Bob Gruen is one of the unsung heroes of rock ‘n’ roll. Working behind the camera, he’s documented the scene with unprecedented “access.” But Gruen gets his shots the old-fashioned way through friendships with the difficult stars who often drive publicists, journalists, handlers and hangers-on crazy. He’s good with these kinds of people. He understands artists.
A critical turning point in Gruen’s career (he recently turned 60 and became a grandfather the same week) was his meeting, befriending and subsequently documenting the life of John Lennon and Yoko Ono after John had moved to New York. The recent publication of John Lennon: the New York Years brings together some 150 of Gruen’s best photos of that era. But this is more than a pretty coffee table accessory, it is supremely enhanced by Gruen’s easy way with words and a story-telling ability that’s a joy to read.
David Hershkovits: One of the unexpected pleasures of John Lennon: the New York Years (Stewart Taboori & Chang) is the story you tell about the years you hung out together in New York. The photographs are great, but this is a huge bonus.
Bob Gruen: -- In this book – unlike my others which were mostly photos with dates and captions -- I wrote a story about what it was like to know John Lennon and see him go through the transformation from a kind of a crazed drunk rock n’ roller to a caring and committed father.
DH: In your photos of John holding baby Sean he looks really beautiful and healthy.
BG: Yeah, and he was much happier than being out drunk. John used to talk about how people always wanted him to go out and party, but he said when you go out with the guys you are always looking for the beautiful girl. He said he found her and after you find her, you stay home with her. You don’t go running around with the guys all night after that.
DH: What do you think people most misunderstand about John?
BG: People feel that he was controlled by Yoko, which is very misunderstood, because John was basically uncontrollable. This is quite well documented and to say that he was controlled by Yoko is an insult to him. If anyone listens to what he says, he was obviously there by choice and was in love with her and the words put out by disgruntled employees and former girlfriends or whatever don’t really count nearly as much as his own words I don’t’ think. Where he talks over and over in interviews about his love for Yoko and how much he enjoyed being with her and how she was his partner in art and in life. To me the misunderstood part is people seem to separate them; John they admire and Yoko they hate. When people ask me what kind of woman Yoko Ono is I always say she is the kind of girl John Lennon could marry.
DH: Which would have to be pretty amazing.
BG: Yeah, because he certainly had his choice. (laughs)
DH: Did John ever talk about his days with the Beatles?
BG: Not a lot, not anymore than someone might occasionally reminisce. At one point, I remember in 1980 we were talking about bands that were playing downtown and the Mudd Club scene and what was going on and he said that he’d been to Hamburg and he really didn’t need to go out and do it again. When he did talk about it, it was kind of fondly. He was very proud of being in the Beatles. One of the things he said is that he recorded two of the greatest artists in the world, Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono, that was his opinion. But once he was walking through Central Park and some kid said, “Hey, when are you getting the Beatles back together?” And he said, “Hey, when are you going back to high school?” And that’s the way he felt. It was a great experience but not something you can repeat anymore than you can go back to high school.
DH: Watching Martin Scorsese’s Bob Dylan documentary on PBS made me think how great it would be to do something like that with John Lennon today.
BG: Have him commenting on stuff. In some ways I think it would be similar [to Dylan]. He was kind of different from the public speculation about him. People tend to base things on something you said when you were 19 and thinking that when you are 39 you’ll be the same. He was certainly a man who grew and wasn’t afraid to grow and wanted to grow. So therefore things changed in his life. There was one time Keith Moon was in town. John had partied hardy with Harry Nilsson and Keith Moon [of the Who] and that crowd out in LA. And Keith was in town and he kind of sent a message through me to John. He knew that John was staying home and being the house husband and not going out drunk, but he just wanted to come by and see him and say hi. And John was kind of like, “Well, I don’t’ want Keith to dress up in a suit and come over like Lord Fauntleroy.” But he didn’t want to go out and drink either. He had made a change. He was taking care of the baby and that took time.
DH: There’s still a constant flow of recorded material by John Lennon being released. When his name comes up does that trigger things off?
BG: I hear him all the time and, yes, it does trigger things off. But it’s good memories except the horror of the ending. I tend to think about John’s life and not about his death. We all get the time we get, but he got about half the time he should have had. But he did a lot in that time. I hear him on the radio, I hear people talk about him. It’s always good memories and the songs make me think. Like Dylan songs you think different things each time you hear them and I like hearing them. He’s funny. I mean his songs are meaningful and deep but they at the same time there’s a great humor in it.
DH: How did he relate to living in New York City. You said he didn’t want to run around but…
BG: Well, he did at the beginning. He wanted to everywhere all at once. He enjoyed New York very much. He said if he lived in the time of Rome he would want to be in Rome. He said New York was similar in the sense that it was the center of the world, certainly the center of the creative world. That’s where he wanted to be in the center. The reason I picked the [John wearing a] New York City t-shirt picture when there was a memorial in Central Park after John died was because John enjoyed living in New York and he was proud to be a New Yorker and that’s why I took the picture in the first place. I think of New York as the place where John lived, not really as the place where John died.
DH: How did you two originally meet.
BG: Through an interview. I met the writer who was doing a story on the Elephant’s Memory, which was a New York band that played at every demonstration and event around town. Elephant’s Memory were backing up John and Yoko and he took me when he went to interview John and Yoko and I took some pictures there then with the Elephant’s Memory and they contacted me a couple of weeks later. They wanted to use some of the pictures in their album cover. I went over there [John and Yoko’s] when they lived on Bank St. I brought the pictures and asked if I could take a picture of them together and that’s when they said I could come to the studio and if I waited around till the end of the night I could do pictures of them together instead of separate pictures. The next day I went on the road with Ike and Tina Turner and it never really occurred to me that John and Yoko would need my pictures. I mean, they were John and Yoko. So when I got back a couple of weeks later I ran into the drummer and he was saying, “Oh, man, we’ve been trying to find you, you’ve got to come over, we need your pictures, you are the only one who has pictures of us together. So he brought me over to John and Yoko’s house on Bank St. and we sat around all afternoon talking. At the end of the day, when I was leaving, Yoko told me to come back to the studio and stay in touch with them. They liked me and they liked my work. They wanted me to work with them. And the deal was as long as I would show them the photos I took and not use anything they didn’t like, then I would have whatever access I wanted. And that’s the way it always worked out. I never wanted to embarrass them or expose them and so I always showed them the pictures. I would always print up a few that I liked and you know run it by them and there was very few times where they ever told me not to use anything, In fact, I don’t remember them ever saying that. I didn’t get paid by John and Yoko. The idea was that because I had these exclusive photos I could get paid by magazines and regular outlets I had as a photographer. That’s why there are so few photo session kind of pictures. Sometimes I’d be on assignment and I’d say okay I need to take some pictures for this magazine and they’d agree, but usually I was just there and when I wanted to take a picture I could ‘cause I didn’t have a deadline.
DH: Nowadays, people would kill for this kind of…I don’t want to say access…but relationship.
BG: Yeah, well, nowadays there’s like three lawyers and two publicists between photographers and that kind of access, but also it takes a lot of time, I mean you don’t do that kind of photography in an afternoon.
DH: You were just there because you liked to hang out with them.
BG: It was fun. John Lennon was a very funny guy and Yoko is too. They’re really cool people to hang out with and they like to eat well…and so do I. (laughs) So I would usually try to show up around lunch or dinner.
DH: Do you have a personal favorite photo from the book?
BG: The book represents a 150 of my favorites, but if I had to pick one, it’s probably the Statue of Liberty picture because John represents for a lot of people a kind of personal freedom in the same way that the Statue of Liberty does. And I’m kind of proud of that one also because it was a photo session situation and I thought up [the concept] and he agreed with me.
DH: Do you think he had a sense of his place in history, because he was still kind of young and people don’t really think of themselves in those terms.
BG: I don’t think he did in a sense like that. He was way too young to sum it up and accept all his accomplishments. I wish he had know how many people admired him. That when he died there was such an outpouring around the world. I don’t think he knew how deeply he affected so many people. Because when he was alive there was a lot of protest. Nowadays people are really happy that John and Yoko were for peace, but back in the late ‘60s the newspapers used to write them up as lunatics, you have long hair for peace what is that going to do for peace.
DH: The government was trying to throw them out of the country.
BG: Yeah, so I don’t think he knew himself just how popular and how much he meant to so many people.
DH: That’s kind of interesting going back to the Dylan comparison for a minute. Watching that documentary it reminds you how angry people were at Dylan for playing a different kind of music, how much protest there was that in fact he moved in a less political direction as he matured. John was kind of getting more political. Would you say that that was due to Yoko’s pushing.
BG: Not pushing.
BG: Yeah, that he had a partner to follow those ideas with rather than someone who opposed him and said, “Oh, I wouldn’t take a chance if I were you. You know Yoko was used to taking chances and was used to being out there and being attacked for it.