, Rock ‘N’ Roll Exposed: The Photography Of Bob Gruen by Grammy Award-winning filmmaker Don Letts beautifully frames the essence of Gruen’s art and its origins.
The 66-year-old Gruen casually mentioned what was originally a four-part British television special chronicling the many arcs of his work back in June when I visited his West Village studio/apartment/archive bunker. Getting there was half the fun; a maze of long hallways and two elevator trips into the center of an artist’s complex, where nearly every inch of its cramped but charming environs is crammed with overflowing file cabinets and stacked shelves of Gruen’s work. More a portal into a life spent smack-dab in the middle of rock history than an office space, the minute you step inside it’s as if you’ve entered the rare intimacy of the performance world from spotlight to backstage to the after-hours private parties.
It is also a place where Gruen has entertained the likes of John Lennon, Joe Strummer and KISS, whose leather-clad, Kabuki-faced members tried on his civvies for a CREEM magazine photo shoot that became the iconic Dressed To Kill album cover. “I took the guys in The Clash back here once, cooked them dinner and showed them my New York Dolls live tapes,” Gruen told me, as we sat on the couch where “the most important band in the world” once dined.
These and many more anecdotes, all illustrated stunningly with a parade of gorgeous rock and roll moments forever frozen in time by Gruen’s unique talents, color Letts’ film, which not only features commentary from some of his famous subjects like Yoko Ono, Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry and Billie Joe Armstrong, but includes Gruen’s own insights and the stories behind it all.
Rock ‘N’ Roll Exposed: The Photography Of Bob Gruen is an exhaustive filmic biography. It takes us back to the burgeoning professional photographer’s early days, traveling with Ike & Tina Turner (featuring Gruen’s famous picture of a gyrating Turner onstage in a multiple-exposure masterpiece of five images at once) through his years as John and Yoko’s private NYC photographer (in the studio, on stage and in their home), then onto his years trolling Manhattan’s underground punk scene from Max’s Kansas City to CBGB all the way through his travels and friendships with the Sex Pistols, The Clash and Green Day, who today have entrusted Gruen to maintain their image as standard-bearers of the genre. The main theme throughout the film, which was part of New York City’s CBGB Festival, a three-day celebration of the famous dive on the Bowery that birthed the punk movement of the late-‘70s and where Gruen spent many a night capturing the mood, sweat and ear-splitting mayhem of the Ramones, Television, Blondie, and Talking Heads, among others, centers around Gruen’s edict to immerse himself in the heart of the action.
“Bob always seemed to just be floating around,” Yoko Ono muses in the film. “He was never obtrusive or demanding like other photographers. He was respectful and really cared about his subjects. John and I trusted him completely.”
Or as Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong puts it; “Bob’s not a pain in the ass.”
“I want my subjects to be happy with the image my photographs depict,” Gruen told me back in June. “Some photographers are adamant about not being edited. I’m adamant about getting hired again. I was very comfortable working with a band and helping them create the image they want to create.”
Seeing a Bob Gruen photograph for the first or 50th time speaks volumes about a man who loves the artists and wants the fans, the ultimate arbiter of the rock experience, to get closer to their heroes and to better understand by a single image what listening to the music has already awakened. Quite simply, Gruen’s artistry enhances the experience of the music. His pictures represent in a very serious way an extension of it.
Gruen rode the crest of the budding craft of rock journalism long before music videos could bring home the images of rock stars. Kids, especially the younger ones like myself in the early ‘70s, who might not have had the money or access to transportation to see their favorite acts as they rumbled through town (if they ever did at all) lived vicariously through the images exploding from the pages of Creem, Circus, Rock Scene, Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy! Gruen’s camera filled in the blanks, added to our imaginations of a nether world of rebellion, riches and madness.
Gruen’s best work treads the thin line of that madness, especially in the salad days of rock, as many of his shots, whether live concert photos or backstage meandering, seemed to border on or be completely out of focus. Soon, as he jokes today, it would become his “soft focus” style that many have aimed to mimic.
“There are more technically proficient photographers out there,” Gruen confidently states. “But I never went for the technically perfect shot, I went for feel. I wanted the person seeing the shot to feel what the artist was feeling at that moment, whether in front of a wild crowd or alone in a studio setting.”
This was a time, Gruen reminded me, long before pre-set digital cameras, when the pro photographer had to quickly perform many key maneuvers—adjust exposures and change lens—in the virtual darkness and controlled chaos of a rock and roll show: “Shooting a live performance is a wing and a prayer. I never had any idea if anything would come out or not. You hope you’re getting something, but the lights are changing, you don’t know what the exposure is, people are running around the whole time, you don’t know where to focus. It was fun, though. A lot of it was a guessing game. If some of the pictures came out all right, you were lucky and you’d get some good ones. If you take a lot of pictures you’re bound to get a couple of good ones and if [you] only show the good ones then people think you’re good.”
Almost all of the subjects interviewed for Rock ‘N’ Roll Exposed: The Photography Of Bob Gruen describe Gruen’s “technique,” whether proficient or visceral, as being almost nonchalant, especially in closed quarters in the after-party clubs or crowded apartments when the cream of the rock set would let their guard down to mingle and imbibe.
“Bob would be carrying on an intense conversation with you and suddenly, whap, he’d snap a photo of someone a few feet away and get right back to you never missing a beat,” recalls rock journalist and longtime friend, Legs McNeil. “Then you’d see the picture weeks later and it would be fantastic! How did he see that?”
Gaining incredible access to a host of huge rock acts during tours, on buses, in diners and hotel rooms, Gruen got the best shots, but knew where to draw the line.
“My theory has always been if I didn’t want to be shown in that light, I wouldn’t take the picture,” Gruen told the audience in a Q & A session after the film premiered at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema on East Houston Street. “A good rule to go by was when the drugs came out, the camera was put away.”
Each of Gruen’s subjects echo the same sentiment throughout Letts’ film; he always displayed a respect and restraint unfamiliar to most rock photographers or the ever-present paparazzi. “Bob never did the usual, ‘Hey Alice, make a scary face’ bit,” recounts Alice Cooper in the film. And it was through that trust that Gruen was on a first-name basis with scores of rock stars, who had long given up letting anyone with a notepad, let alone a camera in.
“I never looked at this job as a journalist,” Gruen insists. “I was always a part of the lifestyle. I’m not looking at these people, I am these people.”
Gruen’s ability to see into the soul of the rock performer may have been fueled at his first professional shoot, the infamous performance by Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in July of 1965. Gruen explains in the film, “Everyone was booing Dylan and felt he was betraying the folk scene by showing up with a rock band, but I thought it was his way of saying that rock and roll was the new folk.”
A few years later, after establishing himself as a solid freelancer, Gruen headed up to the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem to cover an Aretha Franklin show. It was there he literally ran into John and Yoko, where several camera-ready fans and pros were frantically snapping away. Lennon, in his usual smarmy style, joked that although he’d been photographed every minute of every day, he never saw a single one. Gruen, ever the opportunist, shouted, “I’ll show you my photos!” Knowing the most famous rock and roll couple of all had recently moved right around the block from him, Gruen was true to his word.
Lennon was so moved that Gruen would hand off the pictures at their apartment (more to the point to yippie madman, Jerry Rubin, who answered the door) with no hint of wanting any favors from a Beatle, the two struck up a friendship that lasted until Lennon’s tragic murder in 1980. “That was the worst thing that ever happened to me, still is,” Gruen solemnly exhales, the memory still etched on his face. “People die, but not everyone gets murdered for no reason.”
Gruen’s work with John and Yoko produced a chronicle of their time living in Manhattan, the best of which are available in his 2005 book, John Lennon, The New York Years. These precious slices of life include the famous shot (Gruen’s idea) of Lennon giving the peace sign in front of the Statue Of Liberty during his fight against deportation, and perhaps his most famous image, the ubiquitous “New York City Shirt” picture, which today festoons thousands of bootleg and official T- shirts, posters, stickers, etc. Just like KISS sporting his suits on the cover of Dressed To Kill, the shirt was a gift from Gruen, and when Lennon died years later and the photographer was asked to provide the seminal Lennon image for a memorial, without hesitation he chose that one.
“John died in New York because he lived in New York,” Gruen told me. “He died going home. I wanted that to be his legacy, his love for the city that I also love.”
It was Gruen’s love for New York that put him in the gritty innards of the downtown scene where he became one of the New York Dolls’ signature photographers. A band built upon the dying glam movement that bridged the ‘60s NYC decadence of the Velvet Underground to the CBGB punk movement, Gruen worked tirelessly to help them conjure a variety of images.
“I loved bands like the Dolls and Alice Cooper and KISS, because they put on a show, on stage and in front of the camera,” cites Gruen. “They understood how much image mattered. They call it show business, so I always thought there should be a show.”
Gruen’s affiliation with the New York Dolls and Malcolm McLaren would allow him to make his mark as the godfather of punk imagery; as important a statement as the music itself. Gruen set down for posterity the short-lived and wildly outrageous career of England’s most notorious act, the Sex Pistols. Given almost unlimited access to a band that made its bones abusing the media, Gruen’s pictures of the Sex Pistols and most notably the doomed Sid Vicious, in their infancy, holds a special place in the rock pantheon. Soon Gruen would be the American liaison for The Clash when the last true punk outfit embarked on one of the seminal residencies of the era.
Today, Gruen readily admits he’s slowed his 24-hour rollercoaster lifestyle, limiting his talents to special events and working with many of the friends he’s made in the music business over a lengthy and groundbreaking career. His photographs hang in museums and many galleries around the world, including the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame; a veritable who’s who of the long thread of rockers from Chuck Berry to Lady Gaga. Each one holds a special place in Bob Gruen’s lens; filled with volume, attitude and decadent glamour. Gruen says it best: “If it’s a good show, I’m driven to photograph it, I need to photograph it.”
For 40 odd years, Bob Gruen showed up and took us all with him.