Bob Gruen: The God of Rock Photography
Gruen is not disdainful towards the city's changes, and perhaps his optimism is what has made his career so long and his youth so everlasting.
Photos by Mr. LXXXVII
Legendary rock ‘n’ roll photographer Bob Gruen, who showed his career’s work last night at Pop International Gallery, looks like he could pass for a svelte man in his 40s. At age 68, he wears a well-tailored sport coat sporting his signature full head of curly locks, leaving much of his friends and admirers as astonished by his youth as his dense career. “Just look how healthy and young he still looks,” says film director Jim Jarmusch. “There must be some secret to that.”
According to Bob, there is no secret, only luck. Having spent four decades amongst hard drug using rock ‘n’ roll stars including the Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols, and John Lennon, he only has one piece of advice, “Note to self: don’t die,” he says only partly joking. “How I survived I don’t know, a lot didn’t. I’m a survivor.”
The show displayed the huge amount of iconic images that Gruen has made his career with, from his famous photos of John Lennon wearing the New York City tee shirt in Chelsea, to his career defining work surrounding CBGB’s with Blondie, the Ramones and others, to some lesser seen gems consisting of his work with soul and funk icons including Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder and a young and heartbreakingly normal Michael Jackson.
“He’s such an amazing generous and enlightened person,” says Sara Driver, an independent filmmaker and attendee of the show. “He had an amazing ability to capture these beautiful moments.”
Gruen’s work is unique in rock ‘n’ roll photography partly because of an interesting dichotomy in the imagery; he was able to capture the stars being stars displaying their performance driven-behavior, but also would capture those same performers at their most humane and intimate moments, the moments when they stopped being performers and returned to being human beings. “Look at the difference between these two images of Sid Vicious,” says Jim Gordon, a psychiatrist and author of depression-reconsidering book “Unstuck,” as well as a former downtown NYC rocker and longtime Gruen friend. “In this picture (points to picture of Vicious partying at a table) you see the performer Sid Vicious, and then over here (points out picture of Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten resting up) you see him as a human being. Bob is the Walker Evans of rock ‘n’ roll!”
Gruen believes that it was the nature of his personality that allowed performers to let their guards down around him, “I get along with people and rock stars are people too,” he says, “You just have to approach people for who they are.”
Gruen’s relatable humanity has lead to some incredible and iconic images. You can see a young and handsome Stevie Wonder grinning ear to ear in Detroit, Tina Turner belting away at a concert in the ’70s possibly on acid according to Jamursch, and lots of pictures of the early days of the Ramones and Blondie around downtown.
“When Bob was around taking pictures it never really entailed the awkwardness that can sometimes go along with having your picture taken,” says Jimmy Destri formerly of Blondie and currently a drug counselor. “He really had a way of just being a part of what was going on.”
Much of the show last night consisted of Gruen’s images of John Lennon and Yoko Ono from the early 1970s when Lennon made Gruen his sole photographer. “John was a huge rock star so I wasn’t the only one taking his picture,” says Gruen, “but when he wanted to have his picture taken it was me.”
The images are lighthearted and moving, especially considering the murder of Lennon not much long after these pictures were taken. “He really was able to bring out John’s soul,” says Nelia Wolosky an amateur photographer that teaches music history full time at a school in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
The intimacy of the Lennon images is arguably the greatest testament to Gruen’s abilities, as Lennon was shy of the press by this point in his career, and was hard to get a picture of. Meanwhile Gruen got images of Lennon at home in bed with his wife, laughing and joking.
“John and I became friends,” says Gruen. “We developed a trust over time.”
Gruen was a young photographer when he met Lennon in the early ’70s, and of course Lennon was already a gigantic international star, possibly one of the biggest of all time. Even though he was “More of a Stones guy,” Gruen was, as most young kids meeting their heroes would be, pretty jittery about meeting Lennon for the first time, having become a big fan of Lennon’s solo work. “The first time I met John I was extremely nervous,” he says, “I remember walking down the hall and having to stop and making myself relax because if I went to meet John and was shaking it wouldn’t work. But they were very nice people and I immediately felt relieved how nice he was.”
Gruen’s career has remained incredibly vital for a very long time. From the beginnings of his career to his recent work with Green Day, there are still very few bands that wouldn’t want to work with him, and because of the vast relationships that he’s amassed his work consists of images of artists from a wide range of the pop spectrum, sometimes in the same photograph.
“I’ve had my picture taken by Bob many times,” says Jarmusch, “One was with Iggy Pop and Steven Tyler, pretty random group right there.”
To the far right corner of Gruen’s show, the walls look like yours or mine might, magazine cut outs of rock n roll photos smattered everywhere, highlighting the vibrant career that Gruen has had in the music media, but also reminding how hard it is in the days of the Internet to even have a career that resembles anything like Gruen’s. “Things change,” says Gruen, “it might be impossible for someone to do what I did, but that’s already been done.
For someone that has lived through the heyday of downtown NYC’s scene, Gruen is refreshingly forward thinking and if not completely lacking in nostalgia, than lacking in cynicism towards the city’s changes. “There’s a lot more clubs in Brooklyn now than there ever were in the Lower East Side in the ’70s,” says Gruen. “Being an artist, or the idea of being an artist, has exploded since then. The only difference really is that there are so many artists and bands now that it’s hard to pick out the good ones.”
Gruen looks back upon the 1970s Lower East Side with cautious fondness, he still loves New York City and just as he has always done with his career, he strives to move forward and not dwell on something that is in the past. “Just walking down the block in the Lower East Side back then you had to fear for your life. The Lower East Side was filled with losers, drunks and deadbeats, and if you couldn’t pay for rent then maybe you had at least ten dollars and could go get a drink and dance and have some fun.”
Gruen’s show will be at Pop International Gallery all month, you can find more details at their website.