Cameras, Chaos And Cognac: How Bob Gruen Photographed The Spirit Of Rock ‘N’ Roll

Dave Davies | NPR 

Photographer Bob Gruen spent decades capturing the lives and performances of rock stars of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, including John Lennon, the Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Tina Turner — and many more.

Gruen put in many hours backstage, in studios and on the road, sometimes doing drugs and drinking until dawn with his subjects.

“I carried a little flask of cognac in my camera case. It was part of my equipment. That’s the way it was in the ’70s,” he says. “I don’t know how I survived, because I crave peace and quiet — but I actually thrive in chaos.”

Gruen approached his subjects collaboratively, often soliciting their opinion about a photograph instead of trying to catch them off guard. He describes his work as an effort to capture the feeling and passion of music — not just the facts.

“For me, rock ‘n’ roll is all about freedom. It’s about the freedom to express your feelings very loudly in public,” he says. “I try to capture that moment of freedom, that moment when everybody’s yelling ‘Yay!’ and nobody’s thinking about paying the rent.”

Gruen looks back on his career in the new memoir, Right Place, Right Time: The Life of a Rock & Roll Photographer.

Interview Highlights

On taking his now-famous photo of Tina Turner

Tina was just amazing. I was sitting right in front, taking pictures. And at the end of the show, a strobe light flashes and Tina kind of dances off of multiple images in the strobe light. And I just had a few frames left in the camera, and I thought, I wonder what will happen if I take a one-second picture and get a few of these flashes in the same frame? And I took, like, four or five pictures and three or four of them are useless — and one of them is one of the best pictures I’ve ever taken. And it just captures Tina in five images that just captures the excitement and the energy that’s Tina Turner.

Bob Gruen calls this 1970 photograph of Tina Turner “one of the best pictures I’ve ever taken.” Bob Gruen/Bob Gruen Studios

On how the culture of drinking and doing drugs was part of the work

It is so hard to understand in the sober light of today what it was like back then, that you would go into a record company office and the guy would take out some coke. You share a couple lines if his were better than yours. You kind of discuss, light a joint, open a beer and then do some business, talk business. … I don’t remember seeing bottles of water, but we had lots of cans of beer. If there was orange juice around, it was for the vodka.

Thinking back, that’s the way it was. I couldn’t do it today. I don’t know how I operated on that level back then because the world isn’t drunk anymore. It’s pretty sober nowadays, but at the time it just seemed so normal. … I didn’t think I was impaired. We kind of thought that was improving our performance. It was getting us in the mood. It was getting us to enjoy the feeling. Rock ‘n’ roll was supposed to be [about] having fun.

On John Lennon bringing him along for the final legal meeting to dissolve the Beatles

They had been suing [business manager] Allen Klein to get out of the contract that they had made with him in the late ’60s. … They had taken over the whole floor of the Plaza Hotel, and they were negotiating the last bits of the contract and each Beatle had several lawyers and Allen had several lawyers. There must be 15 or 20 lawyers in the picture. And they had a whole room for the secretaries, because in those days they didn’t have the kind of fax machines or data processing we have now. And every time they changed a word, they did type it on 20 different copies of the new agreement. And actually, when it was signed, John told me that the original agreement with Allen Klein had been three paragraphs on one page and to break up that agreement took an 87-page contract. But he was very, very happy to finally sign that contract and get it done. Allen was funny. Allen Klein went to Zabar’s while they were typing up the last changes and he brought a giant, 2-foot-long rye bread. And so that when we took the picture of them with the contract, it was on top of the rye bread. And the caption said, “They’re splitting the bread.” …

It was a moment in history, the moment that the Beatles got free of their contract, and it was a big newsworthy event that they finally finished this several-year lawsuit going back and forth. All their money was in escrow. At one point, somebody [came up to John on the street and said], “You look like John Lennon!” And John said, “I wish I had his money.” And he wasn’t joking. It was true. They didn’t have their money. It was in escrow. So it was a big moment when they signed that contract. And it was after that he was free. He had no record contract. He had no management contract. He was on his own, had no responsibilities towards anybody. So he retreated to, you know, to his apartment and spent all his time raising Sean for the next five years.

On choosing Lennon’s memorial photo

[The promoter] called to ask me for a picture to put there for people to focus on and think about John. And I thought about all the different ones I had. There was one from Madison Square Garden where he was obviously a rock musician, but I thought he was more than that. And it was one where he looked very intellectual that had been on the cover of The New York Times. But I thought he was more than that, too. And there was a picture of him just looking open and friendly with the New York City T-shirt on, and Yoko had published a piece that day, actually, [saying] don’t blame New York City for what happened to John, that the person who killed him came from the other side of the world and would come to wherever they lived. And I’ve always felt that John died in New York because he lived in New York. He died going home. And so I used the picture of John with the New York City T-shirt, and it became kind of the centerpiece of that memorial.

Gruen’s 1974 photo of John Lennon on a rooftop in New York City was later used for Lennon’s memorial.
Bob Gruen/Bob Gruen Studios

On his tense relationship with Bob Dylan

I’m such an admirer, but it just never really worked out. I mean, one time I took a picture right in his face at the Bottom Line [nightclub in New York City], I don’t think he appreciated that very much. But then when he had the Rolling Thunder tour, he was banning photography. He had one photographer that he had hired, and he was going to approve those pictures and he didn’t want any other pictures. But I took it as a challenge as a journalist who thought it was an important news event that had to be covered. And I literally put cameras in my boots and a lens in my hood and I snuck my equipment into the concert. And during the encore, when everybody was standing on their seats and chaos was reigning, I would jump up and take a whole bunch of pictures. And then a lot of them were published in magazines and newspapers. And I didn’t realize that Bob Dylan was going to take that as a personal offense since he had tried to ban photography.

I guess it was about a year later, he was playing in Berlin and … he said, “I know you. I saw your name next to all those pictures you took. And I always thought I was going to beat you up when I met you.” And he had a cane with a silver head and he’s, like, waving his cane in front. … And I started apologizing, trying to defend it saying I took really good pictures. It was kind of like meeting God and finding out that he wanted to kill me. And, in a sense, that made me stronger, because I no longer had a hero that I could really look up to for any kind of protection.

On publishing his first photograph when he was 13

My mom was an attorney, but her hobby was photography. She taught me to develop and print my own pictures when I was very little, and I started taking pictures around the house and around the neighborhood and in school. And then, when I was coming home from school, I saw firemen arriving at a fire. And I ran over and I took pictures of them and ran out of film and ran home, got more film and ran back and actually climbed up in a building behind the fire onto the roof of a six-story building behind it and got it — almost like an aerial shot of the whole scene — and then went back home, developed it right away and brought it down to the local newspaper. And they liked it, and they actually printed it on the cover and they were impressed with me. I was 13. …

I didn’t think I was impaired. We kind of thought that was improving our performance. It was getting us in the mood. It was getting us to enjoy the feeling. Rock ‘n’ roll was supposed to be [about] having fun.

[I learned] something that I followed the rest of my life, [which was] to get a different angle because there was a local photographer out front taking pictures of the fire. And I went and found a different angle that showed the whole scene, and I often do that in concert to get something different than everybody else.

Sam Briger and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.