Listen to Looch: interview with rock photographer Bob Gruen

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Mary Lucia interviews rock photographer Bob Gruen. (MPR Video)

Mary Lucia interviews rock photographer and author Bob Gruen about his new autobiography, Right Place, Right Time: The Life of a Rock and Roll Photographer. Gruen, who is himself a New York icon, talks about the many artists he's worked with and befriended over the years, from John Lennon and Yoko Ono, to the Sex Pistols, to Sean Lennon and Mark Ronson.

Watch the complete interview above, and read a transcript below.

Interview Transcript

MARY LUCIA: Let's just roll here: I gotta just say, I picked up that book, Right Place, Right Time, perfect title, but parenthetically, it should have said, "And My Hustle Was Off The Charts, and I Worked Harder Than Anyone Else," because—

BOB GRUEN: Well, that was the problem; I dropped out to do nothing, and ended up doing something 24/7. But that's why I called it Right Place, Right Time, and then I say, but you have to do the right thing.

Mary Lucia with Bob Gruen's book
Mary Lucia with Bob Gruen's book, Right Place, Right Time: The Life of a Rock & Roll Photographer. (courtesy Mary Lucia)

Yeah!

Well, you do, and I think people need to be reminded, almost, that when you were taking pictures, you were developing your own film, you didn't know if you had a good shot, you didn't know if something was screwed up, until you got home and feverishly got into the darkroom, and then sometimes would work overnight and develop a picture and bring it to whomever. That is not today's photography, clearly.

Yes, it was a very different world than the digital world. You know, now kids just click away because you're not paying for the film. I mean, it wasn't just the developing and printing; you're paying for the film. Each shot was money. So if you had three shots at the end of a roll, you would try to make sure they matter because otherwise you'd have to do another roll, which, if it was color, that meant $10 per roll and $15 for developing, so one click and it cost you another 25 bucks. So yes, you thought about every picture you took, and then yeah, at three, four in the morning, I came home, and usually that night, I would develop the pictures; one, so I was ready to make prints in the morning; and two, so I would tell whether or not it came out, because you're right about that, that you have no idea until you see the developed negative, whether or not it came out, because there are so many little glitches that could go wrong if something wasn't set right, especially with the flash, it didn't sync all the time. If you were at a 60th of a second or less, you'd get a good flash. If you were 125th, you 'd get half of a frame. And there's nothing more depressing than going to a party, shooting 100 pictures, and pulling out a roll of film and seeing half frames, and realizing you're totally f****d, you can't do it over again, you're really in trouble. Fortunately, that only happened a couple of times, but it does happen.

Well, I remember talking to you, like, nine years ago, and it always stuck with me that you were, like, "Nooo! I never show anybody the contact sheets. Are you kidding me? I have to pick the good ones, and go, 'Here — this is what I do'. "

Well, yeah, because not every frame comes out right, especially when you're shooting live, or if you're shooting a band: there's six guys, one guy closes his eyes, another guy makes a face or somebody looks at his girlfriend. So you can take 35 pictures on a roll of film. If you get a good picture, one good picture, that's a good roll of film.

Yeah!

If you get two, it's a great roll of film. But that means there's 33 or 34 bad pictures on that roll of film. So if you look at the contacts, now this is something people don't do anymore, because now, in order to see the pictures, you just see it on a screen and you just flip through them and you show people what you want to see. But back then, you would make a contact print, taking the film and actually putting it on the paper — in contact with the paper — and exposing that so you have an actual size. They're all tiny; the same size as the 35 mm. And then you look with a magnifier to see which is the good one, and so you knew which ones to spend money on to blow up, because that was more money.

But yeah, if somebody wanted to see my contact sheets, I didn't want them to see 33 bad pictures, I wanted them to see two good ones. So I would usually make the prints and just give them the prints, and then they would have to ask for the contacts.

So when you had taken some shots of Ike and Tina, how did they get into the hands of Ike?

Well, that was my big, lucky moment in life, my big break. Actually, a friend of ours told us to go see Ike and Tina, and we went to see them, and I was totally blown away by how amazing Tina was. And we went back a couple days later to see them at the Honka Monka Room on Queens Boulevard, and I can't make that kind of name up; they don't have names like that anymore. And I took a bunch of pictures that night, it was actually the first night I brought my camera to a concert and took pictures, and a few days later — because Ike and Tina were playing some shows around the area — so a few days later, they were in New Jersey, so we went down to see them again, and I brought my pictures basically to show my friends. But as we were walking out, one of my friends saw Ike Turner walking from one trailer dressing room to another, and said, "Show Ike the pictures," and literally pushed me in front of Ike. Instead of bumping into me, he stopped and said, "What pictures?" And I showed him my pictures, and he said, "Oh, these are great pictures; I've got to show these to Tina." And he brought me in the dressing room, and the next minute, I'm showing my pictures to Tina Turner. I'm breathing heavy, I'm shaking, I couldn't believe I was there. And she liked them.

(See Bob Gruen's Ike and Tina Turner gallery)

And Ike told me to "Come to New York on Monday, come to my hotel and I'll introduce you to the publicist." And he did, and that publicist introduced me to another one, and that guy talked MCA Records into hiring me for this new up-and-coming piano player who was just coming to America called Elton John.

And so right after I met Ike and Tina, totally by accident, it just started snowballing. Every time I went to a show, I would meet more people, and they'd hire me for more things, and I'd meet more people. It just kept going like that.

And then at what point had that, then, you advanced to this fairly primitive, I'm assuming, video camera.

Very primitive.

How the hell heavy was that thing?

Well, we got the Sony Portapak. I had a feeling that video was going to matter, and in 1970, Sony released the first consumer-available portable video. And now, everybody has a color video [camera] in their phone, so this sounds so antique. But at the time, it was a half-inch reel-to-reel, you had to thread the tape through the tape recorder. The tape recorder was a box about this big, and you'd carry it; it weight about 35, 40 pounds. The camera was about this big; you'd have to carry that, too. If you wanted it to work for more than half an hour, you wore a belt that weighed another 10, 15 pounds that was the battery belt, and that would make it work for another half hour, because the tape recorder had a half-hour's worth; with the battery, you'd get a whole hour.

Sony Portapak circa 1970
Sony Portapak, product photo, circa 1970. (courtesy Southwest Museum of Engineering, Communications and Computation )

So that was modern science; it was black and white. It was mono sound. Didn't work very well in the dark. And it was absolutely amazing. Because before that, bands couldn't see themselves unless they hired a film crew, and then get the film developed and they'd show up a week or two later in a screening room to show the film. With video, I could tape a show, like Ike and Tina, and then go back to the dressing room or hotel room and immediately show it back. And Tina really loved the fact that she and the Ikettes could see the show, literally 20 minutes after they got offstage, and remembering everything and they could talk about who turned left when you should have turned right, or something like that, and improve the act.

When I met the New York Dolls, they loved being on film!

No surprise!

I've got to ask, because your involvement with the New York Dolls, which, that's a band that's so important to me as well, I have to know: Are you going to be part of this David Johansen documentary with Scorcese?

I don't know; ask me in a couple of months!

OK, because you would be the perfect talking head for them. Right?

Oh, well, I don't know if they're going to have talking head or if it's all David. I don't know exactly what they're doing. Oddly enough, we've just finally got in touch with them. I've been reading about this project for a year, hoping they were going to get in touch with me, assuming they were going to get in touch with me, since I spent five years on tour in the '70s — actually, 10 years, next to David almost every single day. I mean, we were very close back then. Nowadays he kind of holes up in Staten Island; I don't really see him very much.

But yeah, back then — I have two file drawers I'm waiting for them to see. And we actually just got in touch with them a couple weeks ago, and then somebody was going to come, but because of the COVID, they were stuck in North Carolina, and whenever they get around to getting over here and seeing what I have, we'll take it to the next step. But I love the idea of making a documentary. I love Scorcese. I love what he did with the Bob Dylan Rolling Thunder.

Oh my god, yes!

That is the funniest documentary ever. It's like a — what do they call that? — a historical novel.

Right. Right. And it took a lot of people by surprise who didn't know the setup or were in on the joke.

Well, I wasn't in on the joke until it got around to Sharon Stone. And the other thing that really got me was when he was talking to Scarlet, and she's taking about going to see Gene Simmons, and he says he went to see Gene Simmons. Now, I know the history of KISS, and I know they weren't in clubs in Queens in 1976; they were there in '73, but all of a sudden, my mind is going, "Wait a minute, he couldn't possibly have seen them in a club," and that's when I started doubting the film. But it's so well done and it's so funny, and there's so much of it that's real, that the rest of it kind of makes a good story! (laughs)

Well, and you talk about your happening to be, during the Rolling Thunder tour, and you know, snapping just sort of a happenstance photo of Dylan, and I do find this funny that I'm from Minnesota, and that you would have had a problem with Zimmy, because it doesn't surprise anyone, because whether it's that he's still so trying to control his image so much, and maybe the fear of the camera would take away some of that worked-on curated mystery, but your relationship with him in the book, I mean, it's actually quite funny. I hope you weren't, like, you know…

Oh no, I wanted it to be funny. I think it's a very good counterpoint, because so many people in the book, so many of my heroes I met, not only met but became friends with. And he is my biggest hero, and I did meet him a couple times, but there's no friendship!

Well, he'd kick your ass. Well, pretty much.

He told me to f*** off. He said he wanted to beat me up. It's very funny encounters, so I hope that came across.

Yeah. For some reason, I guess, it doesn't surprise me, but it sort of ties into the fact that so many of the people and the subjects in your photographs, these people, your friends, like Sir Bob Geldof, who said, you know, Bob [Gruen] was part of this scene; it wasn't a separate entity that was looking in on it; you were in it. And obviously that's going to make people have a lot of trust right away.

Right, because actually — one time, I had a question, somebody said, "Well, how do you get into a scene and take pictures of a scene without disturbing it?" And I said, "By being part of it."

Yes!

You know, I didn't show up as a journalist at 3 p.m., and start covering CBGBs. I went there to have a drink and meet people.

Right. Right.

I mean, I did do assignments — there were times where I just showed up, three o'clock at the bar, take pictures, by 3:10, you're out. Those aren't the people I became friends with. Or necessarily got great pictures of. I mean, sometimes you get a great one right away, but a lot of the pictures that, you know, develop over time when you're in a relationship and you're spending time with somebody, you get into better opportunities because you're there when something happens, and you don't have to force it.

Would this be a fair assessment, Bob, because you were shooting music at the time in New York — I feel like I'm talking to the Chrysler Building, by the way, just talking to you because you are New York.

It's over there!

I know!

And I'm just thinking, you know, the edginess and sort of the provocative nature of the bands that you were shooting, yet when I look at the pictures, I feel as though you're shooting with a kind eye. Does that make sense?

Well, I don't do blue. I'm not a gossip kind of person. And I don't want to expose people. And, I mean, part of it was just decency, common decency. I always felt empathy. I wouldn't want somebody to do that to me.

Right.

I didn't want to take a picture of somebody embarrassing and then show it to somebody because I know I would feel terrible if they did that.

Right.

So I've always had a sense of that. And also the fact that I want to work with these people again. Some people, you know, get a picture of the guy with the wrong girlfriend, the next morning they make a bunch of money. Well, that guy is never, ever going to talk to them again, and he's going to tell everybody he knows never to talk to that guy again.

I developed a relationship by not doing that.

Right.

And then they call me back, and then they recommend me to their friends.

I mean, there's certainly your talent, and then there's your likability, because with some of the people and subjects of which you became dear friends with, they weren't just letting any yahoo in to, like, shoot them. I mean, let's go — tell me how you met John and Yoko, and tell me, walking in the hallway to their apartment, what in the hell were you thinking?

I was involved in that first book of rock and roll [photography] and the writer involved [Henry Edwards] was doing a story on The Elephant's Memory, and he asked me if I would come and take pictures of John and Yoko. And I knew they lived around the corner from me in Greenwich Village, but the interviews were being done in a hotel, so he told me to meet him there, and I remember I got there and he said, "Oh, they just woke up and they weren't expecting a photographer, but don't worry, they'll wake up and they'll let you come up; you know, you'll take pictures, they'll probably like your pictures, they'll probably like you, and you'll do album covers for them because that's the way they are." And I remember him saying that because that's what happened.

That's exactly what happened, yeah!

I said, "OK, I'll be in the bar; let me know when you're ready!"

So I went and had a cognac, and about 20 minutes later, he said, "OK, they said you can come up." And that was — I came out of the elevator, I remember in my mind, I can see it, there was a long hallway, and they were at the end suite, it was a long hall. And I'm walking down the hall, and I'm finally going to meet John Lennon and Yoko Ono. And I don't know how kids can understand it today, but back then, they were the most famous couple in the world. And also kind of odd. And also a Beatle. And Yoko is an artist. There was so much going on around them, and I was finally going to meet them. And walking down the hall, I was trembling. I was actually shaking. And I stopped in the middle of the hall and realized, I can't walk in and take pictures with my hands going like this, shaking like that. And I realized I really wanted this to work, but the only way it would work is if it actually happened, that I did what I did, and they happened to like what I do. And I couldn't do it shaky. And so I jus kind of gave up on all my expectations, in a sense, and I took a deep breath, and I relaxed, and I said, "Well, I hope this goes well. Let's just see what happens."

Yeah.

And years later when we were talking, after we did become friends, Yoko mentioned that they were very aware of that; that most photographers they meet are very nervous. Sometimes they're so nervous that they yell at their assistants, but being nervous makes John and Yoko nervous, and so in the pictures, they look nervous. And I walked in like so casually, I go, "OK, what's happening today?" That they felt comfortable, and I got some very good, very comfortable looking pictures of them that night.

(See Bob Gruen's John Lennon and Yoko Ono gallery)

And this wasn't the time that, oh god, was it Abbie Hoffman or Jerry Rubin opened the door?

Oh, that was actually a couple months earlier. The very first time I saw John and Yoko in New York, there had been reports that they were in New York, and it actually came out that they got an apartment on Bank Street, which is literally a half a block from my house.

Yeah!

But I hadn't met them, and I went to the Apollo Theater, there was a benefit for the families of the prisoners who rioted at the Attica Prison. And Aretha Franklin was going to be there, and I heard about that, so I went to the Apollo to see Aretha Franklin. But as I walked in, my kind of right place, right time — my timing is kind of impeccable! I remember walking up the aisle and the announcer going, "John Lennon and Yoko Ono and the Plastic Ono Band!" And I was like, "What??"

And I ran down to the front and I took some pictures, and then they stayed to see Aretha, and I took pictures of Aretha, and then afterwards backstage, as they were leaving, they were kind of waiting for their limo and a few people had the little Instamatic cameras with the flash cube back then, and people are taking what we call selfies nowadays, or pictures of John and Yoko. And I took a couple pictures. And John said, "People are always taking pictures like this and we never see them. What happens to these pictures?" And I spoke up, and I said, "Well, I live around the corner from you; I'll show you my pictures."

And very neighborly like, he said, "Oh, you live around the corner? Well, slip them under the door."

I went by the house; I didn't quite slip it under the door. I rang the bell. And that's when Jerry Rubin answered the door, which shocked me; I mean, here am, being really bold and ringing John and Yoko's bell. I mean, I expected, you know, they had an assistant or somebody, but the assistant is Jerry Rubin? I didn't know him at that point. I did get to know him after years, but at that point, he was like, The Chicago Seven, the guy in the newspapers, and here he is opening John and Yoko's door, and I was, like, stunned. And I said, "I have something for John and Yoko."

And he said, "Are they expecting you?"

And I said, "No."

And he said, "OK, well, I'll just leave this for them."

And again, when I spoke to Yoko later about that, she said that really surprised them, because nobody just gave them something. Everybody wanted to meet John and Yoko — I mean, I wanted to meet John and Yoko, but I'm not going to push it.

Right.

They weren't expecting me; that was a fact. I came to drop it off. I didn't slip it under the door! But I made sure it got inside the apartment. And I left it. And they actually didn't contact me; it wasn't until three or four months later when Henry Edwards was doing the story about the Elephant's Memory that… and that's part of that night, because he asked me to take pictures for the interview with John and Yoko, but I knew the story was about the band, and that they were going to record with the Elephant's Memory band that night, so at the end of the interview, I asked if I could come to the studio and take a picture of them together with the band, and Yoko said, "OK, but you have to wait for the end of the night," and it's all in the book, it was quite a night, but they liked my pictures and that was their album cover, and that's when I actually after that, they invited me over to their house, and that's when I actually met them and got to talk to them.

I think what's so impressive with the book, too, is your genuine affection, reciprocal, for both John and Yoko, but particularly for Yoko, because it's fair to say she's a misunderstood artist, and I love how you've, I don't want to say, "defended," but just how you've characterized her, and it makes a lot of sense when people would say, "Well, what kind of woman is she?" And you know, you would say, "The kind of woman that—

The kind of woman that can marry John Lennon!

Yes!

Or John Lennon could marry.

Yes! And it gives her… Until you went to Japan, or even went on tour with her solo, to see the respect that she had never gotten in the U.S.

And I knew her for about two years at that point. When I saw her at Madison Square Garden, half the crowd was booing, and she was just doing that vocalizing that she does, and I didn't really understand what it was. In '74, she took me on tour in Japan, and the audience was cheering. And I saw that in between the cheering, during the songs, they were listening; I saw how they were reacting, and I realized that Yoko was not — I mean, she's no Frank Sinatra; she's not singing in a traditional sense. She's using her voice to express emotions, similar to the way her friend Ornette Coleman uses his saxophone.

Exactly, yes.

And so to compare that to singing is completely wrong. But to see her express these emotions, and she got really good at it over the years, and for me, who saw her booed at Madison Square Garden, to see her at South By Southwest in Austin [in 2011] at 1:30 in the morning, 1500 kids are screaming for a third encore, that was really heartwarming to see how Yoko finally got accepted and appreciated, and not just accepted, but admired.

Yeah, absolutely.

The new generation just thinks she's fantastic.

Oh, absolutely. And I think, you know, the thing about you going out every night, hanging out, you know, making friends with a lot of these people, I'm just right now reading the biography of Vivienne Westwood, and once again, it brings up the old, "Who started punk, New York City or London?"

It's all in English. Who cares? (laugh)

In Vivienne's words, she practically gives all the credit to Richard Hell anyway. She says, "The first time we came [to New York], we set up shop in the Chelsea and we were selling some rubber shirts or something, and then I happened to see Richard Hell," and yeah, he was already on his way to doing what she was starting to do in London, so I don't think it's such a big, black-and-white, "New York or London?" But the fact that some of the most important punk bands, the Clash, the Sex Pistols, that you worked with them, and that, my god, Bob, you were on the U.S. tour with the Pistols. What?

And twice with the Clash!

That's a long way from Tina Turner, yeah!

I mean, and I don't know if you, obviously you weren't planning, "Oh, I'm going to tour the U.S. with the Pistols"; it was again, right place, right time.

You couldn't plan something like that nowadays; you've got to send 16 emails and talk to five lawyers to do something like that. Back then, I went to see their first show in Atlanta, because they were a news item. I had taken pictures of them twice; I had been to Europe and had pictures of them there. I just felt that I could continue the story by seeing — they were supposed to come to New York.

Yeah.

They were supposed to be here, play "Saturday Night Live," I figured I could get some pictures here, I would be done, I wouldn't have to go anywhere, and I wasn't planning on going anywhere. For some reason, Sid seemed to have some visa problem that slowed him down.

Oh, I wonder why?

So they showed up a week late. They didn't play New York, so I went to Atlanta to see the Pistols, just to get a couple rolls of film and then add it to my collection. And I was saying goodbye to [manager] Malcolm [McLaren], they were all getting on the bus, and I'm saying, "So long, you're gonna have a great trip, I'm sure you're gonna have a lot of fun, too bad I can't come, but goodbye."

And he said, "Oh, yeah, you can't come, Bob, because we're only allowed 12 on the bus, and there's Sophie and the band and me, and … well, that's only 11, Bob, why don't you get on?"

And the guy next to me said, "I'll come, Malcolm."

And Malcolm said, "I'm sorry, Bob asked first."

I didn't quite remember asking, actually! But I thought it was an opportunity, I had nothing to do the next day, I thought, "OK, I'll get on the bus," and 10 days later, I woke up in San Francisco going, "What the hell am I doing here?"

It's called "The Notorious Sex Pistols Tour," but on the bus, it was really pretty calm.

Yeah?

In the center, it was kind of like the eye of the storm. There's all this talk about the Sex Pistols, but on the bus, we were smoking a little to relax, we were having some beers, we were listening mostly to Don Letts' reggae tapes.

Yeah.

A lot of the punks were friends with Don Letts, and he made these great dub reggae tapes that we would listen to, and really pretty mellow. I mean, you're just going through Oklahoma for hours and hours and hours!

Yeah, right.

A bus trip is not exciting. When the door opened and we got somewhere, that got exciting!

In fact, I remember one time we pulled in somewhere, the door opened, and Steve Jones cleared his throat to talk to the press because there were, like, three TV cameras. He spit on the ground, and he's ready to talk, and they all go, "Look out! He's spitting! Get out of the way!" And they had their story; it was done. And Steve was looking around going, "What, what happened?"

(See Bob Gruen's Sex Pistols gallery)

Did you have to have, I don't know if it's sort of portrayed in your book, as though you sort of got the job of sort of staying with Sid and keeping him sort of on time? Is that safe to say?

Well, I don't know if I got the job. Nobody else was doing it.

You cleaned his wound!

The first night out, they had these bodyguards that were kind of macho guys, and a couple of them had hunting knives, and one went with Sid after the first show. Sid went to some girl's house and the guard went with him, and Sid went to see if the knife was so sharp, it would cut his hairs. Well, it didn't just cut his hairs; it cut about a three-inch hole in his arm, and about half an inch deep and he had this big wound. Now it worked out for me because we were all out at a bar that night and got back pretty late, and I woke up a little hung over. I jumped out of bed a little late, and the bus was gone. Now this was the first day on the bus; I didn't know where the bus was going. I had no itinerary; I had no connection with anything yet. But I saw Sid and one of the guards walking across the parking lot. And that's a thing about my timing; I just happened to see them, and I said, "What happened?" And they told me Sid had cut himself, but they went to the hospital and for some reason, I don't know if they didn't have insurance or if he was just obnoxious or what, but they didn't treat him in the hospital. He came back with a big hole in his arm. But they also had missed the bus and they were making plans to fly, so I ended up flying with them to the next show. And that day, actually, there's a picture of Sid in my other book, my Sex Pistols book, where he's sitting on the bus with this giant hole in his arm. This was a big slice! And by the next night, I realized that nobody was paying attention to it, and Sid was kind of ignoring it. And you know, growing up, I was a Boy Scout. You're supposed to help fix things, and you learn first aid. And I've always been kind of good at that; my friends actually used to, as a joke, they'd call me Dr. Bob.

Right.

So I took Sid in the bathroom, I washed the wound out pretty well; I put some alcohol and really cleaned it, you know, sanitized it. And then I pulled it together; I cut tape, adhesive tape into butterflies, little strips, and I made little butterfly stitches and pulled it together with that and taped the whole thing up. And the whole rest of the tour, any other pictures of Sid, you'll see his has a big, kind of funky-looking bandage on his arm because I could just get tape and bandages in a drugstore — a hotel drugstore, you know.

Right.

So it is what it is, but it kept it from getting infected, and actually about two or three days later, I changed it. I opened it up, cleaned it out again, put a new bandage on. So yeah, I was kind of taking care of Sid in that sense.

And then you split the San Francisco gig before you realized that they were just calling it curtains.

Well, it was kind of a chaotic night, and when the concert was over, people were kind of going in different directions. Sid went off with some girl. Johnny went wherever. I was done. It was a long, exhausting trip. I had all the exclusive pictures. Everybody in the world was watching. I just wanted to get home and develop the pictures. I made one of my favorite phone calls. I remember laying in bed in San Francisco, picking up the phone and getting the concierge and saying, "What time is the next flight to New York that I can get on?"

Yes!

And I got a reservation, I went straight home and I started developing the film. I had, like, 70 rolls of film, and I could only develop four at a time, so that's a lot of developing. And it started snowing. And I remember for three days, there was a big blizzard, and it snowed and snowed, and I was in the darkroom printing pictures of the Sex Pistols, literally three days in a row. And finally, I came up for air, and I walked all the way across Bleecker Street because there were no taxis because the city was shut down. Actually, during that time, Sid was trying to fly home, OD'd on the plane, the plane made an emergency landing at JFK. They took him to Jamaica Hospital; he called up, trying to come into New York. He called me, saying, "Can you come and get me at the hospital and bring me into the city?" Because he knew I had a car. And the problem was there were three feet of snow; even the subways weren't running! I said, "I couldn't even take a subway to get you," because he was so far out in Queens, that the subways were running above ground, and they cancelled.

So he didn't get to come in that time, and a day or two later, I came out of the darkroom and walked all the way down to CBGB to get a drink, see what I missed, who was around, what was going on, and in fact, Johnny Rotten was there with a mutual friend of ours. And we'd all gotten t-shirts from Warner Brothers that said, "I survived the Sex Pistols tour." And he had his on, and he said, "Did you hear the news, mate?" And I said, "What?" And he opens his shirt and he says, "We broke up!" And it says, on his shirt, "I survived the Sex Pistols tour, but the band didn't."

And I'm looking at that going, "What are you talking about?" And he said, "Oh, we broke up, mate; it's done!" And I had, like, 70 rolls of film at home, all of these pictures, and all of a sudden, nobody is going to write stories about a band that broke up. It didn't matter anymore. And considering how famous they are now, it's hard to imagine that in 1978, they stopped.

And it wasn't until 1984 — they're actually still in my studio in a bottom drawer — we didn't need the Sex Pistols pictures. Nobody called about the Sex Pistols. It was like a flash that went off and disappeared. And in 1984, Gary Oldman played — Alex Cox made this "Sid and Nancy" movie — and Gary Oldman gave Sid the most crazy personality. Gary Oldman is one of the best actors to give real personality to crazy people. He's one of my favorite actors.

Me, too!

And that woke up the whole myth and mythology and the whole aura of Sid Vicious, because Gary did such a good job. And I tell people today that when they think of Sid Vicious, they're thinking of Gary Oldman, because there's very little film of Sid. There's one interview where he's mumbling and falling out of his chair; there's another interview where he's kind of falling on top of Nancy. The only time Sid walks and talks is in Alex Cox's film, and that's not Sid, that's Gary Oldman being a better Sid than Sid could ever be.

Gary Oldman and Chloe Webb in Sid and Nancy
Gary Oldman (right) and Chloe Webb in Sid and Nancy. (Initial Pictures/Zenith Entertainment)

So the whole aura of Sid was actually created by Gary Oldman, and all of a sudden, my Sex Pistols pictures became very, very popular.

And especially, one of the funniest things, there's a picture I have of Sid holding a hot dog.

Oh yeah! Mustard!

Actually, we were eating hot dogs one day, and I said, "Oh, let me take a picture," and he goes, "Wait." And he put more mustard and ketchup on the hot dog, and he smeared it all over his face. And then he took the picture. And I remember him putting the mustard on his face and going, "Yuck, I wouldn't do that!" It's very messy. But he was wearing a button that says, "I'm a mess."

Yes.

And he knew how to pose and how to look like a mess. That picture today is in the National Portrait Gallery in London. I got a call in 1999; they were having a centennial exhibit of 100 people of the 100 years, and I'm listening to this phone call and going, "Of course, they're calling about John Lennon." Who's the greatest Briton I have a picture of?

Of course!

And then he says, "Sid Vicious" and I'm thinking, "I've got a bad connection here; what did you say?"

And that was so weird, that we actually went to the opening. They had 10 famous English people pick 10 people that they admired the most. And yes, Winston Churchill was in the exhibit and somebody had picked Queen Elizabeth, and Margaret Thatcher and whatever. But David Bowie had picked my Sid Vicious picture. And we went to the exhibit, and the, you know the National Portrait Gallery is English, so there's a big building with a lot of carved wood and a lot of oil paintings all over the place. We're walking through one gallery after another, we finally got to the gallery where the exhibit was, and we looked down the hall and there's a big, wooden archway, and the first picture you see in the middle of the archway is my Sid Vicious picture.

And I'm like, "Where's Queen Elizabeth?"

But they had my picture right there. It was really funny.

That is brilliant.

It's in their permanent collection.

That's amazing. And, you know, I've got to ask you, too, because latter years, in, I guess it would have been in the later '80s when the New Music Seminar started happening in New York and you were literally, like, 40 gigs a night, you know, I'll just keep the car running, run inside, get a shot, come back, but I love that you said that Sean [Lennon] and Mark Ronson were sort of the tour guides, if you will, for you, about what groovy bands you should be shooting.

Well, yeah, I was already doing it for a couple years. They were with me the last two years of it. I remember Sean calling because he was 15, and they were really interested in seeing as many bands as they could, but the way the seminar worked, you get a seminar pass for a few hundred dollars, and then there's 40 clubs you can go to. But of course, everybody wants to go to the one where the hot band or whatever they heard of, or the two or three, and even for people who have a pass, a lot of times there's a long line down the block and you don't just get in and out. And Sean knew that I was just running in and out because I had a staff pass, so I worked with the seminar. So he asked that he could come with me, and I said, "Yeah, but I'm only going to be going in, like literally, two or three minutes, catch a band, get my pictures and go on to the next one." He said, "That's what we want to do."

And Mark seemed to know everybody and every band in history. He's got an encyclopedic mind of music; he knows every song and every musician on every song, he just knows — a great DJ just knows where to find sounds. And so we would do that, and then back in the car, we'd be going to the next gig and I'd be listening to how they were talking about it, and Mark and Sean just knew so much, and they knew so much about the new music, which, I was beginning to get a little older and I didn't really know that many of the new bands. So when he called me the next year, I said, "OK, you can come if Mark makes a list and tells me where he wants to go, because I really like his taste." This was before he even started DJing.

Yeah!

I mean, there's a nice picture of them [in the book], they're both 15.

Yes!

And then I was so amazed when Mark became, first a DJ who was playing some of the hottest parties for Puff Daddy and Madonna, and it kept saying "DJ Mark Ronson"; I said, "Wow, this kid's really good."

Right.

And then I remember seeing him one time, his mom had invited us to a party, and I saw Mark, and he said, "Oh, if you're coming to the party, I made a tape, and this girl I'm producing, this girl called Lilly Allen, I'll give you a tape at the party." So he gives me the tape, and I come home and I'm playing it, and Lilly Allen's album was fantastic, I'm a big, big fan. She's so open and just cute with some astoundingly blunt lyrics! Kind of bouncy-ball, follow the words, but she is saying "you are no good in bed" and "you went and slept with my best friend" and I mean, it's just outrageous lyrics!

And Mark said, "There's a couple of songs of this new girl I'm recording on the end; I think you'll like it." And the song comes on, "They say I oughta go to rehab, and I say, 'No, no, no'," and I was totally blown away. Tragically, I never met her, Amy Winehouse. But that's how I heard about her; Mark said, "Oh, I got a couple extra songs on this tape, I think you'll like them."

And then Mark became one of the biggest producers in the world. Who knew?

Oh, easily. And I just watched a documentary called Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's, and in it, they said that they were closing on Christmas Eve, and they got a call from Yoko who said, "We want to buy some fur coats; can you bring some over to the Dakota?"

And they thought, "Well, we would never do this for anyone else." It was literally Christmas Eve, they were closing. And they said, "Well, about how many?"

And Yoko said, "Well, I think John wants to buy a coat for all his friends."

[The Bergdorf's rep] ended up going over there with whatever stock; they spent half a million dollars on furs. Did you get a fur?

I didn't get one of them, no. I don't know who they were for. I wasn't around that Christmas. I've gotten some very nice gifts from them over the years. But no, I didn't get a coat. In fact, the last time I saw John, he had a Yamamoto coat that's really kind of special, with Japanese words down the side. And I remember thinking, "I'm going to trade for that coat on Monday," because I had a different coat that I thought he would like, and I was going to trade for that coat, and then I never got to see him on Monday night. He passed away.

Oh my god.

We used to compete a little. I had a shiny vinyl ski jacket, and about six days later, he had a vinyl ski jacket!

Do you still have your moon boots?

Probably. I have everything. (laughs)

But they did start to deteriorate, the foam inside finally started to go. I wish I had them — in the picture in the book, I had my other boots on, but that was quite an outfit. I had a blue, plastic parka that I bought in Kyoto; fantastic blue, plastic jeans that I bought in Paris; and the blue moon boots matching, that I bought on Columbus Avenue in New York.

Oh my god.

One time, a woman on a plane — oh, and a sweater, that I think was a Vivienne and Malcolm mohair sweater that I bought in London — and I was on a plane and a woman said, "Oh, where did you buy your outfit?" And I was like, "Around the world." (laughs)

Well, I am so thrilled that you exist, because again, you give people, dorks like me, that absolutely know probably a scary amount of your work and your methods and your connections, and it is such a wonderful world to sort of connect with every couple of years, for me, and the book is so great. You're such a humble person, and it's amazing because the stories are all the stories, the right stories that I want to hear and want to ask, but I just want to leave you with this question, which is my favorite question to ask any real New Yorker, and that is: Who is your favorite stranger in New York? You don't know who this person is, but you see them all the time.

Well, it would go back a ways, but it was Moondog.

Oh, OK, I know Moondog, from Dianne Arbus photographs.

Moondog in New York City
"Moondog," East 51st Street, New York (1970-1979). (Peter Martens/Nederlands Fotomuseum)

Yeah, it was in the late '60s; he was a poet. He was dressed as a Viking. Very imposing Viking with a large staff, and he would stand out on 52nd Street and Sixth Avenue and sell the poems for 10 cents. And it was my first zen lesson in life: I went up to him and said, "Can I ask you a question?" And he said, "No."

I was stunned! That was my whole conversation with Moondog. But I think he was the strangest guy. I mean, there are a lot of strangers on the streets of New York. But everywhere! I see it around the world.

Yeah. Oh yeah. Do you think that you'd ever like to go back and live in Japan part time?

Yeah. If I had a choice to live anywhere, I really appreciate being in Japan. I like the sensibility. They respect artists. I like the culture. They respect each other. The food is fantastic. It's a safe place. There's not a lot of mugging or shooting — there's no shooting. There's very little personal crime. It's just a very sophisticated, intelligent place.

So I would like it there. I mean, I have friends in Sao Paolo; I could spent time there. Or Paris. Especially Paris. I could go to Paris and not speak to anybody and just live there forever.

Right.

But Japan, I think I'd actually have fun and enjoy.

Well, Bob, thank you so much for your time and your talent. And you know, just give New York a kiss for me.

Come back some time!

We'll see you on the other side of this, right?

Yes. For sure.

OK, thanks, Bob.

Like I like to say, the flip side, you know, the other side of the record. And my wife said that we should remember that the pandemic of 1918 and 1919 was followed by the Roaring Twenties. So let's look forward to that.

There you go! That's a silver lining right there. Oh, fantastic! Yeah, then we'll all just be drinking and dancing.

Yep. That's what the Roaring Twenties was all about. Even though they didn't allow it! (laughs) People managed to do it.

All right, thank you so much, Bob. And congratulations on the book.

All right, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Thank you.

External Links

Bob Gruen - official site

Bob Gruen, Right Place, Right Time: The Life of a Rock & Roll Photographer - Abrams books, official site

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