Original version in Spanish published in Revista Madhouse on April 6 2017
“So how’s your hand”? That would be a very unusual question to strike up a conversation, but so far that’s what I first think of after watching Bob Gruen take care of tens of copies of the book given freely to the visitors of “Rock Seen”, his recent exhibition at the Centro Metropolitano de Diseño public institution, in Barracas area, Buenos Aires, all not willing to leave the place till the author signs each of them. “I’m fine!”, he replies smiling, with a look on his face telling me he has spent most of his life doing the same. “Sorry, I need to go to the bathroom. I’ll be right back”, he next admits, more confidently. A few minutes later, he’s asking for a beer at the place’s bar, which arrives at the very moment we’re ready to start the interview. Nearly all through the last 50 years, Gruen managed to become one of the most significant and respected photographers in rock’n’roll history. With such a career on his back, his path is as vast as symbolic, which leads one to accept beforehand time will never be enough to ask him all those questions one may come up with. No time to ask him about his time shooting Dylan during the Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975, or about his many stories as star photographer of the 1976 New York City punk rock scene and frequent attendee at Max’s Kansas City, where he took pictures of Blondie, Richard Hell, Robert Gordon and Patti Smith, among many others, not to mention his days with the New York Dolls, whom he did the band’s best photographs. It won’t be possible to ask him about that photo of a pale and fragile David Bowie in conversation with David Johansen, or the one where Salvador Dalí is crowning Alice Cooper, circa 1973. Or those of The Clash in England, or the Ramones wandering the Bowery in 1975, or those of the band at the CBGB.
Let alone about the four members of Led Zeppelin posing by the Starship, the Boeing 720 the band made use of as their private jet between 1973 and 1975, at the Teterboro airport, New Jersey. Or his experiences along Kiss at the “Dressed to Kill” photo sessions (mostly the album cover, shot by Gruen himself), or taking them for a ride in Japan in 1977. There will no way but refraining oneself of inquiring him about that famous picture of Sid Vicious onstage, all cut-up and bleeding like Christ, during the Pistols’ 1978 US tour, the Elton John-Stevie Wonder handshake one, or any of the ever-wild Keith Moon, stamping a killer kiss on Leslie West’s lips. To throw in the towel when planning to get his days with the Stones at the Madison Square Garden in 1972 (or about “Crossfire Hurricane”, his book on the band), and not to be able question him about which may be his most classic works, when he portrayed Lennon in his sleeveless New York City white T-shirt, or making the peace sign in front of the Statue of Liberty. Additionally I also felt forced to abort the plan of kidnapping him and try to get every drop of information until the rescuers arrived. Which I almost suggested, before changing my mind for good and instead expressing my disappointment of having to keep all those questions on a future occasion, if happening. “Never mind, there’s a lot of information about me on the internet,” he suggests. He’s right. In any case, every cloud has a silver lining, or so they say, so we then ended up favouring more uncommon subjects. Like the recent death of Chuck Berry and all those great shot Gruen did long ago and far away, or the Rock Scene years (it’s not by chance the name of photo exhibition sounds so much the same), the ‘70s rock magazine he worked for and he’s so proud of. All those stories available, mostly told with pictures, in the fifteen books he has published so far, or in his documentaries. Best case scenario, they will all be part of the project Gruen is currently working on, his own autobiography, which surely will leave no stone unturned for us grateful journalists deprived of not having enough time when interviewing him.
Do you remember the days without cell phones? You just went to a place, any place, and you didn’t need to know what was going around all the time. You know, I never ever had a cell phone….
Well that’s your problem! (laughs) I always wanted one. When I was very little I read Dick Tracy in the comic books. He always had a two-way wrist radio, I always wanted one, and now I have one. My phone has a lot of information. There’s more information in this phone that in the whole Alexandria library.
Now that’s a lot of information.
That’s a lot of information!
You won’t probably ever forget you were here in Buenos Aires the day it was announced that Chuck Berry died. Because, how long have you’ve been here already, is it a week now?
Right, about a week, since last Friday.
And then Berry died on Saturday. You did some great pictures of him, I guess my favourite shot is the one where’s he’s carrying his guitar onstage, pointing it at the audience, shotgun-style. By the way I think this is s great way to start the interview, with sharing your thoughts about him.
First of all, I don’t think so much of the day he died, I think about all the days that he lived. I think about the times that I saw him, and the times that I spoke with him. I’m very happy to have met him, to have known him, to have seen him do many shows. Chuck Berry was the first person who bought a photo from me, as a print, and also the first person who asked me to sign a picture. Nobody had ever asked me to sign a picture. Chuck Berry liked my picture and asked if he could buy it, and I said “of course!” I sold it to him. I said “hello, I took this picture” And he said “I know that picture, I tried to call you up” And I said “I know, I was away that week” And he said “come here, come here” And he took me behind some amplifiers, and he took out his wallet, which was thick with hundred dollar bills, now that was some serious money. I was gonna give it to him, but as soon as I saw the hundred dollar bills I said “ok I’ll take the money” And then he said “I want you to autograph this” The first time I’ve ever signed a picture. I didn’t have the concept to sign it on the front. I didn’t want to mess it up. So I wrote on the back “For Chuck Berry, the King of Rock’n’Roll”, and then I signed it. And I remember that moment just like it was yesterday. That was the biggest thrill, the first time I met him. And after that I saw him a number of times over the years. I’ve learnt something that a lot of people don’t see because they’ve only seen him one time, but I saw him more times. People talk about how he didn’t carry a band with him, and that he always played with musicians that were there, only with local musicians. To me, that was Chuck Berry teaching people how to play rock and roll, because he wouldn’t even tell them when going onstage, or what they were gonna do. There was no rehearsal. In the film with Berry and Keith Richards (“Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll”), Keith wants to rehearse and rehearse, and make sure it’s perfect. And in the middle of the show Chuck wants to change the key, and just make it spontaneous. Chuck Berry was about being spontaneous. It wasn’t about being in tune, it wasn’t about hitting the right note, it was about playing rock’n’roll.
Screwing up onstage was very common in him.
Yeah, because rock’n’roll is all about freedom, rock’n’roll is the freedom to express yourself very loudly. And Chuck Berry was very good at that. There’s a famous scene in that film. Bruce Springsteen waited and waited and Chuck’s not there until two minutes before they go onstage, and Chuck comes. And Bruce asks “what are we gonna play?” and Chuck says “we’re gonna play some Chuck Berry songs” And they get onstage, and you have to learn as he’s doing it. I saw him playing many many times, and sometimes it was after the first song, the third song, or the fifth song. He started it at the encore, but when he felt that the band was outstanding him, and if the band was playing rock’n’roll, he would turn around to the audience and he’d say “ladies and gentlemen, now we’d like to start a show” And he wouldn’t say that until he felt he had the band and his music together. And the band didn’t know if that was gonna work out. I saw him once at the Madison Square Garden, and he had the local musicians playing, and in the first song, he didn’t say anything. He just walked over the guitar player’s amplifier, he took the plug, and then he handed it to the guitar player, and then he just turned back around and started playing, and that guy was off the stage with biggest saddest look I’ve ever seen! (laughs) But he was teaching people how to play rock’n’roll, and he did it in front of an audience, so they can learn it too. And that’s the way I saw it.
Was that the first time you met him?
Yeah, that was the first time I talked to him. And then I saw him several other times. There was a time about a year or two later he was in New York recording with Elephant’s Memory. It was very unusual he used a band instead of separate musicians. And the guitar player of Elephant’s Memory played some leads on the album. Having said that, that record never came out! (laughs) So they asked me to come to take some photos of them together with Chuck, but it was a rainy day, and Chuck’s hair was straightened, and on a rainy day straightened hair is not so good. So the band said “Chuck, can we take a picture?” And he said “no, no pictures today” And the band said “but this is Bob, he’s our friend, he was gonna do a picture for us” And Chuck said “I know Bob, he’s my friend, and he’s not taking any pictures today” And I almost fell over, oh my God, Chuck Berry just said I’m his friend! But I’ve got a lot of good pictures of Chuck. The band wanted that one, but I didn’t do it.
And once again, he died when you were here.
Well, like I said, I don’t always think about the death day, I prefer to think about the life. You know, many people celebrate John Lennon on December 8, the day he died. I prefer to celebrate him on October 9, the day he was born.
You said that you were first a fan, and then became a photographer.
Well I was always a photographer, since I was very little.
But was it done on purpose? I mean, I’ve probably become a journalist, consciously or not, in order to get closer to the people I really admired.
Well, after high school, I dropped out basically, my parents wanted me to get a job. They were lawyers and they felt that I should wear a suit and a tie and have an office. But I really didn’t like the office. I couldn’t really do the 9 to 5 job because I couldn’t do the 9 o’clock boy. I didn’t want to have any job. I didn’t choose the career of rock’n’roll, I chose the career to turn on, tune in and drop out. That was my career choice. And when I dropped out I lived with a rock’n’roll band, because I wanted to have fun. It was my hobby, I took pictures of my friends all the time, and I was taking pictures of my friends in the band, and when they got a record contract the record company asked for my pictures, and they liked them, so they hired me to start taking pictures of other bands, and more and more I was taking pictures of bands because people were calling me and saying “we’ll pay you to do this” and I said “ok, give me money” Not a lot of money! (laughs) But I did get paid to do it and that’s what I did for the rest of my life.
So it was about having fun from the get-go, and not to get paid.
Yeah. When I started there was no term, they didn’t have the word “rock photography” There were photographers in rock’n’roll, but they didn’t connect with it as a job.
Well I would actually consider you more of a “photojournalist”, as your pictures tell stories too.
And that’s why I liked the magazine “Rock Scene”, because with it we didn’t just want to put one or two pictures and pages of words. “Rock Scene” was all photos. So I could do two or three pages of The Clash on tour, or two pages of, or all kinds of things, say, “Suicide goes to the racetrack”, with all kinds of stories about the bands.
And all those parties where you could always see Alice Cooper there…
Right, so we would tell a whole story, two pages about the party and the people that came, and what they were doing. It was more about the whole rock’n’roll lifestyle.
Somebody should put up the contents of “Rock Scene” online…
Yes they did! The entire magazine. “Rock Scene” went from 1972 to 1982. It only came out 3 or 4 times a year, so in 10 years there’s only 42 issues. But maybe 10 years ago or something somebody bought the extra copies from the publisher, and they scanned the entire thing and put them online. So if you go to http://www.rockscenester.com/ every single page is available online. The covers, the advertisements, it’s all online.
Bear in mind that for us people in Argentina, and so for many other countries, the only way to get them was by asking somebody who was traveling to the US to get them for us, and they weren’t for sale here either, or showed not very often.
Yeah. Well many people had to try very hard to get them, but it seems they did, because it was very influential. We never made any money, not necessarily we got paid for making it. It was just for fun. If you look at it, there’s very little advertising. Which made it easier to read about rock’n’roll, as it was all about bands and musicians, but because we were showing so many new musicians and pictures at parties and other things, we weren’t promoting their albums that the record companies did, so the record companies didn’t buy any pictures from us. Very little advertising, we never got paid, buy we always had fun. That’s what it was all about. It was about having fun.
Maybe it was the best rock “cult” magazine in the US at the time.
Well it was a good one, it was the best fanzine. In fact John Taylor of Duran Duran told me he had to take a bus from his house to the train station to the next town to a train to Manchester to buy a copy. Every three months he would go to find it, as there was only one magazine store that he knew it would have it. Sometimes it didn’t come out yet, and he had to go home and come back next week and try to get it (laughs)
It was also a very light magazine, not many pages…
Yes, very cheaply made. Very cheap. But it had a lot of information, and it was he only place where they had that kind of information about the rock’n’roll lifestyle. There weren’t many rock’n’roll magazines in the ‘70s, it was all more Rolling Stone, Creem magazine, East Coast Rocker…Most of those would have, you know, a lot of stories and writers, they’d be writing a big story about an album or a concert, whereas Rock Scene was all pictures. It was the only place you could actually see people having a party. We took the parties and the lifestyle much more seriously than the records. We didn’t take anything seriously. One thing people liked about Rock Scene is that we made fun of everything. It’s rock’n’roll, it’s not supposed to be serious.
Creem was also a lot like that.
Creem was also very funny. When I went to England in ’76 and I met some of the punk rockers there, they had respect for me because they knew I worked in Rock Scene magazine and Creem. If I had said I worked for Rolling Stone or the New York Times, they wouldn’t have talked. But because I worked for Creem and Rock Scene and I had a sense of humor, then they’d talk to me.
How do you place yourself in the story of rock’n’roll, since you were part of it. How do you think of yourself in perspective?
Well, I usually don’t (laughs) I try not to think of myself too often. But I think of myself in terms of an historian, or somebody who did record the culture of our time. Luckily I lived long enough to be able to share that, and I still do, I go around the world talking about it, and sharing it. It’s not just rock’n’roll, I think rock’n’roll expresses the culture of our time. And as I said before, for me rock’n’roll is all about freedom, the freedom to express yourself very loudly. So I think that my work is more about freedom than a pop star portrait. It’s not just because that person is famous and I took a picture with the right kind of lighting. My pictures have tried to capture the passion, and the feeling, because the feeling is freedom. So the theme for my work, and the way I see myself, is as someone who’s inspiring people to be free, and to express themselves. ‘Cause certainly I don’t want them to be like me. You can’t be like someone else, because everyone else is already taken. You have to be yourself.
What do you think of today’s young photographers?
I don’t think about them too often (laughs) Well, I don’t really know too many of the young photographers. I’ve seen many very good pictures. People have really learnt how to express rock’n’roll, they’d seen a lot of history, and I’ve seen some people who took excellent pictures, I don’t remember their names all the time, but there’s one guy who is close to my age, maybe a little younger, called David Godlis, he’s one of my favourite photographers. Like I am, he’s a big fan of Robert Frank, and I think that David captured the very natural feeling, and he mostly covered the history of the CBGB’s, and he made a book that’s very popular. And he’s a very nice guy. Unfortunately he looks like me, so sometimes people say “are you Bob Gruen?”
You were living in Greenwich Village in the mid-‘60s and you got to shoot Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, which was quite a start.
It was my first photo pass, and the first time I was in front of a stage taking pictures. I didn’t know any journalists, I didn’t know anybody in a magazine. I didn’t know any place to sell my photos. I got the photo pass because I didn’t have the money to buy the ticket. And a friend of my mother wrote me a letter that said I represented this photo publicity agency, which was not true. And I went to the box office and I’ve shown them the letter and they said “that’s not true, go away”, and I said “no, I must get the picture”, and I wouldn’t leave. So they finally gave me the ticket, a photo pass. But I wasn’t really working until when my friends in the band got a record deal in 1969. That’s when I started to meet people, in the record company.
But before that you had friends in the so-called “folk scene” in New York, which was quite popular at the time.
Well I had some friends that were more folk rock than psychedelic rock, some friends who were making folk music. I wasn’t involved in the scene, I didn’t really know anybody in the music business until around 1969. Actually my first contact with the music business was working in a record store, like many people that started their careers in record stores. Because that’s where you learnt about all the records and all the musicians. They used to have copies of the Billboard and Record World magazines, and you got to start reading about the business of rock’n’roll. But I didn’t get any contacts to take any photos from working there, I was just starting to learn. So once again my first contact with a record company was because of my friends’ band, and that was 4 years after I was at Newport. And then in 1970 I met Ike and Tina Turner, that was the first popular or famous band that I’ve ever met.
The Ike and Tina Turner Revue, right?
Exactly. That’s when I took this picture here, the one with the multiple images. That’s one exposure, that’s not Photoshop. That’s what Tina Turner does in one second. It was a great moment that I captured.
So it didn’t come out like that on purpose?
I was hoping to get something like that but I didn’t know what would happen, because she was just dancing in the flashing light, and I took four pictures. Three of them are terrible, but this one is perfect.
At the same time you shot lots of footage from that tour with your former wife, Nadya. Live footage, rehearsals, home footage, which then showed up as “Ike & Tina: On the Road 1971-72”
Yes, that’s a great video, and we got an award for the Best Blues Video. All kinds of footage, including Tina cooking dinner for the kids.
Is it all black and white?
All black and white, but also with a few bits of colour film. They wanted me to use colour, so they actually rented me a colour camera. Buy we never finished that, all that we had left was the proof of the colour film, they never paid for the lab or whatever. Anyway, over the years the original got lost, but we had one copy and it had no sound. But I had recorded the sound separately, but it wasn’t connected. And then when we were making the video, the editor did an amazing job of finding certain parts of the colour film to go with the soundtrack, and in fact the film opens in colour with Tina in the back of a car teasing Ike, and he was going “oh honey, honey…”, like Ike was the one in trouble (laughs)
How was working with Ike Turner?
I had a great time with him. For me, he was very giving and very supportive of artists, he was generous to many artists. I stayed friends with him over the years, and I went to his funeral when he passed away a few years ago. There were over a thousand people at his funeral, because almost all the people there were people that Ike had helped, that Ike had given something to. And Ike would give you whatever you needed. If you needed a job, he would give you a job. If you needed a car, he’d give you car. You needed a house, he gave you a house. Ike was a very generous person. But that doesn’t excuse him of what he did in his personal relationship. And I think that the movie is a very important one, because it brought up the topic and showed very clearly what happens in domestic violence. I think that the world needed that kind of film, and it has opened up the doors for a lot of people that suffer from that. I don’t necessarily think that Ike Turner needed to be the poster boy for that topic, other people like Rick James went to jail for beating somebody up. A lot of people were much worse than Ike was, but I think the story is very important. It could be subtitled “what happens to a very good man that takes too much cocaine and goes crazy”
Too bad time won’t be enough to ask you all these questions. The problem is, you have a long career, and you’ve worked with all these great artists…
I have long answers too! (laughs) Well there’s a lot of information on the internet. And not everything they say is true, by the way. There’s a picture of Amy Winehouse with my name, but I’ve never met her, I didn’t take that picture. And there’s a picture of Mick Jagger and John Lennon where they’re wearing tuxedos. Somebody put my name on it, but I didn’t take it either.
However it was you who did those pictures of Mick, John and Yoko Ono when they were working on Yoko’s “Approximately Infinite Universe”
Yes, I was in the studio with them. I guess there’s also a picture of Debbie Harry on the beach, and that’s not my photo. So don’t believe everything you read.
I won’t, I’m not a believer. I keep myself agnostic.
So, let’s put it this way. At gunpoint, who would be those artists you’d ever be there for, and who would be the ones you’d never pick up the phone for?
I’ll always be there for Yoko Ono, or Tina Turner. Always. Tina’s retired, but I just saw Yoko three weeks ago. I’d drop anything any time to be with Yoko. She’s the most brilliant person I know, and one of the most generous and talented and creative people I know. If people wanna know about Yoko Ono, just listen to what John Lennon says, and don’t listen to what people in the Press say, who don’t understand her or never met her. Everybody I know who met Yoko Ono, they all say she’s amazing. Only a few people from the Press have bad things to say.
And then who would you say ‘no’ to?
There’s one or two people I’ve worked with that I’d never work with again, but because I hate them, I wouldn’t say their names and give them publicity. Only two people. They’re musicians, but they were assholes.
I read many times that “Bob Gruen did it all” I won’t buy that. Maybe there’s still somebody around that you’d like to work with.
Oh yeah I still go see people. I’ve known Green Day for 19 years now and next year, when they make 20 years, I expect to make a book of my pictures of them, but I go to see them because I enjoy them. For me, that’s a night of fun. There’s also a band called the Strypes, from Ireland.
Sure, I know them. Very young guys and very ‘60s styled.
Very ‘60s styled, very rock and R&B, very real rock’n’roll, and very nice young kids. I like them a lot.
What are they about now? I just remember their first album.
The record company in America didn’t like their second album, so they have a second album in England. It wasn’t released in America. So now they have a third album, and I hope the record company in America doesn’t screw them up. They’ve got a lot ahead of. They’re very talented, I’m sure they’ll be ok.
So what are your next steps now?
I’m working on a biography. I’ve been telling stories all my life, but it’s very hard to take the stories that you say and turn them into writing. So I’ve been having trouble trying to get the sound of the reading, the sound of my talking. But I plan to have an autobiography.
Have you ever kept a diary?
If I had kept a diary, I’d have two biographies away! (laughs) Because there are a lot of stories in a lot of places. I wish I’d kept a diary but, no, it’s all on my mind. My mind is clear, I’m still ok.
Plus you have the photographs to back them up.
Oh yeah, whenever I see a picture, I remember being there, I remember what happened, usually. Sometimes my assistants pull out a picture and I go “I took that?”
Is there much left that never saw the light? What about the leftovers, what do photographers do with them?
I have huge files. Photographers put them in a file, until you find them again and you can use them for something else. I’ll have more books. You know, I have 15 books now, but I’ll be doing more.