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By: Sarah L. Myers

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Bob Gruen is the most famous rock n' roll photographer in the world. Standing in a space filled with his work - a gallery formally occupied by CBGB - the presence and appreciation for history has never felt so strong.

The exhibition, "Rockers", premiered April 24 at the Morrison Hotel Gallery at 313 Bowery. "Rockers" was originally presented in 2007 at the FAAP University Museum in Sao Paulo, Brazil, where it drew over 40,000 visitors. This New York exhibit is a collection of 280 pictures, cut down from the original 450 in Brazil. It still barely touches the surface of a career that spans 35 years.

Right smack in the middle of the gallery is a makeshift bedroom complete with magazine-and-poster-plastered walls, and a blaring radio - all set up with black-and-yellow caution tape wrapped around it. “A teenage bedroom is a danger zone,” Gruen explains. This is Gruen’s favorite part of the exhibit. “Instead of just showing the photos, by showing a teenage bedroom, we’re showing why the photos were made. They’re made for people to live with.”

I walked through the exhibit with Bob, and as he explained the story behind each one, (backstage with Debbie Harry, on the couch with Sid and Nancy, on the road with close friend Joe Strummer), his eyes truly lit up. Every stage of his life was displayed on the walls around him, from his very earliest nights out to the shows he still attends to this day, camera in hand.

Sid Vicious (photo: Bob Gruen)

Thirsty: I would like to ask you about some of the candid photos you have taken, starting with the ones of Sid Vicious.

Bob Gruen: Well, yeah, that was, I went on the Sex Pistols tour with them somewhat by accident. I knew Malcolm (McClaren) well and I worked with the Sex Pistols in Europe. And then they came to America, they were playing a tour across the South starting in Atlanta and I went the first night expecting to be home the next morning. And when they were leaving, I was saying goodbye and I said, 'well, Malcolm I wish I could come along but I know you're going to have a great trip,' and he said, 'well, you can't come because there's the band and we're only allowed 12 people, and there's me and (everyone). But that's only 11, Bob, why don't you get on?' And so I got on the bus. This was in Texas at sound check. Sid and I were having hot dogs, and I picked up the camera and said, 'let me get a picture of you with the hot dog.' And he said, 'wait a minute,' and he actually went and got more ketchup and mustard and smeared it on the hot dog and smeared it around his face. So he really was a mess, to match the button. (A button on his leather jacket reads "I'm a Mess")

"I mean, I like that fact that it really shows that Sid knew what he was doing and he helped create that image."

Thirsty: Figures such as Sid Vicious and Dee Dee Ramone knew they were supposed to project a certain kind of image in photographs and when they were performing. How were they in private, when they weren't in front of a camera?

Bob Gruen: Oh, actually both Sid and Dee Dee could be pretty nice guys. You know, they could both be pretty vicious when provoked, but otherwise they were real people with real feelings.

Thirsty: This American tour was the tour that Nancy Spungen was not on.

Bob Gruen: Right. Actually, Sid was - I knew Nancy before Sid met her. I knew Nancy when she was here in New York. He was actually asking me all kinds of questions, 'what was she really like?' and 'does she really work in a brothel?' and I was like, 'well, she invited us to come by and check it out sometime!'

Nancy Spungen and Sid Vicious (photo: Bob Gruen)

"But he really seemed to care for her, and that's why I personally don't believe that he murdered her."

There may have been some accident while the two of them were really high, she may have rolled over on the bed and rolled on the knife. Because he had great feeling for her. He had strong feeling.

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And actually seeing him after Nancy died - most of the time I met Sid he was pretty high, then on the tour they were making a point of trying to get him off that, the drugs, that's why Nancy wasn't allowed on the tour. And they were really trying to clean him up a bit and it didn't really last. As soon as he got back with Nancy he got high. When he got to New York with Nancy he was totally high. He could barely have a conversation. Then after two months in jail he really did clean up. He came round, I remember he came to a Blondie concert and he was such a happy, young kid full of energy, really brimming with - really a nice kid. And backstage it was really kind of awkward because we all knew Nancy and they wanted to like Sid but didn't know if he had killed her or not. It was like, 'oh my God, am I talking to a murderer? Or he just a victim himself, and his girlfriend was killed while he was asleep?' So it was kind of awkward. But I just remember how he was so just much brighter and cheerful and friendly. I mean, the way I heard the story, he's not vicious. It's kind of one of those opposite nicknames, like where a bald guy is called "Curly". The story I heard is that they called him Vicious from the Lou Reed song, "You're so vicious, you hit them with a flower," you know, that kind of attitude. But then he tried his best to live up to it. But, like I said, he was an independent free thinker, and when provoked, he wouldn't take shit from anybody. (If) somebody challenged him, he'd answer it.

Thirsty: Is this one of your favorites in the exhibit?

Bob Gruen: Yeah. It's interesting to me how popular he's become. You know, because for awhile, after the Sex Pistols broke up, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, people didn't even think about Sid. For about six years before kind of a new generation, or the generation that liked them grew up enough to become more popular and they became more mainstream. And now Sid is as well known as The Ramones.

Thirsty: Let me ask you about the Ramones in that respect, as well. The accolades and recognition seem extremely late. How do you feel about The Ramones becoming like The Beatles now?

The Ramones (photo: Bob Gruen)

Bob Gruen: I think it's great. Obviously it's sad that they did get to enjoy more of it. They didn't really start becoming as famous as they should have until they got in the Hall of Fame, which was just after Joey died. And then Dee Dee died, and Johnny eventually.

"We all knew that they were the ones that inspired everybody!"

After having been inspired by the New York Dolls! But they really did inspire so many bands to go out, and the idea came out that you don't have to be good enough to play. Johnny said that if you wait until you're good enough to play, you'll be too old! And their songs were so simple because they had to write their own songs because they couldn't play other people's songs. They didn't know how. They wrote songs that they would play, they made them up. They kind of were an example for other people to go out and do that. You didn't have to copy other people's songs. You didn't even have to be a good musician, you just had to be able to play something that you liked and usually if the band - I always find when I see a show that if the band is having fun, the audience will have fun. And it's really about that, about having fun.

Thirsty: Going into the present, I know you still attend shows and are still taking pictures. Is it anything like it was back in the 1970s and 1980s?

Bob Gruen: Nothing's like it was. Everything's going to go away. I've changed. The world's changing. I don't live in the past. I don't wish it was like it used to be. I did that already. I kind of compare it to - one time I was with John Lennon and somebody asked him, 'when are you going to reform The Beatles?' And John's answer was, 'well, when are you going back to high school?' You know, that it was something great that he did but you don't go back and do it again. CB's was a great place to go when it was an unknown bar, and unknown bands were playing, and we'd go and have fun and there was no money involved.

CBGB (photo: Bob Gruen)

"CB's wasn't a place we went to because it was famous. It became famous because it was a fun place to go to."

And now there are a lot of those places. Because somebody just came by here the other day and said, 'oh, CB's is gone! There's no place for us to go!' I said, 'are you kidding?' Just go find an unknown bar, with an unknown band, and if you have six or eight drinks that band will probably sound pretty good, and that's what we did at CB's. And, you know, CB's was open seven nights a week. Seven bands a night, seven days a week, for over 30 years. And remember the Talking Heads, and Blondie, and Patti Smith, then the Ramones, and the Dead Boys, and after six or seven you start running out of the big, famous names. And that isn't one night at CB's. They were open seven days a week for 30 years. So CB's was more about bands that you didn't know. It was more about bands learning how to get good, not bands that were good. The thing about CB's was that they would let anybody play if you played your own material. People have a funny view of CB's because it's such a historic place ... when you go to another town and you see some little dump, you go like, ‘well, this isn’t as cool as CB’s.’ Yes it is! The world’s changed. Access to groups has changed. It’s hard for a band to get a manager. It’s hard for a band to get a record deal. Now you don’t need a record deal. You can make the music in your basement. And you sell it from your basement on the internet. It’s all on the computer. But so is most of the world. You don’t go to a bookstore, you don’t go to a record store. The biggest record store - Tower Records - I remember when they opened in California. It was this huge store and it was phenomenal how many records they had. Stacks of records. Usually the record store before that would have shelves and there’d be one or two albums of each, but at Tower they had stacks! And in those stacks, you knew there was something for you, and you put it in your shopping cart.

John Lennon (photo: Bob Gruen)

Thirsty: And it was about picking an album because it looked cool!

Bob Gruen: It looked cool! And you saw the cover! And now - and then in the 1980s videos started getting very popular. After MTV every band had to have a video, you couldn’t just make an album. You couldn’t just make an album with a cover. And it was around that time in the 1980s they made CDs, so the covers started to get smaller, so the actual cover artwork didn’t say as much. And a lot of people bought the New York Dolls album because the cover was so unusual. They looked at that and said, ‘what the hell is this? I’ve never seen anything like this.’ And so they bought it to find out. Now you just go to You Tube and Myspace and see the video and interviews, and you can buy it right there, sitting in your living room. It’s as if you’re reading the magazine and suddenly the magazine started playing music. So, yeah, it’s changed, but I’m around to see the changes. Like I said, I don’t live in the past. I live in the present. I enjoy the present. I always did. I look forward to the future. The Lower East Side used to be a dark, dangerous place! I have an assistant who lives over here and some of my friends are complaining, ‘oh, it’s not like the old days!’ And she said, ‘well, you know, it’s rather nice though! You know, being able to walk down Avenue C and not be in fear of your life! It’s not a bad thing.’ I had a friend who made a shirt that said, ‘Save the Lower East Side - Bring Back Crack!’ It kind of points out the idea that if you want the old days, you gotta have the whole thing. People are happier and more comfortable today. Back then when you had no hope for a job or no prospect for the future, it was very depressing. People weren’t taking drugs - you know, they say recreational drugs - but people were taking drugs because they were depressed. It was a pretty sad time. All you had was your music and a glass of beer. And you could be in a band and the point was, ‘I can meet some girls, get some drinks,’ and that was your career goal. Now, in high school, a band has a manager and a publicist. It’s all very different.

End of Part One




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