When he was younger, Bob Gruen spent a lot of nights crawling around on the sticky floors of concert halls surrounded by screaming teenagers, just trying to get the perfect shot. One of the best-known rock ’n’ roll photographers, Gruen has taken iconic pictures of John Lennon, Led Zeppelin, the Clash, the New York Dolls, and Debbie Harry.
The music business has changed a lot since then, but Gruen is arguably bigger than ever. Last year he was the subject of a Showtime documentary, Rock ’N’ Roll Exposed. His book, Rock Seen, is in its third printing. Gruen himself is often on tour, doing gallery shows in Europe and South America. I recently visited Gruen at his home, the enormous Westbeth artists’ collective in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District, and talked to him about the life of a rock ’n’ roll photographer, then and now. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
I didn’t even know they still had places like this in Manhattan anymore.
I was very lucky, actually, to get into Westbeth when it opened in 1970. And I think it’s made my career possible. The owners are very understanding of the ups and downs of an artist’s lifestyle. Sometimes we can be a couple months late in the rent. They understand that you’ll sell something and then you have money. When we first moved here, this neighborhood was full of deserted factories and transvestite hookers. Now we’re the most expensive neighborhood in New York.
Everybody knows you for the 1974 picture of John Lennon in a New York T-shirt. Tell me the story of how you took that.
I used to wear that New York City T-shirt all the time. Some guy sold ’em on the sidewalk in Times Square. Whenever I’d see ’em, I’d buy a couple more and, sometimes, I got one for a friend of mine. One night, I was on the way to visit John and Yoko in the studio and I saw the guy and I picked ’em up and I cut the sleeves off with my Buck knife to give it more of a New York City feel, you know? I gave one to John.
A year later, he wanted a series of pictures of just his face that turned into the Walls and Bridges album cover. We were on the roof of an apartment on the East Side. The skyline was all around him and I said, “Do you still have that shirt I gave you last year?” I was actually somewhat surprised that he did still have it.
We took a series of pictures, having no idea that it was gonna be the photo, ’cause he was a Beatle. I mean, there’s been millions of pictures of him. I feel like I won the lottery or something, you know?
Did you make a lot of money off that or did people just rip it off?
I do get royalties from it. But it gets ripped off more than any other picture I have. I’ve seen it around the world. It’s not public domain. I own it. They sell it all over Central Park. I’d love to find the guy who does that. I don’t want to stop him; I just want him to give me a percentage, because he’s doing really well.
Is there anybody else you loved to shoot as much as John Lennon?
Joe Strummer was a voice for his generation and it was great to hang out with him. He was a brilliant and totally fun-loving guy. Nowadays, I spend time, whenever I can, with Green Day. They’re a band that has a message.
How often do you shoot Green Day?
Whenever I can. Billie Joe Armstrong describes me as part of the band and my camera is my instrument. I get along with musicians. I’ve done more sessions at 3 in the morning than 3 in the afternoon.
When do you get up?
When I need to.
You came up in the golden age of rock ’n’ roll. You shot for magazines like Creem. How do you compare then and now?
I knew when I was getting into my 30s that I wasn’t always gonna be crawling down a sticky aisle surrounded by screaming teenagers. Now that I’m in my 60s, I spend more of my time making exhibitions, working on books, doing lectures. Luckily, photography’s grown so popular that people really like hearing what I do.
What’s wrong with crawling around on sticky floors?
I still do it sometimes. When Green Day plays, I have fun with them. I remember talking to the security guard at one stadium and I was older than the head of security, this old white-haired guy, and I’m like, “I got you beat by five years, pal.”