EXCLUSIVE: For over 40 years, Bob Gruen has photographed some of the most iconic artists in music.
But the legendary lensman didn’t just pick up his camera and called it a day. The photographer befriended plenty of rock royalty along the way and is now telling tales in his new book “Right Place, Right Time.”
When John Lennon moved to New York City in 1971, it was Gruen who not only became his personal photographer, but also his pal. Their friendship would last until Lennon’s sudden death in 1980 at age 40.
Fox News: What was your initial impression of John Lennon?
Bob Gruen: John was very funny. He was always cracking jokes. And not a lot of people know that Yoko [Ono] has a great sense of humor, too. You couldn’t be with John without a sense of humor *laughs*. Visiting them always meant a good time. I came to photograph him and I left as a friend.
Fox News: Take us back to the day when you shot that iconic image of Lennon in New York City.
Gruen: John was separated from Yoko at the time. He had a penthouse apartment on the east side of Manhattan. So he asked me to come over and take a series of photos for his “Walls and Bridges” album. When we were done with that, John said, “Let’s take some publicity photos.” We started thinking about the roof. I saw it was surrounded by this New York skyline.
That t-shirt John is wearing, I gave it to him a year earlier. Back then some guys used to make them and then sell the shirts on blankets in Times Square. It wasn’t even in stores. I really liked the graphics. So one day I passed by one of those stands and bought one for John. I even cut out the sleeves with a buck knife for him.
So here we are, a year later, on this roof. I’m looking at the skyline and I said, “Do you still have that t-shirt? Because I think it would look great with the skyline behind you.” And he did. John then put it on. We had no idea that the photo would become such an iconic moment.
Fox News: You also photographed John and Yoko at Greenwich, Connecticut, a place they were at one point thinking about relocating to.
Gruen: That was 1973. When he moved to New York in 1971, they got a nice apartment on the ground floor that opened to the street. After a while, people started knowing where they were. You could literally walk up to the door and ring the bell. It became a security problem. So they then were looking for something more remote. They were looking around New York, out on Long Island, or perhaps up in Connecticut where they could live in a country house.
I headed to Greenwich for an afternoon where they looked around at houses. They ended up not getting a house there. A few years later, they ended up moving to the Dakota apartments (in New York City). It was more secure than the first apartment *laughs*. But eventually, people knew they were there.
Fox News: Do you remember the last time you spoke to John?
Gruen: I saw him two days before he passed away. He was in a very good mood. He was so excited that his new album was moving up the charts. He was particularly proud that Yoko was finally getting good reviews and critics were calling her music interesting. They said that his music was middle of the road. He said, “That’s ‘cause we’re going down the middle of the road.”
He was very happy. He was even talking about doing a world tour in the spring. I went home that night thinking I was going to go around the world with John Lennon. Then on Monday, I was developing pictures that I had taken of him. That’s when I got word John had passed away. It was the biggest shock I’ve ever gotten. It was a horrible feeling.
Now I just try to remember and enjoy the moments we had together, not what we lost. We should have had John today. I would have loved to have seen John on Twitter because he always had something to say. And I’m sure we would have had plenty to say now.
Fox News: You also shot the Sex Pistols. What’s one memory that stood out to you while writing this book?
Gruen: Oh boy, there’s so many memories *laughs*. I had met them a couple of times in England. So when they came to America, we connected. They were traveling across America and performing. I remember they played in Texas where people were throwing stuff at them and they would just yell right back. I spent 10 days taking pictures of them.
And then when it was over, Johnny Rotten came to New York and I saw him at CBGB. That’s when he told me the band had broken up. All my work just collapsed right then and there because they were no longer a band. It wouldn’t be until the “Sid and Nancy” movie came out [in 1986] that there was this renewed interest in the Sex Pistols. It was all very weird.
Fox News: There’s one photograph you took of Sid Vicious where he has a large gash on his forearm.
Gruen: That was a very shocking moment… I remember the bodyguard had this big hunting knife and Sid wanted to see if was sharp or not. And he drew it across his skin to see if it would cut the hair. Needless to say, it cut way more than hair. I don’t know if he didn’t have insurance or what, but they wouldn’t treat him at the hospital. So he just had this open gash wherever he went. And nobody was paying attention to it.
I think the second night, I got tired of looking at it. Being a Boy Scout, I clean out the wound and put it back together with some adhesive tape to make butterfly stitches. That started the healing process. And then we just kept going. You do what you gotta do. The thing is, Sid was actually a nice guy. He just happened to be good at playing the vicious part.
Fox News: You depicted Tina Turner as a normal mom in your photographs, not a star. What was that experience like?
Gruen: Well, when I went to her house, she was already making sandwiches for the kids. And then when we headed out she was driving her kids to football practice. We also headed to the grocery stores where she bought a lot of Wonder Bread. She had five kids at home and that’s a lot of peanut butter sandwiches. She was very much a normal mom. She just happened to be Tina Turner.
Fox News: What do you hope audiences will get from your book?
Gruen: I think you need to pursue your dream. I had so much fun along the way doing just that. I’ve had a really exciting life. I’ve been to a lot of great places and I’ve met so many incredible people. But those moments happened because I was in the right place at the right time. And I wouldn’t have been there if it weren’t for the fact that I had this dream and I was determined to pursue it.