Posted March, 2010
Elvis. Aerosmith. Elton John. The Stones. Alice Cooper. Zeppelin. Lennon/Yoko. Dylan. Frampton.
These artists and icons dominated my mind (besides girls) in my youth. Photo’s torn from my favorite rock magazines and posters purchased in the store (for the astronomical price of $1!) hung on my bedroom walls.
The images are burned into the firmware of my mind. Their poses, grimaces and smiles frozen forever in their youth. The close that they were in the shots influenced how I dressed and looked. Jeans and jackets were purchased because of something similar Bob Dylan wore in a photo. Platform shoes? Thank you, Elton John. Hair? Thanks to a still shot of Mick Jagger in concert at Madison Square Garden, I started parting my longish hair in the middle, trying to feather it back just like Mick.
What single thread runs through these memories? Many of the photos that hung on my walls, influenced my “look” and burned into my memory banks were taken by famous rock photographer, Bob Gruen.
Gruen was destined for rock and roll. An avid fan of The Who in the sixties, they were the band that compelled him to join a crowd a half a million strong at a place called Yasgur’s Farm. There, he witnessed not only the band that he braved the crowds and eliments to see, but many other historic performances that made the Woodstock festival the stuff of legends.
After Woodstock, Gruen eventually worked his way to the position of chief photographer for Rock Scene Magazine. This afforded him the coveted vantage point of creating candid photos of bands and artist on and off the stage.
Bob Gruen didn’t allow himself to be stuck in the seventies. His interest in the music scene allowed him to effortlessly go with the flow of changes in the sights and sounds of musical tastes. Gruen has covered almost every major act and artist the 70’s to today.
I recently caught up with Bob Gruen, by phone, at his gallery in New York City. For some reason, I decided to start off the interview by asking Bob what career path he would’ve chosen had he not gone down the rock photographer path. As with his answer during the rest of our conversation, his answers are open, honest and transparent.
“I have no idea. Well, the 60’s were a different time from now. Now, people really plan their future and their career. In the 60’s it was turn on, tune in and drop out. And that’s basically what I did. I wasn’t really thinking about a career. I didn’t really do very well in school and I didn’t have a major in college.
“I had an older brother who was an overachiever who always got straight A’s and it kind of left me with not much will to succeed on that level – to compete on that level. So, I was living with a rock and roll band and having a good time. “
So, the obvious question in your mind would be, why photography, so I asked.
“Photography was always my hobby and I got pretty good at it. When the band got signed, they used my pictures for the publicity. I started meeting publicists for record companies and they started hiring me to take more and more pictures. It just worked out that way.
“I didn’t really have a plan to be a photographer in any specific sense – to be anything. A policeman, fireman, anything like that. I really didn’t have a plan. I was aimless.”
Boy, weren’t we all!
Having read his thoughts about attending Woodstock, I asked if he took any pictures while he was there.
“I did, actually. I went as a fan of The Who and I like camping out. Me and a couple of friends went up there to have a good time. It’s funny, the pictures I took. I did take pictures of my friends inside our tent so I have some ‘head shots’ with a green tent behind them but they don’t show much of the festival.
“I did find a couple of dozen pictures of the festival that I took - a couple around my tent and a couple of the stage area. I didn’t take any of the acts. I wasn’t there to work in that sense. I hadn’t yet started getting into the music business yet.
Last summer, a French magazine asked me to put down my memories from Woodstock. He (the editor) liked the idea that I was there as a fan and not working so I put together a story and put it up on my website (here.).
I asked Bob if he attended the 40th anniversary festivities back in August of last year.
“Not the 40th. No, we didn’t go – or the 30th. We went to, I think, the 25th. Not the one that turned into an overblown riot but the first reunion which turned into a drunken mess. We left half way through it.
“Actually, I went up the hill into Woodstock to see a real show. We saw The Fugs, with Alan Ginsberg, who were playing on the Saturday night of the festival.
All of us have stories of regrets and missed opportunities. I asked Gruen if there were any shots or gigs that got away from him that he regretted missing.
“Oh, well, there are a lot of things I missed. I wish that I could have photographed Otis Redding but I started a little too late to connect with him. I met Jimi Hendrix once. He said, ‘We’ll meet again’ but he was wrong” he adds with a sad chuckle before concluding by saying, “But, other than that, I’ve pretty much met or photographed everybody that I wanted to.
Lots of changes have happened both in the music business and in the world of photography in general. I asked Bob what he viewed as the most positive changes in his line of work.
“Oh, well, the ease of delivery. We don’t have to rush to dupe slides and hire messengers and ship things to England overnight. The idea of making multiple prints and rush and having to get them out to all the different magazines . . . now we just e-mail scans. It’s a lot easier.”
And the biggest negative change in his line of work?
“Photography has gotten so easy that there’s tens of millions of people doing it!
“It used to be that a photographer had to be somewhat nerdy – to be a bit of a tech guy. You had to focus and know what F stops and speeds meant. You had to be able to develop and print film. All of those things have been automated. Now, you just pick up your phone and push one more button and whatever you’re looking at can be seen around the world. That’s quite an advance.”
Gruen had voiced his displeasure with websites like Flikr. I wanted to know, though, if he saw the internet as more of a positive or a negative in his industry.
“Well, it negatively affects the work because people tend to think that everything they see on the internet is ‘free’. Content is what I’ve sold all my life. Everybody think it’s free. It’s similar to the downloading of music files, people just take pictures and move them from one site to another and use them any way they want without even thinking that they have to pay for it. So, this tremendously cuts into the income when people aren’t paying for your work.
I thought for sure that the proliferation of music videos and concert DVD’s over the years would have hurt the photography trade. Bob’s insights into this area set me straight on that perception.
“People tend to watch videos on YouTube or whatever. You can’t put YouTube on your wall unless you have a big screen on your wall. It recently came up in an article. There was an exhibit recently at the Brooklyn Museum of Art called ‘Who Shot Rock’. It’s about Rock Photography. The reviewer wrote that he felt that video was the better way to review it. We all could’ve been up in arms about that.
“Video hardly captured the excitement of rock and roll at all. To capture one peak moment in a still photograph that says so much about the energy and excitement, the mood of an artist - you can only do that in a photograph – a photograph that you can put on a wall and it’s just there. You feel the inspiration. Not like having to turn on a TV or to operate the machinery or video. I don’t think that video cuts into the still. The appreciation is still photo. “
As stated earlier, Bob Gruen isn’t stuck in the past. I was curious, however, what his thoughts of the past are. His answer is both philosophical and reflective.
“I respect the past and I think people should learn from the past but I don’t dwell in the past. I don’t wish that I could go back to Max’s. It’s like we shouldn’t even go back to high school. Some people do but I certainly don’t. I look forward , looking for new experiences.
Fast-forwarding to the present, I asked Bob what bands and artists command his attention today. His response is instant.
“Greenday. There are a few others that I enjoy. I’ve seen Courtney Love. She’s a riveting performer. You can’t take your eyes off of her. But Greenday is certainly the top band of the land. They’re the most powerful and meaningful band around. And the most fun, especially if you’ve ever seen them live. They’re the most fun band around today.
“There’s a group here in New York that I like called The Sex Slaves. They’re very blunt and also a lot of fun. But there’s not a lot. I was never somebody who ever sought to follow every single group that ever existed and have an encyclopedic knowledge of it. I just follow what I like. I’m a fan. I mostly follow my friends or people friends recommend. I’m not out every night on the prowl looking for a new band.
“I’m a bit older now. Thirty years ago it was fun for me to sit on a bus with 22 year olds who are getting drunk but it’s not really the same any more for me.” With a laugh, he adds, “I’m a grandfather nowadays, I prefer to spend time with my family.
With the mention of his family, I commented on the fact that his son, Khris, is pursuing a little bit different route in the music business than his.
“Yeah, he’s just finishing up his third CD, which should be out soon. He’s got his fans and he’s getting more and more popular. He started kind of late – somewhat intimidated by my reputation. Also, my ex-wife married Joe Beck, the jazz guitar player, who is a world famous musician. And I think that, rather than encouraging Khris, it kind of held him back a bit because he felt he couldn’t on that kind of level. And I’m very happy to see that he’s doing very well on his own and enjoying it a lot.
In the course of the conversation, I mention the use of his photo of John Lennon that graces the cover of Philip Norman’s biography of the man. It brought to mind the many others Bob Gruen had known because of his line of work. I asked him who are some of the people that he misses either due to their death or retirement from active life and what is it that you miss about them?
“I miss Joe Strummer – being able to hang out with him and spend time with him. His shows were great. He was great. It was great fun. Whenever my wife and I would go out to dinner with Joe Strummer, we would have to remind each other to bring our sunglasses because we knew we weren’t coming back until after the sun was up. When you walk out of a bar at eight in the morning you NEED your sunglasses” he finishes with a laugh.
“Of course, I miss John Lennon – hanging out with him. He was great. Every time I saw him, I felt that I learned something. I miss a lot of people. I miss Johnny Thunders. Joey Ramone. But I make new friends. The Sex Slaves, Green Day. You move on. That’s the down side to living longer than your friends, missing them” he says with a chuckle.
With so many accomplishments that he can point to, I asked Bob what he would like to achieve that he hasn’t already. His deadpan answer floored me.
“Make a lot of money.”
Say WHAT?! I thought rock photographers made a lot of money?
“No, this is a VERY low budget operation! I don’t know if there was more than two or three times in my life when I started the month with enough money to finish it. I mean, I never had a cushion where I knew my bills were paid. I’ve always had to work every week to insure that I would have an income.
“I think that people tend to think that if you hang out with Led Zeppelin or John Lennon that you have that kind of money – that you live on that kind of level rather than just visit. I visit. But then I come home to a small apartment in the Village. I don’t have a yacht. For many years I never even had a new car. Only recently, because my wife has an income and she shares with me am I able to lease a new car.
“I’m doing much better than I used to. I’m at least leasing a new car rather than driving my old beaters. It’s a misconception that you live the high life and travel around and make a lot of money. Some photographers do. A few. Not many.
“Certain photographers working with a ‘boy band’ who sells dozens and dozens of pictures to every magazine around the world - if you have good access to them then you can make some good money. But, for most people shooting most bands, especially nowadays there are so many magazines and so many online so-called magazines that pay practically nothing because there are tens of thousands of people interested in photography since it got so easy. And many of them will just give away a picture for the credit.
“So, though prices have increased ten-fold, payment for photographs haven’t increased much at all since the 70’s. If anything, it’s going down because of so many more people willing to just put it out there for credit.
“And then other things like Corbis and Getty – the major photo agencies that are buying up the other smaller photo agencies in the world – they’re trying to own the content and so they’re purposely setting out to put photo agencies and photographers out of business by licensing photos at tremendously discounted rates. I mean, photos that we license for four or five hundred dollars, they license for five or ten dollars, literally that kind of difference. And to have to try and compete with those kinds of prices, we can’t. That’s the point: those kinds of companies want to put all of the other people out of business. They want to own all of the content for the future because content is king on the internet.”
Wow! Who woulda thunk it?
How about touring exhibits? I wanted to find out where I could see exhibitions featuring his art and if books were available featuring him.
“I don’t really have a world-wide agent organizing that. I’m still pretty independent here. So, I only do a few exhibitions a year. I do have a some planned in June for London and, possibly, in the fall in Paris. My John Lennon book is going to come out in French next October in France.
“I just had a big collage piece of my work that was in the Museum of Modern Art over the last summer, but that’s over now. ‘Who Shot Rock’ is going to travel to five other museums. It may actually be down south there.
“We’re also excited about getting the show together for the opening here in NY – I don’t even have the list of where it’s going. It closed here January 31st. But then I know that it’s going to travel to a few other places.
“My website, BobGruen.com, directs people to most of the available things. My photos are available from several different galleries here in the states. There’s one in particular that does a lot of business online. My books, Clash is still in print but hard to get. John Lennon is still available. The New York Dolls book is available on Amazon or BarnesandNoble.com or whatever website people want to go to.
“The best collection of my work, called Rockers. Currently it’s only published in Brazil but it’s available on my website but it’s a little pricey because it’s heavy and we have to ship it. I think its $60 or $70 with the shipping. But that’s the biggest collection of my work.
“I’m currently just beginning to work on a book that will be out in the fall 2011 that will be an American published collection of my work.”
My time with Bob Gruen was quickly coming to a close and I had a couple of more questions that I just had to ask. One had to do with his thoughts about the artists’ he knew (other than Lennon) who are no longer with us.
“Joe Strummer comes to mind first. I spent a lot of time with him. Joey Ramone. He was a wonderfully sweet guy. Johnny Thunders was a good friend.”
What about the other artist who he wasn’t quite as close to?
“Quite a lot of my photos were just done as jobs. They were friendly but not necessarily friends. You’re pleased to see each other but you don’t go out to dinner with each other. Some of them you develop friendships with. As in any business where you work with a lot of people there’s certain people that you hit it off with and wind up being friends with.
“I was lucky in that way to have a number of good friends.”
I thought I was wrapping up the interview by commenting as to how I thought it said a lot about him with the fact that he was able to develop the relationship and friendship with John Lennon and Yoko and that he still has the relationship with Yoko. Only expecting a “thank you” for the compliment, Gruen, instead, takes the opportunity to defend his good friend, Yoko Ono.
“You know, Yoko’s been very maligned in the newspapers and in the press. With her new album in the past year, she’s got quite a bit of positive press. But, when people ask me what kind of women Yoko is, I always say that she’s the kind of women that John Lennon could marry.”
Since he opened the door to discussing Yoko Ono, I asked Bob what he thought the biggest misconception about her was.
“The biggest misconception? That she doesn’t have a sense of humor. John said that she’s the most famous unknown artist in the world. Everybody knows who she is but nobody knows what she does. And I think with her new album out, she’s getting a lot of press, she’s getting a lot of attention. More people are getting to see her perform and starting to get an idea of what a wonderfully open and how much humor her work has.
“She’s quite prolific. On her website, Imagine Peace, she answers 10 to 15 questions every week from people all over the world. They just write in questions and she comes up with almost zen-like answers. She’s got a Twitter feed that she updates every few hours with, again, zen-like conceptual art ideas. She’s just fascinating.”
Soon after, we wrapped up our chat. While going through the rest of my hectic schedule on that January day, I reflected on the gems that Bob Gruen gave me in the way of stories and quotes. I also realized that Bob still influences us today. Long gone is our ability to squeeze into hip-hugging bell-bottom jeans and whose feet can handle wearing platform shoes? And I don’t even want to go down the path of discussing my hair.
No, those are pains we can do without. However, while Bob’s work from the past brings us smiles and memories, his work today is creating new impressions that will stay with us for the rest of our days.
Thank you, Bob Gruen, for all that you’ve done and are doing.