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Cameras, Chaos And Cognac: How Bob Gruen Photographed The Spirit Of Rock 'N' Roll

Dec 8, 2020

Photographer Bob Gruen spent decades capturing the lives and performances of rock stars of the '60s, '70s and '80s, including John Lennon, the Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Tina Turner — and many more.

Gruen put in many hours backstage, in studios and on the road, sometimes doing drugs and drinking until dawn with his subjects.

"I carried a little flask of cognac in my camera case. It was part of my equipment. That's the way it was in the '70s," he says. "I don't know how I survived, because I crave peace and quiet — but I actually thrive in chaos."

Gruen approached his subjects collaboratively, often soliciting their opinion about a photograph instead of trying to catch them off guard. He describes his work as an effort to capture the feeling and passion of music — not just the facts.

"For me, rock 'n' roll is all about freedom. It's about the freedom to express your feelings very loudly in public," he says. "I try to capture that moment of freedom, that moment when everybody's yelling 'Yay!' and nobody's thinking about paying the rent."

Gruen looks back on his career in the new memoir, Right Place, Right Time: The Life of a Rock & Roll Photographer.


Interview Highlights

Abrams Books

On taking his now-famous photo of Tina Turner

Tina was just amazing. I was sitting right in front, taking pictures. And at the end of the show, a strobe light flashes and Tina kind of dances off of multiple images in the strobe light. And I just had a few frames left in the camera, and I thought, I wonder what will happen if I take a one-second picture and get a few of these flashes in the same frame? And I took, like, four or five pictures and three or four of them are useless — and one of them is one of the best pictures I've ever taken. And it just captures Tina in five images that just captures the excitement and the energy that's Tina Turner.

On how the culture of drinking and doing drugs was part of the work

It is so hard to understand in the sober light of today what it was like back then, that you would go into a record company office and the guy would take out some coke. You share a couple lines if his were better than yours. You kind of discuss, light a joint, open a beer and then do some business, talk business. ... I don't remember seeing bottles of water, but we had lots of cans of beer. If there was orange juice around, it was for the vodka.

I didn't think I was impaired. We kind of thought that was improving our performance. It was getting us in the mood. It was getting us to enjoy the feeling. - Bob Gruen

Thinking back, that's the way it was. I couldn't do it today. I don't know how I operated on that level back then because the world isn't drunk anymore. It's pretty sober nowadays, but at the time it just seemed so normal. ... I didn't think I was impaired. We kind of thought that was improving our performance. It was getting us in the mood. It was getting us to enjoy the feeling. Rock 'n' roll was supposed to be [about] having fun.

On John Lennon bringing him along for the final legal meeting to dissolve the Beatles

They had been suing [business manager] Allen Klein to get out of the contract that they had made with him in the late '60s. ... They had taken over the whole floor of the Plaza Hotel, and they were negotiating the last bits of the contract and each Beatle had several lawyers and Allen had several lawyers. There must be 15 or 20 lawyers in the picture. And they had a whole room for the secretaries, because in those days they didn't have the kind of fax machines or data processing we have now. And every time they changed a word, they did type it on 20 different copies of the new agreement. And actually, when it was signed, John told me that the original agreement with Allen Klein had been three paragraphs on one page and to break up that agreement took an 87-page contract. But he was very, very happy to finally sign that contract and get it done. Allen was funny. Allen Klein went to Zabar's while they were typing up the last changes and he brought a giant, 2-foot-long rye bread. And so that when we took the picture of them with the contract, it was on top of the rye bread. And the caption said, "They're splitting the bread." ...

It was a moment in history, the moment that the Beatles got free of their contract, and it was a big newsworthy event that they finally finished this several-year lawsuit going back and forth. All their money was in escrow. At one point, somebody [came up to John on the street and said], "You look like John Lennon!" And John said, "I wish I had his money." And he wasn't joking. It was true. They didn't have their money. It was in escrow. So it was a big moment when they signed that contract. And it was after that he was free. He had no record contract. He had no management contract. He was on his own, had no responsibilities towards anybody. So he retreated to, you know, to his apartment and spent all his time raising Sean for the next five years.

On choosing Lennon's memorial photo

Gruen's 1974 photo of John Lennon on a rooftop in New York City was later used for Lennon's memorial.
Bob Gruen / Bob Gruen Studios

[The promoter] called to ask me for a picture to put there for people to focus on and think about John. And I thought about all the different ones I had. There was one from Madison Square Garden where he was obviously a rock musician, but I thought he was more than that. And it was one where he looked very intellectual that had been on the cover of The New York Times. But I thought he was more than that, too. And there was a picture of him just looking open and friendly with the New York City T-shirt on, and Yoko had published a piece that day, actually, [saying] don't blame New York City for what happened to John, that the person who killed him came from the other side of the world and would come to wherever they lived. And I've always felt that John died in New York because he lived in New York. He died going home. And so I used the picture of John with the New York City T-shirt, and it became kind of the centerpiece of that memorial.

On his tense relationship with Bob Dylan

I'm such an admirer, but it just never really worked out. I mean, one time I took a picture right in his face at the Bottom Line [nightclub in New York City], I don't think he appreciated that very much. But then when he had the Rolling Thunder tour, he was banning photography. He had one photographer that he had hired, and he was going to approve those pictures and he didn't want any other pictures. But I took it as a challenge as a journalist who thought it was an important news event that had to be covered. And I literally put cameras in my boots and a lens in my hood and I snuck my equipment into the concert. And during the encore, when everybody was standing on their seats and chaos was reigning, I would jump up and take a whole bunch of pictures. And then a lot of them were published in magazines and newspapers. And I didn't realize that Bob Dylan was going to take that as a personal offense since he had tried to ban photography.

It was kind of like meeting God and finding out that he wanted to kill me. - Bob Gruen

I guess it was about a year later, he was playing in Berlin and ... he said, "I know you. I saw your name next to all those pictures you took. And I always thought I was going to beat you up when I met you." And he had a cane with a silver head and he's, like, waving his cane in front. ... And I started apologizing, trying to defend it saying I took really good pictures. It was kind of like meeting God and finding out that he wanted to kill me. And, in a sense, that made me stronger, because I no longer had a hero that I could really look up to for any kind of protection.

On publishing his first photograph when he was 13

Gruen had his first photograph published — an aerial shot of a neighborhood fire — in the local newspaper when he was 13.
Bob Gruen / Bob Gruen Studios

My mom was an attorney, but her hobby was photography. She taught me to develop and print my own pictures when I was very little, and I started taking pictures around the house and around the neighborhood and in school. And then, when I was coming home from school, I saw firemen arriving at a fire. And I ran over and I took pictures of them and ran out of film and ran home, got more film and ran back and actually climbed up in a building behind the fire onto the roof of a six-story building behind it and got it — almost like an aerial shot of the whole scene — and then went back home, developed it right away and brought it down to the local newspaper. And they liked it, and they actually printed it on the cover and they were impressed with me. I was 13. ...

[I learned] something that I followed the rest of my life, [which was] to get a different angle, because there was a local photographer out front taking pictures of the fire. And I went and found a different angle that showed the whole scene, and I often do that in concert to get something different than everybody else.

Sam Briger and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in today for Terry Gross. My guest is photographer Bob Gruen, who spent decades capturing the lives and performances of rock 'n' roll musicians. You'd have a hard time naming a rock artist from the '60s, '70s, or '80s, he hasn't photographed. The list includes The Stones, The Who, David Bowie, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, Chuck Berry, Elvis Costello, Bo Diddley and The Clash, just to name a few.

But Gruen didn't just take pictures. He lived a rock 'n' roll lifestyle, hanging with musicians backstage and in their studios and traveling with them on tour, with plenty of drinking and drugs along the way. He has a new memoir which recounts some of his stories, including touring with the Sex Pistols, a tense confrontation with Bob Dylan and a showdown with Yakuza gangsters at a hotel in Japan. And he tells of his long friendship with John Lennon, which ended abruptly 40 years ago today, when Lennon was murdered in front of The Dakota, his apartment building in New York.

Gruen's book is "Right Place, Right Time: The Life Of A Rock & Roll Photographer." He spoke to me from Lanesville, N.Y. Bob Gruen, welcome to FRESH AIR.

BOB GRUEN: Hi. Well, thank you for having me.

DAVIES: You grew up on Long Island. Your mom was a photography buff, right? So you got interested at an early age. And I love the story of the first photo you got published. Share that with us.

GRUEN: My mom was an attorney, but her hobby was photography. She taught me to develop and print my own pictures when I was very little. And I started taking pictures around the house and around the neighborhood and in school. And then one day, coming home from school, I saw a fireman arriving at a fire. And I ran over, and I took pictures of him and ran out of film and ran home, got more film and ran back and actually climbed up in a building behind the fire onto the roof of a six-story building behind it and got an - almost like an aerial shot of the whole scene. Went back home, developed it right away and brought it down to the local newspaper - and they liked it. And they actually printed it on the cover, and they were impressed with me. I was 13, and then actually half the caption is about how the 13-year-old Bob Gruen took this picture and was into photography. So it was a good start.

DAVIES: You got into rock music. I mean, you loved rock music, right? It was really exploding at the time, in the late '60s. And so you started going to clubs and photographing people. And it's interesting that when you were doing this and trying to get work, one of the things that you did was to shoot not just the musicians, but the managers and the publicists and, even in the clubs, the staff, the bouncers and the bartenders. Why was that useful?

GRUEN: I probably gave away more pictures than I licensed, but it was useful because that way people would remember me. That if a publicist hired me to take pictures at a press party of a star, with some other rock stars visiting him, I would also get a picture of the publicist with the star, and then they would put that on their office wall, and they'd remember me. And so I was always doing that to stay in people's mind and to give them something special to - you know, to not just take, but to give. And people would remember that.

DAVIES: One of the first relationships you developed with a high-profile musician was with Ike & Tina Turner. How did that happen?

GRUEN: Well, a friend of ours told us that Tina Turner was amazing; we had to go and see her. And we went, and my friend was right. Tina is just absolutely amazing. They were playing several shows around the New York area at the time. And so the next night they were playing in a place called the Honka Monka Room (ph) - you can't make something like that up - on Queens Boulevard in Long Island. And we went there. It was a very small club. I remember the linoleum floor and small stage, but Tina was just amazing.

And I was sitting right in front taking pictures. And at the end of each show, a strobe light flashes, and Tina kind of dances off with multiple images in the strobe light. And I just had a few frames left in the camera, and I thought, I wonder what will happen if I take a one-second picture and get a few of these flashes in the same frame. And I took, like, four or five pictures. And three or four of them are useless, and one of them is one of the best pictures I've ever taken. And it just captures Tina in five images that just captures the excitement and energy that's Tina Turner.

And we went to another Tina show a couple days later, and I brought the pictures basically to show my friends. But as we were walking out, one of my friends saw Ike Turner walking from one dressing room to another and pushed me in front of Ike and said, show Ike the pictures. And he stopped and said, what pictures? And I showed him. He said, oh, these are good pictures. I got to show these to Tina. And he took me to the dressing room, and Tina was liking my pictures. And pretty soon, they had me coming on the road. I was traveling on the road with them. My first album cover, about 10 months later, was a picture of Tina Turner that I took in Los Angeles.

And actually, we started making video tapes for them. I had an early video, primitive kind of video machine. But it was the first time that Tina and the band could see themselves in action right after the show and go over the act and how they were dancing and kind of improve the act. So they liked that a lot.

DAVIES: Yeah. So you go from being, like, a young guy, just hoping, you know, to get something going to standing in front of Tina Turner in a matter of seconds.

GRUEN: Yes. Yes, it was transformative. It was a moment that changed my life.

DAVIES: You spent a lot of time with them, didn't you?

GRUEN: Yes. Well, the next couple of years, we were on it - I mean, not every day, but, you know, every few weeks we go and spend a couple of weeks. At one point, we spent a month traveling with them, actually living in Bolic Sound, in their studio in Los Angeles. You didn't sleep a lot when you were with Ike Turner (laughter), you know, so we got a lot done.

DAVIES: Well, what were you doing when you were not sleeping?

GRUEN: Well, Ike had, you know, powders that helped you stay awake. And luckily, I didn't fall into it as deeply as he did 'cause he was a pretty good guy until the drugs took over.

DAVIES: And he paid you, right? Sometimes people wouldn't pay you for the pictures. He was always generous about that, right?

GRUEN: Yeah, he always took care of me. It was kind of a very informal arrangement, depending upon how many days I'd been there. He'd just sort of peel off a few hundred-dollar bills and cover all my expenses. That's how it worked out.

DAVIES: In all that time that you spent with him, did you see any hint of the abusive relationship that she would later describe?

GRUEN: Not really. They seemed pretty tight, you know, couple - not your traditional couple because Ike had a girlfriend that traveled with them, as well, so it was kind of like Ike and Tina and Ann Thomas. Not something they talked about at the time, but Tina's talked about it in her book that it was kind of, like, several women in the house, you know, not just her. And that did seem kind of unusual to me. I'm a bit more conservative than that. But in the rock 'n' roll of it, it just seemed like, well, that's what Ike does, and everybody seems to go along with it. But I didn't see any of the violence at all. But it wasn't your typical marriage. That was obvious.

DAVIES: And out of that drew a lot of other contacts, and you managed to get a lot of other work, I assume.

GRUEN: Oh, yeah. Once I met them, I started meeting all kinds of people after that. Elton John was somebody I met within a few months because a publicist that I met working with Ike & Tina talked the record company into hiring me to shoot this brand-new, unknown piano player from England, and it turned out to be Elton John. And then I worked for him for the next couple of years. And my career kind of snowballed. Every time I went and did a job, I'd meet more people, and they'd hire me for more things. And I'd get involved in, you know, a lot of different jobs.

DAVIES: One of the amazing pictures you have of Elton John is, if I have this right, you were in the studio, and he was a little bit of a cranky mood. And folks says, there's a new piano player we got here. You got to be...

GRUEN: Oh, not the studio. No, there was a plane called The Starship.

DAVIES: Oh, right.

GRUEN: The Enterprise Starship - and they had asked me to come along on that. And the Starship was quite elaborate. It had two bedrooms in the back. It had a big, long brass bar with a piano built in in the middle and then a couple of first-class seats up in the front. Rock stars would rent it. And if you rented it for a month, they would put your name on it. The picture I have of Led Zeppelin in front of the airplane is the same Enterprise Starship.

DAVIES: Same plane.

GRUEN: And yeah (laughter), they didn't own it. You rent it, you know? And when Elton had it, they had asked me to come along because they had - it was just a short trip to Boston, but Stevie Wonder was coming along. But they had Stevie hide in one of the bedrooms, and Elton didn't know he was there. And so after the plane took off, the publicist told Elton that there was somebody playing the piano in the lounge, that the airplane company had hired this special guy. And Elton wasn't interested. He was in a bad mood, maybe a little hungover. He had a show to do. And he's just leave me alone; I don't care if there's a piano player. And the publicist wouldn't leave him alone and said, you have to come back and see this guy. And Elton says, no, I don't want to see anybody. And the publicist says, we're not going to leave you alone until you come back. And so Elton walks back, and Stevie Wonder was playing "Crocodile Rock" on the built-in piano on the brass bar.

So then his mood changed entirely. And he felt a lot better about it.

DAVIES: And you were there to capture their greeting on camera?

GRUEN: Yeah. Yeah.

DAVIES: You know, shooting celebrities is sort of a special subset of photography, right? It's different from shooting fires or police stories. And I think we think of people who shoot celebrities as really aggressive. I mean, they often - you know, you're on the, you know, red carpet at the Oscars. And they shout at the celebrities to get some kind of reaction or to ask them to do some kind of pose. You took a different approach to this, didn't you?

GRUEN: Well, I generally like to get hired and actually work with the artist and not, you know, just catch them off guard. I actually prefer to show my pictures to the artist and see which ones they like. I don't consider it censorship. I consider it working with the artist and trying to help them advance their career and, in turn, that helps to advance my career. And also, as far as shooting celebrities, I take it a bit further than that because, you know, reflecting on my career more and more lately, I think that what I've been trying to do is to capture the feeling and the passion rather than just the facts. Rock 'n' roll is all about freedom to express your feelings very loudly in public. And I try to capture that moment of freedom, that moment when everybody's yelling yay and nobody's thinking about paying the rent. And that's the kind of feelings I try to, you know, get in my photos.

DAVIES: How did you get to know John Lennon?

GRUEN: Well, I mentioned Ono Yoko through an interview. It was a story about the Elephant's Memory band that was backing them up. And after the interview, I asked if I could go to the studio and take pictures of them with the band. And then a couple of weeks later, it turned out that I was one of the only ones who had pictures of them together. And they wanted to use the pictures in their album package. And that's the first time I went over to their house on Bank Street and actually sat in there for an afternoon to talk to them. And it turned out we shared a very cynical sense of humor and kind of got along really well. And at the end of that first meeting, actually, Yoko told me that they wanted to be in touch with me. And they wanted me to come back and take more pictures. And I'm still in touch with Yoko today.

DAVIES: Yeah. I mean, I think you write the first time you actually sent them any pictures, you didn't even talk to anyone. They had said...

GRUEN: No. The first time I saw them, actually, was at the Apollo Theater a few months before I met them for the interview. They were there at a benefit concert for the families of the prisoners who were injured in the Attica Prison riot. And I knew Aretha Franklin was going to be there. And I had gone to see her and take some pictures of her. And when I walked in, I heard the announcer say John Lennon and Yoko Ono. And I was - I felt like I was hit by lightning.

Like, I had read in the papers they were in New York. I was a huge fan of John and Yoko, even more than the Beatles. I mean, the Beatles were great. But I thought that John and Yoko were important, the work that they were doing for peace. And the way they were doing it, with the artwork and, you know, getting in a bag and sending acorns to everybody - every - to the leader of every country in the world so the world could grow together, just all kinds of mini events to remind people to think about peace.

And so when I walked in and I heard that John and Yoko were there, I couldn't believe I was in the same room as them. It was just such an exciting moment. And I took some pictures. And then backstage, as they were leaving, they were waiting for their car, a few people were standing around taking pictures, snapshots with the Instamatic cameras. And so I took a few pictures with my cameras. And John at one point said, you know, people are always taking our picture like this. And we never see them. What happens to all these pictures?

And I said, well, I live around the corner from you, because I read in the paper that they actually had a house literally half a block from my house in Greenwich Village. And I said, I live around the corner from you. I'll show you my pictures. And he very neighborly, like, he said, oh, you live around the corner? Well, slip them under the door. And I went around a couple of days later with some prints. And I didn't quite slip it under the door. I did ring the bell. And much to my surprise, Jerry Rubin answered the door (laughter).

DAVIES: Jerry Rubin (laughter)?

GRUEN: I guess he was visiting them and just did them a favor to answer the doorbell.

DAVIES: This the '60s radical, for those who may not remember him. Yeah.

GRUEN: Yes. Yeah. It was quite a surprise to see him, you know, opening the door for them. And I remember he asked me if they were expecting me. And I said, no. And I just left them, you know, several pictures. And later, when we did develop a relationship, Yoko mentioned that everybody asked them for something. And I was one of the few people who actually gave them something and left without asking for anything, not even to meet them. And they were like, who is that guy, (laughter) you know? And they liked the pictures, too. So when we did meet a few months later, they remembered that.

DAVIES: And he went through some changes and some dark times. He and Yoko separated. They got back together. And you kind of felt it was a more mature John Lennon in the later years of your friendship.

GRUEN: Well, yeah. In the '70s, he had a lot of pressure on him. He did a political - "Some Time In New York" - album. It didn't sell very well. He was being sued and suing his former manager. And all his money was held up. And he gets - got into a real depression and was drinking a lot. And Yoko didn't want to live with a drunk. And she asked him to, you know, take a break. And during the separation, they were in touch the whole time. He kept calling her, begging to come back. And she kept saying, you're not ready. And finally, after a year and a half, when he got thoroughly embarrassed in Los Angeles and came back, he did sober up. And he did start living a sober life. And they did get back together. And then Yoko got pregnant. And they had Sean. And that really changed John's life, where he just kind of grew up and started eating better.

He'd started learning about the macrobiotic, a very healthy diet, stopped drinking and taking the drugs and started living a sober life and, you know, living more in the present and appreciating that. He actually learned about delayed gratification. And most of all, he learned about taking responsibility for his family, for raising Sean, for literally being there every day - feeding the bottle, changing the diapers, watching his diet and really taking on that responsibility. And he grew. And he matured. And he turned into an adult (laughter), which he wasn't at the beginning (laughter).

DAVIES: One little moment - it's hard to believe that you describe he called you up. And if I have this right, he wanted you to come over to a lawyer's office where a bunch of attorneys were around a table signing the documents to formally dissolve the Beatles. Is this right?

GRUEN: Yes, it was. But they had been suing Allen Klein to get out of the contract that they had made with him in the late '60s. And it wasn't actually the lawyers. It was John calling me at 3:30 in the morning. He said, are you busy? I said, well, no, actually, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

GRUEN: And he would - they were all in the Plaza Hotel. They'd taken over a whole floor of the Plaza Hotel. And they were negotiating the last bits of the contract. And each Beatle had several lawyers. And Allen had several lawyers. It must've been 15 or 20 lawyers in the picture. And they had a whole room full of secretaries because, in those days, they didn't have the kind of fax machines or data processing we have now. And every time they changed a word, they had to type it on 20 different copies of the, you know, the new agreement. And actually, when it was signed, John told me the original agreement with Allen Klein had been three paragraphs on one page. And to break up that agreement took an 87-page contract.

DAVIES: So why did John invite you at 3:30 in the morning to this legal proceeding?

GRUEN: Well, because it wasn't just - it was a...

DAVIES: A moment in history.

GRUEN: The moment that the Beatles got free of their contract. And it was a big, newsworthy event that they finally finished this several-year lawsuits going back and forth. All their money was in escrow. So it was a big moment when they signed that contract.

DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Bob Gruen. He is a rock 'n' roll photographer of many years. He has a new memoir called "Right Place, Right Time." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "REVOLUTION")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Bob Gruen. He spent decades photographing rock 'n' roll musicians. He has a new memoir about his career. It's called "Right Place, Right Time: The Life Of A Rock & Roll Photographer."

This interview is being broadcast on the 40th anniversary of John Lennon's murder, his death. You were close to the end. In fact, I think you were going to be picking up something at the doorman's at the Dakota at the time.

GRUEN: I lent him a tape to get back. I'd seen him Thursday night and Friday night up until Saturday morning, actually - we were there all night - before he passed on Monday night. So I had just been there two days earlier. I'd taken some pictures of them. There was a news story coming up in The Village Voice. And I was printing those pictures when I got word that he had been shot.

DAVIES: I mean, this was, obviously, a terrible shock to you as it was to millions of people. And there were plans for a memorial in Central Park at the bandshell. I think you were asked to provide a photo for the centerpiece of this, right?

GRUEN: Right. Ron Delson (ph), the promoter, the city had asked him to put something - to have some kind of event in the park so that the people didn't gather in front of the Dakota and block up all the traffic on the west side. So the bandshell was most obvious place. And Ron called to ask me for a picture to put there for people to focus on and think about John. And I thought about all the different ones I had. There was one from Madison Square Garden, where he was, obviously, a rock musician. But I thought he was more than that. And there was one where he looked very intellectual that had been on the cover of The New York Times. But I thought he was more than that, too.

And there was a picture of him just looking open and friendly with the New York City T-shirt on it. And Yoko had published a piece that day, actually. They called me, saying don't blame New York City for what happened to John, that the person who killed him came from the other side of the world and would come to wherever they lived. And I've always felt that John died in New York because he lived in New York. He died going home. And so I used the picture of John with the New York City T-shirt. And it became kind of the centerpiece of that memorial.

DAVIES: Do you commemorate his passing in any way? Does the date hit you?

GRUEN: Well, not so much the date. I think about it every day. I mean, John's a big part of my life. He was a very - you know, he was a close friend. And just, you know, the whole world is watching kind of thing. So it's not something that I, you know, think about necessarily on December 8. I think about it more on October 9, on his birthday. I'd rather celebrate his life than, you know, think about his death. But I think about him all the time.

He was just so funny and so timely. And the things that he said still resonate today. You know, imagine all the people living life in peace. I mean, that's a universal statement. And John was telling me, you know, that he couldn't tell people what to do, that if somebody had asked him to do a commercial for toothpaste, they would laugh at him - but that he had a way of summing up what people were already thinking and giving us words to express the feelings we already have. Like, all we're saying is give peace a chance. And it sounds so simple. And it is what everybody's thinking. But John gave us those words to express it.

DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Bob Gruen. His book is "Right Place, Right Time: The Life Of A Rock & Roll Photographer." He'll talk more about his experiences after this short break. I'm Dave Davies. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IMAGINE")

JOHN LENNON: (Singing) Imagine there's no heaven - it's easy if you try - no hell below us. Above us, only sky. Imagine all the people living for today. Ah. Imagine there's no countries - it isn't hard to do - nothing to kill or die for and no religion, too. Imagine all the people living life in peace - you. You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one. I hope, someday, you'll join us, and the world will be as one. Imagine no possessions...

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "BEAUTIFUL BOY")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, speaking with veteran rock 'n' roll photographer Bob Gruen. He has a new memoir about the decades he spent capturing the lives and performances of rockers on film and his experiences traveling and hanging out with musicians - among them, Ike & Tina Turner, the Sex Pistols and John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who became close friends with Gruen. Lennon was murdered in front of his apartment in New York 40 years ago today. Gruen's book is "Right Place, Right Time: The Life Of A Rock & Roll Photographer."

You know, you shot a lot of performance photos. And, you know, musicians tend to perform in places that don't have a lot of light, a lot of illumination. I mean, maybe this is a little technical, but how did you get around that?

GRUEN: That was a problem all my life. You know, it's amazing that the digital photography now can see in the dark. It's fascinating. Back then, I was always struggling to try to get pictures, you know, in focus because you had to shoot at such a slow speed with the camera wide open. It was hard to get sharp pictures in such a low-light setting. That's why a lot of my pictures are soft focus. And I like to say sometimes the subject's not sharp, but the feelings are clear.

DAVIES: You know, the other thing is you did a lot of shooting in front of the stage, and crowds can get really torqued up and maybe drunk or high. I'm wondering, were some bands easier than others in terms of dealing with a raucous crowd?

GRUEN: Oh, absolutely. The Who in Philadelphia I remember as one of the...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

GRUEN: ...You know, most chaotic - where you got, like, 250-, 300-pound drunk guys falling on each other and banging into each other. On the other hand, the Bay City Rollers is a band I did a lot of work with. And their fans were 13-, 14-year-old girls, and they were more excited than the Who fans, but they were smaller and much less dangerous (laughter), you know?

DAVIES: (Laughter) You write about doing some cocaine with Ike Turner and I think on a trip to Nashville doing meth and there - you know - I don't know what all - plenty of pot. And I'm just wondering, you did a lot of work. Did it affect your work to - the drinking and drugs?

GRUEN: Well, it was kind of part of the work. I carried a little flask of cognac in my camera case as part of my equipment. That's the way it was in the '70s. You know, it's so hard to understand in the sober light of today what it was like back then; that you would go into a record company office and, you know, the guy would take out some coke, you'd share a couple lines, see if his are better than yours, you kind of discuss that, light a joint, open a beer and then do some business, you know, talk business.

DAVIES: (Laughter) Wow.

GRUEN: That was the way it was. There wasn't bottled water. I don't even remember seeing bottles of water, but we had lots of cans of beer. If there was orange juice around, it was for the vodka, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

GRUEN: You know, thinking back, that's the way it was. It wasn't - I couldn't do it today. I don't know how I, you know, operated on that level back then because the world isn't drunk anymore (laughter), you know?

DAVIES: Yeah.

GRUEN: The world's pretty sober nowadays.

DAVIES: You ended up going on tour with the Sex Pistols. How did that happen? (Laughter).

GRUEN: Well, one thing leads to another in my life, you know? I was working with the New York Dolls when Malcolm McLaren came towards the end of their career. Malcolm wanted them to wear some of the outfits, the clothes, that he was making and kind of took over managing them when their managers left. And then he went back to England. He actually had plans with one of the New York Dolls, Syl Sylvain, to start a band with Syl in England. And then I actually had a little involvement where I got David and Syl a job in Japan. And Malcolm got tired of waiting for Sylvain, and he started the Sex Pistols without him. And he got this guy, Johnny Rotten, instead, and the rest is history.

But I went to England for the first time about a year and a half later, and the band was just getting going at that point. And Malcolm was one of the only people I knew. I only knew the editor of the Melody Maker and Malcolm. And Malcolm found me a place to stay. And he took me to a place called Club Louise, which was kind of the equivalent of the back room of Max's in London, where, in that one room, I met the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Billy Idol, Caroline Coon and Jon Savage, who were the journalists who would write about the punk scene, Siouxsie from the - who formed the Banshees, Marco Pirroni, who was a - became a punk producer. It was like the whole punk scene that was developing in England was all in that room. And I happened to show up and meet them all, thanks to Malcolm.

DAVIES: There's one point where the Sex Pistols were starting a tour. And I think, as they say, they just had room on the bus, so you got on and joined the tour, right? (Laughter).

GRUEN: Well, that was the thing. They came to America, and they were supposed to play in New York. And I thought - I wasn't really planning to go on tour at all - I'd take pictures of them in New York because I had seen them twice in England by that time, and I just wanted to keep the continuity of working with the band. But Sid Vicious apparently had some visa problem, and they didn't get to New York on time. So they opened their tour in Atlanta. So I flew down there to see them. And as - when the show was over, they were getting on their bus, and I was saying, well, so long, Malcolm. Have a great trip. Too bad I can't come. And Malcolm said, well, you can't come, Bob, because we're only allowed 12 on the bus. And there's the band and Sophie and the guys - well, that's only 11, Bob. Why don't you get on?

DAVIES: (Laughter).

GRUEN: And I was like, what? And the guy next to me said, I'll come, Malcolm. And Malcolm said, no, Bob asked first. And I actually don't remember asking (laughter), but it seemed like a good idea. So I just hopped on the bus and woke up in San Francisco 10 days later (laughter).

DAVIES: What was Sid Vicious like on that tour?

GRUEN: Well, on the bus, he wasn't vicious at all. He was a sweet kid. He was, like, 21 years old. He was in love with Nancy, who I had known in New York. She was a friend of mine. And he was just a lonely boy, you know - wanted to be with his girlfriend.

And on the bus, we were listening to dub reggae - actually tapes that Don Letts had given us - and maybe smoking pot and drinking a beer. And it was kind of very mellow on the bus. And then the door would open, and all chaos would break out because the press was, you know, just playing up the Sex Pistols as these obnoxious punks, you know, invading America. I remember one time when we pulled into a place and there was a couple of press people outside. And Steve Jones opened the door, and he kind of cleared his throat and spit on the ground to get ready to answer some questions. And the press yelled look out, look out, they're spitting at us. And they had their story. It was done (laughter).

DAVIES: Wow. Wow.

GRUEN: And Steve didn't even get to answer a question. So it was kind of weird 'cause on the bus, I didn't know the chaos that the press was creating about the band. To me, they just seemed like some new band, a bunch of - you know, they weren't even all that good. But they were quite a phenomenon in the press.

DAVIES: We're going to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Bob Gruen. His book is "Right Place, Right Time: The Life Of A Rock & Roll Photographer." He'll talk more about his experiences after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BILL FRISELL'S "GIVE PEACE A CHANCE")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, speaking with veteran rock 'n' roll photographer Bob Gruen. He has a new memoir about the decades he spent capturing the lives and performances of rockers on film and his experiences traveling and hanging out with musicians, among them, Ike and Tina Turner, the Sex Pistols and John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who became close friends with Gruen. Lennon was murdered in front of his apartment in New York 40 years ago today.

Gruen's book is "Right Place, Right Time: The Life Of A Rock & Roll Photographer." I think maybe the craziest story in this book involved a trip to Japan. I think this was with the New York Dolls, right?

GRUEN: New York Dolls, yes.

DAVIES: And you end up getting into an encounter with the legendary gangsters, the Yakuza. You want to - it's quite a tale. Tell us what happened here.

GRUEN: We were part of a tour with several other bands. And on the first night in Japan, one of the other band members got involved with a very young girl who was out, and then she stayed out. And then the last night, 10 days later, we were back in Tokyo. And it was actually one of the New York Dolls who talked the girl into going home. And her father found out what happened. It turned out that he was a leader of - a gangster - the Yakuza. You know, it's, like, the worst gangsters in Japan. And they came and confronted us at the hotel. And we didn't really know what was going on. And it wasn't our band that had been involved with the girls, so we really didn't know what it was all about. But they were very threatening. Just - you know, I tried to call the police, and the hotel had turned the phone off because the gangsters told them to. And I ended up in a fight, pulling the phone back and forth with a gangster.

Luckily, one of our tour members - the girlfriend of the road manager - had run up the block and - because there was a policeman that was stationed at the British Embassy nearby. And she just grabbed this policeman and dragged him down the block and pulled him into the hotel and pushed him between the gangsters and the band because the gangsters were really threatening, very threatening. It turned out later one of them actually had an ice pick and a cal (ph) in his hand.

And then when the cops were there, things calmed down a little bit. And I remember saying, like - you know, I was really scared. I didn't know what was going on. I wanted somebody from the embassy to come and protect us. And I called up the American Embassy, and the phone is ringing for a while, and I actually reached somebody. And about a half an hour later, some guy came in with a suit and tie and an attache case. He looked like Sidney Poitier. He was, like, gorgeous. And he went to the police station with the gangsters and Sylvain, and they worked it all out. And it turned out that they ended up apologizing in the end because it really wasn't us that had caused the problem.

DAVIES: And there's a particular detail to the apology that you've got to share here.

GRUEN: Oh, well, yes. I came back a year later, and my friend, who was the head of a different part of the Yakuza, told me that that guy - to make the apology, he had - literally had to cut off the tip of his pinkie. And they had this piece of his finger in a little bottle that they were going to present to me as his apology. And I was kind of horrified. And I said, you know, I understand your Japanese customs and that that's the way you do things. But when I go home, there's something called the U.S. Customs at the border. And I'm not going to be able to explain having a piece of a finger. So I'm going to have to pass on this (laughter). It was kind of a bizarre moment, yes.

DAVIES: You backed out of it gracefully.

GRUEN: Yes (laughter).

DAVIES: You were known for being patient and developing relationships with musicians and had great relationships with a lot. One that you didn't have such a great relationship with was Bob Dylan, right? What happened there?

GRUEN: Well, I'm such an admirer, but it just never really worked out. I mean, one time I took a picture right in his face at the Bottom Line. I don't think he appreciated that very much. But then when he had the Rolling Thunder tour, he was banning photography. He had one photographer that he had hired to - and he was going to approve those pictures, and he didn't want any other pictures.

But I took it as a challenge as a journalist to - I thought it was an important news event that had to be covered. And I literally put cameras in my boots and the lens in my hood, and I snuck into the - snuck my equipment into the concert. And during the encore, when everybody was standing on their seats and chaos was reigning, I would jump up and take a whole bunch of pictures. And then a lot of them were published in magazines and newspapers. And I didn't realize that Bob Dylan was going to take that as a personal offense since he had tried to ban photography.

And I guess it was about a year later he was playing in Berlin, and his publicist told me about it. And I went to - I actually went to Berlin because I was on my way to Europe anyway, and I thought it'd be exciting to see him there. But when I got there, they had switched hotels. And I was in a cab on the way to the venue when I saw Bob walking across the street with a friend of mine who was a bodyguard - he was a friend of mine. So I got out of the cab. I just got so excited seeing Bob Dylan and my friend. And I got out of the cab, and I walked down towards them. And then Bob saw me coming. He turned around, and I had no idea what to say to him.

And so I said hello to my friend, Patty Kelly (ph). I said, hey, Patty, what are you doing? And Bob got bored immediately and started walking away. And then Patty said, well, we'll see you at the show. And then he must have said something to Bob, or Bob asked who that was. And he turned around, and he started looking at me. He said, I know you. You're - I saw your name next to all those pictures you took. And I always thought I was going to beat you up when I met you. And he had a cane with a silver head. He's, like, waving his cane in front of me. You know, I'm kind of looking at my friend Patty going, I know you're his bodyguard, but you're going to protect me because you're my friend, right? And I started, you know, apologizing, you know, and trying to defend it, saying I took really good pictures.

And anyway, it was - for me, it was kind of like meeting God and finding out that he wanted to kill me. And in a sense, that made me stronger because I no longer had a hero that I could really look up to for any kind of protection.

DAVIES: But you still love his music.

GRUEN: Still love his music. And it's always meant a lot to me. Actually, in the early days, a lot of his songs were saying things I didn't really have words to - you know, things that I was thinking that I didn't have words to express. And he expressed my thoughts for me.

DAVIES: Do you have memories of shots that you just missed, a moment that you thought, ah...

GRUEN: A couple of times. Bob Dylan was one of them, when I went all the way to Atlanta and snuck into one of the Rolling Thunder shows. And towards the end, I was standing on a seat during the encore. And, in fact, the governor at that point - Jimmy Carter was governor there. And so Bob Dylan was kind of looking over in his direction. And I was about three rows behind him, so I was getting these pictures - great pictures of Bob Dylan looking right in my direction with a telephoto, getting, like, waist-to-head shots. It was, like, cover-, poster-perfect pictures. And I was shooting and shooting and shooting.

And after a little while, I realized I was taking an awful lot of pictures for one roll of film. And I went and checked and realized that - you know, when you run out of film in one camera - you have a black-and-white camera and a color camera, and you change a film, you would wait until both of them needed to be changed, and then you'd change it. And in the rush and the heat of the moment, trying to get everything done, I'd forgotten to change the film in the color camera. And I was taking more than a roll of film with no film in the camera. So yeah, I remember - I could remember what he looked like. He looked so good.

DAVIES: You're 75 today?

GRUEN: In October, I turned 75, yeah.

DAVIES: You still working?

GRUEN: I'm working all the time. I'm working right now (laughter).

DAVIES: OK. You got the book, right?

GRUEN: Yep.

DAVIES: Do you shoot? Do you get out and do commercials?

GRUEN: It's not the same because so many people are shooting. And, you know, the outlets are so different that I don't work like I used to. I still sometimes work with certain bands that I, you know, develop a relationship with. More recently, it was a band called The Strypes from Ireland that I did some work with. But it's not - I don't work like I used to. I don't jump on a bus for 10 days, you know, with a bunch of 24-year-olds drinking beer. It's - my life's a little different. Luckily, I can do exhibits and do - you know, give talks to people and sell the signed prints in galleries.

DAVIES: Well, Bob Gruen, the book is fun. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

GRUEN: Well, thank you for having me.

DAVIES: Bob Gruen's book is "Right Place, Right Time: The Life Of A Rock & Roll Photographer." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOB DYLAN SONG, "WIGWAM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.