Buzz Knight 00:00:01
Taking a walk. It’s buzz Knight
Buzz Knight 00:00:05
This is Buzz Knight, the host of the Taking a Walk podcast series. The special New York City Greenwich Village series. A very special episode with an iconic photographer of our time. He’s captured everything. He’s seen everything. He was part of the scene. He didn’t just capture the scene, he was part of the scene. Bob Gruen. It’s so nice to meet you, Bob.
Bob Gruen 00:00:28
Glad to be here. Thank you. It’s a little loud here. Okay. Probably better.
Buzz Knight 00:00:33
Okay. Well, Bob, it’s so nice to meet you, and thank you for being part of the Taking a Walk series here in New York City. How have you been the last couple of years? It’s been a little wacky.
Bob Gruen 00:00:44
Well, I’m a little wacky, like most people. It’s been a time of anxiety and uncertainty, but most of my life has been uncertain, so I’m used to that part.
Buzz Knight 00:00:57
Well, you started as a photographer, really capturing everything in your family photography, right? That’s where it all begins.
Bob Gruen 00:01:07
Well, I learned from my mother. It was her hobby, and my mom taught me how to develop and print my own pictures, and I just took a liking to it and started taking a picture of my family, which actually was good practice for working with rock and roll bands. They’re all like, dysfunctional families, and you got to try and get all five or six people looking good for one 6th of a second. So I kind of learned that with my family. And then after high school, I lived with a rock and roll band. The idea was to turn on, tune in, and drop out, and so I dropped out and lived with a band, but I didn’t know I was actually falling into the rest of my future.
Buzz Knight 00:01:48
You really never held a formal job?
Bob Gruen 00:01:50
Not really, no. I’ve had a couple when I was young, but it didn’t last long.
Buzz Knight 00:01:56
So you knew you were hooked right away?
Bob Gruen 00:01:58
Yeah, I wasn’t really set up for the nine to five kind of job because I couldn’t make the 09:00 part. I was much more of a night person.
Buzz Knight 00:02:07
so I know Tina Turner. When you first saw Tina Turner Ike and Tina Turner, that was a transformative experience. Can you talk about that experience?
Bob Gruen 00:02:21
Well, a friend of us said we should go see Tina Turner Ike and Tina Turner, because they were a great fan, a great show. So we went with her. And I was absolutely blown away when I saw Tina for the first time. She was the most amazing act I had ever seen. Still is, actually. We came back a couple of days later, and I brought my camera to take some pictures. And at the end of her show, a strobe light flashes and she dances off with multiple images flashing in front of her eyes. And I set the camera for 1 second. I took one picture. I had no idea if it would come out with all the different flashes, but it came out really well. And then we went to see Ike and Tina a few days later in new Jersey, and I brought the pictures with me to show my friends. And on the way out of the theater, one of my friends saw Ike Turner going from one theater to another, and she literally pushed me in front of Ike and said, show Ike the pictures. And he stopped and he looked at them and he said, these are really good pictures. I got to show them to Tina. And he took me in the dressing room, and Tina liked the pictures, and pretty soon I started working with him, and that was the beginning of my career.
Buzz Knight 00:03:29
One thing led to another, so the clubs were just so amazing. You were hopping from one to another all through the all through the night, all through your life. So let’s talk about the clubs, first of all.
Bob Gruen 00:03:49
At first, I think I started going to Kenny’s,Pat kenny’s club, which was called kenny’s up on 84th street.
Buzz Knight 00:04:00
What’s so cool about taking a walk Bob, I’m sorry to interrupt is we let the dogs bark, but we do watch in case we got a step in something.
Bob Gruen 00:04:09
Yeah, a lot of people tend to clean up after themselves nowadays. It’s not like it used to be.
Buzz Knight 00:04:14
Sorry to interrupt.
Bob Gruen 00:04:15
It’s okay. But anyway, I should go to Kenny’s castaways a lot.
Buzz Knight 00:04:19
Bob Gruen 00:04:19
Patrick Kenny ran that was a really eclectic club. He had everybody from who was it? Willie Dixon to Yoko Ono to Tracy Nelson to Larry Coryell, all in a little Irish bar. So it was a lot of fun to go there. And then I found out about Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s open around 1975, and started going there a lot. It was just one thing after that. I mean, there’s still a lot of clubs now. There’s, like, more clubs than ever, but they’re all out in Brooklyn. And since I’m not in that young crowd of 20 year olds who tends to go out to clubs anymore, I don’t really go out there.
Buzz Knight 00:05:05
So go back to max’s for a second. The back room of max’s was kind of legendary for all the sort of like, the media folks to hang out and everything, right?
Bob Gruen 00:05:14
Well, I don’t know media folks so much. There was a bunch of artists first in the late 60s, when Mickey Ruskin was running, it was Andy Warhol, Roy lichtenstein, and those kind of that’s where John yoko lived, by the way, right here on bank street. Bank street. When I first met John and Yoko, they lived right here. Look at that. Wow. It’s an easy commute half a block to my house.
Buzz Knight 00:05:42
That’s awesome. Thank you for sharing.
Bob Gruen 00:05:46
And that door went right into the apartment. So after about a year, when everybody knew that john and yoko were living here, they had to move out because it got a little too popular, I would say.
Buzz Knight 00:05:57
Bob Gruen 00:05:58
But anyway, back to the clubs, it was a lot of fun back then. There wasn’t any real kind of corporate interest. A lot of bands were playing for fun. They were planning to get a drink and meet a girl. You weren’t really expecting to make your career coming from a dumpy little club, but it turned out that that worked out okay. A lot of people started some really good careers.
Buzz Knight 00:06:24
And at Max’s, I remember seeing Patti Smith do poetry there. What’s your first memory of seeing Patti?
Bob Gruen 00:06:33
Patti, I saw her at Max’s, and it was kind of a cross. She was like reciting poems with the music back then. First time I saw Lenny K and Rd solo were already playing with her. So very much like rock and roll, but with a beat.
Buzz Knight 00:06:50
So when you were going out to the clubs, you were driving some pretty badass cars in those days, weren’t you?
Bob Gruen 00:06:57
Well, I always liked to have nice cars, actually, back in the early days. I don’t know. I had Volkswagen for a while in the early seventy S. And then actually the best car was in 76. My brother found me a car for $300. Somebody was trying to get rid of it. It was a 25 year old car. It was a 1954 Buick It was only 25,000 miles on it. It was amazing. The perfect condition. Old classic rock and roll 50s car. And I drove that for about five years until I crashed it.
Buzz Knight 00:07:38
But I know some of the artists that you were hanging around with, if they would pull up, they were playing a gig or something, and they saw that Bob was in the house. They felt really comfortable because they saw your car.
Bob Gruen 00:07:54
Yeah. Debbie Harry mentioned that you gave me an award one time, and she said that she came up to the CBGBs and she saw my car. She knew it was an okay night, she hadn’t made a mistake and come on the wrong night.
Buzz Knight 00:08:05
You were a reassuring figure that if.
Bob Gruen 00:08:07
I was there, then something good was going to be happening. I thought that was really nice of her
Buzz Knight 00:08:11
Bob Gruen 00:08:12
Buzz Knight 00:08:18
So do you remember the first time meeting John?
Bob Gruen 00:08:22
The first time I met John Lennon?, yeah. Well, actually, the first time I saw John and Yoko was at the Apollo Theater. We’d all read that they came to New York. They were seen riding bicycles around the Village. Everybody wanted to meet John and Yoko. But you don’t really go to the door and then hang out. At least I don’t. But then I went to the Apollo Theater for a benefit concert to benefit the prisoners families, prisoners who rioted at the Attica prison. And most of my surprise John and Yoko were there and took a couple of pictures when they were on stage. And then they were waiting for their car backstage, and a bunch of people were taking pictures snapshots like Selfies would call them now. And John at one point said people were always taking a picture. We never see it. What happens with these pictures? And I said, Well, I live around the corner from you. I’ll show you my pictures. And he said, you live around the corner? I said yeah. He said, well, slip him under the door then. And I thought that was very neighborly, you know. And that was our first conversation, if you call out a conversation. But I went by the house and I didn’t quite slip in under the door. I rang a bell. Much to my surprise, Jerry Rubin answered the door. I didn’t know he did that sort of thing, but he asked if they were expecting me and I said no. And I just left the pictures. And later, when we did get to be friends, Yoko mentioned that they were very aware of that. Like, who was that who didn’t want to meet us? Who just dropped something off? And I think they liked the pictures. So it was a few months later when I was I was including the first book of rock and roll photography called The Photography of Rock. And we can cross over here, it’s probably quieter. Anyway, I got an assignment to take pictures of them. And I went to the hotel, take pictures, and I remember the reporter saying they weren’t ready for they weren’t expecting me, but they would feel better. And anyway, they basically let me come up to take pictures. And as I was walking down the hall, I remember feeling really nervous, like, shaking. I was gonna meet John and Yoko. I couldn’t believe it. But I knew I couldn’t take pictures shaking like that. So I actually stopped in the hall. I took a deep breath and I kind of said to myself, did everything be alright? Because it was all right. It could be better. But it didn’t have to be. It would only work if I just calmed down, relaxed and did what I did. And they happen to like what I do.
Buzz Knight 00:10:54
So you became their personal photographer over time?
Bob Gruen 00:10:58
Yeah. They got to know me better and I got to know them better. I started working with them a lot more and you build up a trust over time. So that’s what we did. And we got to know each other better and better. And I’m still in touch with Yoko today. Now it’s 50 years later.
Buzz Knight 00:11:17
And how is Yoko?
Bob Gruen 00:11:18
I met them in the spring of 1972. So it’s been a while. Yoko is okay. She’s doing well, like everybody. She’s hiding out from the COVID and the lock down
Buzz Knight 00:11:30
But she’s still artistically curious, always.
Bob Gruen 00:11:35
Yoko is an incredible inspiration. It’s interesting because John said in one of her books, yoko said or in an interview john said that she’s the most famous unknown artist. Everybody knows what Yoko is and nobody knows what she does. And that’s kind of a fact, because although she has museum exhibits and art exhibits around the world all the time, and more and more people are finding out what she does, the majority of people find out more about her than her art. Her art was always they made fun of it because people didn’t understand it. But if you actually look at her art and start to learn about it, her art is fascinating because it’s very simple. On the one hand, it’s conceptual, and there’s a lot of her art. It’s just a sentence, but it’s a sentence that makes you think and feel, and people don’t like to feel. And they get very angry when they have to get in touch with their feelings. And instead of realizing that Yoko is really good at getting them in touch with their feelings, they get really angry about having feelings in the first place. So they take that out on Yoko and they say, she’s terrible. She made me feel all these horrible thoughts, which is just not true. She’s really pretty amazing. She’s always just talked about peace and communication and bringing people together, and she gets constantly attacked for that, which is just Jesus and Gandhi, and anybody who speaks about peace, they always attack those people.
Buzz Knight 00:13:02
What did you think of the documentary?
Bob Gruen 00:13:04
Which one was the documentary?
Buzz Knight 00:13:07
Recent Beatles documentary.
Bob Gruen 00:13:11
That was fun. When I first started watching it, it’s like so tedious. And I’ve spent time hanging out in studios and musicians, and it’s a really slow, drawn out process. One note at a time. How do you like this? How do you like this? And you have to play for three minutes. No, no, let’s try it a different way. You play it for another three minutes. No, let’s try it another way. Try this beat. And it just goes on and on and on. But every ten minutes in the Beatles documentary, there was a gem of a phrase, you know, and I mean, speaking to Yoko, it was really funny when Paul says, can you imagine in 50 years from now? People were saying that the Beatles broke up because Yoko sat on an amp. And that’s what people have been saying for 50 years. So to see Paul actually saying that and the fact that they were aware of those kind of wrong ideas was fascinating. And also, especially since it went on for so long, what is it, 6 hours or something? And it’s just so tedious. And finally, when they hit the roof, it was an explosion. I mean, I’m not a person who danced as much, and certainly I don’t dance around my living room. But after watching that and sitting there for hours and hours and hours, all of a sudden it hit the roof. I was literally jumped up and started dancing around my living room. It was that exciting. And I’m telling you, that’s not something I’ve ever done before, but I found it really exciting and just a breath of fresh air. To hear the Beatles playing music live and having fun.
Buzz Knight 00:14:42
It was great, the camaraderie, right?
Bob Gruen 00:14:46
Well, also, yeah. To see them be such good friends. I do wish we could have seen them talking to George and coming back into the group, but there’s no cameras around for that. But to see the different personalities and how they played out and how they interacted was fascinating. So it was cool that they had the footage and it’s cool that they finally re edited a nice story out of it.
Buzz Knight 00:15:09
Well, just like your friend Henry Diltzs, who hung around as friends with various bands that he captured. All of these folks were your friends. They were part of your posse, right?
Bob Gruen 00:15:25
Well, yes and no. I mean, some people became friends. Not all the people. So the people photographed once. And I didn’t become friends with James Brown, although I liked him, but we didn’t get too close.
Buzz Knight 00:15:38
But James Brown was James Brown.
Bob Gruen 00:15:40
He was very cool. First time I met him, actually, I was on assignment for Buddha Records and they sent me to Washington, DC during three days in a park somewhere, and I was supposed to take some pictures of him backstage, get some portraits, not just the live pictures on stage. And the first day, he was too busy, and I took great pictures of the show. And it was back in the days when he did the whole show and the band would run off stage and change suits and go from a pink suit to a blue suit in 30 seconds. Back on stage, still playing at the end, he would like, start to leave the stage five different times. He would fall to his knees and they would put a cape on him and he’d jump up and throw the cape off and come back to the microphone. Please me. He was just amazing. Amazing shows. But he didn’t see me. He wouldn’t pose for the pictures I needed for the record company. So the second day, again, he was too busy before the show and I didn’t get any time with him. The third day, I met him down in front of the hotel and we’re in the car going to the show. And I wanted to do the pictures in the afternoon when it was daylight and the show was starting in the evening, of course. So as we’re driving, the sun is already going down, it’s kind of twilight, it’s getting a little dark, and I’m hoping I can get some pictures of him before it gets too dark. And he tells me to get in the limo in the front seat with him. So I’m between him and the driver in the front seat of a limo, and he decides to start telling me how to write a song. And I’m not really a journalist or a writer, like, I didn’t really care. And I’m not taking notes or anything. I’m there just to take pictures. And he’s telling me that if you get a bass line going and then you change the baseline, you’ve changed the song. And every time you get a new bassline to go with a new drum line, you got a new song or something like that. I don’t know. I’m not a musician. I wasn’t taking notes, but I just thought, like, okay, Mr. Brown, as soon as you’re done, can we take some pictures? And we finally get to the theater and get out of the car. And backstage, he stays in her poses. By that time, it was so dim. He’s a very dark man. People have all kinds of different skin tones, and his was very dark. And the dim light backstage, I didn’t really get very good pictures. I got good pictures of him on stage during the live show, but the portraits that he posed for, he was really dark and the light was really dim, and it just didn’t come out well. The next time I saw him, I again had an opportunity to do a photo session with him. He was a little more cooperative. That time I got some better pictures, but again, it was so dark that I didn’t get the exposures right. He was still too dark. The third time we came out in front of the hotel, fifth Avenue, 59th street. He was posing for me in broad daylight and sunlight. That time I got some really good pictures of him. But you need a lot of light to take pictures that change Brown to have them come out.
Buzz Knight 00:18:33
Well, anyway, trial and error, right?
Bob Gruen 00:18:36
He’s a funny guy. Also, one time I did a video for him. My friend Vicki Wickham and Nona Hendrix. They were good friends with James Brown. Vicki Wickham was the producer for Ready Steady Go in England, and she was the first one to bring James Brown to England as well as a lot of the other black American acts. Vicky is amazing. And somebody had passed away, and Vicky was organizing a memorial, and James Martin had agreed to tape a 32nd tribute to whoever it was that had passed away. And we were meeting him at the Plaza Hotel. And we got there. I remember Vicky was very efficient and talked to people. And we got a room to wait. And we had, like, a small ballroom where I set up some lights and a video camera. And we’re waiting for Mr. Brown, and we’re waiting for Mr. Brown. And we’re still waiting for him. A couple of hours later, and we’re still waiting for him, like, the whole afternoon. We’re just sitting in this empty ballroom waiting for James Brown, and he finally comes sailing into the room fully wide awake. I don’t know what he was on, but he was wide awake and sat down on the chair we had set up. Look right in the camera, delivered a perfect message, got up and left. He wasn’t in the room for more than a minute and we made a 30 second video, but he just came in and sat down. Boom. Knocked it out and left. It was perfect. And he’s a real professional. I’d see him again any time.
Buzz Knight 00:20:00
Oh, I love it. Now, do you dream about some of these folks you’ve captured?
Bob Gruen 00:20:05
I don’t dream about anything, actually. No, I gave up dreaming a long time ago. I don’t know, maybe I just daydreamed too much. But no, I probably do dream, but I rarely, rarely ever remember any kind of dream. But no, I don’t live in the past. I had a lot of good times. Sometimes I remember a fun moment or so like that. But I try to live in the present and deal with all the things that are going on to keep you alive. Nowadays. I look to the future, I hope for things, but I basically try to stay in the present. All the things I’ve done, I’ve done. I don’t really need to think about them. I’m thinking about what I could do, what I will do.
Buzz Knight 00:20:45
Well, you have a very special heart for social causes.
Bob Gruen 00:20:49
I try to be helpful.
Buzz Knight 00:20:51
You always have. Is there something you want to talk about that are important?
Bob Gruen 00:20:55
There’s a couple of areas here in New York that I support, the Food Bank, which not only helps people eat, but they teach them how to cook. Some organizations, it’s really good organization, God’s Love We Deliver, which brings food to people who can’t go and get it. But the Food Bank actually brings food to cook and teaches people how to cook and how to support themselves. And if you can’t eat, you can’t even go and start to look for a job or to talk to anybody, even to get help for welfare or anything. The basic thing is you have to eat it every day to have some energy to go and do the next thing. So I think the Food Bank is a great organization to help people survive. And another organization I like to support is called Her Justice, which is a large group, over a thousand lawyers who provide pro bono free legal service for domestic violence victims, who need orders of protection and orders of divorce and just need help getting away from an abusive partner. And legal help is extremely expensive. And a lot of the people who need help don’t have the beginnings, don’t even have money to get away, much less hire a lawyer. So I think that Her Justice is a great organization helping people in dire straits get out of those trades, to get back on their feet and have a decent life. Those are the two main organizations that support, but also people like the Tibet Fund and the Rainforest Foundation and lots of different areas. Whatever I can, because nowadays my pictures can raise money for people. And whenever I heard of an organization raising money to help people. I always wanted to contribute, but rock and roll photographers are very low budget operation. I don’t really make the kind of money that advertising photographers or fashion photographers might make. So I never really had money to donate to organizations. But now that my pictures can encourage other people to donate, I donate pictures all the time.
Buzz Knight 00:22:58
You’re represented by Morrison Hotel Gallery.
Bob Gruen 00:23:01
Morrison Hotel Gallery is the main gallery I work with. I’m not exclusive with anybody, but they’re the main gallery, and they do very well nationwide and internationally on the Internet. They’re very good.
Buzz Knight 00:23:14
So, Bob, in closing, is there anything that you haven’t captured that you’d like to capture?
Bob Gruen 00:23:22
Photo? Well, not so much. What I try to capture, actually, is freedom. Because for me, rock and roll is about the freedom to express your feelings very loudly in public. And that’s what I try to put in my pictures. I try to capture some feelings and not just facts. And I’ve done that a lot. And I like to show my pictures. I like people to see them. I like to capture that moment when everybody is screaming Yay. And nobody’s thinking about paying the rent. And I like to be able to see my pictures and feel that moment and feel free and feel some kind of openness to relax a little into life. But as far as trying to take more pictures, now, I don’t need to do it. It’s funny. Last fall, the new Band Maneskin called me up out of the blue. I never heard of them, but they had heard of me. Apparently they grew up looking at my pictures, and they wanted to meet me and have a photo session. It was the first thing they wanted to do when they came to New York. I was thrilled. They’re the biggest band in the world right now. They are pretty amazing. I didn’t know much. I didn’t know anything about them. When they called me, I went to see the show, and I thought the show was very modern rock and roll, that they were communicating with their audience. They talked to their audience. They looked like they were having a good time. And when a band looks like they’re having a good time, the audience will have a good time. And working with Maneskin was fun. They’re a very nice group of people, and they’re young and interesting and very talented. So that was fun. But I don’t need to do that anymore. And I’ve written my book, so I have an autobiography that just came out last year that was very exciting to finally get that done after wanting to do that for many years. I recorded an audiobook for my biography, but people want to go and listen to me tell the story instead of just reading it themselves. So if you accomplished a lot I don’t know, there’s not a lot I want to do right now, except perhaps place my archive in a good place so that people can have access to it, and my pictures last for a long time and encourage and enlighten people. I’m having a good time. I’m old enough to have grandchildren now. That’s actually what I really enjoy, is seeing my grandchildren have a good time, seeing my son be successful. That’s what’s really interesting to me. Nowadays, I really don’t need to get on a bus as much as 22 year olds drinking beer. I did that with the Clash and with the Sex Pistols and NY Dolls, and it was a lot of fun. But at this point in my life, I don’t need to do it again. I remember trying to tell John Lennon, come down to CBGB’s. It’s lots of fun. There’s always bands and people drinking and having a good time. And he said, I did that in Hamburg. I don’t need to go back. And now I understand very much what he means. You get to a point in your life where you’ve done it. You don’t need to do it again. You don’t even need to keep doing it. At this point, I wouldn’t want to go back to Max’s and hang out with all of those people, because we’re all older. Things are different. Things change, and I don’t mind things changing. I’m really glad to be older. That’s what happens. I keep riding. I’m glad to be here, but I’m glad to be anywhere.
Buzz Knight 00:26:47
You are in the right place at the right time.
Bob Gruen 00:26:49
Yeah, I wasn’t. That’s the name of my book, Right Place at Right Time, because that just made things happen for me. But it’s not just being in the right place at the right time. You have to then do the right thing and make that situation work for you and for whoever you’re with. And I was found that if I could make it work for them, then that would work for me. So I always found that you can be in a situation better if you contribute to the situation. If you’re part of the scene, not just visiting and observing and stereotype people like they’re weird, but if you’re part of the scene, then you can get a much more intimate view of it.
Buzz Knight 00:27:29
Thanks for sharing the West Village with me.
Bob Gruen 00:27:32
All right. Yeah. This is my little neighborhood here. It’s nicer by the river here and by the streets, but there’s this highway that goes by and makes a lot of noise.
Buzz Knight 00:27:40
It’s beautiful. I’m so grateful for your generosity
Bob Gruen 00:27:46
You’re happy to be alive? Actually, I’m happy to be alive. Whether it’s raining or snowing or whatever, I like it all.
Buzz Knight 00:27:54
Thank you for Taking a Walk.
Bob Gruen 00:27:55
All right. Thank you.
Buzz Knight 00:27:56
Taking a Walk with Buzz Knight is available on Spotify, Apple podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.