He's been the Rock 'n Roll photographer to the stars for more than three decades. He's taken photos of everyone from Elvis to The Rolling Stones, from Bob Dylan to Johnny Rotten. Beginning in 1971, he became John and Yoko's personal photographer and friend. That's his photograph of John Lennon, wearing a New York City t-shirt, standing in front of the Statue Of Liberty, making the peace sign. He toured extensively with Punk and New Wave bands like The New York Dolls, The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Ramones, Patti Smith and Blondie. His photos have been on exhibit at museums all over the world. Bob Gruen is the Rock 'n' Roll photographer we're talking about.
Q - I would think that when you were starting your career off, people would put a lot of these Rock stars that you photographed on a pedestal. I don't believe that's the case anymore. Audiences are not idolizing today's music stars. Do you think I'm right about that?
A - No. I think people hold certain people in awe, almost God-like, somebody like Bruce Springsteen, 'cause I see their fans. The people who are fans will travel half-way around the world to see him. I know a girl who was ecstatic that Joan Jett came to Japan, because she remembered her first Runaways concert when she was 13 and how it changed her life. Those people are still fanatical fans. I see a lot of them. I just saw Green Day for 2 days at Madison Square Garden. Those kids stand there looking at the musicians real pie-eyed and wait to get autographs. The ones that do get to meet them are shaking like they're in the presence of God or something. But there are so many more heroes nowadays, but there are more people who are fans. But it still gets spread out a bit. On a lower level, since everybody in high school is in a band, they don't really see those local bands as special as they used to. I think your main stars, people still look up to a lot. Somebody like Ozzy, kids bow down and kiss the ground he walks on.
Q - Which is strange.
A - Yeah. I don't know why. (laughs) But he's got his fans and they're fanatical.
Q - Probably 'cause they can't believe he's still alive.
A - Well, that's part of it. But they get younger and his younger fans still like him. Ozzy said something very funny, as he gets older and keeps playing shows, the kids in the audience stay the same age. He's been getting older for 20 years and there's still 18-year-olds in front of the stage every night.
Q - You have an exhibition of your photos at the Museum Of Modern Art in New York?
A - Yes, I have. It's on display until November (2009). It's part of an exhibit called Looking At Music, which is in the Media Department and it's how the media related to the music and how they interacted. There's a Patti Smith photo by Maplethorp and the album cover it became. There's a number of videos by different bands. I have a video that I made at Max's Kansas City of some of the bands that played there in the early days...Patti Smith, Blondie and Robert Gordon. But the main thing is the mural I made. I started doing it in my last 4 or 5 exhibits when I put up an area called The Teenage Bedroom. It actually has a bed with a Led Zeppelin blanket and a Rock 'n' Roll radio playing. The walls are covered with posters, magazine covers and magazine spreads, the way many teenagers grew up, surrounding themselves with their heroes. Three out of five people look at my thing and go "Oh, this is just like my wall when I was growing up." So, we kind of show that. In the museum, they only let me do the mural. They don't let me do the whole bedroom idea. But it's is 7½ feet by 22½ feet long. It's really huge. There's a picture of it on my website (BobGruen.com). It was an amazing honor and I'm still kind of walking on air.
Q - You go around giving lectures. What are you talking about?
A - Well, it's based on my career and how one thing led to another and the experience I had with the people I'm taking pictures of and how the pictures came to be and what we were doing at the time. I'm actually going to Ireland in 2 weeks to something called The Electric Picnic Festival, outside of Dublin and I'll be giving my talk there.
Q - You get around, don't you?
A - Yeah. I had a big show in Sao Paulo, in a huge museum down there. I've had exhibitions in Tokyo, France, England, all over.
Q - Are these museums interested in all of the people you've photographed or just select artists? You did take a lot of photos of John Lennon.
A - When my Lennon book came out, I had a couple of exhibits based on that, more than that when my New York Dolls book came out. I didn't have an actual Dolls exhibition, although I had an exhibition of a few more Dolls pictures than usual. But generally I show all my pictures, anywhere from 70 to 280, depending on the size of the place. There's one in Mexico that I think was 45 pictures. But usually it's the whole variety, which I call Rockers. It goes from John Lennon to John Lydon, from Muddy Waters to The Rolling Stones, you name it. The Clash to Green Day.
Q - You actually got your start, if I can use that word, in Greenwich Village when the Folk-Rock movement was beginning. What was the atmosphere like at that time?
A - Oh, it was kind of fun. It was very low budget, end of the '60s, early '70s. There was no money around. Actually I guess it's the same for young people everywhere. There's never any money around when you're young. There were nightclubs where Folk singers would play and they didn't get paid. They would pass around a basket at the end of the set, or a hat. They were known as basket houses because that's how you got paid. People contributed a quarter or a dollar if you were lucky and you'd make a couple of bucks. The scene used to be smaller from the Village in those days. Later in the '70s there was Max's Kansas City, CBGB's and Bottom Line. There's still only a few clubs. A relatively small scene. Back then if you wanted to sing Rock 'n' Roll, you couldn't do it in your home town 'cause you and your pals were the only ones. Yet with all the people that came to (New York) City, there still weren't that many that they could half fill CBGB's. Usually if a band was playing at CB's, if Blondie was onstage, the audience consisted of members of The Talking Heads, Richard Hill, Tough Darts and all the other bands that played there. This was kind of a musicians hang-out. Nowadays everybody in high school is in two bands and you can do it in your home town. There are clubs across the country. There are CBGB's in every town I go to.
Q - Keep in mind, the drinking age is no longer 18. It's 21.
A - Kids tend to have a way of getting around that. Actually in the '70s it was 18 and then it went up to 21. It doesn't usually stop kids from drinking if they want to. There's always a dorm lounge or someone's basement. You don't have to drink to play Rock 'n' Roll, but people tend to do that. It's not a requirement. People start playing Guitar World when they're 4 and they're in a band by the time they're 8 and some of them aren't bad. I've seen some kid bands, 10 or 12 years old that have been playing 4 years already and they know what they're doing. (laughs) They had a contest up in Woodstock for Ramones inspired bands. I think you had to be under 16. They had a couple dozen bands compete and playing Ramones songs. Some of 'em were playing pretty damn well. Things are different, but they're not necessarily different in a bad way. It's different if you want Rock 'n' Roll to be an outcast, underground, juvenile delinquent movement like it was when it started in the '50s. But it's not. It's mainstream, above-board, every age, all ages crowd. What I find really interesting these days is kids and their parents turning each other onto music and fashions. The parents and the kids often listen to the same music. And that didn't happen in my age. I didn't listen to my Dad's Bing Crosby records. I started hearing that in the '80s. When I left home, I took all my Dad's records, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix. I said I would kill my son if he did that. (laughs) It took awhile to collect them. Just the fact that they were interested and were wanted as a record collection and those records were so cool that they'd want to have them was a big change.
Q - The Lennons had an art exhibit in Syracuse, New York in October of 1971 called This Is Not Here. Did you see that exhibit?
A - No. I didn't meet them until after that, in the early Spring of '72.
Q - And you got to be their personal photographer? How did that come about?
A - Well, I met John and Yoko when I was working on an interview for a magazine. The story was about the Elephant's Memory and John and Yoko were working with them. So, we got to interview John and Yoko. I asked if I could take a picture of them together with the band. They let me come to the studio and spend a night with 'em there and I took pictures. A few weeks later they contacted me 'cause I was the only one who had done a group shot of them together. They used it on their album cover, "Sometime In New York City". That was actually the first time we met and sat around talking. They lived half a block away from me, literally. A minute away from my house, just up the block here in the West Village. They liked me and I liked them. They told me to come around more often and I started hanging around more often with them. They were going into the studio and started making an Elephants Memory album and made a Yoko album. We just got to be friends. People say how did you get to be friends with the Lennons? The same way you get to be friend with anybody. You share a similar sense of humor, a similar outlook on things and you just enjoy each other's company. I liked being with them. They were funny as hell, both of them. People tend to think Yoko is so dour and serious, but you couldn't live with John Lennon without having a sense of humor and the two of 'em used to play off each other. John was a very funny person and we just kind of hit it off and stayed friends and I'm still in touch with Yoko today.
Q - What does it mean that you were their personal photographer? Is that the same as official photographer?
A - There's no such thing as an official photographer. They were a world class act. There were a lot of different people who would photograph them for interviews or publicity or different projects. Personal photographer kind of means when they wanted pictures of their son Sean to send to their family, they called me. When John wanted a picture for his Green Card and he didn't want to go to a corner store where he couldn't trust whether or not they would send it out to someone else, they would call me. I was involved with them on a more personal basis.
Q - Did you say the Lennons lived in a hotel on 59th Street?
A - They didn't live there. They actually lived around the corner. It kind of threw me a little bit when I first went to the interview because I knew they lived on Banke Street. Nobody would wait outside. Beatlemania was over. You know, people in New York are busy. Sometimes you'll see a celebrity in the street, but that doesn't mean you're going to let him take your taxi. You still got somewhere to go. So we knew they were there, but nobody would bother them. So when I met them for the interview, they did it at the hotel. Their apartment was actually rather personal. When you came in their door, you were basically in their living room. On occasion, if they knew the writer, they might do an interview there at their kitchen table. They were doing a series of interviews. I forget exactly what the project was, but they had a hotel room to do the interviews in, rather than letting people come to their apartment. It threw me a little bit 'cause the reporter had said we're going to this hotel and I was like; I think they live downtown. What are we going to a hotel for? But, it was just a more convenient place to meet people publicly.
Q - See, I thought they needed a second place to live to escape from the fans who would gather at The Dakota?
A - No. They didn't live at The Dakota yet. Actually, fans didn't really gather around there 'til later on, more towards the end of the '70s, as it started getting known they were there. After they were at the Dakota for awhile, there might have been a couple of people occasionally hanging around, but not a lot.
Q - You photographed Elvis. Would that have been at his 1972 Madison Square Garden show?
A - Yes. I didn't actually photograph the show, I photographed him at the press conference in the afternoon at the Hilton Hotel, which was amazing. He's larger than life. One of the most charismatic people I've ever seen. Impossible not to like. Like a magnet just for personality. I remember when I walked into Madison Square Garden that evening, he looked like the biggest person I'd ever seen there. It was almost like coming to see Paul Bunyan onstage. He looked 20 feet tall. He was just the biggest, shining personality I'd ever seen.
Q - Was Colonel Parker at that press conference?
A - Yes, he was. Before the press conference, the Colonel was walking up through the aisle, giving out pens to the journalists that said something like Elvis Now - 1972. He had a whole handful of 'em. People were starting to get excited. Some reporter said "What's he giving away?" Then he went, "Oh, it's only a pen!" The Colonel heard him and said "It's only a pen now, but it'll be a valuable souvenir in just a couple of years." (laughs) He said it in a real carnival barker type of voice. Funny guy. Elvis was doing a very nice interview. His father was sitting next to him. He was just a nice homeboy from the South. Then at one point, one of the reporters asked him how he felt about the Vietnam War. Elvis said "Man, I'm just a singer. I don't really get into that." The Colonel said "That's it. End of the questioning. Thank-you very much for coming." (laughs)
Q - I can appreciate Elvis taking that position. He didn't want controversy surrounding his remarks. I can also appreciate John Lennon's attitude. He didn't seem to mind controversy.
A - John Lennon thought a different way about it. He felt that somebody who had the media attention and his words were gonna be printed around the world, should make a statement if he felt like it. Elvis was much more conservative. He should've said I support our President or something like that. I believe democracy means everybody has a voice, even if they're just a singer, especially if they're just a singer, they have more voice, or a better voice than anybody else. You not only have the right, but the obligation to express your opinions. That's what democracy is. If you don't express your opinions, you're letting other people rule your life and that's not what democracy is about. Democracy is about each individual person having an opportunity to participate in the choices affecting their life. Personally, I think Elvis was wrong. "I'm just a singer, man." Well, I'm just a photographer, but I had opinions and if someone would have asked me, I would have given them.
Q - Elvis did not want to offend anyone.
A - Yeah. He didn't want to be involved in something controversial, whereas John Lennon went the opposite way and said people need to talk about this. War is over if you want it. He went and spent money to tell people that all over the world. They had a whole billboard campaign that said "War Is Over If You Want It."
Q - When you toured with the New Wave / Punk groups, how much access did they give you?
A - It would depend on the group. Some of 'em I only met for a 2 minute photo session or I only got a photo pass for out front. The ones I toured with are bands that I got to know rather well. If you're touring with somebody and you're on their bus, you have all access. With bands like The Clash or with John and Yoko with Elephant's Memory, certainly with The New York Dolls, I felt like a part of the band group. Not necessarily the band that was onstage, but one of the crew, one of the core members like the road manager, people on the bus. And I like to work that way because you get a much wider range of pictures. You can tell a much better story rather than just a picture of a guy onstage with a microphone in the first two songs.
Q - Was it important to like the music of the people you were photographing?
A - No. I didn't have to. Although it certainly made it more enjoyable for me. I didn't seek out the time to spend with bands I didn't like the music. That bands I worked with more closely were bands that I enjoyed the music of. Certainly John and Yoko, The New York Dolls, The Clash...especially The Clash.