Photographer Bob Gruen on being in the Right Place, Right Time

Bob Gruen

Bob Gruen, American photographer // Photo by Hanna Toresson

Rock ‘n’ roll photographer Bob Gruen’s work is iconic. From his portrait of John Lennon in the sleeveless New York City t-shirt to Led Zeppelin preening in front of their personalized airplane to dozens–if not hundreds–more, the man’s work over the last six decades has defined how fans have viewed these idols. His recent book, Right Place, Right Time: The Life of a Rock & Roll Photographer, was released in October of last year, and sees the photographer telling many of the stories behind some of his most famous photographs and the relationships which led to them. I spoke with Gruen just ahead of the New Year to discuss the book and more.

The Pitch: You say in your book you still go out and hit shows. How are you dealing with that, being as how there are no shows?

Bob Gruen: Well, it’s interesting because there are no shows, so it’s not me. I haven’t stopped going out: there’s just nowhere to go. It’s awkward. It’s a little boring. I miss running into my friends. Just talking to my wife this week, there’s a lot of people that we don’t necessarily visit at their house or go to dinner, but we see all the time at different openings and different music events and just kind of missing those people–a lot of friends that we just haven’t seen all year and wonder when we will.

It’s such an odd time but my wife reminded me that the pandemic of 1918 was followed by the Roaring ’20s. So, as Lenny Kaye said to me yesterday, “Let’s have fun in ’21.”

That is a motto behind which I can readily get.

I’m always looking on the positive side of things, generally. The reason my life happens the way it does is because I don’t really like watching television–I like going out and being at real events and seeing real people in life so this is really awkward, to kind of try to figure out what to watch on television because I’m not a television person. All these online concerts? For me, that’s television and it’s just not the same as being in a room with people. I go not just for the band, but for all the people I run into: all my friends that I get to chat with.

That is 100% my stance on the whole socially-distanced concerts thing because it does seem like part of going to a show is the social aspect of it: wandering around the venue and talking.

It’s not just that the musicians play perfect notes or something. You’re having a good time, you’re running into people, people are buying drinks, you’re meeting new people. That’s what happens. I was thinking about that a lot–that a lot of my networking and being in the right place at the right time was how I made a living, by meeting people in bars and in clubs and at backstage rooms. You don’t meet them on the internet. It’s very different–you can’t share a drink with somebody in the backroom on the internet.

I mean, luckily I’m old enough that I’m not making that many connections anymore, but I really feel for young people who are just not getting out. I have a 15-year-old granddaughter who I can’t imagine what it’s like to not be active and out there. Give her credit: she got a job in a record store, so she is out of her room, at least.

Bob Gruen CoverGiven that you’re so social, how was it, sitting down to write this book? Did you take your time doing it so that you could still go out?

It only took about 20 years, actually. [laughs] I’ve tried to write it many times. It’s been a long time. I’ve been telling my stories to people for years again in clubs and dressing rooms and so on and people have always said, “Oh, you should write a book,” but writing is much more difficult than talking. When you talk, you use words like “um” and “uh” or “you know”–and I call that verbal punctuation–but when you write, you have to use actual punctuation and that’s a whole different ball game.

So, it took a while. I had a number of different people that tried to help me write it and it wasn’t really working out. Then, finally, I found a guy named Dave Thompson who’s written quite a number of books–literally, almost 200 books–he wrote a book from my friend Sylvain Sylvain from the New York Times and Syl recommended I give him a call. It turned out he was writing Walter Lure from the Heartbreakers book at the time, and he helped me a lot–not in the sense necessarily of writing the book, but of organizing all my interviews and my stories because, by the time I got to him I already had a lot of interview transcripts that I had done in preparation and different projects, working towards this book.

Dave took all my stories and he put them in order and he put it into a flow. He had all the connecting words and stories you know to put the whole thing in line with everything else so that was really good and that’s when we finally got to do it. I got together with him last September and by December [2019] we had a transcript and then my wife and I completely took the transcript apart and put it back together, so it’s much more in my words. We had a book by March Actually, I turned it in the first week of the lockdown. We’d just gotten it finished in time.

You have a lot of stories about a lot of very well-known people. Have you gotten any responses back about the book and some of the stories that you’ve told?

People seem to like it a lot. I mean, the only responses I’ve had is people call up and say, “It’s amazing, it’s wonderful, it’s fascinating,” they couldn’t stop reading it–things like that. I don’t really have a lot of scandal in my book. I don’t do blue, you know? I kept it kind of family-rated. There’s a lot left out. All I think about is all the stories I left out because there just wasn’t space or it didn’t fit in the flow of the narrative, so I haven’t really heard anything about any scandals or anything like that–there’s not much of that in there. It’s a fun story of how I came to New York–really with no plan–and ended up meeting some of the best people in the world.

The stories and the arc of your personal life within the book is really fascinating because it seems as though you really made connections. You’ve mentioned that word quite a few times while we’ve been talking and it seems as though you weren’t in this for a sense of “I get to shoot pictures of these famous people”: you were just happy to be taking pictures in general. The fact that it dovetailed with your interest in music was just kismet.

It always is. One thing led to another. The idea in the ’60s was the theory of “Turn on, tune in, and drop out,” and I dropped out by living with a rock and roll band and found out that I really was actually falling in–not dropping out at all–because when the band got a contract, the company used my pictures and hired me to take some more and before I knew it, I was taking pictures all the time. Every time I went somewhere, it kind of snowballed: I’d meet somebody and they’d hire me for some more gigs and then I’d meet more people and before I knew it, instead of dropping out, I was working 24/7.

I’ve been pretty busy all my life, actually, but it’s been fun because I get to work in some of the most exciting places and I get down in front of the stage for some amazing shows. From the Rolling Stones to Alice Cooper–I mean, you name it, I’ve seen it. I started out with Tina Turner in 1970. I took a great picture of Tina Turner. I took a great picture as a strobe light was flashing on Tina when she was dancing off the stage and I caught five exposures in one picture. Ut just captures all the excitement and energy that Tina Turner is.

We went to another show a few days later and I brought the pictures with me to show to my friends and as we were leaving, one of my friends pushed me in front of Ike and said, “He’ll like the pictures,” and that moment changed my life. He liked the pictures and pretty soon, I was traveling with Ike & Tina and about a year later, my first album cover was a Tina Turner picture. Things worked out pretty well: that got a lot of contacts. They introduced me to several publicists and one of them hired me to photograph his new piano player when he came over from England–a guy named Elton John–and so I was right there at the beginning. It’s just been really serendipity. The title of the book is Right Place, Right Time but then you have to do the right thing. You can’t just accidentally show up and then just be there: you have to do the right thing. I’ve always felt that by giving something–by taking pictures and making something that people can use–was a good way to get to know people. Then they’d like to have you around and they call you to come back again.

In high school, I was always friends with the musicians and the artists and the actors–basically, anybody who’s staying up late at night–and that’s continued all my life. I don’t make friends with everybody, but some people you get along with, for some reason. When I met the Clash, they liked me, and I liked them. Same thing with the Sex Pistols. I get along with people, so it’s been a very interesting life, but I’m glad I can sum it up in my book.

You present very human stories of these larger-than-life characters. So many of the people with whom you had close ties and relationships with have had biopics made about them, such as Elton John and Ike and Tina Turner. You say you’re not a television person, but have you seen some of these films like Rocket Man or What’s Love Got To Do With It? and if so, what was your take seeing these people you knew portrayed in this way?

Those are two very different movies. What’s Love Got To Do With It? was interesting. Also, I like those movies because they use my photos and I get licensing fees. In fact, there’s a Tina Turner film that they’ve made–hasn’t come out yet–but that’s helped me get through this pandemic.

But it’s awkward when you see people you know acted out by other people and What’s Love Got To Do With It? I think was a very important story about domestic abuse and it really opened up a conversation that had been hidden for so long. It was just so important because now it’s still a very, very important conversation. I don’t think Ike Turner necessarily needed to be the poster boy for that– they sort of made it as if that was his personality, rather than that’s what happens to a good man who takes too much cocaine. You just go kind of crazy. Ike was awake often for more than a week to 10 days and you tend to get really crazy when you’re on drugs for that long–not to excuse anything that he did.

Like I say, it’s a very important movie but I was just a little disappointed that Ike took the fall for it because he was actually a really great man and had helped many, many people. I went to his funeral when he passed away and there are more than a thousand people there because those were all people he had helped. So, you see these stories come out and they’re very wildly different. The Elton John movie? I liked a lot. Most of the movies I like. Some of them, it’s really awkward when you’re looking at somebody that you know and somebody is pretending to be that person and they’re really not.

There’s a TV show called Vinyl that was just awkward as can be. Everybody was portrayed by awkward people and, yet, a lot of young people told me, “I love that show: it’s such good history,” but it’s totally false history. There’s a lot of exaggeration. People hear three different stories and put them together into one, so to see your life–I mean the fact was that I went to CBGB to hang out and meet girls and all of a sudden, that’s history and it’s in documentaries and people talk about it as if it’s a part of the culture– that’s very weird, to see your life turn into history, but it’s only because I’m lucky enough to get old.

Bob Gruen’s Right Place, Right Time: The Life of a Rock & Roll Photographer is out now from Abrams Books.

Categories: Music