Interview with Bob Gruen: New York City Rock Photographer Extraordinaire
by Lee Sobel
New York City native Bob Gruen is one of the world's best known photographers of rock bands. Name a famous band and he's shot them. Personal photographer and close friend to John Lennon after Lennon and Yoko Ono moved to NYC in the early 70's, Bob Gruen was also right there when both the UK and New York punk scenes exploded. When Bob Gruen isn't photographing bands he's making documentaries (All Dolled Up about the New York Dolls) or putting out numerous books. Gruen is a very sweet guy whose talent as far as I am concerned is that he could hang with the rock stars like a friend and then snap candid pictures of them without being intrusive. Plus he has a great eye and his photos always seem to capture
a thrilling moment. It's not just about pressing the shutter -- it's knowing when to do it and that is what divides people who snap pictures from people who are real pro's like Bob.
In 2011, Bob Gruen and I had a chat about his career and New York City in the 70's, which was when I was a teenager, for a book I was working on that I aborted. This interview has never been unpublished until now.
Lee Sobel: What are some of the things that come to mind for you about the New York of the 1970's?
Bob Gruen: I think that, in one word, gritty. In general, New York was a rougher place to live. The streets were
dirtier, the apartments were funkier, there were no new renovated apartments available for people, a lot of stores were empty, the city was broke, certainly during the Garbage Strike it was really dirty, it was more dangerous, there was more crime on the street, there were certainly more drugs openly available on the street, and less of a feeling of opportunity. Nowadays it’s still tough to get a job, but people feel they can invent their own job. Back then, you didn’t feel like you could invent your own job. In fact, from the 60's and the hippies, the idea was to try and live without a job and without money. Jobs and money were so hard to come by. In the community, there were crash pads… community food centers and things like that. That’s a big difference from today where people feel there’s a lot of opportunity for them, whereas in the 70s… I remember a lot of the bands that were playing at CBGB’s, which they now hail as a birthplace of the stars. Those stars, at the time, the most common way to describe a band in the 70's was "no commercial potential." It’s a phrase I haven’t heard in 20 years.
Lee Sobel: You mean that was a common thing that record companies would say when they pass on them?
Bob Gruen: Yeah, "They’re fun, but there’s no commercial potential." In the beginning, the feeling was that nobody was going to buy a record by a band like Talking Heads or Blondie or Television or Patti Smith. These bands were playing downtown in an obscure bar and nobody was ever going to know about them.
Lee Sobel: The thing that’s really striking about you and your career in the 70's was that you photographed the high end and the low end of the rock business.
Bob Gruen: I was driven to do it because I was into it and I enjoyed those bands. For me, there was a sense of history, but I didn’t know if I was right. I often wondered if anybody was going to care about all the pictures I took. Lisa Robinson and Rock Scene Magazine… Lenny Kaye and Richard Robinson… we were into it and we were putting out this little fanzine called Rock Scene. It actually got around quite a bit, but I didn’t think anybody outside of Rock Scene would be very interested. A couple of magazines, Creem Magazine or NME, picked up eary on about which would come to be more popular groups… certainly Debbie Harry, everybody was interested in her. But, you didn’t really
feel that this was going to go mainstream. I wasn’t being paid for any of the pictures I was taking downtown. It was really kind of part of my hobby. I’d go to Madison Square Garden and shoot a name band like Led Zeppelin or Clapton or somebody and then, when it was over at 11 or 12, I’d head downtown and take pictures of my friends. That wasn’t for money.
Lee Sobel: What’s interesting is that some of these clubs like Max’s and Hurrah’s paid really well and that these musicians, without having a record deal, could actually survive in New York.
Bob Gruen: Yeah, playing live gigs. The only way they could make any money.
Lee Sobel: A lot of teenage bands from that time that I’ve talked to, it seems like their introduction to the scene was Rock Scene Magazine. They saw your pictures and they were like, "This is cool."
Bob Gruen: It was really quite special at the time because Rock Scene was something that we did as a labor of love, not for money. In fact, because we focused primarily on new bands and unsigned bands and bands that we liked, we didn’t really get record company support in terms of advertising. In one way that was good because we allowed more pages for pictures and bands. And, because we really
weren’t looking to make money, we all had other jobs and worked for other magazines. Lisa Robinson worked for The New York Post and was editor of Hit Parader, which was a money making magazine. Rock Scene, none of us really got paid anything. It was a labor of love, but we got to put in pictures of ourselves, pictures of our friends, and we put in pictures of the whole scene. It wasn’t just the bands; it was the managers, the roadies, publicists, the record company presidents, the whole scene, the girlfriends, the backstage on tour. It made it look like a lot of fun and it wasn’t as formalized as something like Rolling Stone, which is the picture of the singer with a microphone and a long interview about his favorite clothes or what he had for breakfast. Rock Scene was mostly pictures and Richard Robinson and Lenny Kaye would write pretty funny captions, kind of tongue-in-cheek. It was sort of like a 12 year old girl’s diary - full of adoration. But, if you read between the lines, it was a lot of funny jokes about the people in the picture.
Lee Sobel: What was so brilliant about Rock Scene was how you would have these underground bands and in the same magazine, you’d have The Rolling Stones or KISS.
Bob Gruen: Yeah. We had lunch with Robert Plant or The Rolling Stones on tour, so it covered the whole rock scene, but it didn’t just cover the famous ones or the ones that record companies would take out ads about. We were the first magazine in America to feature the Sex Pistols and the European bands and The Clash, that whole scene.
Lee Sobel: What do you remember about CBGB’s and the Bowery at that time?
Bob Gruen: It was a dump. The Bowery was a dumping ground for lost souls. Many of them sleeping on the sidewalk with a half bottle of booze next to them. There was a flop house upstairs from CBGB's called The Place Hotel that I think was a $2 a night. We used to always
hang out in front of CBGB’s because when we’d get too hot inside we’d always just stand around outside smoking and talking and you had to dodge the bottles that came flying out the windows from the drunks upstairs. Every once in awhile a beer bottle would come crashing down. So it was really kind of a down and out place, I mean the Bowery was known as the end of the line for a lot of people. It was skid row.
Lee Sobel: How influential do you think the gay movement was on the music scene at that time pre-AIDS?
Bob Gruen: I don’t know what the direct influence was per se. I think that the whole punk scene came out of a lot of people who didn’t get along in their hometown and
reinvented themselves, but there were a number of gay people in the scene most notably onstage. Wayne County made no bones about it...he played one show where he was covered in condoms and had eyeglasses that had a big penis for a nose and he would come out in a wedding dress pouring blood over himself, being drenched in the blood of rock’n’roll.
Lee Sobel: Do you think that was shocking at that time or pretty much it was the Village so anything went?
Bob Gruen: Yeah, it was shocking. At that time, in the early 70s, homosexuality was still illegal in New York City. It was illegal for a man to wear women’s make-up so this was very much an underground scene. That was what the riot at the Stonewall was all about that men were being arrested literally for wearing a dress. It wasn’t even so much about
what your sexual preference was, but if you showed up in public wearing women’s clothes, a man could be arrested. Then came the New York Dolls who kind of blended that all together. Obviously they were heterosexual men, but they were flirting with gay appearance because it was outrageous, because it was shocking. They actually never wore dresses. One show at the Club 82 where they did a spoof on themselves (because Club 82 was known as a drag club) they wore drag, but that’s the only time they actually wore dresses although people think they did because they wore lipstick or a frilly shirt. To quote Iggy Pop from (the book) Please Kill Me, one of my favorite quotes in there where he gets arrested one night and he’s totally stoned and his friend goes to bail him out, he comes staggering out of the jail in the morning wearing a blue dress and his friend says to him, “Iggy, why are you wearing a woman’s dress?” And he goes, “Excuse me, this is a man’s dress.” And that’s the way people saw it. The point was that Wayne County and handsome Dick Manitoba had their altercation and Dick said he was going to the bathroom, he stepped on the stage, and Jayne misunderstood and thought Dick had just been caught saying shut up faggot basically and Jayne thought that Dick was coming at him and hit him with a beer bottle and then Dick did come at him for that and Jayne smashed him with the mic stand and broke his collar bone. They both needed medical care and legal representation so there were benefit shows to support them. A lot of people came out to support Jayne County, who was then Wayne County, and there was a big benefit at the Manhattan Center with Blondie and, I think, members of the Dolls were involved and a lot of the local bands from CBGB’s. It was a big step. In those days, it was quite acceptable to call a gay person a fag. That was just a fact. That was the local attitude, even if you had friends who were gay, you still knew it was kind of a secret, it was illegal, and you wouldn’t publicly go out and speak out in defense of a gay person, but when that happened with Wayne, everybody knew that it was wrong and that he needed help and that he was a good person and that there was no problem if he was gay or not, that was his choice. For a lot of people, certainly for me, it was the first time that people had to make a public statement that this homosexual guy was in the right and needed help and we should get together and help him. Publicly supporting a homosexual was a big deal and that was what…‘74/’75, something like that. Gay rights was still in its early stages so that was something that, to me, kind of made a big difference in the scene where everybody had to kind of come together.
Lee Sobel: Let me ask you about the Dolls because obviously you were very involved with them. You must feel that they were tremendously influential.
Bob Gruen: At the time, anybody who saw them joined a rock ’n roll band – The Ramones, Blondie, KISS – Joe Strummer said he was sitting at home when he saw the Dolls on TV and he thought, "Well, I could do that." It wasn’t just the gender bending, it was the way they played and the fact that they seemed like they didn’t know what they were doing, which was true, and they seemed like they were having a hell of a lot of fun, which was true. So a lot of people thought, "Well, shit, I could do that. You mean I don’t have to study for years and learn how to be a musician? I can just pick up a guitar and bang on it and girls will like me? Wow, I can do that." So they were hugely
influential in that sense.
Lee Sobel: What do you remember about the nightclub/restaurant Max’s Kansas City?
Bob Gruen: That was a little more of the uptown as opposed to CBGB’s being the downtown. Max’s actually was a more upscale club. They made their living on their daytime restaurant crowd. All around Park Avenue South there were a lot of creative companies, a lot of photo studios and advertising agencies, but those people would go in there for lunch and for dinner and afterwards, like eight or nine o’clock, it would start to be more of a rock ’n roll scene. Earlier, when it opened, it was Mickey Ruskin and it was basically the artist's scene. Andy Warhol had a studio around the corner and he attracted a large artist crowd. Then Mickey left, I think around ’72, and Tommy Dean took over. When Mickey left, the Dolls and those people who were friendly with the Warhol
scene started coming in… Patti Smith… and then it was closed for a little awhile and then Tommy opened it up. Tommy was much more into the rock ’n roll scene and that’s when it developed as a rock ’n roll club.
Lee Sobel: At first he had a disco band performing there, right? That’s what Peter Crowley (booker at Max's) told me.
Bob Gruen: He started… he had kind of a dance area upstairs and a DJ playing some dance music. It was a little before the actual disco era, but he was trying to make a disco like Arthur’s, where they had rock music, they didn’t have disco music yet really, but it was a dance club. That’s what he was trying to do, to make it more of a venue in that sense where Mickey had it pretty much solely as a restaurant. He had some bands playing upstairs, but not on a regular basis the way Tommy opened it up. It’s really like two different Max’s with two different owners. They were of a very different head – Mickey being more into the restaurant and the artists and Tommy being more into the bar and the rock ’n rollers and the club scene.
Lee Sobel: What was Tommy himself like?
Bob Gruen: Tommy is actually Irish, but he seemed Italian, with a big cigar and a swagger. He was kind of like a Godfather for all the punks. I remember him telling me that he didn’t really like the phonies who worked during the day and came in for lunch; he’d much rather have a junkie come up to him at night because at least the guy was honest about the money he needed and why. Johnny Thunders would try to get an advance when he booked a show a month in advance -- he would get a couple hundred dollars for an advance, and he'd show up on the day of the show and say his guitar was in hock and he couldn’t play the show unless he got another couple hundred bucks. Tommy knew what was going on, but… Tommy helped out a lot of people.
Lee Sobel: Peter told me that Tommy sent Johnny Thunders to rehab once.
Bob Gruen: Yeah. He was a very supportive guy with a big heart.
Lee Sobel: Did you ever have any problems with crime in the streets? Were you ever mugged or anything like that?
Bob Gruen: I was mugged seven times. Maybe I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I had a twelve year old kid holding a gun to my head. He had to stand on tip toes to get that gun up there. I was afraid that the weight of the gun was going to make it go off.
Lee Sobel: Where and when was that?
Bob Gruen: Mostly on the lower east side, once down at the front of my house on the docks here. But, mostly it was late at night unable to see where I shouldn’t have been.
Lee Sobel: Doesn’t it feel like the city has completely cleaned up now?
Bob Gruen: Completely. I mean when you see velvet ropes on Avenue C and table cloths on tables on Avenue D, and we have to get reservations, that’s an entirely different neighborhood. It costs $3,000 to live on 7th Street C. That used to cost $30.
Lee Sobel: Do you feel that the city has lost a lot of its edge? Do you miss the city of the 70s?
Bob Gruen: Well, it certainly lost the edge, yeah. They made Times Square turn into Disneyland, but I think that if you go to Brooklyn, where there are neighborhoods that people can afford, those neighborhoods are dangerous. Things change. The only thing that’s constant is change. I never expected it not to change, though I’m happy to be alive to see the change. Other people just wish that it was the same forever; I don’t. The 70's was very depressing. I think people took drugs in the 70's
because they weren’t happy. You don’t take drugs if you’re happy and people tend not to see that part… how bored people were. As much as it was exciting to see Debbie or The Ramones, most people were standing around on a Thursday night going, "What are you doing? I don’t know, what are you doing? Well I heard Debbie is playing Saturday. Well then I guess I’ll go." But, it was mostly boredom and lack of opportunity and danger. If that’s gone, then that’s okay. It’s not bad to be able to walk down the street and not feel that you’re going to die. Arturo Vega made a t-shirt that said "Save the Neighborhood. Bring Back Crack." But that’s kind of tongue-in-cheek because it’s not really fun to get shot at.
Lee Sobel: What was it about heroin that was so romanticized in the 70's?
Bob Gruen: It made you feel good. Actually it didn’t make you feel good at all; it makes you feel nothing.
Lee Sobel: You got into, too, right?
Bob Gruen: I had my moments. It was hard not to when everybody, it seemed, was doing it. It’s not so much that it makes you feel good, it’s that when you’re feeling bad, it takes away all feeling and you feel nothing... and it’s better to feel nothing than to feel depressed and feel the pain of lack of opportunity and lack of respect… just how low expectations were. I mean, that’s what I point out, is that while everyone thinks that it was so swinging and wonderful, people were in a lot of pain, that’s why they took those drugs. There were no prescriptions. There was no medication for depression and nobody could afford to see a shrink anyway, but you could afford a $10 bag of dope and you didn’t need a shrink. In fact, you didn’t need anything.
Lee Sobel: Did you photograph other aspects of New York City life back then in the 70s?
Bob Gruen: Not a lot. I didn’t really. There was no outlet for that. Most of the photos I did were actually basically to make some money. In the late 60's, I was living with a rock band, they got a record contract, and the company hired me to take pictures. Then, for years it just seemed every time I went to a job, I would meet more people who would hire me for more jobs and that’s how I ended up in rock ’n roll, not by specifically choosing that career path, but by simply falling into it after I had dropped out. I wasn’t being paid to take pictures of people on the street, I wasn’t documenting history or society, except in the sense that I would take pictures of my friends at CBGB’s when I wasn’t being paid. I wasn’t really a photojournalist who’s trying to capture the culture. I sometimes today wish I had turned around and taken pictures of people standing around the bar. I can’t think of how many times people ask me for pictures of an ordinary night at CBGB’s, but I was taking pictures of people on the stage, not just anonymous people standing there drinking. What would I do with a picture like that? I was making video tapes at the time. I had the first Portapak in 1970 when Sony went to the Portapak
Lee Sobel: At the same time, video taping bands, what would you have done with that at that point?
Bob Gruen: Absolutely. There was no outlet for it at all. It was only about two years after I got it that they started the cable TV service in New York. Of course, very few people could afford it at first. It took years to wire in the city and by the time it was wired in more around ‘76/’77 I was kind of dropping out because the production had become a committee operation and I wasn’t really into working with committees; I was much more independent. Again, I would just be filming bands and then I would put them on. I had a half hour, an hour, that I would usually sign up for every week and I took two half hours and two hours and would show them at various times on the cable. But, a lot of bands like Ike and Tina Turner, which is the first band I worked with, Tina loved it because this is the first time that a band could film themselves and, especially, see it right away. Before that, you had to spend a lot of money to get a film crew to shoot film, get it processed, get a projector and arrange for screening. With video tape, you could tape a show, go
I got into it and made videos of bands for a couple of years.
Lee Sobel: Those things were heavy back then, weren’t they?
Bob Gruen: The machine? Yeah, it was like 30 pounds, but no heavier than my camera pack. It was a big pack you wore on your shoulder and the camera was about three times the size of the box that the camera… that the entire machine comes in today. I mean today the machine is the recorder. Back then, it was a reel to reel tape recorder, the five inch reels that you had to thread the tape through the rollers and so on, there were no cassettes or anything. But, my point… it was not about that, but about that I was filming bands and I would film the bands and sometimes some of the bands talking in their dressing room or something, but I never just walked through the club and video taped people standing there drinking.
back to the hotel, plug it in, and see it immediately… or if you’re in the dressing room between the show or something. Tina really liked that she could show the Ikettes what they were doing while it was still fresh in their minds and they could go over the routines. It was a training kind of a thing. The Ike and Tina band loved seeing themselves on TV and the Dolls absolutely loved seeing themselves on TV. None of these bands had ever seen themselves in that sense, certainly not right after a show. The idea of the video tape was a big help to them. It was the first time they could see how they played. Everybody’s got a phone to record video now in their shirt pocket; they take it for granted. They don’t realize what a modern miracle it was to get the Portapak and actually be able to video tape something without plugging in, simple, easy, very economical, $10 for a half hour of tape, so for $20 you could tape a whole show and everybody
had a TV. You didn’t need any projector or screen, you just plugged it into a TV and showed it back.
Lee Sobel: Can you tell me maybe a couple of little insights into things that you witnessed around some of these bands that were particularly crazy and memorable?
Bob Gruen: Everything.
Lee Sobel: Would you live vicariously, to some extent, off of these musicians, too?
Bob Gruen: I never wanted to be the singer on the stage, but I was part of the scene very much. There’s just been a documentary made about me by Don Letts and Billy Joe Armstrong mentions that I was like a part of the band, but my instrument was a camera. I’m very comfortable with musicians; I always have been growing up. My friends were artists and musicians and I was even part of the theater group in high school, but never on the stage. I was always the stagehand, the sound technician, I think I got into rock ’n roll because my dad lent me his station wagon and the band needed me to drive the equipment around. I was always kind of part of the group without actually being a musician. In the folk music days, I played a little bit of guitar… you know, when you just strum along and sing… but when The Beatles came out, all my friends started playing notes and that got a bit more complicated to me. Fortunately, they liked my photos and it was a necessary part of the rock scene was to have photos, so that’s what I got good at.
Lee Sobel: What is it about musicians that have always attracted you?
Bob Gruen: There’s a certain freedom, a certain living outside the standard rules. You didn’t have to wear a shirt and tie. I think a part of it was that we worked at night. In my talks, I say I was never really cut out for the 9 to 5 job because I couldn’t do the nine o’clock part. I’ve never been a morning person. Working with musicians, they don’t show up until at least two in the afternoon. I didn’t have to do any 9:30am photo sessions. So it was just a lifestyle that I get along with. You can drink on the job. It's practically required. It was a lifestyle that suited me and it worked out so I never looked back.
Lee Sobel: Were you surprised to see the downtown 70s music scene becoming/morphing into something more popular by the MTV era?
Bob Gruen: Yes. I remember actually one moment standing at CBGB’s and Blondie, I think, was playing "Heart of Glass" and I think Robert Fripp was standing and the sound was so big and so pop and so fun and so well done, that I remember standing
there watching… and CB’s was packed and I remember thinking, "Wow, this is bigger than CBGB’s, this is really good. This isn’t just kids practicing, this has gotten really good and they’re going to get popular."s I remember knowing that in one moment. This is going to break out of here. I was surprised when it did because I’m not usually right. I loved Steel Tips and The Miami’s and all kinds of bands that just went nowhere. I remember Danny from D Generation saying he was really happy that I liked them, but he was nervous that they weren’t going to make it because most of the bands I liked broke up pretty quickly.
Lee Sobel: Has it been heartbreaking to see some of these bands that had a lot of potential not make it? How have some of these people managed to survive?
Bob Gruen: I don’t know if heartbreaking is the word, but there’s a point to yes, with bands like The Miami’s that were genius, they had the best lyrics… a band like Steel Tips that were so entertaining, they were art students from New Jersey. It was really disappointing when other people didn’t get it. On the other hand, I remember seeing Madonna for the first time at the Roxy with these gay dancers behind her onstage and she was wearing all these belts that were falling down around her knees and kind of making her knock-kneed and it was difficult for her to dance and I thought "Well, I’ll never see that girl again" but there she was… so it just goes to show you how wrong I am about judging bands.
Lee Sobel: Do you feel like a survivor having done what you’ve done for your career?
Bob Gruen: Absolutely. Every week I hear about another old friend who passed away. That’s one of the things that only happens if you’re lucky enough to live a long time.