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CBGB Festival: The Photography of Bob Gruen
There was something a bit surreal about approaching the Landmark Sunshine Theater on East Houston Street and seeing a red carpet juxtaposed with a CBGB backdrop, and barricades lying in wait for the paparazzi. Idling nearby, was Marky Ramone’s gourmet food truck, Cruisin’ Kitchen. Not that we don’t have big love for the Ramones – and we’ve heard that Marky’s spaghetti sauce is pretty great – but it didn’t feel very punk rock at all. In fact, it seemed like an alternate universe.
Such was the scene at the CBGB Festival last Thursday for the screening of Rock ‘N’ Roll Exposed: The Photography of Bob Gruen.
Inside the lobby was another backdrop. (Due to the melting sidewalks from the heat wave outside, photography was moved indoors.) On closer inspection, one could see that various musicians and characters from the last 35 years of the punk scene had inscribed the backdrop. Many wrote terms of endearment to the now-defunct CBGBs. Well, mostly. We immediately spied a large “Fuck Off, John Varvatos!,” written dead-center.
Satisfied that there was some rock n’ roll rebellion left in the universe, we headed up to the screening.
Bob Gruen introduced the documentary, directed by music and film luminary Don Letts. The first section focused on Gruen’s early years when he was taking his now-iconic shots of music heavyweights such as Ike and Tina Turner, a plugged-in Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. Following that, the doc detailed Gruen’s long and close friendship with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, which resulted in beautiful, intimate photos of the couple taken throughout most of the 70’s. That segued into Gruen’s role in the mid-70s punk rock scene, which he chronicled from the very start, with a strong focus on such punk and new wave icons as Iggy Pop, Blondie, the Ramones, Patti Smith, The Clash and The Sex Pistols. The last segment explored Gruen’s work today, with an emphasis on Sean Lennon, Courtney Love, and Green Day.
On-camera interviews included Alice Cooper, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, Tommy Ramone, Yoko Ono, Jesse Malin, writer Legs McNeil, and favorite local historian and musician Lenny Kaye. Both McNeil and Kaye, in particular, are truly incapable of telling a boring story.
In the category of good storytelling, the doc included some priceless anecdotes from Gruen. One standout was his experience at a Chuck Berry concert trying to get an overhead shot of the magnetic performer. While standing on a chair to get above the crowd and get a good view, a security guard insisted that Gruen get off the chair. Instead, he kept shooting. The guard finally lifted Gruen off of the chair and, while in the air above the crowd, he got the perfect shot.
Other tales included going on tour with the Sex Pistols where Gruen developed some rather strong opinions on Johnny Rotten: “He WAS Rotten. He was nasty. He was the most obnoxious person I had ever met.” (This reporter would have to agree, having had a rather interesting encounter with Rotten in 1981).
All of the musicians interviewed in the documentary praised Gruen’s photography style, calling him inconspicuous and respectful while working, leading to tight friendships with his subjects. The picture that emerged was the antithesis of the in-your-face Ron Galella-style paparazzi.
Gruen still goes out every night and shoots. During the Q&A, asked which bands interest him these days, he replied that many of the bands that were playing 20 or 30 years ago are still playing today and he is still excited by them. The last band that really made an impression him was Green Day, formed over 20 years ago.
When pressed about newer music, he added that he liked Jonny Chan and the New Dynasty Six. (Of course, we checked them out immediately and – no surprise – Gruen still has great taste in music.)
Returning to the 70s, he recalled how, after shooting assignments at Madison Square Garden, he couldn’t wait to get downtown and make a bee line to CBGB. He loved the easy access to band members at the club, which allowed him to capture great moments. “Anyone who went to CBGB, had to walk by the dressing rooms and walk by the bands in order to get to the bathroom.” (Well, Bob was braver than most of us if he actually used that infamous bathroom.)
Responding to the many lamentations about how much the scene has changed, Gruen optimistically pointed out that there are always new scenes going on, and stressed that it’s important to get out and hear live music in order to discover what’s out there. When the audience kept getting nostalgic, Gruen said, “New York has changed, everything changes. I’m just happy to be alive to see those changes.”
Here’s the trailer:
See LOADS of Gruen’s photos on his website.