Video: Photographer Bob Gruen remembers John Lennon
By Kevin Coughlin
Visiting a lawyer can be unsettling. But going to Sherman Wells Sylvester & Stamelman LLP in Florham Park is more like a joy ride through the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The halls of the new firm are lined with iconic images snapped by Bob Gruen, personal photographer to John & Yoko.
“For me, rock and roll is all about freedom,” Gruen said last week, at a reception to unveil the largest private collection of his work.
“There is a theme running through all of these, and that is about the freedom to express yourself. Basically, the freedom to express yourself very loudly.”
Gruen made some noise with John Lennon in New York in the early ’70s.
“We refer to the early days as the Tequila Sessions. There was quite a bit of drinking,” said Gruen.
A contact sheet from the session that produced Lennon’s famous “New York City” t-shirt portrait is among the 42 photos displayed at Sherman Wells.
John’s Beatle buddy Paul McCartney is represented, too, from a 1976 Wings concert. The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Elvis, Bob Dylan, Muddy Waters, BB King, Les Paul, Little Richard, Chrissie Hynde, Patti Smith, Annie Lennox… the walls are like a Who’s Who of rock royalty.
Yes, The Who is there, too, preserved moments after trashing its instruments at a show.
“I was thinking I was going to buy three or four” prints, said Anthony Sylvester, a founding partner of the firm. He met last year with Gruen, who is a client, to discuss how to liven up the Florham Park office, which opened over the summer.
Sylvester spent so many hours poring over Rock Seen, Gruen’s 500-photo anthology, that his wife and law partners began needling him. He considers it time well spent.
“It adds a lot of fun to this office,” the attorney said of the images. “Our visitors love it. They love to walk around the office.”
And so does Sylvester, 56, who gets to relive memories of his favorite group, The Clash. He camped out in Times Square in 1981 to see the British punk rockers perform at Bonds International Casino.
Video: Bob Gruen reflects on 50 years of rock photos
Gruen, 70, said he never anticipated that his subjects — counterculture rebels– would become universally embraced, to the point where law firms would clamor for their pictures.
He was at Newport when Dylan went electric. He ventured to Woodstock to see The Who. His camera became his ticket to venues large and small, and a passport to global adventure. He has photographed KISS in Japan, and Bon Jovi in Moscow.
A music junkie, Gruen never fancied himself as a rock star while growing up on Long Island.
“I never wanted to be the one on stage. I like to move around. I like to see a show. I like to be entertained. I don’t want to be the one doing the entertaining. It looked like work. Besides, I don’t dance. I like to watch,” said Gruen, comparing himself to Peter Sellers’ Chauncey Gardiner character in the 1979 film Being There.
He professes amazement at how rock has evolved from the early days of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, encompassing countless styles and spreading to virtually every country. A recent documentary celebrated Cambodian bands before the Khmer Rouge reign of terror.
One of Gruen’s favorite shots in the Sherman Wells collection depicts the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious, looking drunk and menacing on a flight to Brussels.
After their interview for Radio Luxembourg, the Pistols were so smashed that the flight crew refused to let them board a return flight to England.
“But Belgium was saying, ‘You’re not coming back in the country. You’re done, you’re processed, you’re going,'” Gruen recounted.
Yet the most arresting element of the photo isn’t Rotten and Vicious. It’s a pretty little girl seated in front of them, with a puzzled expression.
“She’s probably about 48 now. We’ve been waiting for her to contact us. Because I really would like to know the rest of the story,” Gruen said with a laugh.
When it comes to his craft, he’s a firm believer in new technology –digital cameras that remove most of the guesswork, Photoshop to make good shots great–and old-school charm. Stars look natural and relaxed in his pictures because that’s his vibe, he said.
“Try to be comfortable with people, and they’ll be comfortable with you. If you’re nervous, your subject will be nervous. If you’re comfortable, they’ll be comfortable. That’s how it works,” Gruen said.
After decades of shooting performers expressing themselves loudly through massive amplifiers, he also has become a firm believer in earplugs. A backstage sign at a Green Day concert stuck with him: “Deafness is incurable, but preventable.”
Asked what he misses about John Lennon, the photographer replied without hesitation:
Gruen said he appreciated the ex-Beatle’s humor, friendship, insight and perception. Above all, he admired Lennon’s leadership.
When the singer sobered up after his Los Angeles “Lost Weekend,” he became a devoted father to his son Sean, and began to embody themes of responsibility, self-control and healthy diet that would gain popularity after his death in 1980, Gruen said.
“I think the world sorely needs someone who makes sense, who people listen to. That’s what I miss most,” he said. “I’m sure he would have a lot to say about what’s going on in the world today.”
Although Lennon expressed pride in starting the world’s most famous band, he never showed much interest in reuniting onstage with Paul, George and Ringo. Gruen remembered someone in Central Park yelling out: “Hey, John, when are you getting the Beatles back together?”
“He yelled back: ‘When are you going back to high school?'”