Renowned rock photographer Bob Gruen did not develop a legendary career by observing the scene. The Great Neck native became a part of it, and he forged relationships with many people he admired as evidenced in his dynamic new autobiography "Right Place, Right Time: The Life of a Rock & Roll Photographer" (Abrams Books).
He repeatedly crisscrossed the country and traveled to Europe, often stayed up all night or longer, and doggedly pursued a career that began as a personal passion when he first shot Bob Dylan’s famous electric set at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965.
Gruen has photographed everyone from Blondie to Led Zeppelin to Brittany Howard and captured group shots of bands like Allman Brothers and Sex Pistols who disdained posing. And yes, he consumed his fair share of illicit substances. Gruen, 75, fills us in on how he has done it all and keeps going more than 50 years later.
You have this easygoing personality and go with the flow. Hasn’t that been a key to your success, your ability to adapt to every situation?
Yes, I do, and I don't know why or how, but I just take things as they are. The book says right place, right time, but then you have to do the right thing. I think one of the secrets to my success is I don't really like to watch television. I like to go out and meet people and go to the actual place. And not hear about it later, but actually be there and see it.
When you worked with Ike and Tina Turner and John and Yoko, they wouldn’t necessarily call you up. You just showed up where they were.
With John and Yoko, I never actually worked with them. When we first met to talk, at the end of our first meeting, Yoko said, "We really like you. We want you to stay in touch with us. But we're not going to pay you. The magazines are going to pay you." And that worked out because I still get magazines paying me.
I've been taking pictures of Green Day for 25 years, but I never actually worked for the band. They flew me to Europe twice. I spent a couple of days on the road with them. They liked me taking pictures of them and I liked hanging out with them. Same with The Clash. They didn't pay me.
You rarely had a break when you were younger. How did you summon all that energy?
It was crazy but it was fun, and then there was responsibility. Because photography has deadlines, and once you take on that job you have to meet that deadline. If you start missing deadlines, then you're not going to get hired. A lot of times I was tired. I’m just someone who’s driven to go out and be places and do things.
You grew up in Great Neck. How much did that environment influence you?
It gave me a comfort level with successful people. You meet a lot of successful people in Great Neck, and I just took that for granted. I'm not a physical, tough guy from Brooklyn who knows how to fight. We didn't do that in Great Neck. We played baseball in the street.
But later you had to deal with the Yakuza in Japan over a friend’s alleged indiscretion!
I didn't throw any punches or anything. But it was a night where I did have to get quite macho. It was surprising. I thought I was going down, and I wasn't going down alone. That was a hell of a night.
You’ve witnessed so many iconic moments — the Pretenders’ first show, the Sex Pistols’ last show and when Tina Turner went solo.
I don’t just have a history of pop stars but the culture of the time. I always tried to capture the passion and the feeling of what was going on. My theme is about freedom. For me, rock and roll is the freedom to express your feelings very loudly in public. I try to capture that moment when the whole audience is yelling "Yay!" and nobody's thinking about paying the rent. It’s free and in the moment.
Sadly, 2020 marks the 40th anniversary of John Lennon's death, and you were in a very difficult position then because you needed to get photos out to media when it happened.
It was very awkward having to mourn in public for a while. Because he was a friend, somebody who knew my phone number. He wasn't just a pop star to me. He was so full of hope. He said a lot of things that matter to a lot of people in his interviews, in his artwork, and his music. I managed to get to know him for a bunch of years, and I feel blessed.