“Joe Strummer slept here.” There’s no actual plaque on the sofa in Bob Gruen’s jam-packed but cozy-boho loft studio in the Village’s storied Westbeth complex. But the Clash singer-guitarist was a not-infrequent guest. “He’d yell up at the window, ‘Hey, Bobby!’ ” Gruen recalls of his friend, who died in 2002. “I’d have to call my agent and say, ‘See you in a week or so.’ Because we’d be up all night and come back here and drink till 10 or whatever in the morning, until we’d pass out.” Gruen also had to remember to bring sunglasses to dinner … “Because then you walk out of a bar at 9:00 in the morning.”
While too many of his rock-star subjects—and friends—have passed away, due to vagaries of the lifestyle or simply bad luck, Gruen is 76 and blessed with a vivid memory matched only by his kind mien. Both are eminently clear in his book Right Place, Right Time: The Life of a Rock & Roll Photographer, an absorbing tome that should also bear the label “right person.”
Many of the Long Island native’s photos capture a relaxed intimacy achieved only via an easygoing creativity that creates a kinship, sometimes forged over decades, notably with NYC-based subjects including Debbie Harry, David Johansen, and John Lennon.
Gruen’s West Village studio houses thousands of slides from decades of photographic work. The slides are in the midst of a 20-year digitizing project, and Gruen’s artist-wife, Elizabeth Gregory-Gruen, and his assistant are busy at computers with Gruen’s legions of projects. The studio is lined with steel filing cabinets, the drawers labeled with such excitement-inducing titles as “Cyndi Lauper to Nils Lofgren,” “Yoko Ono & Sean Lennon—unapproved slides,” and “Elvis Presley to Queen.”
Any NYC rock fan will recognize Gruen, out at myriad Village venues—“I still go two or three places a night,” he says—his halo of gray curls visible above the black-clad crowd. If he’s ubiquitous now at the “cool” shows, he was even more in the mix in decades previous.
“It was a 24-hour life,” he recalls. “In the day, I had to ride around on a bicycle, dropping pictures off, meeting people, hanging out in an office to read the English music papers. I had a good friend at Buddah Records and I did about 120 jobs for Buddah in the early ’70s.”
But no agent was getting his photos out into the world. “If an agent got a picture of mine in Creem magazine and he got $25, I’d get $12.50.” Early on, to make ends meet, Gruen held some odd jobs: “I was Santa Claus. I baked waffles at the World’s Fair.”
And life is different now? Hardly, except that his day job is photography. Despite the reach and depth of his photos, Gruen didn’t and doesn’t live the lifestyle so many of his subjects enjoy. “I do exhibits and sometimes somebody will buy five pictures and all of that week I’ll have money,” he says. “And some weeks nobody buys a picture and that week I don’t have money.”
While Right Place, Right Time’s subtitle refers to the legendary lensman as a “Rock & Roll Photographer,” it’s a moniker that sells Gruen short. He captures and chronicles moments in history, and often created those places and times. Looking back, Gruen says, he always “wanted to do more than just journalism.” A professor once encouraged him to photograph a feeling rather than just the facts. “He said, ‘photograph the presence of a person.’ It was a tough assignment,” Gruen admits. “And I would try to fulfill it all my life.”
“Debbie’s gorgeous naturally,” Gruen understates. But the key to many of his candid pix? “Relating to them as people” and trying to “understand what image they want to project. Most people are pretty good at that. They just show up looking like themselves,” he says. The exceptions? Those who “know their guitar, but then they stand there with one deer-in-the-headlights expression.”
Debbie Harry, whose Blondie bandmate and former romantic partner Chris Stein is a talented photographer himself, “can just stand here and she’s beautiful.” That said, Gruen adds, “Debbie is from New Jersey. She’s real punk attitude; she never says quite the expected thing, so it’s always interesting to talk to her.”
The Ramones are one of the ultimate symbols of NY punk—you can even get a baby onesie with their logo. Gruen captured the mop-topped pseudo menaces in the subway, two NYC icons together. In Right Place, Right Time, he recalls, “The Ramones used to take the subway in from Queens with their guitars in shopping bags, because they couldn’t afford cases.”
The Ramones ruled at clubs like Max’s Kansas City and CBGB, Gruen’s then homes away from home. That thrilling period in NYC music was the subject of the often reviled 2016 HBO series Vinyl, which proved visually arresting but otherwise mostly dreck. “It was so poorly done in such a hypothetical fantasy,” Gruen laments.
There was one moment when the photographer might have played the series’ savior: “When they were planning—hoping—to have a second season, they got a new writer and he called me to consult on that.” But that’s just another “what might have been” rock story.
CBGB, Max’s Kansas City, the Mercer … and the Honka Monka? The Queens club was not necessarily a household name, but it did host Ike and Tina Turner on July 8, 1970, and Gruen had a stellar view.
“Ike was in charge back then,” Gruen recalls. In Right Place, Right Time, he describes the gig: “I couldn’t take my eyes off her—she was like a whirling tornado,” he remembers of Tina. “I raised my camera, but I didn’t know where to focus. I didn’t know what the exposure would be. I didn’t know when the timing would be right. All I could see were flashes of her in the strobe. Thinking fast, I decided to see what would happen if I opened the camera up to a one-second exposure and let the strobe flashes expose the film—and I got one of the best pictures I’ve ever taken.”
In his book, Gruen describes the resultant picture as “five Tinas in the frame, trailing streamers of light.” The dynamic image opened doors for the young photographer.
The Bay City Rollers weren’t Gruen’s usual fare, but, per usual, he used New York City as a crucial character in their photos. The plaid-clad Scottish glam-popsters, looking like the ebullient tourists they were, pose at the aptly named Top of the Rock, on September 30, 1975.
But it might as easily have been a cobblestoned West Village street. “I have taken a walk around this neighborhood with probably hundreds of bands. And never taken the same picture twice,” Gruen says. “ ‘Stand by that tree; that wall looks good for you.’ Or in the courtyard is a gate that fits some other guy who wanted a shadowy, more goth-looking thing. I can just do that on the spur of the moment.”
The smiling teeny-bop pop stars weren’t the coolest, per se, but for a time they were the hottest. “I was making more money from Bay City Rollers photos than any other band I worked with,” recounts Gruen in his book. “They were so popular that instead of just publishing articles about them with a couple of pictures, magazines would do entire issues dedicated to them.”
The Rollers Rockefeller Center observation deck shoot, with the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center in the background, marked Gruen’s first photos at that locale. But not his last: “I went back there with the Clash in 1981, and then, 28 years after that, I came back again with Green Day.”
As the preeminent chronicler of the always morphing NYC rock scene, Gruen remembers “so many new clubs operating in New York City in the late ’80s and ’90s, including the now defunct Cat Club and Don Hill’s. Big-haired “metal” bands invaded NY clubs; many were wannabes of Gruen pals the Dolls.
Concurrently, though, was the rise of rap and hip-hop in the city. Sensations Salt-N-Pepa formed in 1985, and by 1987 their “Push It” single had hit No. 1 in three countries. Gruen was there, too, doing sessions and live shoots for Salt-N-Pepa, Afrika Bambaataa, and the Beastie Boys, along with three album covers for R&B/pop icon Patti LaBelle. Yet despite his forays into the rap and hip-hop worlds, rock ’n’ roll is Gruen’s métier. In fact, it was almost predestination: His first concert shots ever were taken at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, when Bob Dylan famously went electric.
Full disclosure: There are only two photos I’ve ever personally tried to duplicate. Both were Bob Gruen shots. One was the Statue of Liberty “Peace Sign” John Lennon picture; the second, Kiss, on Eighth Avenue, Dressed to Kill era.
Photos of Lennon abound in Gruen’s studio, including both the “New York City” T-shirt pose and the Liberty picture, each now rock ’n’ roll—or, truly, cultural—archetypes.
“I’m very proud of the picture; the fact that I took the second-most-well-known picture at the Statue of Liberty, and that it was also something that I thought of,” Gruen notes of the 1974 session with Lennon.
“[Later] I actually went out [to Liberty Island] with CBS, taping me for a show. And the only reason people walked around to the front of the statue was to pose as John Lennon. We saw one person after
another come by, pose as Lennon, and walk away. One person actually recognized me.”
The shot wasn’t merely simple symbolism, however. “It really has a stronger meaning than a portrait. The original idea was that the country’s government was trying to throw John Lennon out of the country. I suggested we go to the Statue of Liberty, which is supposed to welcome him.”
Lennon dug the idea, and the shot was made. That said, it wasn’t widely published at the time, as Lennon’s struggles with the feds weren’t out in the open until films like 2006’s The U.S. vs. John Lennon illuminated them. Lennon eventually won his case and cause, remaining in New York until his death. Gruen says the photo became much more popular after Lennon’s shocking murder. “I think because people relate to John Lennon, and in terms of personal freedom, as a symbol of the idea of personal freedom or similar to the Statue of Liberty. So to combine those two meant a lot.”
His friendship with Lennon allowed Gruen’s often instantaneous inspiration to flourish. “With John on the rooftop, we took a bunch of portraits for his album cover, all straight-on headshots,” he says. “Then we did a series of him around the roof to use other kinds of pictures for publicity.” Gruen had given Lennon the now historical “New York City” T-shirt the year previous. “There was some guy who sold them on the sidewalk on a blanket,” reminisces Gruen. “The first time I saw it, I was struck by the power of the graphics. There’s just something about the phrase ‘New York City’ that carries a certain power. When you say it, people react.” ❖