‘Peeking through the keyhole’: Bob Gruen shares half-century of rock images at Morris Museum

Bob Gruen at opening of 'Bob Gruen: Rock Seen' exhibit, Morris Museum, June 20, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
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He befriended John and Yoko, almost got caned by Bob Dylan, and took a bugle solo with The Clash.

For a half-century, Bob Gruen has photographed the biggest names in rock and punk music. He insists they are not that different from the rest of us.

“They are ordinary people. But with charisma,” he said at the opening of Bob Gruen: Rock Seen, his extraordinary exhibition at the Morris Museum in Morris Township.

Seventy-four of his images, many of them iconic in their own right, are on display through Nov. 10, 2019.

Sharing backstories in a talk emceed last week by Jay Lustig, NJArts.net editor and former pop music critic for The Star-Ledger, Gruen staked his claim as the Forrest Gump of rock. His knack for being in the right place at the right time stretches to the 1960s.

Rock and roll photographer Bob Gruen at ‘Bob Gruen: Rock Seen’ exhibit, Morris Museum, June 20, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Gruen was at Newport when Dylan went electric. And at Woodstock, too, thanks to a friend who called from the farm. That technological feat reassured him that it was safe to venture there to catch his favorite band, The Who.

Dabbling in photography from an early age–his mom was a shutterbug–the Long Island native brought a camera to concerts just for fun.

After an Ike and Tina Turner show, a friend coaxed him to present his shots to Ike Turner. The Turners liked what they saw, and doors began to open for Gruen.

“My life just kind of snowballed. Every time I went somewhere and took pictures, I met somebody else,” said Gruen, 74.

Slideshow photos by Kevin Coughlin. Click / hover on images for captions:

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He discovered he had a keen eye for capturing the essence of a performer–and an ability to put rock royalty at ease.

“I can’t tell you how to become friends with people. But you know, from high
school I was friends with the artists and musicians in the folk music club and the theater club. And it’s just the kind of lifestyle I gravitate to,” Gruen said.

“I take pictures of the people that I take pictures of, and some become friends.”

Bob Gruen, left, Jay Lustig, and the late John Lennon, at ‘Bob Gruen: Rock Seen’ exhibit, Morris Museum, June 20, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Gruen probably is best known for his pictures of John Lennon in a New York City t-shirt in the early 1970s, when the ex-Beatle was fighting the U.S. government to become a citizen.

The photographer became friendly with Lennon and Yoko Ono–his neighbors in Greenwich Village at the time–after a nerve-wracking first encounter. He had tagged along with a reporter who was interviewing John and Yoko at a hotel in the Village.

“I remember walking down the hall, the door was at the end…I was like finally going to meet John and Yoko, they were huge heroes of mine and the world. And I realized I was trembling, and there was no way to take pictures shaking like that,” Gruen recounted.

Stopping in the hall, he took a breath.

“And I said, it’s only going to be all right if I do what I do, and they happen to like it. I can’t make up anything else. Years later, Yoko told me that actually mattered, that a lot of photographers are so nervous that it makes them nervous. But the fact that I walked in like just totally calm, they were calm. I got some really good pictures.”

That’s usually how things worked out, even with punk stars infamous for violent concerts.

Bob Dylan, he was rough.

‘PEEKING THROUGH THE KEYHOLE’

Dylan barred photographers from his 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, but Gruen snuck his gear into seven shows and sold photos to music magazines. Months later, Gruen chanced upon Dylan in Berlin.

Tongue-tied around his idol, Gruen said hello to one of the singer’s bodyguards, who was a friend, then began walking away.

“And all of a sudden Bob Dylan turns around, comes right back at me and says, ‘I know your name. I’ve seen your name next to the pictures all the time. You’ve been peeking through the keyhole.'”

Brandishing a silver cane, Dylan continued: “‘I always said I was going to beat you up when I met you.'”

Debbie Harry of Blondie crawls from the wreckage–someone else’s– in a photo on display at ‘Bob Gruen: Rock Seen’ exhibit, Morris Museum, June 20, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“I always try to take good pictures,” Gruen recalled telling Dylan. When Dylan expressed displeasure with a photo of Patti Smith, Gruen informed him that another person had shot that one.

“Finally he walked away, and I was kind of shaken,” Gruen recounted. “Because for me, it was like meeting God — and finding out that he wanted to kill me!”

It was the only occasion in his career when he did not respect a photo subject’s wishes, Gruen said.

“I don’t ever intrude on somebody. That’s the one time I felt I had to go,” he said. “I felt it was a news event, there was so much interest in it. I was just this fanatic fan and needed to do it.”

The episode made him stronger, Gruen continued, “because I had nothing to rely on anymore. There were no heroes after that.”

Gruen said he and Dylan have not spoken since.

‘HE’S IN THE BAND’

Bob Gruen: Rock Seen will include screenings of films Gruen shot with his former wife Nadya. On July 31, it’s Ike and Tina Turner: On the Road 1971-72 (2012). On Aug. 9, the museum will show New York Dolls: All Dolled Up (2005). And on Aug. 20, it’s New York Dolls: Lookin’ Fine on Television (2011). Screenings are at 1 pm and 3 pm each day.

The museum landed the exhibit through its association with the Florham Park law firm   Sherman Wells Sylvester & Stamelman LLP, which represents Gruen’s work. Sherman Wells partner Anthony Sylvester has lined the office walls with classic Gruen prints.

Rock Seen, and a June 27 talk and acoustic performance by Southside Johnny (7:30 pm, tickets: $25-$30, 973-971-3706), reflect a new vision for the 115-year-old museum, according to Executive Director Cleveland Johnson.

“We’re not making an abrupt break with our past, but gradually beginning to look at our world through multiple lenses,” said Johnson, hired in late 2017 to bring focus to an eclectic venue housing everything from the Guinness Collection of antique music boxes to gemstones, model trains and a stuffed bear.

While the museum will remain welcoming for children, “we want to be a ‘grownup’ place too–a venue you’d want to visit without your kids or grandkids, a place you’d come with your adult friends, relatives, or colleagues.

“The Bob Gruen: Rock Seen exhibit offers that kind of experience,” said Johnson, an Oxford-educated expert on pipe organs. As former director of the National Music Museum, he oversaw a collection of instruments from Stradivarius to Elvis.

Bob Gruen, left, and museum staffers ham it up at ‘Bob Gruen: Rock Seen’ exhibit, Morris Museum, June 20, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

One instrument you won’t see in Rock Seen is a bugle. Gruen, a high school trumpeter, was asked by The Clash to play one during the 1979 Concerts for the People of Kampuchea, organized by Paul McCartney in London.

Like fishermen, photographers always remember the one that got away. The bugle triggers such a memory for Gruen.

A big party followed the Kampuchea shows, along with the edict: No photographers. To which Mick Jones of The Clash chimed in: “He’s not a photographer, he’s in the band.”

“They made me check my camera,” Gruen said. “Five minutes later, it was Mick, and Linda  and Paul McCartney, and me.

“And I had no camera.”

“Bob Gruen: Rock Seen” runs through Nov. 10, 2019, at the Morris Museum, 6 Normandy Heights Road, Morris Township. Call 973-971-3706 for hours and admission rates.

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