Bob Gruen is one of rock music’s greatest photographers. Some of the Long Island Music Hall of Famer’s work, including his iconic photo of John Lennon in a “New York City” T-shirt, is the subject of a current exhibit at the Morris Museum in New Jersey and some of his photos of Green Day are collected in a new book out later this month.
So you’d think the Great Neck native has some amazing photos of his time at Woodstock. Right? Well, no.
“I didn’t want to get the camera to get rained on or messed up,” Gruen says, laughing. “So aside from the few pictures on my website, I have some headshots of my friends inside our tent with a green canvas background and no Woodstock in the picture. I don’t think we really appreciated what a big event it was. You don’t really see the historic ramifications of something while you experience it. . . . At the time, it was just everybody being in a good mood. Maybe you and your four or five friends are wearing bell-bottoms, maybe starting to smoke pot, maybe starting to listen to interesting music. But you didn’t know how many other people were out there. Going to Woodstock and seeing half a million people, you realize you’re not alone. You realize that these new ideas, these new energies, they are much more widespread than just you and your friends.”
While Gruen, 74, was deeply influenced by the peace and love exhibited at Woodstock, the event did not have anything to do with his eventual line of work.
“I didn’t go as a photographer,” he says. “I went as a fan, with my wife and friends. We went to have a good time. . . . At that time, I didn’t want to be anything. Today, people plan so much. They have careers and want to be this and want to be that. My idea was to ‘tune in, turn on and drop out.’ ”
Gruen got his start as a working photographer because he was living with friends in the band Glitterhouse and had taken photos of them. When the band got a record deal, the record company used his photos.
‘It wasn’t really a career choice,” he says. “It was just my hobby. . . . But after the record company used my pictures, they hired me to do another band and I met people who hired me to other bands. And pretty soon, much to my chagrin, I was actually working.”
Gruen says his relationship with Green Day came about in much the same way.
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“When I first met them, they were the most interesting band I’d seen in a long time,” he says. “What they’re saying is very powerful and that’s always mattered to me. I like music with a message and I felt that Green Day had an important message. They also have a fantastic sense of humor. And it turns out that they liked me, so we started spending more time together and I started seeing them every time they came around New York. So after 25 years, it was time to make a book out of it.”
Gruen says he is much more interested in new work than trying to look back at the past. He doesn’t plan to do anything special for the Woodstock anniversary.
“We had a great time, but you can’t reproduce it,” he says. “It was a moment in people’s lives. I don’t think you can package that. We went to the second one in ‘94 and it was debauchery. Times had changed and more importantly people had changed. It was just a matter of people getting drunk and seeing what could they get for themselves, whereas Woodstock was much more about sharing.”