A few months back, I had the pleasure of sitting down at Bob Gruen‘s apartment and listening to a few of his many stories of life with the band. Funny thing is, when I was a teenager, I used to rip out these great color photos of The Sex Pistols from a large photo book in-between the shelves of the library and take them home to hang on my wall. Twenty years later, I’m sitting down with the creator of those shots. Bob is seriously one of the coolest guys I know. He has that great New York realness about him paired with a very relaxed attitude. I always feel like I just meditated while talking to him. Maybe this great quality of his contributed to the reason why many artists, like John Lennon, opened up to him and let him into their personal lives. He has an uncanny ability to catch an image of a musician in their natural state behind the scenes just as well as the rockstar persona onstage. He captured troves of artists with his lens, including Johnny Thunders, Iggy Pop, Led Zeppelin, The Ramones, The Clash, Tina Turner, Blondie, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, The Sex Pistols, Joan Jett, etc…
AH: So the first thing I want to ask you about was that Sid Vicious story – the boot story. When you were on tour with them?
Bob Gruen: Uh-huh.
AH: In America. And all the crazy things that happened – I know that that was… that was a really surprising story when I first heard you say it. ‘Cause I’d never heard it before.
BG: I was kinda surprised, yeah. [Both laugh] It’s a funny way to borrow a pair of boots. Originally, Johnny Thunders had a pair of boots like that and they were, I forget the exact brand, but it was a kind of engineer boots…
BG: Well, engineer boots with a metal toe. Construction boots, actually, construction rubber boots. Johnny had had a pair that somebody in England had stolen. So I was going there and he asked me to to get a pair to bring to him. When I went to get his pair I tried a pair on, I liked them and I bought myself a pair. I do remember going to England wearing a leather jacket, leather pants. With the leather, the engineer boots, and an extra pair in a suitcase. So, I got strip searched.
BG: Not a good idea to go through a customs totally in black leather. Anyway, I got Johnny the boots and Sid had seen Johnny wearing them in England before he came to the U.S.; he was hanging out with Johnny in England. So when he came to the U.S. and saw my boots of the same kind, he wanted them. So one day I ended up on the Sex Pistols tour bus, that’s another story.
BG: We’re going across America and at one point I fell asleep on the couch on the front of the bus. Took my boots off and lay them next to me on the floor and I fell asleep. When I woke up my boots were gone and Sid’s boots were there. He had a pair of paratrooper boots.
BG: That were similar army boots, but with a wide bottom. And I remember Sid saying something like, “I tried on your boots, I really like them and you can have my boots.” So I put on his boots, and I remember jumping off the bus like swinging on the pole of the front door and jumping off the bus cuz they were paratrooper boots and you could jump and land. They were wide and really soft and they were really comfortable. Now, the funny part about the story is that, when I had been wearing the boots one night in England at a pub – it’s a crowded pub and I remember trying to get a little bit higher above the crowd to get a picture. I stood one foot on top of the other foot, just to try and stand on the metal tip a little bit to get a couple inches higher, and I bent the metal tip. The back of the metal tip, I bent it down a little bit. So as you were walking, every once and a while, that metal edge would cut into my foot.
BG: So Sid started wearing them and he gave me his boots. And I liked his boots a lot better. They were very comfortable.
BG: So Sid kept those and what was really sweet about the actual incident happening was that the other three Sex Pistols all came up to me individually- they heard about it- and said, “Mate, you’re with the band and we all like you and don’t think that if you don’t let Sid have your boots that you’re going to get kicked off the bus or something. Sid doesn’t really have that kind of power in the band.”
BG: “And don’t let him threaten you or anything. If you want your boots, just tell him, “Give me back the boots,” and you’ll get your boots back.” I was like, “Well, no actually his boots are kinda comfortable. If he wants to keep wearing mine, that’s fine with me.” You know?
BG: But it was very sweet to have the other guys tell me that. You know, that they cared about me, wanted me to belong.
BG: On the last day of the tour, the Sex Pistols had wanted to buy leather jackets in America. So they took them to this big store in San Francisco that had a lot of leather things. It was actually a kind of gay…
BG: A couple of funny things that day. They all got themselves really nice heavy duty American leather jackets. And while we were in the store I saw that exact same brand of boots. It had an ‘H’ or something, I forget the name of it. And I pointed it out to Sid, “Hey Sid, look, here’s the same kind of boots. Why don’t you get yourself a new pair?” You know, knowing, I knew that they had this bent toe.
BG: And I figured, “Sid, why don’t you get yourself a good pair of boots, you break them in for your own foot, they fit you. Get your size, break them in and you’ll have a good pair of boots.” And he said “No, no, I don’t want to do that, I want to keep your boots because they’re broken in but I’ll buy you a new pair of boots.” So he bought me a brand new pair of boots.
AH: Oh, wow! Who knew he was that nice?
BG: And, I kept his old boots.
BG: Which I still have and you can see on Ebay some day.
AH: Yeah [laughs.]
BG: When you see them on Ebay, you’ll know I went broke. [Laughs.] I’m saving them for a kind of retirement fund.
BG: But, yeah, I walked out with Sid’s boots and my original boots. And still have them today.
AH: I bet the paratrooper ones that are more comfortable probably weren’t as cool looking, right? They weren’t as stylish?
BG: They weren’t as cool looking, no. It was more of an army boot that you had to lace up.
BG: Kind of a hiking boot. Which I did use actually when I went hiking. Six months later I went to Vermont and I brought those boots up there. I didn’t preserve them as an artifact, you know, cause they still had Sid’s puke left on them.
AH: Right, right! [laughs] Well it was nice to know that he was sweet enough to buy you new shoes.
BG: Yeah, well Sid was actually a pretty nice guy. I mean, he wasn’t really vicious, you know? He didn’t go out of his way to look for fights or anything.
AH: It was more of a front?
BG: The way I understand it, it was more of a, you know, “You’re so vicious, you hit me with a flower.”
BG: From the Lou Reed song.
AH: Right. Maybe more of a a front, so people didn’t know how sweet he was? Kind of like a mask?
BG: Yeah, but then he grew into the part.
BG: You know, he’d go around and sneer and growl and pretend to be vicious. But he wasn’t. On the bus he was really missing Nancy a lot, asking me questions… I knew Nancy in New York before he had met her.
AH: Did you like her? Did you think she was a nice person?
BG: Yes and no. You know, I personally liked her, she was very nice to me. She was nice to a lot of people, in a funny way, particularly musicians who were junkies, who couldn’t afford dope. Nancy was a dominatrix, not just a stripper, but she worked in a brothel that was a theme.
BG: There was a nurse, there was a schoolteacher. She was the dominatrix. I found out one time when I got to know her, I had dental surgery and they sewed something up in my mouth that was actually stitches between my teeth and they gave me aspirin, which was not really what I wanted. And Nancy came by, and she was kind of my rock and roll nurse and she gave me something a lot more powerful and took care of me. Stayed here for a couple days and Johansen was here, he took me home from the doctors, actually. And so Nancy was telling us about her job and that she worked in this theme… it was a brownstone in the Upper East Side and each room was a different theme and at one point she said “You guys can come by any time, it’s on me. It’ll be my treat.” You know, any time you want to come by and see what it’s like. And so, me and Johansen used to joke about it late at night after Max’s closed at 4 o’clock in the morning. We’d be driving and we’d say “Uhhh what do you want to do? I dunno, most of the clubs are closed. A couple after hours clubs or we could go up to Nancy’s! You know?” And we’d always say, “Maybe not tonight.” [Laughs.] So we never went there.
AH: Yeah. [laughs]
BG: You know, to me she was a hooker with a heart of gold.
BG: And so I never had a bad experience with her.
AH: How old was she during that time that you knew her?
BG: She must have been- I mean, Sid was 21, I guess she couldn’t have been much older.
AH: Yeah. ‘Cuz I feel like in all of those pictures she looks older cuz she piles on the makeup.
BG: She wore a lot of makeup, she was not attractive at all. She had a lot of makeup on, she was a little dumpy, not really good figure.
BG: And she was always whiny and nothing seemed to be going right and so, she wasn’t popular in that sense or anything. She wasn’t attractive, she wasn’t fun, she wasn’t…
BG: But like I say, she was a hooker with a heart of gold. She would take care of people.
BG: And she certainly took care of Sid. Well now, whether that was a good thing or not depends on who you ask. Sid liked her a lot, Johnny Rotten hates her. She probably led to Sid’s downfall, it’s very hard to stop taking dope when your girlfriend’s encouraging it.
AH: Right, but his mom was also a heroin user I think, so…
BG: Yeah. Sid grew up with dope around. It wasn’t Nancy’s fault, she didn’t introduce him to something new.