BOB GRUEN - New York's Smartest Rock Photographer

In the early evening of Friday, May 7, 1976, I was the passenger in a rented car driven by a dude whose blue jeans, small moustache and frizzy hair gave him the air of a Mexican bandit. We were on a freeway in Detroit, our mission to see Wings, Paul McCartney’s band, the third date of their big US tour that year, and we were snarled up in traffic.
         Maybe it was the rush hour, maybe there was a glut of Macca/Beatles fans on their way to the Olympia arena. Either way it looked like we might miss the start of the show. We crawled along nose to tail until my driver spotted an on-ramp, that is one that enabled cars to join the freeway not leave it. Without much thought for the consequences, he edged the car into the nearside lane, braked suddenly at the point where the on-ramp joined, slammed it into reverse and sped backwards up to a point where we could find an alternative route.
         “Fucking hell Bob,” I said. “I’m paying for this fucking car.”
         “Don’t worry,” he replied, coolly lighting a cigarette as we eased our way through uncrowded streets. “We don’t wanna miss the show, do we? It’s cool. We’re in Detroit man. No one gives a fuck what you do in this town.”
         Fifteen minutes later we were in the arena. Here’s the proof.

Bob was, and still is, Bob Gruen and yesterday I was at Somerset House in the Aldwych to reconnect once again with my old pal. He’s New York’s smartest rock photographer, an honourable position he’s held since before I first got to know him around 1974. Nowadays his frizzy hair is turning grey and the moustache went long ago but he’s still as laid back as Louisiana in August. He was in town for an exhibition of his pictures in The Music Photo Gallery and to give a talk about his work, egged on by Dave Brolan, once my photo researcher at Omnibus Press and now the UK’s premier go-to man for publishers who need the best rock shots between their pages.
         The exhibition is called Rock Seen, a play on the name of the magazine Rock Scene that during the seventies, under the editorship of Lisa Robinson, strived to show fans rock stars at work, rest and play. Every other rock mag just showed them on stage or posing in a studio but thanks to Bob’s streetwise ways and ability to find out what was happening, and where and when, Rock Scene showed them hanging out, with their friends, with their WAGS and with each other. Anyone could shoot the Ramones doing a gig but only Bob shot Joey with Iggy and Debbie, or Dee Dee with Bowie and David Jo, or any combination of any of those and dozens more. What made this possible was Bob’s easy going manner, the way he slotted right in as if he played camera while Clem hit the drums and Joey sang. He was as much a part of the scene as all the musicians and although the Rock Seen exhibition veers more towards his shots of the superstars – John L, Led Zep, Bowie, Mick’n’Keith, Elton and the like – the reality, as seen in the accompanying book, is that if a scene was happening, then Bob and his Nikon were right there in the midst of it.
         It didn’t take me long to realise this. It was Bob that introduced me to CBGBs and Club 82 where I first encountered the now legendary New York Bowery scene, and in return he became my photographer of choice, whether it was shooting Robert Plant in a hotel room while I interviewed him, or Debbie in the Stilettos before she and Chris assembled Blondie, or on the road with Dylan as we chased him around New England on the Rolling Thunder Review. Or Paul in Detroit, of course.
         Chatting with Dave Bolan yesterday Bob talked about his first ever rock pic, one of Tina Turner. He’d been invited along to the gig and just happened to have his camera with him so he took a few shots and back in his darkroom developed them. One in particular took his fancy so he somehow found his way back to where he could find Ike & Tina and showed it to Ike who loved it, and from then on he took some more and found himself a life. The picture, below, is exactly how it was on his negative. “It wasn’t photoshopped,” he said to mild chuckles from his audience. Nowadays anyone looking at it would naturally assume it was a double or triple exposure and photoshopped to hell.

Bob, who now has plenty of staff to curate his archive, has never thrown away a negative, not one. I asked him whether, in the digital age, like everyone else with a camera/phone he deletes all but the prime shots. “No, never,” he replied. “I keep ‘em all just as I always did.” And asked how he feels about the present day trend for limiting access to photographers, he just shrugs. “Me and bunch of photographers were in the lobby at the Beacon arguing with some manager about this,” he said. “I just opened the doors to the theatre and told him, ‘Every single fan in there is taking lousy pictures that’ll be on the internet in hours. Wouldn’t you prefer decent pictures of your act?’ I think the message got through.”

CC, centre, with Bob & Elizabeth Gruen

Bob’s show, all high grade framed prints, mostly from the seventies, is on at the Music Photo Gallery at Somerset House until May 19.


John Halsall said...

Never represented him but always respected his work as something for my people to aspire to!

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