Rock & Roll is all about singing or playing your emotional guts out (even to the point that you break your $2000 Gibson SG on a huge ass Marshall speaker). Luckily, photographer Bob Gruen was there to capture it all one shutter speed at a time.  

Clash & Simonon, Paul & Headon, Topper & Strummer, Joe & Jones,

photographed by BOB GRUEN

interviewed by MEGHAN FARNSWORTH

Nowadays, so many more people are taking pictures because photography is so accessible. Many people have a camera in their phone, and they seem to really enjoy using it. I think that’s a good thing, especially when people are capturing things that they like. A lot of people say that they enjoy photography because it’s a way of expressing themselves, and that’s what works for me.  -Bob Gruen

Except for Bob Gruen, there are not many photographers today who can say they’ve lived with a rock band or witnessed the truth behind Ike and Tina Turner’s romance. With a career that spans over 30 years, Gruen has lived in the thick of Rock & Roll. Onstage and backstage, on album covers or just for the record, Gruen captures musicians in their best light while freezing moments we can’t stop looking at. SHK talked with the legend and learned what it was like to photograph some of the best in Rock & Roll.

SHK: WHY PHOTOGRAPHY?

BOB GRUEN: It was something I could do. In the sixties, there was this idea of “Turn on, tune in, and drop out,” which I basically did. I wasn’t really looking for a career, so I was living with a Rock & Roll band instead. I learned from my mom how to shoot photos when I was four or five years old, which started as a hobby. Then, I began taking pictures of the band I was living with, and when they got an album deal, they used my pictures. After that, the record company hired me to shoot another band. Every time I did a job, I would meet more people who hired me to take more pictures, and pretty soon, I was a “photographer.”

WHAT WAS THE NAME OF THE BAND YOU WERE LIVING WITH?

They went through a couple of names. First, they were “the Glitterhouse.” Really, their name had nothing to do with the Glitter movement. It was more of a ’60s psychedelic rock band. Their claim to fame was Bob Crewe, the famous producer who discovered them, and used them to sing the vocals for the film, Barbarella. 

BY LIVING WITH THIS BAND, DID YOU THEN FULLY REALIZE THAT ROCK & ROLL WAS YOUR SUBJECT MATTER?

I just liked Rock & Roll. I mean, that was my life. I was living with a band, and I knew musicians. I’ve always been friendly, and I always get along well with musicians and artists. Rock & Roll just kinda fit for me. You know, I tried a couple of day jobs — I was a mail boy and then Santa Claus one Christmas. I also baked waffles at the World’s Fair. I didn’t really have any actual jobs until I started developing photography because that turned out to be something I was very good at.

Turner, Tina

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST CAMERA?

I got my first camera when I was eight, and it was a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye.

THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER, WHICH TYPE OF CAMERA WERE YOU MOST DEPENDENT ON?

I used a lot of 35mm cameras. I started with my dad’s Minolta. Then, when I got some money, I bought a couple of Nikons. I found Nikons to be really heavy and bulky, so in the 70’s, I did an endorsement with the Olympus company. For about 15 years, I ended up using Olympus cameras. Then, in around 1990, Canon came out with a really fast auto focus and auto exposure, so I switched to Canon, which I’ve been using for about 23 years now. In 2000, though, I switched to the Canon digital EOS system.

WE’VE HEARD THAT YOU LIKE TO WEAR YOUR “BEATLES BOOTS.”

They’re actually from a company called Beat Wear, which is based in Liverpool, England and Italy. You can find them online, and they fit like a glove.

WHAT TYPE OF BOOT DO YOU WEAR?

I generally have the taller heel, or the two-inch Cuban heel.

Lennon, John

TELL US MORE ABOUT YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH JOHN LENNON AND YOKO ONO. WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST ENCOUNTER LIKE WITH THEM?

The first time I saw them was at the Apollo Theater. There was a benefit for the families of the prisoners injured at the Attica Prison Riot. I knew Aretha Franklin was going to be there, which was who I originally went to see. But when I walked in, I heard someone announce, “John Lennon and Yoko Ono.” I knew they had been in the city. In fact, I had heard that they lived around the corner from me, but it was at the Apollo Theater where I actually saw them first, which was pretty exciting to me. I was backstage, and John and Yoko were waiting for their car. People were taking pictures of them, so I took a couple pictures as well. At one point, John said, “People are always taking pictures like this, and we never see them. What happens to all of these pictures?” So I kind of blurted out, “Well, I live around the corner from you. I could show you mine.” And he said, “Really? We’re neighbors? Well, slip them under the door then.” At one point, I rang the bell at John and Yoko’s place, and Jerry Rubin answered the door. He asked if they were expecting me, and I said, “No, I’m just here to leave something for them.” So I just left the pictures. But then three months later, I was interviewed for the first book about Rock & Roll photography. The writer said that he was doing a story about Elephant’s Memory, the band that John and Yoko were working with at the time. He was going to interview John and Yoko, and he asked if I could come and take pictures. And so, I went there and took some good pictures of the interview. Then I asked if I could come with them to the studio, so I could get a picture of John and Yoko with the Elephant’s Memory Band altogether. They said okay, so I went that night. Then, a couple weeks later, they got in touch with me and said that they wanted to use those pictures for their album cover. The drummer for Elephant’s Memory Band, Rick Frank, brought me over to John and Yoko’s house. And that was the first time we really talked, and I showed them some of my other pictures. At the end of the afternoon, they said that they really liked me and my pictures, and they wanted to be more in touch. They wanted me to come to the studio more often, and that’s how I started to get to know them.

DID THEY REMEMBER THE INITIAL PHOTOS YOU HAD SLIPPED UNDER THEIR DOOR?

Yes! Yoko mentioned to me sometime later that that really impressed them because I was one of the very few people that actually gave them something without trying to get something from them. They liked the pictures and the fact that I wasn’t trying to get something from them.

Lennon, John & Ono, Yoko

SINCE MANY OF THE PHOTOS YOU TOOK OF JOHN LENNON AND YOKO ONO WERE VERY PERSONAL, DID THIS TYPE OF RELATIONSHIP WITH THEM ALTER YOUR MINDSET AS A PHOTOGRAPHER OR THE WAY IN WHICH YOU CAPTURE SUBJECTS?

No, the way I worked with John and Yoko is the way I work with everybody. I try to take good pictures of them, and sometimes I get to be friends with them. In the case of John and Yoko, I had more time to spend with them. Basically, I just try to capture interesting moments, and people like that.

WHAT’S YOUR RELATIONSHIP LIKE WITH YOKO ONO AND SEAN LENNON NOW?

I’m pretty close with Yoko. I see her pretty regularly. She just played at the Bowery Ballroom, and that was a great show. She’s 80 years old, and she’s still rocks out onstage. And Sean introduces me to other people as his uncle.

bob-gruen-rock-and-roll-photographer-shk-yoko-ono-sean-lennon-nyc

WOW! THAT’S AWESOME. SINCE YOU WERE BORN AND RAISED IN NEW YORK CITY, HOW DO YOU VIEW TODAY’S NY VERSUS WHAT YOU KNEW AS YOUR WERE GROWING UP AND SNAPPING PHOTOS OF DEBBIE HARRY, IGGY POP AND THE OTHER VARIOUS BANDS OF THE LATE ’70S?

Well, you know, things change. During the last 20 to 30 years, I’ve seen drastic changes in the way people communicate and the attitudes that people have. You know, there’s a lot of change all of the time. I’m not nostalgic for the past. I remember the past, live in the present and look to the future.

WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO EXPERIENCE THAT WHOLE ROCK SCENE OF THE LATE-’70S GOING INTO THE ’80S IN NY? WHAT KIND OF ENERGY DID IT GIVE TO YOU IF SO AT ALL?

I mean, yeah, it certainly did. There was a lot going on, but there is a lot going on all the time if you know where to look. I still think there is a tremendous amount of creativity, especially in Brooklyn and even around the world. When I went to São Paulo, I noticed the same kind of energy I felt in NY during the 70’s where people don’t have any money but a lot of ideas. They try to figure out ways to create things, and I think that’s going on all over the world.

THERE’S A PHOTO FOR THE BAND BLONDIE WHERE DEBBIE HARRY IS EMERGING OUT OF THIS WRECKED CAR. DID YOU PLAN THIS SCENARIO, OR DID YOU JUST HAPPEN TO FIND THE CAR AND TAKE THE SHOT RIGHT THERE?

Back then, we didn’t do a lot of planning, like nowadays where people will spend a month doing drawings just before they take a picture. Blondie was making a demo at Rockefeller Center Studios, and when we came out after recording, there was this wrecked car, which had been there for a couple of days. I don’t know what happened, but some car flipped over on 6th Avenue. I think it was Chris Stein who said, “Let’s take a picture by the car.” It was his idea to put the guitar in the trunk, so it would look like their car had wrecked. So instead of just standing there, Debbie crawled into the front seat and came crawling out holding her head and looking like it was her car wreck.  And it’s become a pretty popular picture.

bob-gruen-rock-and-roll-photographer-blondie-debbie-harry-shk-music

WHAT MAKES THE PHOTO REALLY INTERESTING IS THE SENSE OF SPONTANEITY IS CAPTURES.

We were aware of the influence of Weegee crime photos and Andy Warhol. (Andy Warhol had done a series of photos called “Emergency,” I think.) We were kind of doing a take-off on that maybe subliminally. We didn’t really “think” of those things because, like I said, there was really no planning. We were waiting to cross the street, and there was a car. We agreed, “Oh, let’s take a couple of pictures.” That’s how much planning there was.

IN THAT SAME VEIN OF THOUGHT, WHAT WAS YOUR MOST INTERESTING SITUATION?

I’ve had a lot of interesting situations. I can’t even make a list, like a top ten. Everyday in my life is pretty interesting. I just go out, do things and find things that are interesting.

YOU’VE PHOTOGRAPHED ALMOST EVERY MAJOR ROCK ICON, INCLUDING CHUCK BERRY, MUDDY WATERS, JAMES BROWN AND LITTLE RICHARD. HOW DOES IT FEEL TO DOCUMENT THESE VETERANS ALONG WITH UP AND COMING MUSICIANS?

All of those veterans were up and coming at one point. Every situation is the same for me. I just try to get a good picture that really captures that person’s personality.

Cooper, Alice & Dali, Salvador

THERE’S A PICTURE YOU TOOK OF SALVADOR DALI AND ALICE COOPER.

Salvador Dali was creating the world’s first moving hologram. There was actually action in the hologram, like a movie in 3D. He liked Alice Cooper because he felt that, as a Rock & Roller, he was a surrealist. His act was not just to stand there with a guitar. They were doing a surrealist type of show to accompany each song, and Dali wanted to use Alice as his model. In the picture, Dali was holding what he called “the Brain of the Pop Star,” which was a brain-like thing that had a chocolate éclair in the middle and ants running across it. Alice was wearing 2.5 million dollars worth of diamonds because Dali really wanted them to sparkle. The arrival of the diamonds was kind of an amusement park because they showed up with a little man, who was holding an attaché case of diamonds and wearing a bowler hat. Then there was a pretty girl waiting to present the diamonds to Dali. Also, there was a sort of thug-bodyguard holding a machine gun, who was standing by the elevator making sure nobody left with the diamonds. All f that to me was kind of surreal.

DID YOU GET TO MEET DALI? WHAT WAS HE LIKE?

I did. He was kind of off-the-wall. He talked about the art of confusion and how nothing is every really understood. Life is always very confusing, and I like that idea.

WHAT DIFFERENCES DID YOU NOTICE BETWEEN PUNK SCENES IN LONDON AND NY?

They were kind of complementary in a sense. In NY, they kind of sped up the blues music that ’60s bands were playing, especially with the presence of the New York Dolls and the Ramones. But in England, as they had done to rock music previously in the ’60s, they made punk brighter, much more colorful and more outrageous. There’s the difference, really. The same thing happened in the pop movement with the Carnaby Street and pop fashion of the ’60s. While we were all wearing bell-bottoms in America, the British were wearing day-glow colors, which were brighter and more extravagant. This type of outward exaggeration also happened with punk. You know, people were starting to cut their hair shorter in America, but in England, they spiked it up and added several colors at a time. I think it is Richard Hell who gets credit for deconstructing clothes and putting them together with safety pins, but in England, they took that to another level where the clothes were mostly made out of safety pins. England always does it louder, brighter and more in-your-face.

bob-gruen-rock-and-roll-photographer-music-the-clash-new-york-city-shk

MANY PEOPLE ARGUE THAT ROCK & ROLL IS OVER.

I don’t know how I feel about it. Honestly, I think it’s irrelevant and obviously wrong since it has spread all over the world and seems to be more popular now than ever before. They were saying that Rock & Roll was over in 1958, so I don’t really pay attention to that. If you do, it’s like saying that classical music is over.

WHEN YOU’RE AT A CONCERT, AND YOU’RE ABOUT TO TAKE A PHOTO, WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR “IN THE MOMENT?”

I like Rock & Roll music, and I can feel the passion, the feeling and the excitement, which is what I try to get in my photos too. I try to capture that moment which really expresses the feeling of what’s going on.

Take for instance my first book, Listen to These Pictures. I like to think that people can actually experience some of the feeling of what was going on then, so that’s what I try to capture.

YOU RECENTLY HAD YOUR BOOK, THE JOHN LENNON YEARS, PUBLISHED IN SPANISH. HOW DOES IT FEEL TO HAVE THIS TYPE OF GLOBAL IMPACT?

It’s very satisfying. Actually, the book has been published in German, French, Japanese, English and Spanish now. Knowing that this has happened feels very gratifying. After all the years I’ve spent taking pictures, I love to see so many people enjoying and getting inspiration from them.

Sex Pistols & Vicious, Sid

WHAT KIND OF RESPONSE HAVE YOU RECEIVED WORLDWIDE IN REGARDS TO YOUR PHOTOS?

People thank me all the time. They thank me for what I’ve done.

EVEN IN NY, DO YOU GET STOPPED ON THE STREET?

In more NY more than ever. I’ve been stopped on the streets of Paris, São Paulo and Tokyo. My reputation is kinda spreading.

IS YOUR REPUTATION SPREADING NOW MORE THAN EVER?

Yes, now more than ever. Well, Don Letts made a really great documentary about me called Rock & Roll Exposed: the Photography of Bob Gruen. It was on Showtime here in America during June and July 2013. It’s actually been shown around the world in many countries on cable — from Mexico to Chile, all over South America, all over Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Russia, Singapore for some reason. Yeah, it’s very gratifying to know that people appreciate my work. You know, there are a lot of people who know my pictures, but they don’t necessarily know my name. Now, more and more people are finding out that the same guy took all those great pictures.

WHAT IS ON YOUR AGENDA FOR THE FUTURE?

I have some more exhibits coming up, going through some changes in my staff — some people coming in and some people leaving, and I’m hoping within the next year or so to write an autobiography in order to tell some stories that go along with all of the pictures. Two years ago, I did my Rock Seen book, and that’s kind of a monograph tone of of my work. But I plan to do a couple more books of photos. I’ve also recorded some videos, especially in the early ’70s with Ike and Tina Turner and the New York Dolls. We released two of the New York Dolls videos as DVDS. Recently, we released an Ike and Tina Turner film, which was shown at the CBGB Festival. It’s called Ike and Tina Turner: On the Road 1971-1972. And that’s a very exciting film, and I’m happy to finally get it out there because it was made so long ago. It’s a neat story that many people don’t know about nowadays because it happened so long ago. You know, a lot of people ask, “What’s love got to do with it?” Everyone knows why Ike and Tina Turner broke up, which were for some very good reasons, but my film shows why they were together in the first place. So we have a lot of different projects going on.

A trailer for Bob Gruen’s Ike and Tina Turner: On the Road 1971-1972 via MVDEntertainmentGrp

WHAT IS SOMETHING THAT YOU BELIEVE SHOULD BE KNOWN?

I think the inequality in the world. There’s a huge gap between people who have billions of dollars and people who have nothing. I think this needs to be addressed. The environment certainly needs to be addressed too. People are paying more attention to money than clean air and water, which are both basic necessities. Also, people should pay more attention to peace and love. Everywhere I go in the world, people seem to want peace and love in their lives, and it’s the politicians and leaders who emphasize that people in another country are a threat to that. Conversely, though, if you go to that other country, their leaders are telling them that the other people are threatening them as well. It seems like people worldwide want peace, and it’s actually the leaders who are fighting wars. I think that’s something which needs to be addressed.

MORE OF BOB’S PHOTOGRAPHY:

Lennon, John

Blondie & Stein, Chris & Valentine, Gary & Harry, Debbie & Destr

Ramones & Ramone, Dee Dee & Ramone, Tommy & Ramone, Johnny & Ram

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