John & Yoko to Johnny Rotten: Legendary Lensman Bob Gruen on His New Memoir ‘Right Place, Right Time’
As gourmands of rock and roll photography, we’ve taken tremendous pleasure over the years in repeatedly viewing the iconic snaps of The Stones, Led Zep, Sex Pistols, Blondie… What has routinely amazed us is just how many of those images were snapped by the same person, one Bob Gruen. Being in the right place at the right time through the better part of five decades has obviously been to his considerable advantage. In fact, he comes right out and acknowledges just that in the title of his new Abrams Books memoir Right Place, Right Time: The Life of a Rock & Roll Photographer.
A New Yorker who came of age during the sixties, Gruen’s art and career progressed right alongside the music. As early folk festivals begat arena shows, Gruen bounced between recording sessions with Ike and Tina Turner and tours with Alice Cooper. In 1975, when the Rolling Stones surprised journalists with a press event show on a flatbed truck rolling down 5th Avenue, he was running alongside; he routinely joined Zeppelin on their private jet the Starship, where post-enormodome flights were surely subdued affairs; and everyone knows the shot of John Lennon flashing a peace sign below the Statue of Liberty—it’s also a Gruen.
The book is primarily written by Gruen himself, and he lets us in on the fascinating personal details he witnessed while not just snapping away in the background, but ultimately becoming a friend and contemporary of the likes of John and Yoko, Debbie and Chris, Green Day and Jesse Malin. Yet Gruen was no tourist to his chosen field; inspired by his creative amateur photographer mother, he was mixing chemicals in dark rooms years before indulging all sorts of other chemicals in equally dark and dingy rooms. And he learned the craft.
But while the stories in Right Place, Right Time are serious page turners, it’s the photos of Mick and Keef, The Who, Bowie, The Clash, that truly illuminate.
We caught up with Mr. Gruen on Election Day at his long-time West Village abode—as he was coordinating numerous upcoming exhibitions—for a look back at all the marvelous madness.
You titled the book correctly, Right Place, Right Time. I invariably look at a picture and go, “Oh, cool, great photo,” and it’s by Bob Gruen. And it has happened all the time. I’m like, how did this fucking guy take every picture there is?
I get around.
You really must have.
A lot of my friends get high and watch TV all night. I don’t like TV. I like to go out and see things in the real world.
Putting all your camera gear in a bag, jumping in a cab and going down to this club or that club takes energy.
But it wasn’t all on assignment; it was my life. I wouldn’t go to CBGB’s just to get a picture for a magazine. I went to have fun. I went to have a drink and meet people.
I thought you opened the book well, by talking about your upbringing in Great Neck and the World’s Fair…the fact that you actually learned the process of photography, the darkroom, and how to expose film and all.
I learned photography from my mother, and thought that was important. And then, most people’s lives start when they’re 18 and they get out of the house and have their own life. So, I think I kind of quickly got to that part.
This is going to be impossible to answer, I know, but maybe there’s a top five. When you think of the pictures you really love and are proud of, what pops to mind?
There are a few. I don’t know one favorite, but certainly the picture of John Lennon at the Statue of Liberty, which to me is one of my more important pictures—because for one thing, it’s something that I thought of in advance.
Most of my pictures are spur of the moment of what’s going on, but that picture…I suggested to John that we take a picture at the Statue of Liberty to dramatize his case, as the US government was trying to throw John out of the country, because he was talking about peace in a time of war. That picture is all about personal freedom. And I think that freedom has been the seam of my life; and certainly in my pictures, I’ve always tried to get more than just the facts. I tried to get the feeling. Because to me, rock and roll is about…it’s about the ability to be able to express your feelings very loudly in public.
That’s a good way of putting it, yeah.
Like that moment where everyone’s yelling ‘yay,’ and just letting it out, and they’re not thinking about paying the rent. It’s a moment of freedom, of just being alive. And that’s the theme of my work. It’s not just the rock stars.
I’m just flipping through the book right now. If I was to have an immediate emotion about it, it would be that the pictures I’m looking at right now are definitely not posed. Right?
I don’t give a lot of direction. I don’t really like posed pictures.
You’re lucky that a lot of these bands had such great style and knew how to look cool. I’m particularly looking at one of The Clash sitting on a yellow cab. Or The Clash in your Westbeth studio, they just look great. But they’re definitely not posed.
Certain bands have style. Actually, I paneled a discussion at SXSW a few years ago, with John Varvatos and BP Fallon and Jesse Malin, and then my question was, “Can you teach rock and roll style?” And we all kind of said no. You either have charisma or not, you’re either cool or you’re not. You can’t teach cool.
No. Because a lot of these people, even a simple picture of Mick Jagger in a t-shirt, anyone can wear that outfit, but no one looks like Mick Jagger in a t-shirt.
Right. It’s half the attitude. That’s what rock & roll is.
What’s another photo that pops to mind?
One of the first ones I took that was really good is the picture that’s on the back of my Rock Seen book, a multiple image-picture of Tina Turner. It’s actually one negative, while the strobe light was flashing. And it captured five images of Tina. And it really captures the excitement and the energy that is Tina Turner; that one, I think, is one of my absolute best pictures.
The picture of The Clash that I took in Boston, where everybody just looks good and it looks so powerful, it was the cover of my Rock Seen book. A lot of people say it’s one of the best rock & roll pictures ever.
There are a couple of revelatory moments in the book. Certainly, Ike Turner. I didn’t realize what a together and forward-thinking presence he was. We know all the weird shit he got up to. But he sounds like a fascinating guy.
He absolutely was. He got a bad rap because of the violence with Tina, and that was a subject that was very necessary to bring up. I just don’t know if he really needed to be the poster boy. Rick James went to jail for that kind of stuff. But, like I say, it was a topic that was way overdue to be brought up. But Ike was an amazing guy. He had his own production company. He had his own booking company. He had his own publishing company. So he just found out he didn’t have to have any people do that stuff. He could do it himself—so he did.
And really into technology early, it sounds like.
Yes. And another thing that I put in, is how into technology Bo Diddley was. Bo is known for being some kind of country boy, just a blues man, but he showed me his guitar that he had custom made, and it literally had a computer built in. Where other musicians who had all those pedals on the floor, Bo had that built into the back of his guitar. He was very secretive about it. Because the guitar, the image they have is that this guitar is this little cigar box. Not true. He was a very sophisticated guy.
I’m looking at a picture of him with the guitar right now. It’s crazy.
He held the guitar up just for a moment, and I got that picture, and it’s the only one that really shows the back.
And another kind of revelation, which probably would be good if more people knew about, was what Yoko Ono’s singing is actually about.
Right. That it’s not singing—it’s emotional…conveying emotions, compared to her friend Ornette Coleman. It’s not singing. It’s musical notes. It took me a little bit to learn that myself. We met in ’72, and we’re still friends today—but when I first saw her perform at Madison Square Garden, a lot of people were booing. They actually didn’t like John, either. They wanted John the Beatle, and he came out with political songs. Yoko was singing ‘Sisters O Sisters,’ John was singing ‘A Woman is the Nigger of the World,’ and they were like, where’s the Beatles? But then in Austin, the SXSW show, at 1:30 in the morning I saw 2,000 kids packed into a place, cheering and screaming for a third encore from Yoko. And I realized that people had finally understood what she did; and not only that, but they liked it. You know?
Interesting. Unfortunately, she’s the butt of jokes.
It’s easy to joke. And in the early days, it was very racist. Yoko was in a very sophisticated avant-garde art scene, and the worst thing that happened was that all of a sudden, the Beatles fans were looking at her having no idea what she was doing. It’s very cool that Yoko revived her art career years after John died, when she finally got back to life, and became very popular for it. At the time, Beatles fans did not understand what Yoko’s work was about at all.
Her work is not made for mainstream pop stardom. It’s pretty out there, pretty esoteric.
Yes, but the thing is, John understood what she was doing, and he liked it a lot. One of the things he was most pleased about at the end, when Double Fantasy came out, the reviewers liked Yoko’s part of it. And they saw that Yoko was very avant-garde and very interesting. And he said, “They see my music as more, like, MOR, middle of the road. And that’s okay, because I’ve gone down the middle of the road to go to the bank.” But he was so happy that people were finally accepting Yoko. He was planning a world tour.
That would’ve been cool.
It would have been amazing, because the things he was saying at the end, the interviews he was giving…he’s sobered up and he’s spent a lot of time at home raising Sean, the whole house husband idea that the man could be involved and feeling and caring with his child. The idea of being responsible for the family, of eating a healthy diet, were all ideas that were going to become bigger and bigger in the seventies and eighties. And as usual, John was ahead of the curve—and that was the message that he was going to bring in the world when he died.
Is there anything that you missed, that you regret not going to?
Otis Redding played in Central Park and I always regretted not being able to see that concert. That’s the one person I never met and photographed and always wished I did, because I’m a huge, huge fan.
Well also, his career wasn’t super long, was it?
No, he died way too young.
If you were in your 20’s right now, and you were going to get in a cab and go somewhere in New York City to see a band, is there a place—saying that there’s no virus and we could actually go out?
My friend Jesse Malin has a couple of clubs over on the east side. He’s got the Bowery Electric, which is a basement that has stone walls, it’s very reminiscent of an old-time Greenwich Village poetry club. Actually, the first person who played there was Patti Smith. I do wonder when we’ll be free to be in a crowded room again; but my wife reminded me that the pandemic of 1918 and ’19 was followed by the roaring twenties. So, I’m expecting to get to that point. I want to roar again, you know?
Today (Election Day) is really stressful. Do you have any predictions?
I am very stressed today wondering what’s going to happen. But I feel healthy and I feel…I’ve been a bit of an outlaw my whole life, so that’s nothing new. But I just wonder how dangerous things will get—the separation, the anger that’s around in the world today. It just seems so sad. (Ed. note – Biden won.)
It does. And it seems like we weren’t aware of the extent of the racism in American society, or the ugliness of it.
Fifty years ago, I was out there with the protest signs when I saw Martin Luther King give a speech. This has been in history all my life. I have many friends of many colors. I had an apartment in Japan. I’m an ethnomusicologist, I like world music. I like people from all over the world. I never made a distinction. My mom was an immigration lawyer. I had to use her answering machine once, and there were like eight messages, and each one was in a wildly different accent. That’s the kind of person I grew up with. All people of the world are people. So, to see people so blatantly angry now, fifty years later, it’s like…you didn’t get it? You don’t understand? Where did you grow up? What’s wrong with you? It’s a bad feeling, you know?
Unfortunately, there’s a fair bit of ignorance out there. And it maybe hasn’t been helped by the lack of good education in America.
There always was a lot of ignorance. That’s nothing new. There’s a couple of times I’ve thought about, “Should I get a gun?” Because in America, we can. But…when would come the moment? Because a gun is not a defensive weapon. If somebody shoots you, you don’t go and get a gun and shoot back. You have been shot. So, unless you shoot first, the gun is useless. And I can’t tell you a moment when I would decide to shoot somebody before they shot me.
Except with a camera maybe.