Bob Gruen is a guy- don’t call him a dude, “I lasted two days in LA. Yeah, fly in rent a convertible, but the minute somebody called me ‘dude’…”- a guy who showed up at all the right times to meet the right people to take their pictures and carve musicians as heroes into our pop psyches. That picture of John Lennon with the iconic sunglasses that no one can wear anymore because they belong to John, standing there with the New York skyline and the T-shirt that says “New York City”, so stupidly self-reflexive, the photograph that when you see it contains all the power of a man defiant, at peace with his world- and will always bring you back full circle to Mark David Chapman on December 8th in front of the Dakota, epitomizing your sense of connection to a human being and sorrow at their murder, Bob Gruen took that picture. Bob Gruen fucking gave John that shirt.
It’s not hard, this slim man in stovepipe black jeans, button down and sportcoat, the black is best ideal of New York artist dress, slender face with smile lines and deep eyes under tight silver ringed hair, it’s not hard, it’s just work. Work and luck. This slight man with a flash smile was John and Yoko’s personal photographer, because, as he told the crowd (twice) at the The Current’s Fakebook at the Fitzgerald, they shared a sense of humor, and liked to eat well. It’s good to have famous friends to feed you. It’s also good to have not famous friends push you in front of Ike Turner holding the photographs you took of him and Tina last night. It’s better when Ike likes them. It’s best when you are traveling to shoot Ike and Tina again and you pull over at a greasy spoon to get breakfast and Ike and Tina’s limos pull up behind you and you have breakfast with them. Work and luck.
It’s not all unassuming. When Paul Simonon of the Clash warns you that “we’re cunts” and you tell them that well, they look like cunts, you’ve got some chutzpah going for you. But you can’t imagine that it was said malevolently. Gruen said he said it like a true New Yorker, which should at least mean with a spark in the eye. By that point, too, Gruen was a well respected photographer, a working documentarian of the scene. Beyond documentarian, a guy who worked to know the scene, to make the pictures happen, “A lot of those Rock Scene moments came out of the back of my car.” Not some fly on the wall guy, but a fan, a true believer. “We were told to drop out, and I did.” When host Mary Lucia pressed, gently, in the faux-embarassed manner of an interviewer waiting to see if the subject will run with the joke, “I don’t know what it’s like to shoot high…” “I do.” Deadpan. “That’s why a lot of my shots are out of focus.” Laugh. Knowing how to edit your presentation is a prime lesson to take from rock and roll.
Passion for it is the best lesson. Fight for it. One of his favorite shots, of Chuck Berry leaning in to kiss his guitar, Gruen was standing on his chair at Madison Square Garden to get the angle. A security guard yelling at him to get down, runs at him, lifts him up to get him down and at that lifted moment Gruen snapped the shutter. Work and luck. Passion and politics drives the best music, has the greatest resonance, it reads in the photographs when you love what you do, when you see injustices and speak against them. Lennon, Dylan, the Clash, it makes for some of the best music. The FBI might follow you, there might be backlash. Nixon was scared of Lennon- that’s power. Fear might be a factor, a driving factor- every day you wake up unemployed as a freelancer- but, and there it is, “If you want to lead an exciting life, you just have to get out of your house and do it.”
Check out the amazing portfolio of rock history and buy Bob Gruen’s books on John Lennon, The New York Dolls and the Clash at www.bobgruen.com