In Praise of Bob Gruen

Bob&Award_@300_6779Bob Gruen is New York City’s most famous rock photographer and one of the greatest guys you’ll ever meet, a true master of ceremonies since his parties (ceremonies) pulled together some of the most talented people in New York for decades. Bob is always throwing parties you see, at his house in the Catskills, in his New York apartment, and also at various bars and clubs throughout the city. He became very close friends with some of the greatest musicians of our time and captured some of the most iconic images in rock history.

Which is why I was really looking forward to Don Lett’s biography on Showtime last night. I have to say I was a bit disappointed however. The film is packed with great music, great stories and you will certainly enjoy every minute, but, at the same time, I don’t think it truly captured Bob’s spirit. It is dominated with talking head interviews with a half dozen of his most famous friends. Unfortunately, his closest buddies are gone, John Lennon, Joey Ramone and Joe Strummer.

The beauty of Bob’s work is spontaneity and intimacy. I would have preferred seeing more of him interacting with the artists in the sort of social situations in which he thrives, as well as seeing some footage of the parties he hosted over the decades. The film came back again and again to the same half dozen celebrities and it tried to be fair to all the bands by giving equal time, but some stories deserved much longer treatment than others, most especially the Sex Pistols tour of America. Bob knows how to bring people together. But the interviews seemed overly long in some places, and often felt staged and superficial, which is the exact opposite of Bob’s style. They didn’t really plumb the depths of Bob’s amazing life or spill any incredible backstage gossip since Bob never betrays his subject’s secrets.

Bob became the go-to guy for the rock industry when they needed photos, but he didn’t care about corporate rock as he preferred to hang out at CBGB’s and Max’s so he could photograph the bands he really cared about for free. He was one of the first to bring a film camera to CB’s. And there’s an interesting debate going on now over some statements he made about the origins of CB’s in the documentary.

Tom Verlaine started the story that Television “discovered” CBGB in 1974, and Bob repeats the tale, which I also include in my book Art After Midnight. But Wayne/Jayne County was one of the original performers at that venue, and probably the real “discoverer” of CB’s. I’m sure there were a few bands who played CB’s before Television, but the fact remains Television built the stage and put CB’s on the map.

Here’s a little known fact: The punk style was heavily influenced by the New York Dolls and other bands who started dressing up like girls and playing stripped-down, three-chord garage rock. But where did that trend actually start? Why, it started with a hippie commune in San Francisco called the Cockettes, who made a famous trip to Manhattan in 1971. The Cockettes started glam, although they seldom get any credit.

People think there’s a huge divide between hippie and punk culture, as if the two styles were always at war, but I was one of the original hippies and I can tell you we looked and acted more like punks than anything you see today representing hippies in the media. I wore a black leather jacket and blue jeans throughout the sixties and the music I listened to (and played in my band) was garage rock, and it sure sounded like punk rock. In his original interviews Verlaine pointed out the importance of sixties garage rock, which had been re-discovered and celebrated by Lenny Kaye, Patti’s Smith’s guitar player, and by rock critic Lester Bangs. And in the documentary, they show the early CB’s scene and almost everyone had hippie-length long hair in the beginning, although that changed quick after Johnny Thunders cut his hair short.

Before he died, Joe Strummer confessed he was really a hippie underneath a punk exterior. Yes, there were plenty of right-wing punks, like Johnny Ramone, but those attitudes didn’t really dominate the culture. Punk was certainly in conflict with disco and Punk magazine did a lot of hippie bashing for comic effect because the excesses of hippie culture were hilarious and deserved to be addressed in that form. But I really see the two styles as connected. Punk was the New York City evolution of hippie culture, and that culture always looked way different on the East Coast than it ever did in San Francisco.

If you really want to jump into a time capsule and go back to the 1960s in New York, check out my short story East Village, which I wrote when I was 16. You can download it free in any format off my smashwords site. It’ll only take a few minutes to read, but I think you will be surprised by the sort of attitudes being expressed by a young hippie runaway during the height of the counterculture revolution.

Follow the link on the right that says: “click here for free books.”


Author: Steven Hager

I'm a writer, journalist, filmmaker and event producer.

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