Bob Gruen, a leading rock photographer for nearly 50 years, has a deep well of stories about some of the music world’s biggest names, and shared some of them in a public interview with me at the Bickford Theatre at the Morris Museum in Morris Township, June 20. The event celebrated the opening of “Bob Gruen: Rock Seen,” his first solo exhibition, ever, at a United States museum,
The exhibition includes more than 70 of his works and, as I walked through the two large rooms, I was struck by how many photos — of John Lennon, Patti Smith, The Clash, The New York Dolls, The Sex Pistols and others — I was familiar with already. To see them all together, with Gruen’s comments about them on the wall next to them, was quite an experience.
The exhibition will be there through Nov. 10. I recommend it highly. For information, visit morrismuseum.org.
Here is a transcript of my interview with Gruen:
Q: Since it’s the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, I wanted to start by asking you about that. I know you were there and took some photos, though you weren’t a professional photographer yet.
A: I was a big fan of The Who, and I got The Village Voice, and there was this whole list of bands, and they all seemed pretty good. And right in the middle it said, “The Who.” And I looked at the address on the bottom and I mailed away, and I bought four tickets, which I still have, ’cause they never collected the tickets (at Woodstock).
It was an amazing experience. I actually had a job: I managed to get Friday off and go Friday morning.
A friend of mine went up, I think, on Tuesday night or Wednesday night, and by Thursday, the radio stations were all saying it was impossible to get there, and there was no space if you did get there. … But Thursday night, my friend who had gone up earlier called me and said, “You gotta get here, man. … This is the most amazing place, amazing people.” I said, “But the radio says there’s no space. There’s no room. You can’t even put up a tent.” He said, “There’s plenty of space where we are. You can put up a tent.” I said, “Well, how will I find you?” He said … he had his tent … we had what we used to call a freak flag. Your little group would make some special colored flag, and I said, “Well, I don’t know, it’s a big place. How am I going to find that?” And he said, “Well, we’re right next to the free food.” I said, “I can find free food.” And I did.
Then I said to him, “How are you calling me if you’re out in the middle of the woods?” He said, “Well, there’s a phone nailed to a tree.” And I kind of felt any place that was sophisticated and civilized enough to have a phone in the woods … so I could call for help, you know … was good enough to go to. So we went. Getting there was half the battle.
I only took a few pictures. I wasn’t working for anybody. I brought my camera just for myself. Most of the weekend, I left it in the tent, because I didn’t want to carry it around. I didn’t want it to get muddy, or rained on, or whatever. I wasn’t covering the event, so it was more about taking pictures of my friends. I used color film, and about half the roll is pictures of my friends, in the tent, just kind of portraits of them, so a green background is all you see. You don’t see Woodstock, actually. But I did manage to get a couple of pictures outside the tent, around our area. One picture of the whole hillside. It (the roll) starts off with, actually, a picture of us in traffic, standing still. So that’s on my website, bobgruen.com. You can see my version of it.
I did see The Who. It was one of the most amazing shows. The whole weekend was great. For me, it wasn’t so much about the music. We saw Janis (Joplin), who I had seen before, and actually I thought she kind of phoned it in that night. The Jefferson Airplane, after The Who, playing as the day was starting and the light was just breaking and they were playing this long, mellow jazzy riff to the dawn. It was an amazing moment.
Q: Now, were you thinking of becoming a professional photographer at this point?
A: I wasn’t thinking about working, no.
I should explain how I got into photography … I learned photography from my mother, ’cause it was her hobby, so when I was about 5 years old I started taking pictures. And then I was taking pictures of the family. When I was around 11, I started taking pictures of camp. I was in summer camp, and I sent the pictures home to my mom, and she developed them and sent them back, and I sold my first pictures then. I took pictures at the local organizations. Like, the civic organization had a benefit, and I would go with a Polaroid, and take pictures of people. And I think taking pictures of my family was good training for rock ‘n’ roll bands, because I learned how to get six dysfunctional people looking good for a 60th of a second.
Actually, my idea in the ’60s, after high school … I really didn’t want to work. I wanted to turn on, tune in and drop out. That was the best idea I heard back then. So I lived with a rock ‘n’ roll band. And I took my first pictures at Newport (Folk Festival) in 1965 …
Q: What was the name of the band you lived with?
A: The band … every time they had a new drummer, they changed names. About three or four, five times, maybe. And they ended up as the Glitterhouse, and were discovered by Bob Crewe. He produced the Four Seasons, and many other bands. He had 80 Top 10 hit singles. An amazing guy. And he was doing the soundtrack for the “Barbarella” movie, and he used the Glitterhouse guys for the vocals. And then he produced an album for them.
The Glitterhouse had nothing to do with glitter (i.e., glitter rock). This was a couple of years before glitter. It was actually based on a movie called “The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse.” An obscure movie. But anyway, that started my contact … Bob Crewe hired me to take pictures for a woman named Lotti Golden, so my first album picture was on the back cover of that. And what really kicked off my career, quite unexpectedly … a friend of our said we had to go see Ike & Tina Turner, because they were amazing. We went, and my friend was right: Tina was the most amazing person I had ever seen in my life. … They played a few shows around New York that week, and I saw them a couple of days later at a place called the Honka Monka Club. You can’t make that up. It was in Queens, on Queens Boulevard. Kind of a basement place: I remember the linoleum floor. And I was sitting there taking pictures of her on, like, a one-foot stage. But I took a couple of good pictures that night, and at the end of the show, I knew the strobe light was going to be flashing. I had a few frames left. So I opened the camera to one-second exposure. I thought maybe if I could get a few of those frames, it might work. There are three or four that are useless, but there’s one that I think is one of my best pictures. It captures five images of Tina in the one frame, and it shows all the excitement and energy that is Tina, that you couldn’t capture in one image.
And then what happened was, a couple of days later, we came to see another Ike and Tina show, here in New Jersey …
Q: Do you remember the name of the venue?
A: No, it was a theater in the round. It wasn’t too far away from New York. And I brought the pictures to show my friends, so I had them with me, and as we were walking out of the theater, one of my friends saw Ike Turner walking from one dressing room to another. In a theater in the round, the dressing rooms are outside. And she literally pushed me in front of Ike and into the rest of my life, because she said, “Show Ike the pictures.” And he stopped and said, “What pictures?” And I showed them to him, and he said, “Oh, these are good pictures. I better show these to Tina.” He took me to the dressing room, and all of a sudden, Tina was liking my pictures. And he introduced me to a publicist, and that publicist took me to a party where I met a few more people. One of the people from that party was a publicist from MCA Records who said that I should take pictures of this new piano player who was coming from England, to play his first show in New York. That’s how I met Elton John. And my life just kind of snowballed. Every time I went somewhere and took pictures, I met somebody else. It just kind of developed.
Q: (to audience) That Tina Turner photo, by the way, that he was talking about, with the strobe, is in the exhibition.
A: It’s a nice big one, just right inside the door of the exhibit, on the left.
Q: One of the big differences, I think, between rock photography now, and then, is that back then, photographers really seemed to immerse themselves with the bands. You would go on tour with band, and hang out with them until 4 in the morning. Whereas now, it tends to be very quick photo shoots, and the first three songs of the concert, or even not that much. There’s a bigger wall between the artists and the photographers.
A: When I started, there was no word, “rock photographer.” There was no “music photographer.” There was one guy who had been a roadie for Benny Goodman and could take good pictures, who did most of the pictures for bands in New York. A guy named Popsie (Randolph). He was the only one around when I started. So it’s been a long development, to see other people coming in. In the early ’70s, first there was me and another guy, and then there was another guy. And then there was a couple of women. And more and more people. Until, by the ’80s, there was a lot of people, and bands started controlling photographers, and controlling the images, and restricting things. And it got quite different. Nowadays, there’s actually courses in college for rock photography, which kind of surprises me. It was unheard of back then.
Q: I remember one time, when I was working at The Star-Ledger, we were reviewing a Prince show at the PNC Bank Arts Center. Maybe it was still the Garden State Arts Center back then. The photographer was told they could shoot Prince from the time he walked onstage, to the time he started singing. And it actually worked out well, since the photographer got a great shot of him reaching out to grab his microphone.
A: I think that was more than he did at most shows. At most shows, there were no photos.
Q: Dylan is another one who doesn’t allow photographers at all, now.
A: Early on, he started banning photography.
Q: Especially with this Netflix special out now (“Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese”), which I assume many people here have seen, I wanted to ask about the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, which you were on.
A: I wouldn’t say I was a part of it, but I followed it. I was one of the only people who photographed it, ’cause there were no photo passes allowed.
Bob Dylan’s been a big influence in my life. When I was very young, for instance, I was trying to explain to my mom how I felt when I played Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding”), which is something I understood. I’m not sure she did. I went to the Newport Folk Festival (in 1965), basically, to see Bob Dylan. So I was there the night that he first played an electric guitar. A lot of people were booing. A lot of people were cheering — it wasn’t like everyone hated it. A lot of people liked it, a lot of people hated it, a lot of people yelled at each other in the seats. It was very confusing. A lot of people just don’t want anything to change. I think that what Bob Dylan was doing was making a statement that rock ‘n’ roll was the folk music of America, and I think it’s proven him right. … So he was always a big influence for me, and I saw many of his shows after that.
I was actually there on Bleecker Street when they were kind of forming (the Rolling Thunder Revue). Everybody was drunk at The Bitter End, and he got this idea, like, “Let’s go on tour, let’s take this whole drunken crowd and get on a bus.” It was kind of a secret tour, where they were just gonna show up, basically, in college towns, where they knew they could sell tickets quick. And nobody knew where they were going to play, or what day or anything.
But one reporter — a guy named Larry Sloman, who got the nickname Ratso on that tour — he just followed them. He was pretty intense. He found out where they were, and stayed in the same motel, and then, the next morning, got up really early and … he had a miniature rent-a-car. Rolling Stone had given him an assignment, but very little money, so he had the smallest car he could rent, and he parked behind the bus, and when the band came out and got on the bus and started going, he would follow the bus to whatever town. And they’d get there maybe 4 o’clock, put up some posters, and by 7 o’clock it was sold out. But as soon as they got to a town, Ratso would call me and say, “Okay, Bob, we’re in New Haven.” Or, “We’re in Danbury.” I would jump in the car and drive up there.
So when I first got there, I found out that they were not allowing any photography, whatsoever. You couldn’t walk in with a camera. And they were literally searching people. They didn’t have metal detectors, but they were patting people down. So I put the lens in the hood of my army jacket, the cameras went in my boots, I literally taped film on my arm, like extra bullets or something, and walked in. And I did that seven times. I usually waited till the encore (to shoot), because everybody was up and cheering, and I could move around to different places and get a bunch of shots. And I sent them out, to Creem magazine, and NME in England, and many different magazines. Creem did a cover of one of my pictures. They were published all over.
It didn’t occur to me that Bob Dylan would be affected by that, in any way. He had hired (photographer) Ken Regan, and Ken had to have everything approved by Dylan. When you’re on the road, that’s difficult, because you have to get the pictures developed somewhere, and make prints or slides, and actually have the artist take the time to look at all the pictures and tell you which ones they like. And usually — especially on that drunken tour — there wasn’t a regular schedule of his approving things. So Ken’s stuff was delayed a bit, and my stuff got out right away, and a lot of magazines used my pictures.
I felt driven … I don’t ever intrude on somebody, and that’s the one time I really just felt that I had to go in, even though there was no photo passes allowed. But I felt it was a news event. There was so much interest in it. And I was just this fanatic fan. I needed to do it.
About six or eight months later, I was at a Rolling Stones concert … and I was planning a trip to Europe. I was going to Hamburg, to visit a magazine, and Paris. And the publicist said, “Oh, I’m going to be in Berlin next week with Bob Dylan.” I said, “Berlin, really? I’m going to Germany.” He said, “Oh, if you come to Berlin, I’ll get you a photo pass.” I said, “Great, I’ll be there.” And I got there, and I check into the hotel where he’s supposed to be. And they had moved hotels. And I didn’t know where the publicist was, or what was going on. So I got in a cab and I was going to the venue, to find the publicist and check in. And I’m in the cab driving through Berlin, and I saw a bodyguard that I recognized from having been with him a month ago in Tokyo. And he’s walking across the street with some guys, and all of a sudden I realize that one of them is Bob Dylan.
I told the cab driver, “Stop! Stop! That’s Bob Dylan!” And I got out of the cab, and I’m walking down the street towards him, and he turned around and he saw me coming, and Patty Callaghan, the bodyguard I knew, turned around and said, “Hey, Bob, how are you doin’?” And I didn’t know what to say to Bob Dylan. He was just there. I was looking at him, he was looking at me. I was like, “Hi.” And he started walking away. And Patty said, “Are you coming to the show tonight?” And I said, “Yeah, I’ll see you at the show.” And they walked away a few feet. And then, maybe Dylan said “Who’s that?” (to Callaghan). And all of a sudden Bob comes back and says, “I know your name. I’ve seen your name next to the pictures all the time. You’ve been peeking through the keyholes. And I always said I was going to beat you up when I met you.”
He had a heavy silver cane in his hand, and the other bodyguards kind of moved in. And I’m looking at Patty, going, “You’re my friend, right? I’m know you’re working for him, but …” So anyway, it kind of ended. I said, basically, “I always tried to take good pictures. I had to sneak in. You didn’t give me photo passes.” And then he said, “What about that picture with Patti Smith?” And I said, “I didn’t take that one.” I knew the picture he was talking about. Chuck Pulin took the picture; I guess he didn’t like that one. So I denied everything, and finally, he walked away. And I was kind of shaking, because it was like meeting God, and then finding out that he wanted to kill me.
And in a sense, it made me stronger, because I had nothing to rely on anymore. There were no heroes after that. And that’s the only conversation I ever had with Bob Dylan. I met a lot of people, had a lot of good times with people. But I never met him, other than that.
Q: That process you described, of going and taking pictures, and then trying to sell them … is that how it usually worked for you? You’d go to shows and then try to find an outlet for them?
A: Well, working freelance in rock ‘n’ roll … even now, they don’t really pay very much for magazines, or even album covers, unless they hire you for the album covers. And unfortunately, I didn’t really connect with too many (record company) art directors. I met a couple in the early days, and they flamed out on coke and disappeared. And so mostly I worked with publicists, and that’s a different level … the record company will pay a few hundred dollars to get some photos they can send out. They don’t pay the thousands that they did for album covers. Actually, when I did album covers, they usually paid me, like $300, or $500. It wasn’t a lot of money. Somebody like Creem magazine would pay, literally $25 for a black and white or $35 for a color picture. The same with most of the magazines, unless they paid less.
So if you went to a concert … back then, like, every time I got into a concert for free, it would cost me like $200. Because I had to pay a lot of money for film processing, making prints, and then shipping them out — sending them to Europe or … because you had to sell the same picture at least four or five times just to pay the cost. And then I had to pay the rent, the phone …
Q: Transportation, and hotel rooms …
A: Yeah. So, you had to work a lot, take a lot of pictures, and sell them to a lot of people. But I was hustling a lot, and luckily, I met some people from European magazines, and I started selling to German and French and, especially, the English magazines. And I met someone from a Japanese magazine, so I was shooting color film for them. In America, they didn’t really publish color. Most of the magazines in America, until the mid-’80s, were black and white. People don’t realize that. Today, you take for granted that the New York Times has color pictures. That came way later.
Q: There are a lot of photos in the exhibit of early punk bands. The Ramones, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Patti Smith …
A: Well, again, the serendipity of my life kind of worked out funny. I started around 1970. By ’72, I had enough pictures and I lucked out and met the editor and got included in the first book of rock ‘n’ roll photography. I think it was called “The Photography of Rock.” And the writer who was writing the biographies for the photographers, he did my interview, and then he said he liked me and he liked my pictures, and he said, “Would you like to take some pictures of John and Yoko next week?” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” They had moved to New York and everybody knew they were there, but you don’t go ring their bell, even though they lived around the corner from me.
And so I met them through that interview, and then started working with them … so I met the Elephant’s Memory band. They were the band that John and Yoko were using as a backup band. And then Elephant’s Memory … John produced an album for them, so I met their manager and got to know them, and somebody in their office said, “You ought to see this other band we manage, The New York Dolls.”
So that’s how I met The New York Dolls. And we hit it off really well. I kind of became family with them, went through their whole cycle. And towards the end, in ’75, as they were falling apart, Malcolm McLaren showed up, basically to try to sell them some clothes. But they were falling apart, so … they say he managed the Dolls, but he only managed the last two months, when they were wearing his clothes. And then he went back to England.
A year later, when I went to England for the first time … I didn’t know there was a punk movement. My son was born in 1974; in ’76, he spent the summer in Paris with my in-laws, and I decided to go to Paris to visit him there. And I had never been to Europe, or gone anywhere like that on my own. … anyway, I remember going to the airport, and being kind of nervous, because I was just going over with a couple of phone numbers. And the only phone number I had when I got to England was basically Malcolm McLaren, and the editor of Melody Maker. And Malcolm took me to a club called Club Louise, and I met The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Billy Idol, I think Elvis Costello was there. Importantly, Vivienne Westwood (McLaren’s partner), (artist and journalist) Caroline Coon and Jon Savage, the journalist … Caroline and Vivienne took me to see The Clash that week. It was like their third show in London. I was completely blown away by the power and the energy.
I came back to London a year later, and went to the record company, to see what I could hook up. They said, “The Clash doesn’t talk to us, we can’t help you, we can’t do anything for you.” I said, “Well, tell me where they’re playing. I’m a fan.” Literally, I was going to go and just get a ticket on the sidewalk. So they told me they were in Edinburgh, and I actually flew up to Edinburgh and found out what hotel they were in, and went to the hotel.
And … actually I should explain that I was wearing bright silver moon boots, plastic moon boots, plastic pants that I had gotten in Paris, and a shiny blue plastic jacket, a snow parka that I had gotten in Kyoto. And I probably had a big fur hat on. I thought it was by accident that (Clash members) Mick (Jones) and Paul (Simonon) were at the desk when I had walked into the hotel, but apparently they had seen me get out of the cab, and they were like, “What the hell is that?” So when I walked in, Mick kind of looked at me and said, “Oh, you’re that guy we met last year at Louise.” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “What are you doing here?” I said, “I came to see your show.” So he took me to meet the road manager, and got me some passes.
I took my first pictures of The Clash that night. And I went to see them the next night. I think it was in Glasgow, the first night, and Edinburgh, the next night. And the third night, I spent the night talking to Joe Strummer.
And what was really funny is that, the first night I talked to Joe all night, after the bars closed, we went up to his room, and just talked until dawn. And he kept playing, over and over, Bruce Springsteen’s “Racing in the Street.” And, you know, it starts off in a 7-Eleven parking lot in New Jersey. And I left. I didn’t go to sleep: At 6 in the morning, when he went to sleep, I took a train to the next town, and I took the train from there to Manchester and told the guy to take me to the airport, and flew to Heathrow, got on a plane back to New York. I remember my friend, (David) Johansen, called up and said, “I’m playing in New Jersey, in this place, and this girl’s gonna bring you there.” And I said, “Fine.” And that night, we stopped to get directions, and I realized I was in a 7-Eleven parking lot in New Jersey. And Joe was still out there on the coast in England, getting rained on. But we ended up very good friends, me and Joe Strummer.
Q: You did the whole Sex Pistols U.S. tour, right?
A: Well, because I knew Malcolm so well, when I was back the second year, in ’77, Malcolm arranged for me to go with the Sex Pistols. Sid (Vicious) was in the band at that time. The first time I took pictures of them was with Glen Matlock, and then when I came back, Sid was in the band, and Malcolm arranged for me to go to spend a day going to Radio Luxembourg, and fly to Brussels.
We got on a plane at 8 in the morning. They were already drinking vodka and orange juice. There’s one really good picture of them on the airplane, Sid and Johnny (Rotten) looking very dangerous. We almost didn’t get back on the plane. There’s a picture where they’re putting straws to each others’ heads. That was in a bar in Brussels. That was probably around 11. They’re still drinking. Then they did the interview … they almost got kicked out of Radio Luxembourg. We walked in and while they were in reception, waiting for the DJ to bring us upstairs, Steve Jones dropped his pants. And that was enough for the receptionist to call security, to have us thrown out.
Anyway, we ended up doing the interview, and then we got back to the airport. By the time we got to the plane … we got through security and so on, but the stewardesses didn’t want to let us on the plane. But the customs people wouldn’t let us back into Belgium. And it was like this tug-of-war, they’re arguing about it. And we’re just standing there, saying, “We want to go home.”
So then when they came to America … they were supposed to play “Saturday Night Live.” And I was planning to get some pictures of them when they got to New York. But Sid had some kind of visa problem, and they were delayed. And Malcolm was the one who called “Saturday Night Live” and got Elvis Costello put on, which was his career-breaking appearance. And if you watch on YouTube, Elvis Costello on “Saturday Night Live,” you see the drummer’s wearing a T-shirt saying, “Thanks, Malc.”
So I had to go to Atlanta to get some pictures of The Sex Pistols in America. I had already started taking pictures … I had a bit of a series going for two years. I was going to go for one night. They played a show there, and it was chaotic.
And I should explain … I worked for a magazine called Rock Scene. Lisa Robinson was the editor, and she got me the photo passes for all the major things she did. She was a columnist for The New York Post who was syndicated in 175 newspapers, as well as the NME in England. But Rock Scene was different in that it was much more like a fan magazine, and we printed pictures of bands that we liked, not necessarily bands that were signed to record companies. Most magazines would only have stories about bands that had a record, because they felt if they wrote a story, you should be able to get the record and find out who they are. We felt that if we found out who they are, we should tell you about them, and then you can go find them, even if you had to move to New York. And a lot of people told me they moved out of Kansas and moved to New York, because we made it look so good. But with Rock Scene, we covered the whole scene. We had things like, “Robert Gordon Gets a Haircut,” “Suicide Goes to the Racetrack.”
So with The Sex Pistols, I didn’t just take pictures of them onstage. I could take pictures of them the whole time, and have this outlet, with Rock Scene.
It wasn’t actually on purpose that I went with them (after the Atlanta show). I was planning to come back to New York. And I went out in the parking lot. They were getting on their bus to leave. And I said to Malcolm, “So long, you’re going to have a ball, and America’s going to be a lot of fun. Too bad I can’t come along, but I know you’re going to have a great trip.” And he said, “Well, you can’t come because there’s only 12 allowed on the bus, and there’s (McLaren’s assistant) Sophie (Richmond) and the band and me and the boys and … well, that’s only 11. Bob, why don’t you get on the bus?” And I was like, “What?” And the guy next to me said, “Malcolm, I’ll come along.” And he said, “Sorry, Bob asked first.” I didn’t quite remember asking.
But I got on the bus, and it was pretty mellow on the bus, actually. It was just, basically, beer, or Sid was drinking Peppermint Schnapps and smoking a little pot. We basically listened to dub reggae music, but then, when the doors would open, and all the people would be there … I remember one time, Steve Jones kind of clearing his throat and spitting on the ground, getting ready to answer a question. And they said, “Look out, they’re spitting on us!” And they all ran away.
One night I was talking to somebody at home, in Brooklyn, and they said that on Channel 11, the local news station had a story about Sid Vicious hitting somebody with his guitar in Texas. And I was like, “Why is that news?” Being in the middle of it, I really didn’t know how much it was affecting people, until later.
After the tour, I came home with dozens of rolls of film. I spent the next three days developing and printing. There was a blizzard outside. Finally, I had enough pictures, and I walked through the snow all to way to CBGB, and Johnny Rotten was there. He had stopped in New York on his way home. And we had all gotten T-shirts from Warner Bros., saying “I Survived the Sex Pistols Tour.” And Johnny opened his shirt and said, “Did you hear the news, mate?” And on his it said, “… But the Band Didn’t.” And I was like, “What does that mean?” And he said, “We broke up, mate.” I said, “What?” I thought I was going to be doing six- and eight-page stories for magazines, which turned out to be a postage-sized obituary.
And the Sex Pistols (photos) actually went into a bottom drawer in the file cabinet. We didn’t touch them for six years. Nobody cared or talked about the Sex Pistols. Then Gary Oldman starred as Sid Vicious in the movie (“Sid and Nancy”) and, all of a sudden, the Sex Pistols were THE punk band. And I’ve sold a lot of Sid’s pictures. I finally met Gary Oldman and thanked him! ‘Cause he gave Sid … there’s no video of Sid, except one or two where he’s kind of nodding out. Nobody knows who Sid is. When you think about Sid, you’re really thinking about Gary Oldman.
Q: You mentioned John Lennon before. Of course, of all the rock stars, he’s probably the one you’re most associated with. The famous photo of Lennon in the New York City shirt you took … that’s in the exhibition. And you got to know him and Yoko very well. Did you consider them close friends?
A: Yes. And I’m still in touch with Yoko.
I can’t tell you how to become friends with people, but from high school, I was friends with the artists and the musicians and the folk music club and the theater club. It’s just the kind of lifestyle I gravitate to, and … I don’t automatically become friends of the people I take pictures of, but some of them I do, and with John and Yoko, when we met, we shared a common cynical sense of humor. They liked my photos. I liked their music and their spirit, and especially their dedication to peace and love and a better world. And fortunately, they liked me.
I remember, when I first met them, the writer said, “Come to this interview.” Even though they were living around the corner on Bank Street, he told me to meet them at this hotel. I was a little nervous. I thought it might be a little dodgy, or something. But it was John and Yoko, so I wasn’t going to pass it up, in case it was true. And it turned out they were using a hotel room to do interviews, so it wasn’t at their house, ’cause their house was actually a very small (Greenwich) Village … basically, two big rooms. And so I went to the hotel to meet ’em, and he met me in the lobby and said, “John and Yoko just woke up, and they didn’t know I was bringing a photographer. They’re a little cranky, but don’t worry, I think they’ll have some coffee and wake up, they’ll let you come up, you’ll take pictures, they’ll like your pictures, they’ll probably like you, you’ll probably do album covers for them and become friends with them. ‘Cause that’s the way they are.” And I remember him saying it, because that’s what happened.
I said, “Well, I’ll be in the bar, let me know when you’re ready.” I went and had a cognac, and he came down 20 minutes later and said, “Okay, come on up.” And I remember walking down the hall, and the door was at the end. And I was trembling. I was so nervous. I was finally going to meet John and Yoko. They were huge heroes of mine, and the world. I remember I was trembling, and there was no way I could take pictures shaking like that. And I just stopped in the hall and took a breath, and I said, “It’s only going to be all right if I do what I do and they happen to like it. I can’t make up anything else.” And so that’s what I did. I walked in with a bit of confidence and calmness. Years later, Yoko told me that actually mattered, that a lot of photographers are so nervous that it makes them nervous. But the fact that I walked in, like, just totally calm … they were calm, and I got some really good pictures of them that night.
The story we were working on was actually about the Elephant’s Memory band. I knew they were going to the studio. I asked if I could go to the studio with them that night, and they said okay, and I remember Yoko saying, “We’re not going to pose till the end of the night. If you want to wait around, you can do a picture.” And I said, “Yeah, I’ll wait.” And she said, “Watch out for Phil Spector, he hates photographers.” I was like, “Great” (sarcastically). And Phil came roaring into the studio, drunk, and I stayed out of his way all night. And then at the end of the night, they posed for a picture. I didn’t think they needed my picture. They were John and Yoko. And actually I gave the pictures to the magazine, about two days later. And I took off on the road with Ike & Tina Turner for a couple of weeks.
And then after a couple of weeks, I had this intuition. Like, sometimes you don’t know why, but you just get an obsession, and you have to do something, or be somewhere. I had to be back in New York and file my taxes, ’cause I hate any kind of government interference in my life, and the easiest thing is to not file your taxes, and they come looking for you. So I always try to keep taxes straight up. I mean, they got Al Capone on taxes, you know. So taxes are something that’s very important. I was just obsessed: “I have to go back to New York.”
I was in the middle of making a film of Ike & Tina, which you can get as a DVD, by the way: “Ike & Tina Turner: On the Road” (directed by Gruen and his wife, Nadya Beck). Ike didn’t want us to go back, because he really liked the filming that we were doing. But I said, “I’ve just got to go home for a couple of days.” He actually kept my wife as a hostage, so I’d come back to L.A.
I came home. I little while after I got home, I got a phone call to go to a job that night: (boxer) Rocky Graziano had a father-son dinner. And on the way home from that, I stopped at a neighborhood bar where my friends usually hang out. The Elephant’s Memory used to hang out there. I walked in, and it was empty. For some reason, I got a beer, anyway, and I walked a couple of more steps into the backroom, and on the corner banquette was the drummer from The Elephant’s Memory. And he jumped up and said, “Man, we’ve been trying to find you. We want to use your picture on the John and Yoko album cover.” (i.e., the cover of the collaborative album, Some Time in New York City).
And he said, “Can I bring you over to meet him tomorrow?” and that’s when I first met John and Yoko (in a more extensive way than in the photo shoot).
And that’s how my life happens. There’s not a plan.
Another event will be held in conjunction with the exhibition’s opening: June 27 at 7:30 p.m., Southside Johnny and Asbury Jukes keyboardist Jeff Kazee will perform a rare duo show at the Bickford Theatre, after a brief interview with me. For information, visit morrismuseum.org.
For more on Gruen’s life and career, visit bobgruen.com.
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