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By: Sarah L. Myers

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Thirsty: Do you think it’s the simplicity that people miss when they reminisce about CBGBs and the 1970s?

Bob Gruen: Well, life was simpler but, you know, it’s always been getting more complicated. We thought it was complicated back then! It’s only in retrospect that things are simpler. Everything’s kind of complicated when you got mugged on the way home!

Thirsty: This photo of John Lennon is probably the most famous of him in the world.

Bob Gruen: It gets around. I have no idea how it became so well known, but I’m glad it did!

Thirsty: You were a great friend to the New York Dolls and the film "All Dolled Up" chronicles your time with them. How has the passing of Arthur "Killer" Kane continued to affect the band? (The legendary bassist joined the band for a 2004 reunion show in London, only to pass away from cancer just days later).

Yoko Ono, Bob Gruen
(photo: Linda Rowe)

Bob Gruen: How it's affected the group? I don't know, you'd have to talk more to David and Syl. I mean, it affected all of us and how sad it was after all these years, Arthur passed away - while the check was in the mail, you know! Now they're finally a success again. One thing out of that film, though, Arthur really just wanted to be with his friends again. And he was. He died with at least that pleasure, having accomplished that.

Thirsty: You were there at that reunion show in London.

Bob Gruen: Yeah, because the Dolls were a big part of my life. I'm one of their biggest fans. When they said they were getting back together - I always said I was gonna be in the front row. Same with the Clash! I'm there! But then Joe (Strummer) passed away.

Thirsty: How was it being at the show in London and seeing the Dolls again?

Bob Gruen: It was exciting. You know, they do New York Dolls songs better than anybody else, and they do a whole set of New York Dolls songs and it's rare that you hear someone cover a New York Dolls song. So many bands are inspired by them. As much as their songs are really political, and about social politics. The song, "Trash" was kind of their hit single, is one of the first ecology songs. At the time, when they're singing fast and everybody just thought, "trash" was referring to their girlfriends! But they're saying, "pick it up, don't take my life away." It's actually about cleaning up and being a clean world. "Frankenstein" is about being turning into such deranged, chemically created people. Kids are walking around feeling like Frankenstein, feeling like some monster. So their songs are very timely. And I think it's great that they're getting out to this new generation ... One of the reasons the Dolls are so great is that David is the best entertainer out there. And he acts out his songs. And his songs are stories that he can act out. And he's great! He's entertaining, he tells jokes. Very timely, very current. Sometimes a little over the heads of the crowd! But being from New York, I get the jokes.

Thirsty: Let me ask you about Sable Starr (famous 1970s groupie, girlfriend of Johnny Thunders). What is she doing now?

Bob Gruen: I spoke to her last week. Oh, well, she ended up having a life, having a daughter who's a successful championship snowboarder I think. And she's married and lives a happy life. Actually, another girl I just saw who was in here a couple of weeks ago (was) Helen Killer, and she's got a life. Another one, Sue Catwoman, the fashion icon of the English punk scene, she's a nice English woman. Lives in the countryside with her family. She has a daughter who's about 16 or so. Yeah, those that survived went on to have nice, good lives. You don't do the same thing your whole life, you know. You do go on. Actually, I just read something recently that people who lived through the 1970s and did all the drinking and the drugging and so on, and survived, are more likely to have a longer lifespan than people who didn't. Because they're stronger. You know, it's kind of only the strong survive! You survive that, then you'll probably survive the rest!

(Noticing a picture of Kate Moss, Johnny Depp, and Iggy Pop in conversation).

We like this one because Kate is obviously enthralled with Iggy! He's obviously doing his charm, you know, and you can see what (Johnny) thinks of him! He's like, "step back, you dog!" (laughs)

Thirsty: In terms of being a muse for musicians, Kate is right up there with Sable Starr and Patti Boyd.

April 24, 2008 - 'Rockers' Opening at Morrison Hotel
(Photo: Tito Ficarelli)

Bob Gruen: She seems to like musicians, yep!

Thirsty: What was Nancy Spungen like around the other women on the scene? I've read conflicting stories that she was either horrible to them or very welcoming.

Bob Gruen: It depends on the girl. I met Nancy because she was Sable's friend. Nancy was a hooker with a heart of gold. When she was high, like anybody who's high, she could be obnoxious, but when she wasn't she was very sweet. I had to have some dental surgery and she came over and was my nurse for a couple of days and took care of me. So I have nothing bad to say about her. But after she met Sid, and the two of them got into heroin... You know it's not really fair to describe somebody if you only knew them as a junkie because one of the things about drugs is that you can give them up and be a person again. While you're on the drugs, you're not the same person.

Thirsty: Looking at all of these pictures, it's obviously a celebration of the life you've led. When it comes to nostalgia, is it more of a bittersweet feeling for you, because so many of these people didn't make it?

Bob Gruen: Well, yeah, when I see pictures of Joe, I miss him a lot. I miss Johnny Thunders a lot. I miss Keith Moon a lot. So, yeah, nostalgic and it's kind of weird. It's my life in perspective a little because I didn't expect to get old enough to be missing people. When you're a survivor, you tend to end up a bit lonelier. But I make a lot of new friends. I like young people. And I still go out a lot. I still have the kind of energy and excitement that I used to have. Still taking pictures. Whenever I go to a show I see something exciting, I'll be sitting there with my wife or something and I'll go, "I'll be right back!" I just gotta go down front and get a picture, that's who I am.

Thirsty: And you still live in New York?

Bob Gruen: I live in Manhattan. I live in the same place I've always lived. I got an apartment in 1970. Actually, I moved into my current apartment in 1975, and I've been there. I've got too good a rent to move! I'm kind of lucky that way, too, because a lot of photographers when they move, everything goes to a cardboard box. Some of it goes to Grandma's garage. My pictures - if I put them in a file in 1975, they're still there. That file hasn't left the house.

Thirsty: How do you feel about the naming of Joey Ramone Place right here on the corner?

Bob Gruen: Well, I think it's fantastic that they named this place after him. I think the Ramones, like we were saying before, really deserve all of the attention they got and of course they got it way late. But I think it's fantastic they got the city to honor him like that.

Thirsty: I like the quote in front about rock n' roll being a lifestyle, and not something you dip in and out of. Obviously this is a display that proves that.

Bob Gruen: Well, that's what I tell people. I didn't visit the rock n' roll lifestyle as a journalist, or just a reporter. I live it. This is my life. And that's why I didn't go out to make friends with musicians. I am friends with musicians. They call me sometimes. I'm not trying to get into their scene. It's very much a mutual thing, the way anybody has friends. People always ask me, "How'd you get to be friends with John Lennon?" Well, I met him, and I liked him, and he liked me, and we had a similar sense of humor, and as time goes on you get to be better and better friends with certain people. I did always think that was an incredible honor and privilege to know him, but it only happened because it was a natural thing.

Bob Gruen, Debbie Harry
(Photo: Linda Rowe)

Thirsty: Was he your closest friend out of everyone you'd worked with?

Bob Gruen: No, I mean, he spent a lot of time at home raising the baby, I wasn't really hanging out with him. At that point I was running with Joe Strummer and doing the punk scene. Actually, in the 1970s I was pretty close with David Johansen. We spent a lot of time together, and when he settled down and moved up to Woodstock I started spending a lot more time in the 1980s with Joe Strummer. He'd come to New York and sleep on my couch! (laughs) We'd go out until five in the morning, seven in the morning.

People used to say, "if you go out to dinner with Joe Strummer, you gotta bring your sunglasses!"

Because you're gonna be staggering out of the bar at nine o'clock in the morning. A month ago, Green Day was in town (it was the same thing). When you're having a good time with your friends you don't want the night to end!

(points out a portrait of Bob Dylan).

This one here, Bob Dylan, was quite a special moment. It was the first time I had a photo pass, for the Folk Festival. That was the night he came out with the electric guitar. (He said) rock n' roll was the folk music of America, much of the disagreement of most of the folkies there! But he had a hit single within a few weeks, which most of the folkies didn't have.

Thirsty: Who all are you expecting for the closing party tomorrow night?

Bob Gruen: Oh, a few hundred closest friends! I never really like to predict which celebrities are going to show up because I never know who's in town or who's on tour, but I have a lot of good friends.

Thirsty: Any favorite photos?

Bob Gruen: It's hard to say a favorite because I've been to some really...I make it a point of going to really cool places, you know. A lot of people go, "I wish I could've gone where you went." I just went there! Nobody laid it out for me. Nobody gave it to me. And some senses it was a little easier because bands wanted publicity back then, they didn't automatically have a MySpace page and try to control everything themselves. They were kind of happy if I showed up. But, unlike earlier cases, there are a lot more bands around now. And if you look around here, I mean some of them, I met Led Zeppelin and they already had an airplane because by that time I was working for some magazines. I worked with Lisa Robinson and Rock Scene magazine. But she was also a columnist for the New York Post, which was syndicated through 175 newspapers, so she was one of the most powerful columnists around. So she called me and said, "we're going to see Led Zeppelin today" and I just said, "yes!" But I met some bands like that when they were big, but ost of the bands I met, like was at CBGBs when they first started. Or The Clash - I saw one of their very first gigs in England when they were first getting going. And when a band is just starting out, it's a lot easier to get access than when they already have five hit albums and they have a publicist and ten body guards. So I tell people not to try to go and shoot Madonna or take pictures at a stadium. When I started, I couldn't get into a stadium, you know, cause they had big shows. But I could get into CBGBs, or even just a local bar. I mean, CBGBs was the local bar. Just by saying the word, it sounds like, "oh, you could go to CBs," yeah, I could go to a dumpy, unknown Bowery bar! It would later become known as CBGBs. And anybody can go to a dumpy, unknown bar and take some pictures, and the band is going to be happy.

April 24, 2008 - 'Rockers' Opening at Morrison Hotel
(Photo: Tito Ficarelli)

Thirsty: You've shot pictures of Green Day and the White Stripes. What other contemporary artists are exciting to you?

Bob Gruen: I like Green Day a lot. I think they're the best band around. And the White Stripes. I like Courtney Love. Say what you will about her personal life, she is one incredible performer. She has more power and energy...that kind of picture, I couldn't take a picture like that unless it was a kind of person who could walk out on an audience and have her fans support her. You have to be a pretty talented, popular person to get that kind of reaction. Also I like singer songwriters, Suzanne Vega, Jessie Malin, Ryan Adams. Of course I like Sean Lennon. I feel like I'm his uncle. But even other new bands, like Lordi. I think they're outrageous! They've taken the past things that KISS made, to a whole other level. The one thing about my work is that I work with a lot of originals. Rock n' roll came about in my prime time, when I was a teenager. They were inventing rock n' roll. I heard these things on the radio for the first time, I didn't hear them on classic album compilations. So it was a different time, and a very exciting time. Nowadays they'll describe a group and they'll say, "Well, they're kind of like Led Zeppelin but with an Alice Cooper singer." Well, Led Zeppelin's not like anybody. Alice Cooper's not like anybody. Tina Turner's isn't like anybody. These people are originals. You can't compare them. So I'm lucky that I was there when it was founded, when it started, when the originals came up. Very glad I got to see people like Bo Diddley - the real originals. He meant a lot to me. We had a lot of personal contact.

Thirsty: Any other plans for the exhibit?

Bob Gruen: I hope to travel it around a lot, so (people) can see it. If not, they can see it on my website. All 450 pictures or so are on the Morrison Hotel website.


Thirsty : September 2008 : Interview with Bob Gruen - Part 1




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