Bob Gruen says he has been thinking of writing a memoir for 50 years. Now 74, and with the help of journalist Dave Thompson, he has finally done it, and readers will be in for something of a wild ride. “As I looked back, I realized that every day of my life has been an adventure,” he says.
“Right Time, Right Place: The Life of a Rock&Roll Photographer,” is how Gruen considers his career: a series of meets and greets at serendipitous moments. But his talent as a man who could shoot well was clearly there from early on. Maybe not from the age of eight, when his mother first gave him a Brownie camera, but surely from his early twenties onward. Those most influential in his long career, as one of rock’s most enduring chroniclers, were Ike and Tina Turner, Elton John, The New York Dolls, the Clash, and John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Lennon is the icon who runs throughout much of the book, in all his colors and moods.
But it was likely a photo Gruen took of a whirling Tina Turner that put him in his own kind of spotlight. (“She was like a tornado, all I could see were flashes of her in the strobe light,” he writes.) There ended up being five Tinas in the frame, which someone showed to Ike and, well, Gruen was pretty much part of the Ike and Tina touring team for the next few years. Along the way, he would meet people who liked his work, knew someone he should talk to, and eventually, he was living an all-access, often exhausting, mostly exhilarating life. He did album covers as well as countless magazine shoots. “When I first got on a plane, it was a thrill,” he says, “but after awhile, it just felt like taking a subway.”
The stories in the book are pretty much from memory, though Gruen did tape some interviews with Thompson (who has written many books on the music world) over the years. With all the drugs and alcohol he was exposed to – “Things did tend to show up”—it’s amazing how much he did recall. His portrait of Lennon and Yoko Ono is the most compelling in the book, including the period they separated. “John was going through a depressing time, all his money was being held in escrow, his solo record got terrible reviews, and he was drinking a lot,” says Gruen. “Yoko basically kicked him out.” Gruen recalls during that period walking with the former Beatle when someone came up and said, “Did anyone ever tell you that you look like John Lennon’? “I wish I had his money,” came Lennon’s response.
Gruen strongly believes that Ono has gotten a bum rap through the decades. (“As loud as they cheered John, they booed Yoko,” he writes) “Her art is powerful, but dark, and people didn’t like facing darker feelings,” he says. “There was also a big racist faction in England, held over from World War Two. People later blamed her for breaking up the Beatles but that was just rumor.”
The book is filled with the author’s photos, including a famous one of Chuck Berry kissing his guitar. That was taken while Gruen was being lifted up from his chair by a security guard. Gruen has watched his profession change radically, mostly due to the technical leaps. “Nobody ever imagined a phone would take a picture,” he says, “but I’ve been shooting digital since about 2000. And with Photoshop, you can virtually change everything pixel by pixel. I’m blown away by the quality.”
Through it all, New York was crucial to Gruen’s life and career, from the active club scene to its importance as a place to be seen. “Things spread to other places, but they happened here first,” he says. “Being in New York was very central to what I did. All media outlets have offices here, and tours may travel the country, but they end up here.” MoMA did an exhibit of his work in 2009. With the release of this autobiography, it might be time for another.
One artist who inspired his love of music and musicians was Bob Dylan. But even though he got one photo, Dylan resisted the idea of any kind of personal relationship. “In some sense, the fact I never really connected with him left me with the ability to be a huge fan,” says Gruen. “And I appreciate that.”
Today, Bob Gruen is enjoying a quieter life - “I’m sober, having lost a lot of friends” - and his children are grown with children of their own. What do the little ones think of that man with wild hair who traveled with all the big music stars? “I’m just Grampa to them,” he says.
“Things spread to other places, but they happened here first. Being in New York was very central to what I did.” Photographer Bob Gruen