Bob Gruen on How John Lennon Bridged Hippies and Punks
The EDITION Hotel in New York has a tidy little room placed squarely in between the restaurant and the bar that is plastered from floor to ceiling with photographs of the music world’s biggest icons. A stroll around its four corners will yield direct eye contact with the likes of John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Debbie Harry, and both Ike and Tina Turner to name a few. These photographs were recently declared to be on permanent exhibition in the space, and a dramatic percentage of them were all taken by a single man: the ubiquitous rock n’ roll photographer Bob Gruen.
Gruen was there to capture most of what we consider the landmarks in 20th century music. He was there to document the surge of rock n’ roll in the mid 1960’s as well as the preceding hippie movement. But he really hit his stride in befriending John Lennon and family, a friendship that produced some of the most iconic images of the musician to date. Milk Made’s Jake Boyer spoke to Gruen at the launch of his permanent installation to discuss this friendship with Lennon, his incredibly storied career in music photography, and what exactly rock n’ roll means to a man who’s seen it in all its forms.
So how does it feel to have your work permanently installed in your hometown?
You know, it feels really good actually; I hadn’t thought of it like that. I’ve had a lot of exhibits, but not one that’s considered permanent and it’ll be nice if it lasts for many years. I believe the pictures are timeless, certainly the way they put all five rooms together with cultural icons from all different facets of culture. And how does it make me feel? Vindicated. It makes me feel very good. Of all the work I did, this is a great representation-you don’t set out planning 50 years worth of photos, you know?
Do you have a specific memory of thinking, "I need to get a camera. I need to start taking pictures?"
No, it didn’t happen like that for me. I learned photography from my mom when I was very little, about four or five years old. My mom used to develop and print her own pictures, which was quite unusual for the time, but my mom’s an unusual type of person. So she taught me how to do it and I really took to it and became the family photographer. And when I was eight years old, they gave me my first camera. And that was so exciting, I even remember opening the box and taking the camera out and clicking the shutter for the first time. Even though it was a very simple camera, I was very little, so it was a big deal. I actually sold my first picture when I was 11 years old.
What made you gravitate towards photographing musicians?
I didn’t really decide to do it, I just started doing it. In high school I lived with a rock n’ roll band. I didn’t really see myself having a career or a job. I tried the 9 to 5, but I had trouble with the 9am part. I worked better 5 to 9. And that’s how musicians work. So I naturally shifted to that schedule and started photographing my roommates.
The New York Times wrote that you were one of the few photographers that managed to ‘live through’ the hippie era to be ‘accepted’ by the punk movement. Was there such a stark difference? Did you feel like you were navigating cultural shifts as they happened?
Well yeah there was in a sense, especially in England. But by that time I had worked with John Lennon, who the punks admired very much. And interestingly enough, working with John Lennon led me to working with the New York Dolls, so one scene very much led into the other. I was in England one time with The Clash and Joe Strummer was leading this chant of ‘no more Beatles! No more Rolling Stones! No more Led Zeppelin! But John Lennon is okay!’ And I remember thinking, ‘okay, John’s cool.’ And he was cool, in many ways he was a punk. He questioned authority, he wanted a change in the world. Punk is not just about the filth and the fury, it was in many ways a cry for a better world. It wasn’t only about destroying. He was a bridge between those two worlds, and through him I bridged it as well.
How did your friendship with John Lennon first begin?
It’s funny but I actually had heard about Yoko before I ever heard about the Beatles. Everybody was talking about the Japanese woman who had an art show in a loft. You would go and pay $5, and there were these large black bags. You could get in a bag, or you could get in a bag with someone, and just ‘do your thing.’ And that was art. And I remembered that because that seemed like the most unusual thing I had ever heard of. So I was very excited when she and John came to New York a few years later, I was really anxious to meet them. They had moved to a place in the Village that was literally around the corner from me. But it’s New York, you don’t go and bother and people, so I was just hoping that I would run into them someday. One night I was at the Apollo Theatre to photograph Aretha Franklin and everyone around me was whispering about John and Yoko being there, and I felt like I had been hit by lightning. And I found them as they were waiting for their car to leave outside. There were a few people taking snapshots and I took a few pictures of course. At one point John said ‘People are always taking our picture, but we never get to see them. What happens to these pictures?’ and I said ‘I live around the corner from you, I’ll show you my pictures!’ And he told me to slip them under his door! So I made some prints and dropped them by and left without seeing them. Yoko later told me that that impressed them, because nobody just gave them anything without wanting something in return.
But you must have run into them again, I assume?
Sure enough, the following week I was assigned to photograph them for a book, and I went to the lobby of their hotel where I was told to wait because they just woke up. I remember when I was walking down the hall to meet them that I was literally shaking I was so nervous. So I had to take a minute to calm down before I could go shoot them. But it went well, and I continued to shoot them for years. I’ve been shooting Yoko for 40 years now.
Out of everyone you’ve shot in your career, who do you think most embodied the rock n’ roll lifestyle? The least?
Well I don’t make lists, that’s a tough call to say who’s more rock n roll: The Rolling Stones or the Clash or Tina Turner? You can’t answer that. I’ll tell you that I’ve got thousands of subjects in my file cabinets who least embody the rock and roll lifestyle though. (laughs)
Well what does rock n’ roll mean to you then?
Rock and roll is a lifestyle, it’s not just a moment on stage. It’s an attitude. For me, rock n roll is all about freedom, the freedom to express yourself very loudly. And you can do that in many ways, I mean look at how diverse it is today. It’s a long way from the blues.
Check out the photos at the EDITION Hotel, 5 Madison Ave, New York, NY.