Bob Gruen on Lennon and the Clash

Bob Gruen on Lennon and the Clash

Bob Gruen took some of the most iconic photos of John Lennon, the New York Dolls, and the Clash in America: That 's his image you remember of Lennon with the sleeveless "New York City" t-shirt, and Joe Strummer thumbing backwards at the Empire State Building. Gruen's photos are so good in part because he knew the guys, and loved their music. He also shot 40 hours of footage that was edited down into the 2006 Dolls documentary All Dolled Up: Films By Bob Gruen and Nadya Beck, co-produced by Minneapolis punk archivist Rick Fuller.

Gruen has two recent books out, The New York Dolls: Photographs by Bob Gruen, and a new Clash book authored by the band, The Clash (both of which Michael Matos reviewed here). Gruen also wrote the liner notes for Sony's recent Clash 1982 concert CD Live at Shea Stadium (not their "peak," as Gruen writes--it features '77-era drummer Terry Chimes, brought in to replace longtime drummer Topper Headon, whose grooves are missed--but it does feature cracking good renditions of  "Career Opportunities," on which Chimes played in the studio, and the Equals' "Police on my Back").

Gruen's stories are so good, he's become the subject of a forthcoming documentary himself, produced and directed by Fuller. He'll appear April 15 at the Fitzgerald in St. Paul as part of the Current Fakebook series with Mary Lucia. I caught up with Gruen by phone in New York City last year on the eve of his opening at the International Center of Photography.

I'm curious how some of the people you've known might overlap. Like, did John Lennon ever go see the New York Dolls?

I don't think John actually saw the Dolls. We discussed it a number of times, and he wanted to. But in '73 and '4, John was going back and forth to Los Angeles. He was recording some of his own records. He had a lot of turmoil going on in his life. That was during the period when he and Yoko were kind of separated for a little while.

I do remember one night when the Dolls played on a Friday, Saturday, Sunday at Max's, and in those days you played two sets a night, three on Saturday. And everybody had been there, we had a fantastic weekend. And on Monday, on a rainy night, I was with John and he said, 'Great, let's go downtown, I want to see the New York Dolls.' And I was like, 'Ah, you're a day late.' And he goes, 'Well, tonight's my night to go downtown.'

I did bring David [Johansen] to meet John, so he was aware of the Dolls, but I don't think he was actually at a show.

Are there some unlikely connections with the Dolls that people might not expect? Who went to see them?

All kinds of people. I remember Iggy was there. Andy Warhol came there a couple times and his entourage. I don't have a lot of factual history on that. I wasn't a journalist taking notes, I was in the dressing room drinking with the band.

At some point did the Dolls audience become the punk audience? Was there a difference?

Those are things that people quantify later. Punk didn't happen over a weekend. It wasn't like Friday was glam-rock and Monday was punk rock. These are words that journalists put to describe things after they've happened.

Did John and Yoko ever go to a hip-hop park party in the '70s?

By the late '70s, when hip hop was happening, John and Yoko didn't go out. They stayed home and took care of Sean. John went home in 1975 and didn't come out for a few years. He had been out and about in New York earlier. And he discovered the Elephant's Memory at Max's Kansas City. But I wouldn't say he was a regular there. He was there a few times, maybe two or three over the course of a few years. It was difficult for him to go out, because he wasn't just John Lennon, he was a Beatle. And wherever he showed up, particularly in a club where you have a room full of drunk music fans, he would get really surrounded by people pretty quickly. So generally after 20 minutes or so, he'd have to leave to go to another club.

The rainy Monday night that we went downtown, there was a club that was pretty popular called the Club 82 that was usually pretty crowded. Quite an eclectic group of people. It had been for many years a drag club and then it became more of rock and roll club. So we went there, and I told him it was a Monday night, not much is happening. We walked in, there was like three or four people there. Well within 20 minutes, and this is in the days before cell phones, within 20 minutes they must have had 50 people there, and we had to leave, because they were all trying to talk to him.

So he didn't have the freedom to go out a lot. In the early '80s, I remember trying to talk to him about coming to see certain bands, to go to the Mud Club, for instance, which was a new place. And he said, "You know, I did all that in Hamburg." John was very much about not doing things again. It was something I really learned from him. One time he was asked, "When are you going to reform the Beatles?" And he said, "When are you going to go back to high school?"

(Bob Dylan, "Chile Benefit," Felt Forum NYC 1974)

You were at the Newport Folk Festival when Dylan went electric. Did you happen to know Paul Nelson, the Minnesota critic?

Paul was a wonderful guy. I liked him quite a lot. He was quiet, intellectual. He would smoke a cigarette in the days when a cigarette had significance. And he smoked those brown Nat Shermans, a rather healthy, if I can use that word, cigarette. But yeah, he was a very nice guy, very observant, very quiet. Whenever you asked him something, he always had a really good answer.

I met him when he was hanging around with the Dolls. I didn't know that he knew Bob Dylan until I read it in his obituary. He wasn't the kind of person that would play on that. It never came up. He was a sort of intellectual in the midst of this loud crowd that did get drunk. He was much more of the observer type, but obviously enjoying it. He wasn't aloof.

How did you come to see the second Clash show?

One thing just leads to another in my life, and I just happen to have good timing. I met the New York Dolls because working with John and Yoko I became friends with the Elephant's Memory and made photos for their album. And when I brought the photos for the Elephant's Memory album to their managers, the manager was Leiber and Crabs, and someone in their office said I should go see the other band they manage, the New York Dolls. And so I did, and I totally loved the Dolls and ended up spending a lot of time with them working with them. And toward the end of their time in '75, Malcolm McClaren came to New York with clothes that he had made for the Dolls. And I met him and hung out with him, and he's quite a funny guy. I enjoy Malcolm a lot. And then he went back to England.

When I went to England, to Europe, for the first time a year and a half later, in the Fall of '76, I only had two phone numbers in England. One was the editor of the Melody Maker, who was an older guy, and the other was Malcolm McClaren. And Malcolm hooked me up and found me a cheap place to stay, and he took me to a club called the Club Louise, which had been a lesbian club, but was now letting in all these new young kids into the basement area. They'd been used to an unusual crowd, they didn't mind these guys. It was the basic people who formed the punk scene in England. In Club Louise I met Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, I met the Sex Pistols, Billy Idol, Siouxie and the Banshees, Jon Savage and Caroline Coon, who wrote about it, Vivien Westwood, Malcolm. It was actually Vivien and Caroline Coon who took me to see the Clash. I just happened to be in town that week, and they were playing that week, and they said, "Come along with us, we're going to go see this band called the Clash, they're new." And I was totally blown away by the power and the glory that's the Clash.

When I went back to England in '77, I went to Glasgow to see them. Again, my timing has always been pretty good. Mick Jones and Paul Simonon happened to be at the front desk in the hotel that day, and we were kind of walking to the elevator at the same time, and Mick was looking me over. And he remembered seeing me at the Club Louise a year earlier, and he was like, "You're that guy from New York, right, the photographer?" And I said, "Yeah." And Paul Simonon, hearing that I was like a press person, he kind of turned to me and said, "Well you better watch out for us, because we're cunts." And I said, "Yeah, well, you look it." And we just kind of bonded over that and have been friends ever since.

Bob Gruen on Lennon and the Clash

(Sex Pistols, "With Straws," Luxembourg 1977)

You were there when the Clash first set foot in the United States, right?

Yeah, we came over the border from Vancouver to Seattle. Actually, we got off the bus and took a picture. I was surprised, they actually had a big Peter Max painting that said, 'Welcome to America.' Actually, it was before that. That was on the tour.

But I connected more with the band in '77. In September of '78 the band was in New York to mix their album with Sandy Pearlman, and we spent a lot of time hanging out then. I was one of the few people they knew in New York before they got here. I had a really nice car, a '54 Buick Special, a very rock and roll car. So we'd drive around. They liked hanging out at Max's, a lot of the New York places. So when they came back in the winter tour, I was already friends with the band, and by fortunate coincidence, I was also friends with the publicist of the record company.

For a band that was photographed so much, did the Clash talk about the power of images with you?

I don't remember them talking about it much, but they were very conscious of their images, of image in general. They designed their own clothes. They always had a backdrop that was very powerful. They often decorated whatever room they were in, dressing room or recording studio, with headlines and pictures from the local newspaper. And that would be a collage that would develop and get bigger and bigger and bigger. Like over their two weeks at Bonds, they got like this huge, cool collage going on the door of the dressing room.

You'd been shooting videotape of the New York Dolls. Did you continue with that with other bands?

Not really. There was no outlet for it. There was no such thing as a video cassette at that time. This was a reel-to-reel kind of techie thing, and it wasn't real high quality. Around '73 there was a channel in New York that was cable access, so I showed my rock tapes there.

I upgraded a little bit and got a Super 8 film camera for a while, and I do have some footage of the Clash, which we're trying to put together a DVD of. But the quality wasn't very good. When MTV was invented, it sort of became a committee process to make a video, and that's not really what I was doing. I'm much more of a freelance photographer.

You ended up packaging the Dolls footage as New York Dolls: All Dolled Up, at least.

We were hoping to put out a second one of mostly live footage, but there are contractual problems, and their manager doesn't return our calls.

I actually spent a lot of time [shooting footage] with Ike and Tina Turner, but because of the animosity between Tina and Ike, we never got around to doing [a documentary]. Last year [2007], Ike had contacted me to try to put some of that footage out, and then he died before we really got talking about it. I don't think Tina really wants to see any of that footage.


Other Clash-related interviews and articles:

My Top 20 Music Videos of All Time (Complicated Fun 3/12/08)

An interview with Julien Temple (Complicated Fun 11/9/07)

Who is Mick Jones? The Clash and Carbon/Silicon guitarist talks about life after Joe (City Pages 11/8/06)

Complicated Clash: The Mick Jones Interview (Complicated Fun 11/21/06)

Complicated Dread: The Mikey Dread Interview [RIP] (Complicated Fun 7/21/06)

Clashback: A bio-doc looks at the punks who changed the complexion of white rock [Strummer at Lifter Puller show!] (City Pages 12/15/99)

"It's just the beat of time, the beat that must go on": Guy Stevens, London Calling, and the Clash (Complicated Fun 10/26/04) [I'll clean this up and repost it sometime soon]

(My Westway to the World review seems to have disappeared from City Pages online, along with all the old film clips. I'll repost it when they reappear, or if I can find it anywhere else.)

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