Carlo McCormick interviews photographer Bob Gruen
In more than a decade and a half of countless interviews, I have never ended up with a beginning transcript nearly so long as this in length. It's rather hard to explain why so much of what Bob Gruen has to say is of such interest that it was so hard to edit it down. The quality and integrity of Bob's photographic work is worthy of considerable attention, and so too the longevity and depth of a career now spanning thirty years.
From Cab Calloway and Chuck Berry to The Boss and Madonna, from the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin to Bob Marley and Ozzy Osborne. What's significant to New York Trash is not simply that he is the single-most important photographer of record to document the Punk, proto-punk and New Wave scenes of America and England, but that this seminal body of work reflects a profound commitment and long-standing personal friendship with the artists and personalities who shaped and defined the music of that remarkable era.
As a friend, fan and photographer of rock without peer, Bob Gruen's relationship with the fringes of this medium has continued with an unrelenting intensity of devotion and vision from the Sixties to the present. To this day, where as yet unknown bands still play before new generations of rock devotees, Bob and his camera can still be found.
But for all the legendary figures with whom Gruen has struck such strong bonds of collaboration and compatriotism, what is perhaps most fascinating in talking with him is all the lesser-known personas who make up the important links in the unwritten history of the underground. More than merely telling the story of rock, his tremendous wealth of personal experiences and uncanny memory provide one of the most illuminating and comprehensive histories of rock youth-culture in New York.
How did your photo career start?
Actually the first concert photos I took were at the Newport Folk Festival in '65. I was still a kid and a big Bob Dylan fan. I talked my way into getting a photo pass so I could be down front. That was when Dylan played electric guitar and claimed rock'n'roll was American folk music and got booed off stage for it. After that I began taking photos a lot.
Around 1964 I was living with a Folk-Rock band in Greenwich Village. We used to walk around Bleecker Street, hang out at the Gas Light and the basement of Figaro's. I got to know The Loving Spoonful, The Magicians and other New York bands. The band I was living with was breaking up, but they got one last gig. They were offered $100 to play a party on St. Marks Place. It was for Paul McGregor who was opening up a new unisex hair dressing place.
Which is now where the Coney Island High nightclub is?
Right, I was there for the opening night of that building in 1965.
Wasn't it also the site of NYC's first roller disco?
That was later in the '70s.
McGregor's claim to fame was that he invented the shag haircut.
Yeah, Paul McGregor invented the shag. He did Jane Fonda and all the celebs. Anyway, that opening party was also thrown by Bob Crewe for a book called 'Birds of Britain', about English models. Bob Crewe was also a big record producer renowned for his work with the Four Seasons...
I love the Bob Crewe Generation, his "Music To Watch Girls By" is a classic.
He liked my friends' band, Glitterhouse, and decided to produce them. We got to know him, and my friend sang on the soundtrack of the movie Barbarella, which he produced. When he put out the album, they needed pictures. I'd been living with the band and taking pictures all along, so they sent me over to Atlantic Records with them. Bob Rolontz, the publicist there, liked my pictures and hired me for the next job which was the Bee Gees celebrating their tenth anniversary.
That must have been a trip, to go from shooting your friends to the Bee Gees.
Actually I think the first job they hired me for was to shoot Tommy James & the Shondells who were opening up for Hubert Humphrey at a political rally in Yonkers. I remember it was freezing cold. It was in a parking lot and we were all there waiting for Humphrey. After that it was the Bee Gees, and all of a sudden one thing led to another. I'd get hired every other day. Everyone liked my pictures and introduced me to other people and other bands.
Of that early work, perhaps the best known is the work you did with Ike and Tina Turner.
A friend of mine was a huge fan of theirs so when they played the Felt Forum we had to go. They were opening up for Sam & Dave, and as she danced off the stage to the strobe we were all chanting Tina! Tina! Sam & Dave came on and off and I hardly saw them. I was just watching the side of the stage where Tina had left.
The next day we went out to see them again at the Honka Monka Club in Queens. I was sitting on the floor taking pictures of them. At the end, when Tina danced in the strobe light, I opened the camera up to one second exposure and let the strobe flashes expose the film. Four of the frames were useless, but one turned out to be one of the best pictures I've ever taken. I made some prints and when we went to see Ike and Tina's show in New Jersey I brought them along to show my friend. I didn't think Ike and Tina would be interested in seeing my pictures but after the show we ran into Ike and my friend pushed me in front of him. Ike took one look at my shots and said, "Come and show this to Tina".
He dragged me into their trailer to meet her, I just couldn't believe it. I've always been lucky that way - being in the right place at the right time. Ike introduced me to Marv Greifinger at United Artists who gave me a lot of work and through him I met Jane Friedman, who worked with a lot of the English bands and later managed Patti Smith. I also met Billy Smith, who brought me to take pictures of Elton John on his first US tour, when Elton was the opening act for Leon Russell. Elton liked what I did, and hired me each time he came back.
In the consensus that is history, it's accepted that Punk was born in the mid seventies. When you talk about the New York Dolls in 1971, you were privy to the emergence of that sensibility a half decade before. Wasn't that also around the time when you met the spiritual forefathers of Punk, John and Yoko?
I met them in early 1972. I had been included in a book, The Photography of Rock. Henry Edwards, who wrote the text, told me he liked my work. He was interviewing John and Yoko for a story on The Elephant's Memory band (who were recording with John and Yoko) and asked if I would take the photos. John and Yoko had been in New York since the Fall of 1971 in an apartment just around the corner from mine on Bank Street.
I met them at a hotel on 59th Street where they had gone to get away from their home and get some rest because so many people knew where they lived. The story was about The Elephant's Memory, so I asked Yoko if I could take pictures of them all together and she let me come to the studio that night. A few weeks later I heard from the drummer, Rick Frank, that I was the only person who had taken photos of the band with John and Yoko and they wanted something for the album cover. He brought me over to their house. That was the first time I actually met them to talk. I showed them my work and we sat around talking for hours. As I was leaving Yoko told me I would always be their friend, and even if they had people working for them whose job it was to keep people away I should never take it personally, just wait and call back the next day, to be always in touch and be their friend.
That's a pretty intense high-stakes level of conversation for Yoko to lay on a relative stranger.
Yeah, you don't expect that when you first meet someone. But she was right. This March it will be 24 years that we've been friends, and we're still in touch on a weekly basis. This also led to working with the NY Dolls. I went to show The Elephant's Memory photos to their managers Steve Leber and David Krebs and I met their assistant Tony Machine. Tony told me I ought to come down and see another band they were managing who were playing at the Mercer Arts Center -- The New York Dolls.
I'm curious about your impressions of the Mercer Arts Center. Everyone talks about the importance of Max's and CB's, but few seem to know how pivotal Mercer was in its brief heyday.
It was a really important place. That's where I first saw the Dolls. The place had a couple of different rooms. The club was really the ballroom of the Broadway Central Hotel, but you came in from the back on Mercer Street. One room was a boutique with wild plastic miniskirt clothing like I'd never seen before. The kitchen had video machines all over the place showing all this experimental stuff, and that's where The Kitchen (a world famous alternative art space now on West 19th St.) got its start. There was a room in the middle with a bar. I was there maybe ten minutes when I saw a guy with eye-shadow! I was out the fucking door! I talked to Tony later that week and he convinced me to give it another chance, I just had to see the band.
So I came back, and this time I stayed long enough to get a beer. And this time I noticed the place was packed with the sexiest little girls I'd ever seen. So wild, so cute, so open. I never did see the band come on that night.
I went back the next week, and this time walked around a little bit more, checked out the store, the videos, the girls. I was still looking for the band when I noticed a door with people walking in and out. It was like a Fellini movie in there. There was bleacher seating that was so steep it looked like a wall of people, and a stage with The New York Dolls playing in the middle -- the loudest, fastest most exciting music I'd heard. There were even more people on stage than in the seats. Everyone seemed to know each other. It was a big crowd and in the middle a band that was just so wild. The way they dressed, they were wearing some things that girls might wear, but they weren't dressed like women. No woman dressed like that!
So how did you come to work for them?
I went back to see them a couple of times after that and was just beginning to figure out who was who when Toby Mamis, their publicist at Leber Krebs suggested I do a photo session with them. He brought me to a rehearsal one afternoon where I met Johnny (Thunders), Syl (Sylvain) Arthur (Kane), and Jerry (Nolan). Billy (Murcia) had already died and Jerry had just joined the band. David (Johansen) was late so I didn't meet him that day. We scheduled a shoot, and it was the only photo session in my life that I totally forgot and didn't show up. We had planned it for three one afternoon, and at about six that night I got a call from Toby saying he was really sorry the band hadn't shown up but they had completely forgotten. Could we re-schedule it? I thought, "saved! maybe we have something in common."
When did you start making videos?
Around 1971, I bought a Sony Portapack video tape recorder and started going to clubs and making tapes. I became friends with Pat Kenny, the owner of Kenny's Castaways, which used to be uptown on 84th street. I went there a lot to record because they had such an eclectic choice of bookings-- Larry Coryell, Mother Earth, Willy Dixon, The New York Dolls, Howling Wolf, Isis. Video was brand new then. It was very funky, black and white, one microphone. After I would tape a show the performers would want to see it. Most of them had never seen themselves on TV before. Now it's documented history, for me, back then, it was just a hobby.
Do you feel this is a valuable archive that you'd like to do something with?
I'm doing things with it now. I'd love to make a deal to distribute the NY Dolls video, because we edited it down to a half hour documentary. I have an hour documentary we did on Ike and Tina before that.
How about Lennon and Ono?
I made a video of Yoko's show at Town Hall because John wanted to see it but couldn't be there. John and I edited it together into a one hour program. We showed it on public access cable, which was okay back then because nobody had VHS recorders yet to tape off the TV. I had a regular show twice a week on the public access channel from '72 to '76. It was mostly music, but occasionally I'd do something else. One show was a half hour tape of a waterfall in Vermont. I got the idea from the Yule Log. They had a log burning in the winter, so I thought, why not have a nice waterfall in the summer? In 1974 I made a video of my son being born. It was a documentary on the Lamaze method, including all the classes we took, and close-up shots of the baby actually coming out. It was really exciting and I thought the most natural thing, but a lot of people were really freaked out and shocked by it.
Having seen the genesis of video art at The Kitchen in the Mercer Arts Center, were you thinking of doing this work as part of that emerging conceptual art medium?
I was aware of that, but I'm not really committee oriented. I don't work well with a lot of people making decisions. I liked the portapack because it gave me complete freedom. I could make and edit videos on my own. In the mid '70s, as more people got into video making, it became more of a group project I stopped making videos. I had started because it was fun, I never saw it as much of a money making thing. I have sold some pieces of my videos to people like the BBC and Time Warner for documentaries.
Those old tapes are really fragile , have you preserved and restored them?
Some, like the Dolls, Blondie and Patti Smith, I transferred to Beta. But it costs seventy-five dollars a roll and I have a few hundred rolls, so it's far from complete. It's also a difficult process because the tape is literally falling off the plastic. But it's important to do because it's the only visual history we have of a lot of those bands.
It's the thirtieth anniversary of Max's Kansas City.
I first entered the Max's scene in 1971. An artist neighbor of mine was going there. He said I should go with him, it was a great place and we'd have lots of fun. I said, 'the restaurant? I've been there for dinner, no big deal, the food's decent'. He said 'no, you've got to come at one in the morning'. I wondered who'd go to a restaurant at one o'clock in the morning, but sure enough, after midnight the place was quite different. That was the end of the Andy Warhol time and the drag queen crowd was thinning out and the rock and rollers, the NY Dolls and Patti Smith crowd were coming in. That's where I first met David Johansen. I had made some videotapes of the Dolls at Kenny's Castaways and invited him to come over and see them. He liked them a lot, and I started working with the Dolls, making more videos and pictures for them.
But it wasn't a rock club back then.
No, it was just a back room, and upstairs they were trying to do a disco for a while. I remember the first band to play there was the Dolls, then Suicide, the Miami's. It wasn't until much later, maybe '75 and '76, when Blondie, Patti Smith and the CB's bands started playing there.
Before then, wasn't there a real distinction between CBGB's and Max's in that Max's was primarily booking only bands that were signed to major record deals?
Not that I remember. Max's started its own label to put out the bands who were playing there, because nobody else would give them a record deal. The difference between CBGB's and Max's was that CB's was a very downtown Manhattan scene and Max's was more bridge and tunnel. But there wasn't so much of a division between the bands as some people say. There were some that were definitely CB's bands, and a few, like the Dolls who only played Max's. One important thing about the scene then, and I don't know if it was because there were just fewer bands or what, but Patti Smith, or Debbie, or The Talking Heads would play for a week at a time. Sometimes five days in a row, or at least a four day weekend, Thursday through Sunday and you would go four days in a row, two sets a night, at nine and midnight, (which meant 10:30 and 2:00am)
The great thing for me about the band doing two sets was that a lot of nights I'd have to photograph a band at the Madison Square Garden, the show would end at eleven, there would be an after-show party. I'd be photographing until 1:00am, and at 1:30 I could still see a show at Max's or CBGBs. After working all night with these uptight record industry people, I could go downtown, have a beer, hang out with friends and see a band, which was much more fun. This was a separate scene. The idea of those bands downtown being signed was out of the question. You didn't start a band to do a record, go on tour and do all the stuff that people who watch MTV think you're supposed to do. You had a band because you had no money and you had no job. You had nothing to do, no where to go, so you might as well make some music and have some fun. They weren't making the rent money by playing at CB's. The main thing was to be in a band, to hang out with your friends and have fun. The fact that a few of them got signed was phenomenal. That some of them got big was just beyond anybody's dreams. They dreamed more realistically, hoping to play Max's and maybe get laid after the show.
When Lisa Robinson, Danny Fields and a few others who were hip to the scene managed to get some labels to take a real interest in these groups, and some of them began getting record deals, did you think they were all crazy?
Well I didn't, because I was part of that crowd. These were my friends. Clive Davis once told Lisa not to talk about the NY Dolls uptown because if she did she wouldn't be able to work in the music business. They were so scared of the Dolls. They thought they were homosexual. It wasn't just a matter of being homophobic. It was illegal to be homosexual. People don't remember this, it wasn't hatred or fear, it was the law. To say that the Dolls, guys who wore makeup, were your friends was like saying you knew a criminal.
Was that criminality what they were trying to push when they made that last attempt to resuscitate their careers with their Red show at the Hippodrome?
That was an attempt by Malcolm McLaren to politicize the band. They had been getting attention by skirting the homosexuality issue, if you'll forgive the pun.
But that Red show was pathetic wasn't it?
No, not at all. It was a great show. They had met McLaren when they went to England and he was fascinated by them, by the excitement, energy and the teasing. Here they were creating controversy, but Malcolm wanted to make them political. They were never that big in America. They were big in NY and had their fans in a bunch of other cities, but they never made it into the towns. They would show up hours late and their audiences were wild and rowdy, so even though they were on the cover of every magazine around the world they couldn't get a job, nobody would book them. Their management were sick of them. Malcolm tried to resurrect them.
He had been so excited when he saw them in Europe band, he wanted to make clothes for them, everyone in the band wanted a different outfit, but he made them all in the same bright shade of red. He decided have a red party, to debut their red clothes. And since it was a red party, he made a red flag, which was a communist flag. He was thinking, what shakes up Americans the most? Communists! He put out a press release that he called a manifesto, saying the New York Dolls were no longer being booked by the paper tiger managers Leber Krebs worded as a take-off on Chinese communist propaganda. Whatever he did, it was too late anyway. Malcolm gets credited for managing the Dolls, but as David has said, he was their haberdasher. Malcolm made a couple of outfits for them, and put together some shows to showcase the clothes, but the main thing he did was he kept them alive. He got Jerry and Johnny into a hospital drug rehab program. and Arthur into a dry out clinic, and saved their lives.
So how did you first make it over to England?
I met Malcolm here in New York when he was working with the Dolls. I went to England because I had made a lot of money working with the Bay City Rollers.
One of my all time favorite bands.
Really? I made more money with them than I did with John and Yoko, or the Dolls or anybody else I've worked with. I photographed a lot of bands back then, and when I was traveling in Europe or Japan I could go to the magazines and sell them two or three pictures each of Kiss, Debbie Harry, The Rolling Stones, maybe one or two of the Dolls, and thirty-seven or sixty-four of the Bay City Rollers. They might do a story on some of these bands, but they'd do a whole special issue on the Rollers. I was cleaning up. One of the first things I did with my Roller money was buy a 54 Buick Special. In '76 my son was in Paris, which was my original inspiration for going to Europe. Jane Friedman was there with John Cale. I went to his show and met Patti Palladin and Judy Nylon and some people from the French press. I ended up working out a deal that lasted for years with one magazine there which printed many of my pictures. Because French laws made it very difficult to send money out of France, I'd wait until they owed me for several issues and then go and pick my money up, have some great meals, travel around Europe and the trip would pay for itself. I went to Paris with Blondie, toured England with the Clash, and had a great time. When I first got to London, Malcolm's was the only phone number I had. He had just started the Sex Pistols. He found me a rooming house that was really cheap and took me to a place called Club Louise, where he and a lot of the kids who were buying his clothes were hanging out.
It was a lesbian club and they were used to unusual people coming in. The punks, kids who were cutting and dyeing their hair weird, who would get into trouble looking like that in a normal pub, started hanging out in the basement of Club Louise because they felt comfortable there. The Sex Pistols were the local conquering heroes by this time. They'd played a few gigs. Johnny Rotten was sitting around with an attitude like he was some cool guy. I met Billy Idol, Siouxie, (who was part of a bunch of girls called the Bromley contingent with Sue Catwoman) and Marco, who later played with Adam Ant. I remember Marco looking over at the Sex Pistols and saying-- 'gee, I wish I had a band'. I just told him, 'why don't you start one? I mean, look at the competition, it doesn't seem that hard'.
The next time I came over he was playing in his own band. I remember Joe Strummer and Mick Jones had just gotten together, and I went with Vivien (Westwood), Jon Savage and Carolyn Coon in Vivien's tiny mini to the ICA to see the Clash play their second show. I have pictures of that. I thought they were a fucking great band, and after I came back to America I started to hear more about them. I liked them and wanted to see them again the next time I went to London. I remember calling up the record company and saying I wanted to see the Clash and being told 'oh, not the Clash, they're impossible to deal with, we can't get you any photo passes, they won't do anything we ask them'. I asked if they could just tell me where they were. (I liked getting paid by the record companies, but I also liked to work for the bands.
I had an in between role that way, it was great for the company to finance it, but I'd rather be with the band. That way you have more access back stage, you do things that they want, you get better shots) They told me where the band was staying, I took it from there, and somehow it worked out. I went to see the Clash and I met Mick (Jones) and Paul (Simenon) in their hotel lobby. Mick was looking me over and said "You're that guy from New York, right?" I said "Yeah," and Paul, who I hadn't met that night at Club Louise looked at me like 'oh, a journalist,' and he said, "Well, you better watch out 'cause we're cunts" I just said "Yeah, you look it." From then on we were friends. The thing that really helped me was Malcolm had told them I was doing a story for Creem magazine and working for Rock Scene.
You were a big part of Rock Scene.
Yeah, Rock Scene was a magazine Lisa Robinson was putting out with her husband Richard, Lenny Kaye, Danny Fields, Leee Childers and a few others. It was a magazine and fanzine at the same time. I made a lot of photo stories for them. It was very hip. Lisa always had the inside line on who to see and where to go, she was way ahead of everybody else. It was kind of underground, but made a joke out of it. We didn't take anything seriously. It was like a twelve year old's scrap book. All the captions would say these cutsy things, but it was all double entendres and little cynical asides, inside jokes that if you knew who we were talking about you'd fall out of your chair laughing.
And you were also working for Creem?
Yeah, I did a lot of features and covers for Creem. They were pretty wild, into the new bands like the Sex Pistols and Iggy, and they had a great sense of humor which was important. So when I went to England what really helped me were these three things that Malcolm had told the people there. I didn't realize it at the time, and didn't find out until much later that I'd had this sort of introduction. At the time I felt nervous, not knowing who these punks were or if it was okay to take their picture. What I didn't know was that Malcolm had told everyone that I worked for Creem and Rock Scene, which were the only two magazines that they had any respect for in England, and that I was friends with John Lennon, the one person who had respect across the board with everyone in the Punk scene. One time I went to see the Clash live at Leeds, and it was really amazing because Joe Strummer started this chant with the audience where he was yelling "No more Queen Elizabeth" "Yeah!" "No more Rolling Stones" "Yeah!" "No more Led Zeppelin" "Yeah!" "No More Beatles" "Yeah!" "But John Lennon Rules, Okay!" "Yeah!" I was standing there with Lester Bangs, and I looked over at him asking "How did John get away with that? Everybody sucks, but John's okay?" They just had great respect for John Lennon and as his friend I was OK.
How would you compare what was going on in London versus New York?
The New York scene was, well, more New York. England seemed louder and brighter. We didn't really consider "Punk" a fashion. In New York we were just dressing in t-shirts and blue jeans. One night Richard Hell apparently had a fight with a girl friend. I don't know if it was over drugs or whatever. There were a lot of rumors as to what the reason was, but one way or another somebody cut up all his clothes. He had to go out, so he took a bunch of safety pins and just pinned them together where they were ripped and went out, because he didn't give a shit. Well, Malcolm saw that and he was fascinated by the "unique design." This wasn't fashion, it was more like how do you get out of the house when you've got no clothes left?
Bob Gruen photographs Rock and Roll.
Several of his photographs - John Lennon in shades and New York City T-shirt; the Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious, streaked with blood playing bass; business suited and made-up Kiss on the cover of "Dressed To Kill"; Jimmy Page in full double-neck guitar splendor, or posed with the other members of Led Zeppelin in front of their custom Lear jet; Chuck Berry, The Who, Mick Jagger, Bob Marley, and Madonna in concert - have achieved iconic and classic stature, published, reproduced and merchandised worldwide.
Bob Gruen has had numerous exhibitions of his
work, most notably at: