Prolific ROCK photographer Bob Gruen unveils a collection of rare and unseen images, and sits down for a chat to discuss his new book and his incredible impact on the scene
If you don’t already know his work, Bob Gruen, is one of the most renowned and respected photographers in Rock and Roll. He made his name and became one of the foremost documenters of the New York music scene in the seventies, capturing some of the most recognisable and historic moments in music.
He’s photographed Tina Turner, Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, the New York Dolls, and David Bowie. He accompanied Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols on their ill-fated American tour, befriended Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali, hung out with The Clash and was famously the exclusive photographer and close personal friend to John Lennon and Yoko.
His new exhibition ‘Rock Seen’ at the London Newcastle Project Space, unveils a snippet of his vast portfolio of work and new book which reveals an insight into his legendary talent and remarkable past. Showcasing the rock stars that hung around cult New York clubs such as CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City in the 1970’s, along with the visceral live performances that took place in both, and shaped much of the iconic scene we know today.
Sitting down with a man who in the rock music world has really seen it all, it’s hard to know where to begin.
I had the privilege to do so ahead of the opening of his exhibition last week. What I thought would be 10 minutes turned into 45, and could have easily lasted several more hours, as I listened to the incredibly fascinating stories of his past, present and future behind the lens.
How did your career begin. I know one of the first live gigs you ever took pictures at, was a Bob Dylan concert….
BOB GRUEN: Yes, but not as a rock photographer. Basically as a kid who couldn’t afford to get in and talked his way into getting a photo pass, and really enjoyed being down front, to see the acts close up without paying for it! That was a big draw, and so I thought “Oh, I could do this some more”
And then actually… It wasn’t until about 5 years later that actually that I was in a club, and took some pictures of Tina Turner. I brought those pictures with me a few days later when we went to see another Ike and Tina show.
A friend of mine happened to see Ike Turner walking from one dressing room to another and pushed me in front of Ike and said “Show Ike the pictures!” and Ike said “What pictures?” in this deep voice, (I remember his deep voice), and I showed him the pictures and he liked them a lot, and that was pretty much the beginning of my career.
You say that first picture you took of Tina, is one of your favourite you’ve ever taken?
It is. Cause it’s more than one picture. It’s actually one image/one frame, (but while the strobe light is flashing) so there’s five images in the one picture. It just really captures…, I mean its not just any five images you know? It really captures the energy and excitement that is Tina Turner!
Along with being very talented and hard working, you’ve said in interviews before that part of your success was that you’ve always been very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. Was there anyone over the years, who you came in contact with, who you felt particularly starstruck by? A moment when you thought “Wow, how the fuck have I got here?”
Ha! Well I’ve met a lot of stars, but…. I do have to say that meeting John and Yoko was you know an “Oh my god I can’t believe this is happening moment!”
Did you ever anticipate you would later become such close friends with them?
Not at all, not at all!! First of all I liked the Beatles, I was actually more of a fan of the Rolling Stones. But after the Beatles I was a big fan of John and Yoko. Not even so much of a fan as just an admirer of what they were doing. That they were working for peace, that they mattered and you know they were really doing ‘something’. Beyond the music, their art seemed to be communicating peace to people, so they were an amazing couple!
They moved to New York and like everyone else I hoped to see them walking down the street, like “Wow, wouldn’t it be cool if I saw John and Yoko?” but the idea that I would meet them was just too bizarre! I mean it’s not something you would dream about. Because how could that possibly happen?! Like how could I get to know John and Yoko, I was just a kid!, like everybody else.
But you did meet them! and become very very close! How did it happen initially, what was the first encounter that you had working with John and Yoko?
I was included in a book called ‘The Photography of Rock’, it was the first book about rock and roll photography. The writer who was doing the interviews, he was doing a story with the Elephants Memory band, (who John and Yoko were using as a back up group) and he was going to interview John and Yoko. He asked if I wanted to come and take pictures for the interview, and I was like “Oh my god of course, yes, I would love to do that”
He told me to meet him in the hotel where they were doing the interviews, and so I met him up there; and I remember going through the hotel lobby, he came and met me and said “Look John and Yoko just woke up, they didn’t know I was bringing a photographer, and their a little upset and a little cranky. But don’t worry they’ll wake up and have some coffee, they’ll feel a little better. They’ll let you come up and they’ll let you take pictures…, and they’ll probably like your pictures…, and they’ll probably like you…, and you’ll probably become friends with them, and do album covers for them” ….and I remember him saying that in the lobby of the hotel, because that’s exactly what happened.
I just said “I’ll be at the bar, let know me when your ready” and about 20 minutes later he came down and said “Come on upstairs!”
I remember walking down the hall to go in the room with John and Yoko and I was shaking. I was so nervous, and I was like “Oh my god I’m gonna meet John and Yoko!!” and I stopped because I realised I wasn’t going to be able to take pictures shaking like that, and that it wouldn’t work. I just took a deep breath and I just said to myself “You know I gotta be me, and do what I do. And wouldn’t it be amazing if John and Yoko liked my pictures? but I cant do anything else except just be myself” and so that calmed me down. I went in and fortunately they liked what I did.
I mean Oscar Wilde says “ You have to be yourself cause everyone else is already taken” and that’s important, you know that was important for me.
What was your first experience coming over to London, what was the first band you photographed or watched here?
That was an interesting experience you know because people think I came to London to cover the Punk scene and I did cover the Punk scene, but I came to Europe to see my son. I went to Paris to see my son as I had recently got divorced and he had spent the summer in Paris for 2 months with my in-laws and I missed him.
Because London was there on the way home, I came to London. I knew Malcolm McLaren who was ‘managing’ or rather dressing the New York Dolls, and who I had met when he came to New York to sell them some clothes. He was extremely helpful to me, first because he got me a place to stay which was very cheap, and then because he took me to a place called Club Louise.
Club Louise was incredible. It was filled with all these unusual people, who were cutting and dyeing their hair weird and wearing this extreme, severe make-up. That’s where I saw all the kids that were hanging out there. You know, there was the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Billy Idol, Elvis Costello, John Savage, Carolyn Coon, Sue Catwoman, Siouxie and the Banshees, it was like all the people , who became the punk scene. It was very early.
I think the night I was there the Sex Pistols had just played and Carolyn and Vivienne Westwood then took me to see The Clash at somewhere… I guess they were the first band I saw here…
At the ICA wasn’t it?
Yes, at the ICA you’re right! Which was a good place to start you know?! Haha! I walked in there and I didn’t understand a word they said. It was loud, and it was fast and furious! and I was just overwhelmed by the energy!
I came back a year later, and I went to their record company and I said I wanted to see The Clash. I said “I really like this band, and could I get a photo pass'” Well, the Record company said “Oh, not the Clash, they won’t talk to the record company, they’re impossible to deal with, we can’t get you any photo passes, they won’t do anything we ask them'” I said ‘”Listen, I’ll buy a ticket on the sidewalk, I have to see this band” because they were the most powerful experience I had, had.
So anyways, I asked if they could just tell me where they were playing and I found out they were playing in Glasgow. So I flew up there of all places, right?! ha
Right?! haha Wow!
Yeah! Tough audience right? haha . I actually wasn’t even there when they got arrested after the show, I didn’t even know about that. Glasgow’s a hell of a place?!! haha
But anyways I went up there , and you know I do have luck in timing! The record company did know and tell me what hotel they were staying at. When I was checking into the hotel, I bumped into Mick Jones and Paul Simeon in the lobby, and Mick kind of recognised me from Club Louise, from meeting me a year earlier. He said “Hey your that guy from New York, the photographer right?”and I said “Yeah, I came here to photograph of your band, can I get a photo pass?” and they said to come up stairs and meet the road manager, but that I probably wouldn’t want to work with them because they were all c•nts! I laughed and said “Well you look it to me” and we really became friends from there on!
Being involved so heavily in the New York scene in the 70’s , and then coming here, how did you feel the London scene compared or differed? Did the way you take pictures, or your inspiration change when you were in each place?
It was different and not. London was inspired by New York and the same thing. New York was inspired by London, you know people inspire back and forth.
By the time I came to England I had worked with The New York Dolls, I had worked with Alice Cooper and Kiss so I knew bands that were pretty outrageous, and pretty in your face. But then going to Club Louise these kids had like three different colours in their hair! Sue Catwoman had this like very severe eye make-up and black and white hair combed up on the side and it was frightening you know! Siouxie and the Banshees the way they looked, they were so severe looking, at the time you know, to see a girl like that, it was shocking!
That was different! Just like Carnaby Street in the 60’s took the hippy kind of movement and made it brighter and louder with the bell bottoms, and the stripes and polka dots…Punks in England took what Alice Cooper and The New York Dolls were doing in America and they made it brighter and louder! and more in your face, more confrontational!
The way I was taking my pictures it was always the same, no matter what city I was in. I was capturing what I was seeing, that’s what I’ve always done.
When you started out, were there a lot of other rock photographers on the scene?
No, there wasn’t the word music photographer! When people come up and say “I wanna be a rock photographer, like how did you do it”. We didn’t have the word rock photographer when I was starting out! I didn’t want to be a rock photographer!
I wanted to turn on, tune in and drop out! and live with a rock and roll band, and that’s what I did! Photography was my hobby and its what I enjoyed doing.
Then a few years later the band I was living with got a record contract, and since I was living with them and they were my friends, the record company wanted to see some of my pictures I had taken of them. They liked them and they used them, and they made a publicity kit for the band, and they started hiring me to work with other bands.Every time I did a job I would meet more people and they would like what I did, and they would hire me for the next thing, and pretty much that’s what’s still happening today!
I can only imagine how expansive and overwhelming your whole portfolio of work is! Is it difficult for you to choose when your putting together a book or an exhibition like this, which pictures and moments to include?
It’s always different. I always work with the curator and the owner of the gallery to see what they think will fit for the kind of people who will visit and see the exhibit. But yes, it is always difficult!
You know I have thousands of pictures to choose from. I mean just putting together my book ‘Rock Seen’ which has just a little over 500 pictures, we had to narrow it down to that! There’s more John and Yoko than other people because people are interested in John and Yoko, but in the end still there’s only about 8 or 9. There’s only 4 or 5 of the Rolling Stones for instance, I could have done a whole book on the Rolling Stone! There’s a couple of Ike and Tina, you know I could do a whole book on Ike and Tina!
Do you think its possible today for a band to still surprise you or shock you?
I don’t know man! Nowadays it’s pretty hard to shock anybody. You know it’s all been done. So many other bands look like their influences, and that their trying to be something. It’s really rare for me to see anybody and to not immediately see where they came from, you know their inspiration.
There’s this new band that I’ve been watching, who a friend told me I have to go see, and I was totally blown away by, called The Strypes. Their young (16 or 17 years old), I don’t even think their shaving yet! But they play like they were born too, they’re totally themselves, they’re hard rocking and they’re unique, and that’s what I like about them.
Is there anyone who you wish you could have photographed that you didn’t get the chance too?
I’m sorry I never met Otis Reading, and I met Jimi Hendrix once and I showed him the Tina Turner picture I took. He said ‘That’s a great picture’ and I said ‘ I hope to take your picture one day’ and he said ‘ok we’ll meet again’ and then he died after that. I would have loved to have worked with Jimi, and especially Otis Reading, because I was really a big fan.
What advice do you give ,or would you give young photographers starting out in the industry today?
Nowadays a lotta kids are always asking me like “ I wanna do what you did?!”
Well… you can’t be in the same room I was in, or walk down the same street I was in… and you’re certainly not going to meet Ike Turner, you know?! and he brought me to my first record company, and my first album cover was the Tina Turner picture a year after I met him. So everybody has to follow their own path, and be themselves and see what happens, you know and hope for the best.
Bob Gruen ‘ROCK SEEN’ exhibition
London Newcastle Project Space
Part of LDNY Festival | until 27 October 2014
Words by Tracy Kawalik and Bob Gruen
Photos Courtesy of Tracy Kawalik, Bob Gruen and PurplePR