If indeed a picture is worth a thousand words, Bob Gruen is a prolific author. He's photographed many of the biggest rock stars of the last 40 years and is the subject of this week’s One on 1 with Budd Mishkin.
Chances are, you’ve seen his work — images on posters and t-shirts around the world. Photos taken by Bob Gruen. How about the famous shot of John Lennon wearing a “New York City” t-shirt? It was Gruen who gave the shirt to Lennon.
"I said, 'Do you still have that t-shirt?’ You know, 'We're up here on a roof with the skyline all around us and this would be a great time to wear it.’ And he knew right where it was and went and put it on and we took this picture."
For more than 40 years, Gruen has been photographing the greats of rock 'n' roll. In his West Village apartment there are thousands of files of photos with the famous and not so famous.
"Ryan Adams to the Penny Arcade; Elvis Costello to the Cycle Sluts from Hell,” says Gruen, reading out the names on the files drawers.
Gruen's work is on display at an exhibit called "Rockers" at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in the East Village.
There are the typical concert shots, but many of the candid shots are born out of Gruen's anti-paparazzi belief that photography should not be used to expose people.
"I don't like to embarrass people,” says Gruen. “My favorite compliment is when somebody gets one of my photos and they call back and ask if they can get a copy to give to their mother. And I've gotten that compliment from people as different as Bo Diddley and Lou Reed. When they ask for a copy to give to their mother, I know I've done my job right, because I know that that picture looks like what they want to look like."
At 61, Gruen is still photographing contemporary bands. But much of the day-to-day of his work has changed. Twenty to 30 years ago, he would shoot a concert at the Garden, then head to CBGBs for a midnight show.
“I was there until three or four in the morning, drinking, taking pictures, having fun. Then I'd come home and have to develop the film, and around five in the morning I was printing the pictures,” says Gruen. “And by noon the next day I'd be out around town on my bicycle dropping them off for the record companies and the magazines, and it was a pretty 24/7 job."
With digital technology, it's a whole new game.
“It's not a question of whether I like digital or not — it's a fact that that is what's happening, it is what people expect,” says Gruen. “You can't send a print or a slide to a magazine anymore. They wouldn't know what to do with it.”
Gruen knew early on that he wanted to work nine to five – 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. that is.
“I didn't visit this lifestyle as a journalist; I live this lifestyle. I'm part of this lifestyle,” says Gruen. “I'm not looking at these people; I am part of these people."
“My dad was bragging to somebody and said that his son was in Japan taking pictures of Kiss,” says Gruen. “And the other person was horrified and said, 'Kiss represents sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll and everything that's wrong.’ And my dad asked me later, 'Is that true?' And I had to kind of think about it and I thought, 'Well you know, I like sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.’"
But at 61 and a grandfather, his lifestyle has changed.
“I don't really know anybody from the old days who is still doing as much of the wild life, as much of the drinking and drugging that we used to do,” says Gruen. “It comes to a point where you really can't do it every night for 40 years. You can do it every night for four years, maybe even 14 years. But I don't know about after 40 years – you're really pushing your luck."
His years on the road created some friendships that extended far beyond photographer and subject — like the late Joe Strummer of the Clash.
“It's actually a horizontal picture and the rest of the band is over here,” says Gruen, pointing out a photo of Strummer walking away from the camera, down a dark, wet street. “But I cropped it just for Joe. After he died I was going to bring some pictures to his funeral and I picked this one out and his wife ended up putting it on the coffin."
And then there is the friendship for which he is best known.
On the night John Lennon was murdered, Gruen was supposed to meet him at the recording studio to show him some pictures.
"You live with it everyday. When you're close to someone and you lose them you feel it all the time,” says Gruen. “It's like a deep wound and eventually you'll form a scar. But whenever that scar gets touched you feel it all the way inside."
Gruen has a rock solid alibi for his wife whenever girls come over to talk to him.
“Don’t worry, they're just warming me up and their boyfriends are going to come over and ask me about Led Zeppelin until about three in the morning. And it happens over and over again,” says Gruen.
He first started taking pictures of shows at summer camp.
"The campers put on a play, a musical play, and I was down front with my Brownie Hawkeye and I took some pictures and I mailed the pictures home to my mom and she developed them and sent me the prints and I actually sold them to the campers,” says Gruen. “I like to think that’s pretty much what I did for the rest of my life, except my mom wasn’t making the prints any more.
Photography was actually his mother's hobby, and in their Long Island home, Gruen's folks thought that's what it should be – a hobby.
"It was a long time before they really kind of accepted that as something to do for a living,” says Gruen. “You know, you're supposed to get a job and then enjoy photography at the night or on the weekends.”
After high school, he came to New York, lived with a rock 'n' roll band, and started a life as a freelance photographer.
“There was a lot of times when you're wondering if you're ever gonna make any money, and there were times when I was three months behind in the rent and the phone was about to be cut off,” says Gruen.
But there was one member of his family who suspected that Gruen would prevail.
"My grandfather said I could make money on an iceberg,” says Gruen. “You know, I'm kind of a hustler and I know if I wake up Saturday morning and I have a date for Saturday night, and I need some money I'll find it."
Gruen's first photo pass was to an event that would become part of rock 'n' roll lore: Bob Dylan going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
"People were cheering, they were booing, they were fighting with each other right in the seats,” recalls Gruen. “A lot of purists thought this was a folk music place and you couldn't play rock 'n' roll."
But how was the concert? Don't ask.
"A lot of times when I'm taking photos I don't remember exactly what song they were playing,” says Gruen. “I will shoot the Rolling Stones for three songs and I'll sing along while I'm taking pictures and then I get off stage and someone says, 'What songs did they do?’ And I go, 'I don't even know.’ I'm thinking F stops, focusing, timing, lighting."
When Gruen first started out, there was no guarantee that the interest in bands he shot would last this long.
“When you see a band like Kiss or Alice Cooper, nowadays those are iconic names. When they started out they were kind of side show weirdos," says Gruen.
As his career grew, Gruen hit the road with bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash, who occasionally had him open the show with his bugle.
"Before they would come out I would go out and play a 'Call to Arms’ in a charge,” says Gruen.
Another of his favorites to tour with was the New York Dolls.
"I saw the Dolls and it just blew me away,” says Gruen. “They were the most chaotic, most exciting, craziest, wildest."
Gruen loved the lifestyle, but it took a toll.
"I gave up a lot of security, I gave up the time to be able to live with my family,” says Gruen. “In the middle of the '70s, I broke up with my first wife and my son. Managed to see my son quite often, but didn't live with him and I think that's the biggest thing I gave up."
His days of being behind in the rent are long gone. Pictures that Gruen took 20, 30, 40 years ago are still seen in books and exhibits around the world.
Gruen has an appreciation for the past.
"Nowadays they can say a band that is kind of like Motley Crew, but with an Alice Cooper singer. Well, when I saw them Alice Cooper wasn't compared to anybody,” says Gruen. “You know, Tina Turner was not 'like’ anybody. And so I kind of saw a lot of originals."
Yet with a wife and granddaughter and new bands to shoot, Gruen says he is not living in the past.
“Someone once asked John Lennon when he was going to reform the Beatles and he answered, 'When are you going to go back to high school?’” says Gruen. “You know, there are things you do and you enjoy, and you even miss a little bit, but you wouldn't go back and do it again. You know, there's so many more things to do. Why would I want to go back? I've already done that."