Talking CBGB, Punk, and Warhol with Photographer Bobby Grossman [INTERVIEW]
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Most of my friends know that I’m a New York City history freak. I’ll probably annoy you when I walk down the street telling you the history of some random tenement on the corner of some random street in the LES. Lately, though, I’ve found myself reading numerous books on the 60s/70s/80s NYC music scene, and have spent more hours than I would like to admit on YouTube trying to take in performances I missed at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City. Lucky for us, there were some really talented people around to document what many of us missed out on.
Bobby Grossman is one of these awesome and talented individuals. Coming to New York in the mid 1970s from the Rhode Island School of Design, Bobby saw some of the most iconic bands of that era. He documented them in such a way that allows us to really see what it was like during a time when walking into CBGB to see Television, The Ramones, or Blondie was a thing (can we say jealous?). His talent for capturing these images has been recognized in numerous popular publications, including Interview, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and Vogue. His pictures include scenes at Andy Warhol’s Factory (having been assistant to Richard Bernstein who designed Interview Magazine covers), The Chelsea Hotel, and CBGB among others. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Bobby, who dove into what it was like being in the middle of one of the coolest scenes in New York.
Bowery Boogie: You lived in NYC in the 1970’s – what was it like being in the center of the punk scene, and do you think that NYC is a lot different today than it was back then?
Bobby Grossman: People always disagree with me, but I always felt like I arrived late to the party. I was there at CBGB for the first Talking Heads shows, and I saw the New York Dolls at Max’s, but I missed out on the Mercer Arts Center. I was too late for the back room at Max’s Kansas City, and Amos Poe had already produced a few films. Danny Fields wrote about the scene every week in his Soho Weekly News column, and since I was still in college in Providence, I read about it in Rock Scene and the first few issues of New York Rocker.
I was an illustration major, so I managed to meet many art editors at all of the publications and record companies a year or so before my move to New York City. I was well connected, but I wasn’t part of it. It seemed to me that the No Wave – Punk “movement” had already began before July 1976. I met Stanley Bard and I signed his lease for a suite at The Chelsea Hotel because I was too lazy to look for an apartment. New York City was in ruins and bankrupt, but to be honest with you, I didn’t really notice and it hardly affected me. Every generation probably feels that the city is theirs but for me it was a special time and I was fortunate to be there. These days they say the city has changed a lot, but nothing ever remains the same for too long anyway. Everywhere has changed drastically. The film Blank City documents the era and those involved tell the story better than I can.
BB: When you were taking pictures, did you know that you would be capturing some key moments of that time period? When did you realize this was something special?
BG: In 1974, My RISD friend Chris Frantz moved to New York City, and before reading about anything in Soho Weekly News or Rock Scene, Chris had mentioned to me that there was a bar on Bowery, not too far from his Chrystie street apartment, and bands were beginning to play there. He invited me down and I’m pretty sure it was the first Talking Heads show. I didn’t bring my camera to CBGB in 1975, although I did see The Ramones, Television, Patti Smith and Blondie. Later on, I brought my Polaroid to a few shows, but it wasn’t until September 1976, after living in New York for a month or so that I decided to bring my Konica point and shoot camera to a Ramones show at CBGB. I had that roll processed at the neighborhood drugstore in Chelsea.
A few years later I met Fred Brathwaite, Fab 5 Freddy. Fred would visit me at my apartment on 13th Street and he would repeatedly tell me what we were doing was important. I’d agree, and then ask him to hand me the joint. It did occur to me that there was a cultural art/music movement and that people from all around the world were visiting lower Manhattan to either be part of it or just witness it and enjoy what was happening around them. Early on Fred knew that this was something special, and eventually I caught on, too.
BB: How would you describe your style of photography?
BG: Well to start off, I got my degree in Illustration. I only had basic photography skills.
The whole punk and no wave thing was DIY. Those who started bands, many of them were not musicians. So me included, without too much knowledge of the camera, I began my documentation with a point and shoot camera. It was up against the wall, wham bam and I got my shot. Sometimes, from the hip – so my composition would include the track lights, ceiling and roof beams, and maybe a forehead or a partial portrait with the side of a face included. After a late night, the following morning I would take the subway or walk to the lab and I’d see my results before the end of the workday. The immediacy was part of the process. Fun and exciting for myself and my friends. I eventually got a single lens reflex camera.
BB: Even though CBGB no longer exists, so many of us are still interested in it and its significance in the music scene. Do you have any cool stories from hanging out at CBGB that you can share? Any favorite bands that you saw/photographed?
BG: Seeing Talking Heads, Television, Ramones and Blondie for the first time in 1975 was very exciting – and together on the same evening! I didn’t bring a camera back then for those first few shows, but after the first night, I knew I had to return immediately. I was on summer break from RISD and I had lots of free time, so I managed to familiarize myself with many of the bands before the word spread in the Village Voice, Soho Weekly and New York Times. The following July, I moved to New York City and nearly every night for the next few years, I would routinely walk down to the end of Bleecker Street to CBGB, often without knowing who was playing that night. It was our neighborhood bar. And by the end of the summer, one night before leaving my apartment at The Chelsea Hotel, I grabbed my camera and that’s when my documentation began. Seeing Robert Fripp perform with Blondie at the Johnny Blitz benefit in 1978 was pretty cool. And every next Ramones show was better than the one before.
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One night David Bowie and Bianca Jagger arrived together by limousine for a Richard Hell and the Voidoids gig. I was with Legs McNeil that evening when he stole a rim from their car and let the air out of the tires. I documented the vandalism with Legs proudly flailing the hub cap as if he won the Stanley Cup.
On a hot night in July 1977, I remember watching the Sex Pistols on the 11:00 news on a small black-and-white TV at CBGB. The following year after a January blizzard in 1978 on a quiet Monday night we hung out with Johnny Rotten a few days after the Sex Pistols broke up in San Francisco at the Winterland Ballroom. I stood beside Bob Gruen and together we took photos of Johnny standing in the middle of a carless snowy street on Bowery across from CBGB.
BB: You spent some time in Andy Warhol’s Factory. Can you tell us a little bit about what it was like interacting with Andy Warhol? Did he have any influence on the way you take pictures?
BG: In 1975, I was invited to The Factory by my friend Andre Leon Talley, a Brown University graduate. Andre, along with a few other RISD friends, had relocated to New York a few years before me, pursuing careers in fashion and publishing. Andre worked at The Factory and introduced me to Andy Warhol. At that time I was an Illustration major. Andy seemed to like my artwork and suggested I work big. Bigger was better. Andy phoned Lou Reed and I taxied over to Lou’s apartment at The Gramercy Park Hotel. I spent a few hours with him and he treated me to the premixed cassette of the Coney Island Baby album on his boom box. Beside the boombox was his TV, a stack of Richard Pryor cassettes, and a line up of his prescription drugs. Rachel was asleep in the bedroom.
After living at The Chelsea Hotel for a year-and-a-half, I moved to 13th across from Bowlmor, just south of Union Square, which put me a few blocks from The Factory. (BB: Bowlmor no longer exists) I routinely would visit The Factory, but I didn’t always have my camera. Sometimes I would stop by with McDonalds on my way to the bank.
I was Richard Bernstein’s assistant and Richard designed and painted the Interview covers, so I would say hi to Andy and everyone at The Factory when I delivered Richard’s artwork to the Interview office in order to meet the deadline. Sometimes I would stop by with Glenn O’ Brien who wrote the monthly column “Beat.” I’d often visit after coming from Dugall photo lab with processed film from the day before, and everyone enjoyed looking over my contact sheets, seeing who I photographed and what bands I had seen. One evening before everyone at The Factory was heading home, I stopped by with the Talking Heads ’77 album – a week before its actual release. Andy wanted me to leave it with him but I took it home. They were always working so I tried to respect that, but it was always fun to visit. My involvement with The Factory was marginal but I was friends with everyone who worked there.