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 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 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.
BG: She just made it fun and a party. Maybe that’s what he wanted, was a girl like his mother.
BG: A heroin addict who would treat him like a mother.
BG: And that’s what she did.
AH: I think a lot of us subconsciously look for a partner that’s a little bit like our parents.
BG: Most of us. [laughs]
AH: Yeah, I mean I know I do. So I was curious about… You’ve got so many great pictures and I’m sure there’s a million great stories behind them but I was looking at the Led Zeppelin picture in front of the plane…
AH: Did you ever get on that plane with them?
BG: Yeah, I got on that plane that day.
AH: Oh, amazing. Where did you fly to?
BG: That’s the only time I traveled with Led Zeppelin. People are always asking me Led Zeppelin stories, I know very little, that’s maybe why I’m still alive.
AH: Yeah. [laughs.]
BG: I got an assignment with Rock Scene magazine with Lisa Robinson, which is how I got most of my assignments, or a lot of them anyway.
BG: We’re with Lisa Robinson. She called up one day, and I didn’t really know much about Led Zeppelin. I knew they were the hero to a whole generation but for me…
AH: You didn’t really listen to them?
BG: I already had heroes by the time they came around, you know?
BG: And I didn’t really like that kind of screaming metal, drag the song on forever kind of singing.
BG: You know, Robert Plant goes “Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah, ah…”
AH: [laughs] Yeah.
BG: I’m like, “Sing the song, already!”
AH: [laughing] Yeah.
BG: I grew up on Chuck Berry. Get it over with, tell a cute story.
BG: And get it over in three minutes.
AH: It’s funny you say that…
BG: With Led Zeppelin the drum solo was 20 minutes. It went on forever.
AH: I was talking to a friend of yours, you know this guy, he owns Norman’s Records?
BG: Oh yeah, Norman. I know Norman, yeah.
AH: Norman’s records is right next door to my house.
BG: Oh, really!
AH: So I go there all the time and I always talk to him and we always share a love of like, Roxy Music. Certain older bands. He told me he knew you because he was a rock photographer as well for a while.
BG: Well, he’s one of the first people I met in New York.
AH: Cool, yeah he said to say ‘Hi.’ But he said that he was a rock photographer for many years ‘cause I said “Hey, Robert Plant just played at Brooklyn Bowl, did you go see him?” And I didn’t see him, but I was just curious and he said “Naw, I don’t really care about Led Zeppelin.” And I was like “What?! Like, who doesn’t like Led Zeppelin?!
AH: He’s like “Well, you gotta understand, I was a rock photographer so there were so many 20 minute guitar solos.“
BG: They played in the dark! [AH laughs] They played with green and blue lights on. Or with a laser. Now, a laser looks nice but you can’t take pictures in that. It’s really difficult. I’m one of the few who actually got pictures of Jimmy in the laser.
BG: They were hard to photograph. The songs went on forever. Norm is from my generation, where you hear Chuck Berry and then the Beatles and then the Rolling Stones and all of a sudden Led Zeppelin is dragging it out forever, you know?
AH: Right, these white boys are trying to play the blues kind of thing?
BG: Yeah that too, that too.
AH: A little artificial.
BG: If you actually heard the original Bo Diddley and Muddy Waters…You knew where the blues came from.
BG: So it wasn’t a new thing for me when I saw Zeppelin. What was new for me was that they had their own airplane.
AH: What was it called again?
BG: Actually, it was rented. It wasn’t theirs.
AH: Oh, Ok.
BG: It was theirs that month. [laughs]
AH: [laughing] Ok.
BG: It was called the Starship One. The Rolling Stones rented it, I’d been on the plane with Elton John, Alice Cooper had it. A lot of different bands.
AH: Oh, so you were all in the same plane with other people.
BG: You’d rent it for a month or two when you had a tour. But you didn’t own it, it was- I mean, why bother? You could rent it and only needed it for a month.
AH: Right, makes sense.
BG: But still, it was very extravagant to rent something that big. ‘Cause you could also rent an eight-seater and get the band somewhere without having to get a 7, it was a 767. It was huge!
AH: Yeah. And there’s like a bed in the back, right?
BG: Two bedrooms in the back.
BG: There were a couple of rows, double rows of first class style seats in the front. In the middle there was a large brass bar with a piano keyboard built into the end. On the other side there were like bar, kinda banquet seats. And then behind that there were two bedrooms in the back. One of the bedrooms had an electric fireplace.
AH: Oh wow.
BG: So it was pretty cushy.
BG: And I remember Lisa calling and saying, you know, “We’re gonna to go photograph Led Zeppelin, we’re going to see Led Zeppelin” and I said “Where are they?” and she said “They’re in Pittsburgh,” and I said “Well, how am I gonna get to Pittsburgh?” She’s going “They have their own plane” and I’m like “Really? That’s nice.”
BG: The thing is, when we went to meet them at a hotel, we were out front waiting for them to come out and as the band came out- Peter Grant was their manager- he was a large, muscular guy, used to be a wrestler actually, or boxer. He came out with a tall guy, who was also a pretty muscular guy, Richard Cole was his sidekick. And there was about 8 people standing on the sidewalk who were autograph- you know, fans, groupies, fans.
BG: You know, waiting for the band to get autographs. And Peter Grant walked right into them and knocked them over. Without so much as even pushing them aside brusquely. He just walked right into them as if they weren’t there. The way a bowling ball hits a bowling pin. And he just knocked them down.
BG: And I just thought that was so brutal and unnecessary and mean.
BG: I decided right then and there never to be in front of him. [laughs] You know?
AH: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
BG: And I didn’t really want to hang out with the band. You know, when you work with bands, very often your impression of the band is not so much about the music but about who they actually are and how they actually operate. And the band themselves didn’t really connect with me because they were pretty stoned and I wasn’t a girl. [AH laughs] So there was no reason for them to talk to me.
AH: [laughing] Right.
BG: And so I had really very little to do with Led Zeppelin other than just seeing them as they came through New York, which, the next couple of years they played Madison Square Garden, I’d go shoot and come back. Which is funny because people think I have a big association with them because my photos of them are very popular.
BG: My picture of them in front of the airplane is one of the iconic photos of the ‘70s. It kinda sums up the excess of the ‘70s. But people I knew at press practically lived with them. And took thousands of pictures of them for every one that I took. But I kinda have a reputation ‘cause people like my pictures of them.
AH: Yeah. Amazing.
BG: But I didn’t really like hanging out them. Nowadays, it’s a different story. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page are both sober and older and very nice to me.
BG: But back then it was different.
AH: What’s your favorite picture of a musician that didn’t necessarily get extremely popular. Or, do you have one?
BG: Most of the ones I liked didn’t get popular! [laughs] Way back starting with the Miamis or, I dunno, I’m trying to think of the ones. I like novelty songs in the ‘50s, you know, and ‘60s. And then I would like somebody like the Buffalo Springfield, who break up after a couple of records.
BG: In the ‘70s certainly I liked the Dolls and then they broke up after the 2nd record. And Suzi Quatro who was huge in Europe but didn’t make it here in America until she was on TV in a corny part on “Happy Days.”
AH: Oh, yeah.
BG: You know, The Miamis were everybody’s favorite! In the mid-70s they opened for the New York Dolls, for Blondie, Talking Heads- everybody! Everybody knew the Miamis, they were the most fun band around CBGB’s. And they disappeared.
BG: I like to say that they wrote 78 number one hits that were never recorded.
AH: Yeah. [laughs]
BG: Nowadays online, I see I think they’ve got their demo, that’s finally been released as a record. But they never really got to do a quality productions.
BG: Leading up to most recently a few years ago I was totally enamored with a band called the Sex Slaves with an amazing first record. And played in a van, back and forth across America, for seven years. And just didn’t catch on. It’s funny ‘cause The Sex Slaves sing very macho songs with a chorus, for instance, “I just want to fuck you all night long.” Which is something I can relate to, you know? [AH laughs.] You would think that it sounds kinda chauvinist, but you go to their shows and 80% of their audience was tattooed, hot-looking women, you know?
AH: I got here early but I couldn’t figure out how to get to your house.
BG: Well, this apartment, it’s a very large building and this apartment is kind of a little dead-end cul-de-sac where you actually have to want to, you want to come here. You don’t find it by accident. And in fact the first apartment when I first moved into the building was right down across from the mailboxes, the first one that you come to when you walk in the building.
BG: And John and Yoko lived around the corner on Bank Street. As I got to know them in the first few years they’d come by a couple times, they’d stop by our apartment, we’d stop by theirs, whatever. But they’d come to the apartment a few times, and they’d been in the building, but then when I moved up to this apartment, that weekend as I was moving the last few things out of the apartment on Friday night, I was kind of making the last couple of prints before I took my darkroom apart and John called me. He hadn’t been drinking, it was ’75, early July. Late June or early July of ’75. And John had been at home, Yoko was pregnant. He hadn’t been going out. And he called me and he said, “I haven’t been going out much but Harry’s here, so I gotta go out.” You know, Harry Nilsson.
BG: They were like real drinking buddies.
BG: He says “I’m going out tonight and we want you to come with us, ‘cause you know all the club owners and where to go.” So, I said, “Alright, fine I’ll meet you at Ashley’s.” Which was nearby over on 13th street and 5th avenue. But I said, “I have to finish up a couple of prints, I’ll meet you at Ashley’s.” So an hour later, whenever I got over to Ashley’s, they had just left and, ‘cause when they would go to a place, people would find out and it would get so crowded and people crowding around them that after a little while, they would just have to leave. And they’d gone up to Trax on 72nd street. T-R-A-X, another club that was around in those days. And, so I went up to Trax. I had a car, I used to drive around the city all the time, a little Volkswagen. So I went to Trax and they had just left. And they’d gone over to JP’s on the East Side. So I drove over to JP’s and by the time I got there they had just left. And I thought “I’m not doing this all night.”
BG: I kinda gave up and I came home on a Friday night.
AH: And this was like before cellphones so you couldn’t just text where they’re at.
BG: Didn’t have a cellphone, you couldn’t find anybody.
BG: So I just came back home, and so, Sunday afternoon John called me. And I had a couple of friends here, we finished moving everything upstairs and I remember we had gotten everything except the stereo, it was the last thing to bring up. And John called and he said “I’m in the neighborhood, can I come by before I go home?” and I was like, “Hey, sure.” He’d just want a cup of coffee to chill out from wherever he’d been. And I said yes. So then I said, “Well, buzz me when you get here, ask the doorman to buzz me, I’ll come down and get you, it’s a little confusing to find the apartment.” And he said “Alright,” but then about half hour later, he still isn’t here and I was walking across the apartment and says “Call the doorman and see if, you know, a strange English guy is showing up.”
BG: And instead he came walking in, into the apartment And the first thing he says is “Man, you got a lot of weird neighbors.” ‘Cause this whole building is artists.
BG: All different kinds. Sculptors, painters, writers, photographers, filmmakers, musicians. And here’s John Lennon on a summer afternoon, around four o’clock in the afternoon ringing the doorbell. Out of the blue. So they open the door and there’s John Lennon standing there. So everybody said “Oh, let me show you my painting, let me show you my sculpture. I just made a new dance, please listen to my new song!”
BG: Everybody had something to show him! So he thought that was pretty funny.
BG: I just realized that if he could find my apartment in the state he was in after being up with Harry for three days…Then anyone who wanted to find us could find us.
AH: Yeah, exactly.
BG: But no, it’s not easy.
AH: What about Johnny Thunders? Were you good friends with him?
BG: Yeah. Johnny used to bring his kid over here. ‘Cause I usually had a babysitter or somebody working here ‘cause I had my son. And so he would bring his son by to play with my son and we’d go out.
AH: Oh, okay cool. Were they around the same age?
BG: Yeah. Johnny was a good guy. A very intelligent guy. Surprising thing that people don’t know about him. He was always asking me “Did you read this book? Did you read that book?” He was always reading a lot.
BG: I was like “Johnny, when do you read? You know, I don’t have time to read, when do you have time to read?” and he said “Oh, I’m sitting on a tour bus or in a hotel room so often.” So, he would read a lot. Some people just watch TV, he would read.
AH: Well that’s, yeah, that’s cool to know ‘cause I feel like as much as I like Johnny Thunders, I don’t really know that much personal information about him. And I feel like most people just think he was a junkie…
BG: Mmm. He was pretty smart and very funny.
AH: Yeah, and really good style! I feel like he had some of the best style of that time. You know, the hair and the clothes.
BG: Well, and it was- his hair, it’d just grow all the time…
BG: It was just always growing and he could cut it every night and it’d keep growing.
AH: Was he Italian?
BG: Italian Stallion. [AH laughs.]
AH: What about Dee Dee?
BG: Dee Dee Ramone, it was so tragic that he died because he was just on a roll and Dee Dee was making a lot of paintings.
AH: Yeah, I remember.
BG: He also wrote several books. When he died he had two books about to be published and he had a whole stash of paintings that he was about to start some art shows. And I think it’s one of those situations where you’re not depressed but you’re just under pressure, you just need to take a little vacation. And you take your usual dose and since he hadn’t been taking dope for years, he’d been clean, the usual dose was way too much and it killed him.
AH: So you think it was an accidental O.D.? Not like a depressed, trying to get out…
BG: With Dee Dee I think it was an accident.
BG: And it was a real shame because he really was about to come into his own as his own self. Not just as the Ramone.
AH: Yeah! He was having a resurgence. I remember, I actually saw him play at a bowling alley in Long Beach, California. It’s when I was still living in California – I think it was a couple weeks before he died. And probably one of his last shows. Maybe the last show. But the one thing that made me sad is I think he was probably on drugs then. He either was on drugs or he just was like- he looked like he was on drugs and he had a really bad attitude. Like a snarl on his face.
BG: I saw him play in New York. Last time I saw him – because a few months before he came – with Dee Dee there’s Good Dee Dee and Bad Dee-Dee.
BG: And I always knew the Good Dee-Dee.
BG: I introduced him to his first wife, I took pictures of their wedding…
BG: I knew them through a lot of good times. She really cleaned him up. At one point he was almost ten years sober. Besides the coins you get from AA, you can get a keychain and he had hooked his keychains together and he had a whole little tail of like 10 years worth of being sober. And his wife had really kind of cleaned up his accounts. Dee Dee wrote the songs. He made a lot of money.
AH: Oh, he wrote all the songs?
BG: Well, a lot of them.
BG: And she got all of that organized, had a good accountant taking care of everything. I remember when she called me up and says “We don’t rent our apartment anymore, we own the building.”
AH: That’s awesome.
BG: They each had a Cadillac. When Dee Dee walked out he left her both cars, the building – he left her everything except his guitars and his publishing. He wasn’t too stupid.
BG: [laughs] He kept the publishing. But he had met this little girl who was a complete tease and he just, you know, fell head over heels as guys tend to do.
BG: And he walked out on his marriage, started shacking up with the girl for a while and then the band, The Ramones went out on tour, they’d been recording an album all winter and they went out on tour in spring. He decided to just leave the band and come back to be with her. And the band was so furious that he just walked out and destroyed their lives as well. I mean, they were out there for a whole tour. So I didn’t know how crazy he could be. ‘Cause a couple weeks later, Dee Dee was – after he came home from the tour, he started a band with the girl, a couple weeks later they played at the New Music Seminar. A couple people said to the girl that she was so good that they would sign her without Dee Dee. So she left him that night!
AH: Oh, really?
BG: She did not become a big star. They did not sign her without him.
AH: Right, right.
BG: It all fell apart for all of them. Dee Dee was pretty miserable and I remember he came to the Cat Club one night he was like “I don’t have any friends, and I don’t have a band and I don’t have a girlfriend.” And I said “Well, Dee Dee, I like you and there’s a whole room of people in here who like you so why don’t you come in here and cheer up?” And, actually it was at that same place where Arturo was talking about “Do you think we should take Dee Dee back in the band?” And the way I felt, not knowing Dee Dee as well as they did was “Yeah, of course! Dee Dee writes the songs, he’s like a part of the Ramones! The Ramones are four guys!” It’s like asking do we take Ringo back in the band.
BG: He’s a Ramone, you know! Arturo said, “Oh, but you don’t know how difficult he is to be with.” I said “No, I don’t.” But then after he had written his autobiography and I had given the author a bunch of pictures for the book. She had told me she was going to pay me when the book was published, and they published the book and she wasn’t paying me.
AH: Right! That’s the same one that Legs did the forward for, right?
BG: I think so, his biography.
AH: Yeah, yeah.
BG: And he wasn’t paying me for it. So he was at some event and I kind of said to him “You know, I don’t want to bug you, but who should I call to find out about getting paid for the book?”
BG: And he exploded. He called me like… At first he said “Just get away!” and then he called me at five in the morning, screaming.
AH: Oh no!
BG: So loud I couldn’t hold the phone next to my ear. Just screaming and yelling that he wasn’t getting paid for the book. I said, “The girl made a deal that she was going to pay me.”
BG: Or the book should pay, somebody should pay for it.
BG: And he was just screaming and yelling and it was frightening, you know. Somebody as powerful as Dee Dee that angry at you, you know. And out of the blue, because we’d always been pretty close friends. And I decided since I was awake early and I called up the editor in England and I said “Look, you don’t have permission to use my pictures until I get paid for them. And it looks like I’m not getting paid for them so you take the pictures out of the book, stop selling books with my pictures in them.” So they immediately paid me so that was over. And actually it was a couple days later I had dinner with Joey Ramone and Monty, their road manager and I mentioned what had happened, and they both laugh, they said “Ah, now you know the bad Dee Dee!”
AH: Yeah! [laughs]
BG: And I was like, “Well, I didn’t know there was this other side. I had always seen Dee Dee as a pretty nice, easy-going guy.”
BG: And they’re “Oh no, there’s a bad Dee Dee, too.”
BG: And actually, at Arturo’s I saw one of Dee Dee’s paintings and took a picture of it, which I can show you here. And it’s “Good Dee Dee Bad Dee Dee.” And he knew it.
BG: And one side he said “I’m so lovable and you know, the nicest guy” and the other side he says “All I have is hate and anger.”
AH: Right. Yeah.
BG: And that was Dee Dee. He was lovable, but you didn’t want to be on his bad side, especially when he was carrying a baseball bat. [Laughs]
AH: Yeah. Yeah, I think in every, interview I’ve seen, every video clip he’s like super sweet and charming and kind of like a big kid kind of attitude and very honest.
BG: Mm. Yeah, he was always nice.
AH: That last art show my friend Brynne was like “I want to buy Dee Dee’s painting.” This was a week before he died. She went to his art show in Southern California, like in Long Beach.
BG: Oh, uh-huh.
AH: And she goes “I really want to buy this Dee Dee Ramone painting but it’s like $200,” and that was a lot of money.
BG: Mmm, yeah.
AH: She’s like “It’s kinda like, it’s like 200 dollars, I dunno” and I was like “You should buy it.”
AH: “Definitely buy it.” And so she-
BG: Yeah, it’s worth a lot more now.
AH: Yeah, she bought it and then 5 days to a week later he was dead and she goes “I feel bad for saying this, but I’m really glad I bought that painting.”
BG: Yeah, yeah.
AH: Yeah that was pretty shocking.
BG: Better than buying it because he’s dead.
AH: Right, exactly. [Both laugh.] I know, she liked the painting, she wanted to support… She’s like “The money goes to him, and I think he’s awesome.”
BG: Yeah, he didn’t need money. But still.
AH: Yeah. It’s interesting that he didn’t need money, though. ‘Cause he just…
BG: Well, ‘cause he didn’t look it…
AH: He didn’t look it!
BG: And actually when I took him to a concert- I drove him to see the Ramones the first time he went to see them after they had broken up. It was about eight years later and I hadn’t seen the band since. He might have seen them around but he hadn’t seen the band perform. And they were playing at The Chance, which is a nice club up in Poughkeepsie.
BG: About an hour and a half away. The thing was there was a girl that we both knew. Dee Dee had stayed with her a little bit. I had gone out with her on and off, out, in, up, down, backwards. It was like a [laughs] very tempestuous relationship. And Dee Dee had had a relationship with her as well. And in the end we ended being pretty good friends at one point. And so I was going up to see the Ramones so Patty was going to come along too and I think Sean Lennon and his girlfriend were going to come that night. And I think Sean didn’t come, but his girlfriend did. But anyway, I went to pick him up at the Chelsea hotel where he was staying. And I get there and Patty’s waiting out front because I asked her to meet us there. She was waiting out front and Dee Dee had gone back inside, he wasn’t coming. He had come down and he had seen her and he was like “I’m not getting in a car with you.”
BG: So I had to go back inside and talk him into coming. I went upstairs and I said “Dee Dee, get over it. She’ll sit in the front, you’ll sit in the back. You’re not coming to see her, you’re coming to see the Ramones, you know. Let’s go to the show!”
BG: The thing about it was that when I went upstairs – I went into his hotel room, and it looked like the kind of room when somebody moves out. There was a bed that was stripped with maybe a sheet strewn across it on a bare mattress. There was a sock in the corner. [AH laughs] There were a couple of crumbled up deli bags. There was no things. There was no suitcases or – I didn’t even see guitar cases, though I know he had them somewhere around. But not right there. And I was like “Dee Dee, where’s your stuff?” and he goes “This is my stuff.” Like, what he was wearing is what he owned.
AH: Oh, wow.
BG: He was a very bare, minimal kind of guy. Not a possessions guy. Anyway, he came with us and it was the first time he’d seen the band in a long time and they kind of reconnected and became friends again. He was always, even after he was out of the band, he was writing songs for them. And collecting his royalties for them. [laughs]
BG: But he didn’t live high. I mean he had many millions of dollars.
AH: Huh. Yeah I would have never…
BG: But he didn’t live extravagantly. When he was in Queens he had a Cadillac ‘cause he could. But not a lot else. You know, you didn’t see him showing up in fancy clothes or restaurants…
AH: Yeah! Like when I saw him right before he died he was like, literally this really shitty little bus, like van.
BG: Yeah, yeah.
AH: That they were touring in. Him and a girl, I guess –
BG: I mean Johnny had the basic work ethic. Where you just don’t spend any money.
BG: One time when the Ramones went to Boston, they were opening for David Johansen band. David said to Joey at one point “Do you wanna hang out after the show?” And Joey said “No, no we gotta drive back to New York.” And David said “Oh, but aren’t you opening for us tomorrow night here in Boston?” and Joey said “Yeah, but we have to- you know, Johnny- he doesn’t like to spend money on hotels.” [AH laughs.] And David says “So you’re going to drive 5 or 6 hours back to New York and 5 or 6 hours back tomorrow? Just to save 40 dollars on a hotel room?” and he’s like “Yeah.”
AH: That’s ridiculous.
BG: Johnny didn’t like spending money.
AH: Yeah. Well there’s gas money. But I guess it was cheaper back then.
BG: It was cheaper back then. [AH laughs.]
AH: A couple more questions. Do you still shoot in film?
BG: No. I use a digital camera.
AH: Yeah. Do you like film better? Is that kind of your-
BG: I don’t like one or the other. It doesn’t really matter.
AH: It doesn’t matter to you?
BG: I’m old enough to remember when oil painters thought that acrylic was a sacrilege, it was plastic and it wasn’t real.
BG: People got over that.
AH: Yeah, yeah.
BG: I was more interested in getting an image. You know, if I were born today I wouldn’t even know about film.
BG: I don’t think you get a better image, because to me it wasn’t about the quality of the tones of the image. It was about what the image was saying. Is there a message? Are you seeing something? Are you getting something from it?
BG: That’s what matters to me. Not whether there’s fine grain. And people are always saying “Oh, it’s very grainy, it’s not even in focus.” Does it see something or not?
AH: Yeah, yeah.
BG: What I like to say is sometimes the subject is not sharp but the feelings are always clear.
BG: That’s what my photography’s about. So it doesn’t matter whether it’s film or digital. It matters whether the picture’s saying something.
BG: I had an interesting conversation with D.A. Pennebaker. Which is not about film or digital but it was just saying something that, uh. I met him and he’s a big long-time hero of mine in life. And D.A. Pennebaker made “Don’t Look Back” and many other things but just for that alone he’s in the pantheon of the greats.
BG: And so I met him, and I was literally kneeling down ‘cause he was in a chair and it felt like,“We’re not worthy,” kinda pose, you know? Which was fine because that’s what I felt with him, you know? And he was asking me “What do you do?“ and I said “I’m a photographer and I take pictures for rock bands.” And he says his father was a photographer and his father was always struggling, never making much money and he said “So I determined I was never going to be a photographer” and I said “True, you don’t make much money.” And he said, “And besides, when I see a picture I want to see it turn around and talk.” And I said “Well, I kind of agree with you, I like that feeling, but making movies is, you know, takes way too much time. I get bored.” You know, it’s way too involved to make a movie.
BG: And then, uh, “I said, you know I took the picture of John Lennon with the New York City T-shirt.” And he turned and he said, “Oh, that picture’s talking!”
AH: Oh, that’s cool!
BG: I was like, “Oh my god!” I just fell over, my hero telling me that. It was amazing, yeah.
AH: That’s really nice, yeah! Oh my gosh, that’s so cool. That’s a great story.
BG: Lately I’ve been getting a lot of good accolades. I just got a big award Friday night- they made up this award and they gave it to me and everybody seems really thrilled about it.
AH: Oh cool, who gave it to you?
BG: The John Lennon Real Love Award. There’s an organization that actually helps a lot of people, called Theatre Within, and they help kids who are ill. The John Lennon Real Love Organization brings music to kids that are sick.
AH: Aw, that’s cool.
BG: And gives them some happiness in their time of difficulties.
BG: And it’s a really good organization. So I’ve been supporting them and I give them pictures and whatever else I can. I give them things that they can sell to raise money. And so they gave me this award and people are really kind of making a big deal about it.
AH: Oh, cool!
BG: I don’t get too many awards, so it’s a good thing.
AH: Do you feel like it took a long time to get some sort of praise?
BG: Well, yeah because many… First of all, when we went to CBGB’s one of the most common ways to describe bands was- certainly the Ramones or Talking Heads or Television or Patti Smith or Blondie or any of them – “No commercial potential.”
BG: Like, you’d never expect those bands…
AH: To get big.
BG: To go anywhere, to get anywhere, to get signed. Everybody outside of downtown New York wouldn’t be interested. And we were only interested because it was something to do that we didn’t have to pay for. [laughs]
BG: I mean, a guy would get in a band not to become world famous or even rich, it was just to get a beer and a girl.
BG: That was like a really good night, you know? [laughs]
BG: The fact that they got signed, that they- first of all the fact that they played enough to get good, and then got signed and then the whole world found out, and they still know about today is just beyond anybody’s imagination.
BG: So, for me, I was lucky that I worked with Lisa Robinson. We had a magazine called Rock Scene, and it was sort of a fan ‘zine and we did it for fun, there was no money in it. But we did put bands that we liked in it. Because there was no record company advertising, we didn’t have to put in the bands that were signed by the record companies that were paying for the magazine.
BG: We just put in bands we liked. And we were the first magazine that had the Sex Pistols or the Clash in America and things like that. And because it was Rock Scene, it was about the whole scene, so, and it turned out to be a lot of photos. Almost like a comic book, it was almost all photos. So instead of taking one picture of a guy with a microphone and having two pages of writing about what he wanted for breakfast, there was two pages of pictures. So I would take a picture in the hotel, take a picture on the bus, take a picture with the promoter, take a picture at the after party, you know, backstage, all kinds of pictures that turned into my library of what is now considered cultural history.
BG: And back then was considered teenage fun. [laughs]
AH: Right, exactly! And you were doing it for fun.
BG: But no commercial potential back then. It’s only now that people are starting to appreciate what it was.
AH: Right. Well, it’s interesting how it went from, like, you having Rock Scene and Legs doing the Punk thing, and all these magazines, or you know, newspapers, or ‘zines I guess? And then, when I was growing up people still made little ‘zines, you know? They might be a dollar or whatever and people sell them at shows…
AH: Now it’s like that kind of doesn’t really exist, now it’s just the internet so there’s blogs.
BG: Well, there’s all the information on the internet all the time. That really changed a lot. You don’t have to seek out the news, it’s right there in your hand on your phone. You can find out anything in the whole world. You know, that people have this amazing invention that will give them the entire cultural, history of mankind and all they do is play cat videos, you know? [laughs]
AH: I know, I know, exactly! [both laugh]
BG: You know a friend of mind referred to young people today as the “Next” generation. Because you’ll be telling them something and in the middle of your sentence they’ll start Googling what you’re talking about. A video will come up, they’ll watch 10 seconds of the video and go “Oh yeah, I got it. Next.”
BG: You know?
BG: And there’s no depth to it. You don’t spend a night in CBGB’s for months to see a band develop and get better.
BG: So where do they get better?
AH: Mhm. Right.
BG: I’m not sorry about the way everything has changed. It’s very different from when I grew up and I’m just thrilled to be alive to see the changes. ‘Cause I didn’t expect it to be the same, you know? I’m just very surprised the way it did turn out. [laughs.]
BG: You know, just because these were things that I did in my generation. I remember when I was 20, and in my day they used to say “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”
BG: Nowadays, I’m way over 30. And I knew back then that people who were my grandfather’s age were not the same as me. They would not be into the same things that I was, they would not appreciate the same kind of things that I did, so they weren’t even valid to comment on. And that’s the way I feel about 20 years later: why should I comment on it? I don’t experience it the way they do.
AH: Yeah. Different perspective.
BG: I’m not in that generation and I don’t expect to be and the only way I can learn anything is just by being me and not judging them.
BG: And not saying, “Well, kid in my day we used to do it like this, why don’t you do it like I did?” Well, because that was 40 years ago. Why should you do it like it was? There was no internet there was no world of today back then. So you have to relate to the world of today. I find that to be exciting.
BG: To see the differences. I try to know young people so I get a hint of what’s going on.
AH: Yeah. [ laughs]
BG: I listen to my grandchildren, they tell me some things, you know. [laughs]
AH: Crazy. I didn’t even know you had grandchildren.
BG: Yeah, I didn’t either for a while but now I do! [both laugh] That was a very unexpected development in my life, that I lived long enough to have grandchildren. And I love them more than anything.
AH: Yeah. It must be fun to be a grandparent. Spoil them.
BG: It is! It’s great fun to be a parent but it’s a lot of work.
BG: But being a grandparent you have a lot less work.
AH: Oh yeah, totally. So last question. A common question that you get, but what’s your favorite picture or one of your favorites? I’m sure there’s a lot.
BG: How did I answer it the other day? Like “where do I start?” I got a lot of favorites. I mean, who’s more exciting than Tina Turner, John Lennon, New York Dolls, the Clash, Sex Pistols, Debbie Harry? I got favorites of all of them.
BG: So I put one over the other?
AH: Yeah, so you just can’t…
BG: Like, this one is even more better, you know. If you want to see my 500 favorites, get my book Rock Scene.
AH: [laughing] Right, ok!
BG: Start with that. I also have a book of 135 John Lennon favorites, there’s also a book of New York Dolls favorites.
BG: And I have a book of Clash pictures. And my new books that are coming out in February, there’ll be a book of photos of Yoko Ono called See Hear Yoko.
BG: And a book of The Clash photos which was published in early 2000/2001 and has been out of print for 10 years. It sold out back then and it’s been out of print. Now it’s finally going back into print, it’ll be out in February.
BG: A friend of mine who’s a DJ in Austin, Texas, Jody Denberg, he’s been making interviews with Yoko for the last 25 years. All of her official interviews, Jody does those. And so Jody suggested taking quotes from his interviews with Yoko, you know, it’s Yoko’s words. And combining them with my pictures of Yoko.
AH: Oh, cool!
BG: And making a book as a gift strictly for her. And nowadays online you can enter upload your pictures into a program and they’ll print it in a hardcover book and send a hardcover book. Rather than just having scrapbooks for photo.
BG: And so we made this book for Yoko and my studio here did all the layout and we got the words from Jody and went through all the interviews quotes. I kept shying away from any kind of commercial intention because it really was a gift for her. So we picked the pictures for her.
AH: Yeah. ‘Cause it was for her 80th birthday, you said? Yeah.
BG: And then as a public – For her 80th. And she’s a powerhouse. More energy at 80 than most people.
AH: Yeah, it’s crazy that she’s 80.
BG: It is, it is. And she’s smarter than ever. She’s an amazing woman.
BG: And so, we made the book and we gave it to her and a month later she called and she wanted us to publish it. And then a month later her lawyer called and reminded me, he said “Yoko really wants you to publish it.” And so we went out and luckily found a deal. Jody knew somebody who knew somebody, got in touch with Johnny Depp, who has a label, you know a book company that’s distributed by Harper Collins.
AH: Oh, cool.
BG: And so he brought us to Harper Collins and company is called Infinitum Nihil, which means “All is nothing.” And it’s coming out in February.
AH: Yeah, that’s awesome. So did you meet Johnny Depp when you were doing that…
BG: No, I met him before. We actually had a conversation about a year ago. Which was quite exciting. I’m driving my car, you know, my phone is connected to my car so I’m driving and all of a sudden it’s like “Hello, Bob? It’s Johnny Depp.” I’m like “Oh shit, really?” [both laugh] And he was like “Are you busy?” I said, “I’m pulling over,” I don’t want to play phone tag with that guy, you know?
AH: Right, yeah totally!
BG: He’s a really nice guy, we had a good conversation. He was actually recording with Alice Cooper. And I had just seen Alice a couple weeks before here in New York. Alice was in a movie. Don Letts made a movie about me, it was really good. It has Alice Cooper, Yoko Ono, Debbie Harry, Iggy Pop. It’s called Rock and Roll Exposed. I don’t know how soon this is coming out but it’s on In Demand on Showtime.
AH: Oh, cool!
BG: And it’ll be on until the beginning of February.
AH: So it’s a Showtime movie?
BG: Well it’s not- it was made in England for SkyArt TV but it’s licensed as Showtime so they’ve been showing it all year. And it’s on In Demand.
BG: He’s got Alice and Iggy and Debbie and Yoko and Alice anyways just before I talked to Johnny Depp I was talking to Alice and thanking him for being in the movie. I got a great compliment from Iggy.
AH: What’d he say?
BG: Because I didn’t see him for like a year and a half, almost two years since the movie was made. Last winter I saw Iggy and I went over to him and I was going to say like “Thank you for being in my movie,” and before I could say anything he goes “Hey Bob, how’re you doing?” and he gives me a big hug and he goes “Man, you’re making me famous. Thank you for putting me in your movie!” [AH laughs] I’m like, “I’m making you famous? You’ve got to be kidding me, man. Thank you for being in it!” He goes “No, man, my stock broker saw it on T.V. and he called me up and he said I was really good.” [Both laugh.]
AH: Aw, that’s cute. That’s so funny. Is that- ‘cause I saw a documentary, a documentary about you- is that the same one that you’re talking about, you think?
BG: Yeah, yeah. It’s called Rock and Roll Exposed.
BG: If it had Iggy and Alice it’s the same one.
AH: Yeah, yeah, yeah. That was really good!
AH: I was impressed.
BG: Yeah, Don’s an amazing director. Debbie was saying how Don got everybody, the way he edits it’s like they finish each others sentences.
BG: He knows what he wants to make. And a lot of documentary people, they go and they get some people who are interesting about that topic and they’ll film a bunch of things and then they put it together like a jigsaw puzzle.
AH: They slice it together. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
BG: Like, “how can we put this together?” Don, on the other hand, seems to have a script and he has a clear idea of what he wants to say. And then he comes up with the people who he thinks can say that. Because I’ve done interviews with him and most interviews I do, video or T.V., they’ll ask me a question and I’ll just go on. And they just, you know, listen and at the end every once in a while they hear something they like and they go “Oh, that was great, that was great.” Whereas Don will ask me a question and he’ll just be sitting there listening while I’m talking. And then he’ll ask me another question and be listening. And then halfway through a quest- he goes “Great, that’s it!” and he’ll stop me and I’m like “But I’m not done,” he goes “No, but you said exactly what I need!” You know, like he gets his sentences.
BG: And he strings his movie together from those sentences.
AH: That’s very smart.
BG: And so he really tells a story, it’s really fun. He made a great film about Strummerville, which is the charity that Joe Strummer’s widow set up after he passed. And I remember going to it at South by Southwest and saying like “Who’d make a film about a charity, is this going to be at all interesting?” You know?
AH: Yeah! Totally.[laughing]
BG: It was fascinating. Fascinating. He made it really exciting, he found people that are really worth filming, somehow he found a couple of good people before they got involved in the charity and followed them through their involvement and how they succeeded through the help of the charity. They fund music education and recording for people who can’t afford it. And they do a great job. And Don did a wonderful job filming them and explaining what they do.
AH: Cool. Who, real quick, okay this is last, last question. Who’s your, who did you like best in the Clash ‘cause I think Joe Strummer to me seems…
BG: You know, I don’t make lists. I don’t have a best, I don’t have a favorite…But you’re trying to compare Joe Strummer with Mick Jones with Paul Simonon. Those are three amazing people. You’re lucky to know one of them.
AH: Right. So you were friends with all of them, you got along with all of them?
BG: Yeah. Yes I do.
AH: Oh, ok, cool.
BG: Except Joe, but, you know. [laughs]
AH: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
BG: But Joe used to sleep on the couch right here.
BG: When he would come to New York. Yeah.
AH: Yeah, he seems like someone I would have really wanted to meet.
BG: He was the one I was probably closest to.
AH: He seemed like the most honest and real, you know?
BG: He was. He was. And he would come out and hang out with people and, unlike many pop stars who talk to people…
BG: Joe would listen to them.
AH: Oh, cool.
BG: And that was a big difference. He didn’t just talk about himself. He listened to them, he wanted to find out what other people were thinking. And he would write songs about that. He wanted to know how his songs affected people. And he would listen to them. Hours on end. Sometimes really obnoxious people. And, you know, he’d go to, he’d come to a town and like, here in New York, you know, some people would glom onto him and, you know, a couple of his other friends here in New York, they’re all like “Joe’s talking to that asshole, get him away” and go up and “Joe, come on, we gotta go this way,” “No, no! Listen to what this guy has to say, it’s amazing.” “Joe it’s not amazing.” [AH laughs.] “Yes it is! He’s from Texas he had this amazing life!” Like, “Joe, come on,” you know? [both laugh] But he was like that. He found great, interesting, the most unusual people.
AH: Yeah, that’s cool. I really like that story. Alright, well thank you.
Visit Bob’s website, bobgruen.com