Green Day, Woodstock, Rock ‘N’ Roll Bedrooms and Much More: A Conversation With Photographer Bob Gruen
Mike Ragogna: Bob, you’ve photographed so many bands, your photos appearing on various album covers and included in many books and publications. Your latest rock anthology is simply titled Green Day Photographs by Bob Gruen. So was it just finally Green Day’s turn?
Bob Gruen: [laughs] I don’t know if it works like that! They got my interest because they’re a powerful band making powerful statements and having a lot of fun. I like those combinations. I always like music with a message but I also like music that’s fun. Green Day really combines that. As I got to know them, they’re really fun guys to be with. Luckily, they liked hanging out with me and I just had fun hanging out with them.
MR: There seems to be a bond between you and the acts you photograph that comes out in the pictures. Is it because you initially love the music then connect deeper with the various personalities? To me, that’s what seems to come out in your photos, especially with this new book.
BG: Yeah, I think so. The bands that I get along with are the people I like and they like me and it works out better. When you have more time with a band and they’re more comfortable with you, you get better pictures.
MR: Maybe when you bond with the band, the lens is more honest, and when folks are relaxed, it captures more?
BG: Right, I think so. You just get to spend more time and have more opportunity. You don’t have to rush and try to get a whole bunch of pictures in one day. You just get pictures when they look right.
MR: And you usually socialize with them at the same time.
BG: Well, once you develop a relationship, you’re having fun with your friends, yeah.
MR: So let’s talk about your time with Green Day. You go all the way back with them to Dookie. Considering your roots with your feet in the punk world, the rock world, singer-songwriters, Beatles, what was it about Green Day that attracted you?
BG: The manic chaos. That kind of sums it up. They’re just so chaotic all the time. They hit the stage and they just run for two and a half hours. But also the fact that their music had a message. I think the first concert I ever went to was Pete Seeger when I was about thirteen. Then I started getting involved in jazz. Miles Davis, he had music with a message, actually.
MR: With Miles Davis it always seemed cultural.
BG: It was just a feeling. With Bob Dylan, it was, of course, important statements, and that led me to other people like Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton, and then to Buffalo Springfield and New York Dolls. People don’t realize the statements that the Dolls were making about the Vietnam war, about ecology. Their song “Trash” that a lot of people think is a throwaway — pardon the pun — is not about their girlfriends, it’s about ecology. They’re saying, “Trash, pick it up, don’t throw my life away.” Then, of course, there’s The Clash. A lot of people think The Clash is the only band that matters. I did too until I met Green Day. I think they matter too. I think we have a common interest, me and Green Day, in The Clash. That’s their roots and certainly mine.
MR: One of my favorite pictures in the book is the one where they’re holding the photo anthology you did on John Lennon.
BG: That’s an example of their sense of humor. I didn’t tell them to do that. I had given them the book when I came into the dressing room before the show. I was taking some pictures after the show, so this is like an hour and a half later. While I was taking a typical group shot of them standing there and looking at me, Billie turned and said, “Oh, let’s hold the book!” A lot of times, if a band’s going to do that, they’ll just hold it to promote it or something. Billie turned it sideways like there was a centerfold and Mike and Tré immediately fell into the joke. It didn’t have to be explained, it didn’t have to be discussed. Billie just turned the book sideways and Mike and Tré immediately fell into the pose. I thought that was really funny. That’s the kind of sense of humor they have, and that they work together like that. They’re always having fun with things.
MR: All the tongue-in-cheek stuff in American Idiot prove that as well as being a huge statement.
BG: It is quite a statement. There are three guys who come out of school and they’re going to go off to the big world in New York and one kid’s girlfriend’s already pregnant, he can’t go. The other guys go and one guy gets into dope, the other guy goes into the army and gets blown up and at the end, it’s not a happy ending. I talked to Billie one time about it. “It’s a very realistic ending. It’s not happy but it’s realistic.” He said, “Yeah, well, if it had a happy ending, I might have won the first prize,” because he was up for best musical and so was Memphis. Memphis had a happy ending.
MR: It came out was during the Bush era, around that turning point when recording artists progressively got more acerbic in their protests. I can’t think of a lot of other things being that pointed in a time period where it could end your career.
BG: Right and they’ve never held back on that. One of the statements they made one day really impressed me. They use common curse words on their albums because people do, their fans do, so it’s on their records. Wal-Mart, who sells more than half the records in the United States, won’t carry records that have curse words. Many bands change their lyrics and have a G-rated Wal-Mart version. They asked Green Day to do that and Green Day wouldn’t. They didn’t want to make a G-rated version. An interviewer asked Green Day why they wouldn’t change it for Wal-Mart and Billie just said, “If Wal-Mart thinks that our lyrics are dangerous, why don’t they just sell it in the guns and knives department with the other dangerous things?” They point out common sense things like that, and I like common sense.
MR: Yeah and what you capture in all of your greatest photographs is a an honesty. I bet that’s why you’ve bonded with so well with acts like Green Day and John Lennon.
BG: And Joe Strummer.
MR: Right with all your work with them as well. You mentioned becoming socially conscious through an artist or group’s music, but sometimes bands communicate things on different levels they’re not even aware of.
BG: John Lennon told me he didn’t know what his songs were about until he read the reviews.
MR: Perfect, yeah. Do you notice that happen when you photograph some bands? Do you capture things they aren’t even aware of?
BG: I try to capture what a person wants to look like. I’m not trying to put a message into the picture other than what the person wants to look like. I think the only one that really had a message was when I took John Lennon to the Statue of liberty. Other than that, I don’t try to make statements other than to try to put people in a complementary view. I let them make the statements. I like to promote them as competent, intelligent individuals.
MR: I guess what I’m saying is that they may be communicating something beyond their flattering photos even through body language, etc. Are there times you watch a band realizing you’re seeing them go way beyond expectation? You were with Green Day early on so you must have seen them evolve.
BG: I wasn’t there from the beginning but the first time I saw them was on TV, with Woodstock 2 in ’94, around when Dookie came out. I wasn’t there when they were playing frat parties. Billie told me they played a party that was so crowded the band set up in the bathroom. I missed those days, but once getting to know them and being able to go to some of their Foxboro Hot Tubs shows, they were wild and sweaty in small clubs. I got to see how they let off steams. I think I say in my foreword, “When they let off steam, the room gets really steamy.”
MR: One of my other favorite pictures is where the drums are on fire. You captured it in a way that was really saying something beyond a normal, flattering photo.
BG: Here’s the point: For me, rock ‘n’ roll is all about freedom. It’s about the freedom to express your feelings very loudly in public and Green Day does that very well. I try to capture that in my pictures, the feeling and the passion of what’s going on, and not just the facts.
MR: Do you like punk and alternative because it reveals more? Because it’s more honest?
BG: Probably. I would say yes except that I don’t really use definitions like that. I couldn’t define what a “punk” group is as opposed to a “rock” group. Those are things for rock critics to do. I just like music, I don’t define it.
MR: But you find yourself drawn to acts that are more honest about what they’re thinking.
BG: Yeah, very much so. But I wouldn’t call Dylan a punk rocker. Some people would.
MR: Yeah, I could see people thinking that from the way he was brutally honest and many times antagonistic in some of his songs.
BG: That’s why I don’t like definitions.
MR: Bob, you were there for Green Day’s induction into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame. What was that like?
BG: That was a good year. iIt was Green Day and Joan Jett and I’m a big fan of both of them and the Hall of Fame in general.
MR: How did they react to their induction?
BG: They were totally stoked that they were recognized — and recognized early. You’re not eligible until after 25 years, and I think that they got in the first year that they were eligible. It really adds a lot of respect.
MR: That’s impressive considering how many acts were and are deserving of being inducted.
BG: There’s a lot of controversy about who’s in and who’s not in…more about who’s not in. I saw a list online of two hundred people and bands that aren’t in and I had to agree with at least a hundred and ninety-five of them. But it’s limited, you can only admit some of them. I think it does a lot for the people who do get in and I think it does a lot for rock ‘n’ roll in general. I’ve been to the museum a number of times, I’ve given talks there, and seeing families, like a father and son looking at the exhibits and talking about when they were young and what it meant to them. A father looking at Buddy Holly’s boy scout card, which I think they have in the museum, ends up talking to his son about the scouts and his impression of what the Buddy Holly songs meant to him. To pass on the traditions like that, I think, is very important. And the fact that just the other day I saw Joan Jett on the Country Music Awards, which was totally surprising, this amazing rock ‘n’ roll moment in the middle of all these country songs. And they introduced her as “Hall of Fame inductee, Joan Jett.” That meant a difference to the audience, that meant she was special. They could relate to that. It was a title they could relate to. In Bo Diddley’s late career when he could bill himself as “Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Famer Bo Diddley,” that really pumps it up for people who are young enough not to know.
MR: Personally, I think the Hall of Fame needs to make its inductee list a little larger for obvious reasons and it would placate some of its critics
BG: Everybody feels that way. There are so many people who deserve to be in. But like I say, for the people who are in it, it really helps them.
MR: Hey Bob, this is the fiftieth anniversary of Woodstock. What a mess, huh?
BG: Nah, I went to Woodstock, I was a camper, I had fun.
MR: [laughs] No I meant that here we are in 2019, fifty years after one of the most significant cultural events ever, and no one can get a proper significant anniversary show off the ground. That’s just bizarre to me.
BG: Because it’s a different time. Woodstock was a unique event that you can’t commercialize. People who know how to put on Coachella, it becomes a corporate business. They’re certainly not the same thing. The feelings that came together in Woodstock was a cultural moment that you can’t recreate. It’s like asking Picasso to come back and repaint the Café de Flore. It’s not going to happen.
MR: Right and it is counterintuitive to the spirit of the original event.
BG: My wife and I noticed something the other night. There’s a new documentary about Woodstock. They make a lot of points throughout the film about how much pot people were smoking, and you can see in the footage there’s very little drinking. Not a lot of beer cans, not a lot of liquor bottles though there are a couple of wine bottles passed around, shared. In ’94, it was a drunken debauchery. That’s what happened in ’99 too. Same thing, everybody was drunk. People weren’t totally drunk at Woodstock.
MR: I guess that reflects the young cultures of then and decades later.
BG: That’s another thing that people don’t mention. They talk in the film about how everybody was against the war and everybody was going to demonstrations and everybody went to Woodstock. That is so untrue. Half a million people went there, which is a huge gathering, but they were people from across the country and around the world. There were two hundred forty-nine and a half million people in the United States who didn’t go. There were two hundred fifty million people in America and only half a million went. Most of them didn’t like the hippies.
MR: Right and yet it changed our culture.
BG: It did, it made a huge statement. I thought it was funny how The New York Times totally trashed it on Friday, and then on Monday, in a total reversal, praised it.
MR: I believe it had an awakening effect on the culture similar to the Ohio shootings. It was the biggest spotlight on something that was happening in society that one could no longer deny.
MR: When you look at our culture these days with all the issues we seem to have, sometimes it feels like the culture is swinging backwards, like we’re having to deal with the same issues and tensions again — except the Vietnam War — fifty years later. Having lived through that period, what are your thought?
BG: But there are other wars. It’s not Vietnam but it’s Afghanistan and Syria and other places they don’t even tell you about. It’s serious. I’m not a philosopher to compare the times. I’m a photographer, I take pictures of musicians.
MR: You liar you!
BG: [laughs] Like Elvis Presley when he said, “I’m just a singer, ma’am.” It’s hard for me to make a simple statement about it because it’s not simple, it’s very complex. I wish people were coming together. I do see a movement in the last couple of years that has woken people up to the fact that they should be involved and more and more people are getting involved. Seeing AOC reminds me of the sixties. “I’m angry and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Whether or not she’s right or who’s right, people are getting angry, they’re not going to take it anymore, and they’re starting to talk about it. That’s a lot of what was going on in the sixties. I personally don’t think that Woodstock was a political statement. It was a political education for a lot of people, realizing that other people could feel this way, realizing that people could live together in harmony and peace. That was a huge statement. Some people in the film were saying, “I went there because I wanted to connect with the new politics.” But it was not at all politics for me. For most of the people, they went for the music and for the pot and for the fun.
MR: After the fact, do you think its symbolism was hijacked?
BG: Politically? In a sense, well, partly. The feelings you came away with changed politics. I don’t think you can say it was a political event. There was no sloganeering, there were no signs, there was nothing in the advertisement, there was nothing at the festival that said anything about politics. It’s what I call social politics. That’s the kind of music I like — Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, the Clash, Green Day… It’s about social politics. It’s about dealing with living.
MR: So are you seeing signs of the culture politically getting invigorated?
BG: Invigorated, yes. People are becoming more aware. People were very apathetic and thought that Obama was the way the world was. People just sat home with a petty peeve about Hillary thinking, “Well she’s going to win anyway.” She didn’t, because people sat home. It’s what I’m upset now, how the democrats are attacking each other. They even attacked The New York Times for a headline that was out for like twenty minutes and then it was changed. They’re going to attack the Times for that? There’s a lot wrong with the world and The New York Times is not the major problem. The fact that the democrats get so petty — “He said,” “She said,” this one, that one — it’s like, “Shut the f**k up and stay on point!” The world is going to hell. I don’t care who somebody kisses or how long their hair is. Jeez. We’re still talking about that?
MR: Yeah, I live in Iowa and I still have to pass a “Jail Hillary” sign every time I head down 219 South. Anyway, can you catch us up on your museum exhibit?
BG: Yes, in New Jersey, I have a museum exhibit going right now in the Morris museum in Morristown, New Jersey. It’s really pretty extensive, about seventy-two pictures and they have a teenage bedroom installation, which I’ve been doing for years now. It’s an installation I do that’s a recreation of a teenage bedroom and all the pictures are mine. It’s all magazine covers, album covers and posters, placed the way kids decorate their rooms with their heroes for inspiration. I like to put that in the exhibits to show what the pictures were for. They weren’t necessarily made to have an iconic moment in a frame on a museum wall. They were made for people to live with and to be inspired by. The exhibit’s a retrospective of all my work.
MR: How long has the exhibit been up?
BG: It opened in June, it’ll be open until November.
MR: What inspired the concept?
BG: It started when I was doing a really massive exhibit in São Paulo, Brazil, and realizing that we were presenting about 280 pictures of special, iconic moments. My Led Zeppelin picture is woven into a blanket, so we put that on the teenager’s bed, and then the walls are just covered with a lot of Rock Scene Magazine, the whole page with my photos, and a lot of stories and things. People can read the stories and get the humor of it. Rock Scene was a very funny magazine.
MR: Brazil, huh? That makes sense since your photos have captured so many acts that have a strong international presence. Gruen is a global superstar!
BG: [laughs] Recently, I’ve been in the midst of writing a biography, so I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve done. I’ve been influenced by music. I’m old enough that I remember the fifties. I saw Elvis Presley while I was lying on my dad’s stomach watching the Ed Sullivan show. That’s when they started saying that this rock ‘n’ roll was a terrible influence on the youths but don’t worry, it’s only a teenage fad and it’s going to go away. I think because rock ‘n’ roll is based on freedom and it’s about freedom and it inspires people to express freedom. That’s why people were afraid of it, and that’s why it spread around the world. I’ve heard rock ‘n’ roll on a bus in the middle of the Mexican desert. I’ve got this app, “Radio Garden” where the whole world comes up and there are lots of green dots, which are radio stations that are online. You can pick any radio station in the world and listen live. You can tune-in to Tokyo or Cape Town or whatever. I tuned into some radio station in South Africa and they were playing Green Day. That’s how worldwide it is. I actually found a good Ugandan station that plays African music that I listen to. It’s amazing how rock ‘n’ roll has spread so far and wide. Watching the country music awards the other night, there was so much rock ‘n’ roll in country. They had Joan Jett as their special guest. A lot of these country acts have bands that sound to me like rock ‘n’ roll with a southern twang. We used to call it “southern rock,” now they call it country music.
MR: I think Garth Brooks might have been the first country act to rely so heavily on a rock element in his live shows. Speaking of musical influence, there are so many bands that Green Day inspired. Do they have an opinion about those acts?
BG: I never had a conversation with them about that. Being friends with somebody, you don’t really interview them.
MR: Right, Well, what are your feelings about what happened after Green Day, their influence, etc.?
BG: For me, all music has just been a progression. Nothing comes out of a vacuum. Some people are more obviously influenced by one particular band or another. Certainly, there’s a lot of Clash in Green Day. There’s a lot of difference, too. When you hear an opening chord of a Green Day song, you know it’s Green Day and not Clash. They all influence each other. What’s interesting to me is I’m lucky enough to have seen a lot of originals. I remember in the eighties people started saying, “This band is like Mötley Crüe but with an Alice Cooper kind of singer.” Alice Cooper wasn’t compared to anybody. Tina Turner wasn’t like anybody. The New York Dolls certainly weren’t like anybody. In the eighties you could say, “This band is kind of like the New York Dolls,” but it didn’t happen for the originals. I remember mid-eighties, Sigue Sigue Sputnik came out and one friend of mine was encouraging me to go see them and saying they were fantastic but the newspapers were saying there was riots and they were horrible. I went to the show and I didn’t see riots, I saw girls in miniskirts and I thought, “Well this ain’t so bad.” When they started playing they were playing very fast but it was based on the same stuff. It was the New York Dolls, faster, and the New York Dolls are basically The Rolling Stones faster which was basically Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley faster. Each generation kind of pumps it up a bit but nothing comes from a vacuum. Everybody’s inspired by what they grew up with.
MR: What advice do you have for new artists?
BG: What is it, “How do you get to Carnegie hall? Practice, practice, practice.” There are so many variables. It’s also a question of what you view as success. A lot of people want to be the top most famous person but there are only one of them out of 200, 300 million people. Other musicians that I’ve seen, they have a career, and maybe you get in a band and maybe that band gets some play. But eventually, you end up being in other bands playing on sessions. Keith Richardson plays guitar every day and he can play in his basement, but if sixty-thousand people want to pay a lot of money to see him in a stadium, he’ll go there instead. But you play every day. That’s what you do.
MR: Are you musical? Did you get tempted?
BG: Not really. There were some attempts in my youth. My parents thought I should have some musical experience and they tried to interest me. I took lessons in playing trumpet, but I wanted to be Miles Davis and the teachers wanted me to play John Philip Sousa. I didn’t really take to it and it turned out that it was pushing my teeth in, so they made me stop and try the drums. I didn’t like that at all. I don’t really have that kind of sensibility to just bang on things and get it with the rhythm all the time. Luckily after about two years, there was a school orchestra night and my mom came. At the end of the show, instead of saying, “Oh darling, you were wonderful,” she said, “You know, there was something wrong with the music and finally I figured it out, the rhythm was off. You can stop now.” I was like, “Really, I spoiled the whole concert?” So that was the end of my musical career. Well, actually, I picked up the guitar in the folk music days, and went to the Newport Folk Festival with people sitting around with the hootenannies. I wasn’t very good. I played a few protest songs — Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs kind of things — but it’s more about meaning than music. I started living with a band and when The Beatles came out, they all started playing notes instead of just strumming. That was when I said, “I’ll just watch.” I like to listen; I like to watch.
MR: The beginnings of the Bob Gruen lens on the world. When did you pick up the camera?
BG: That came naturally. When I was like four years old, my mom took me to the dark room. Her hobby was photography. She used to develop and print her own pictures, that’s when I first learned about it and I just took to it right away. When I was eight, they gave me my first camera and I became the family photographer and it just became what I do. By the time I was thirteen, I had a 35mm camera. One of the first talks I ever had to give in school in speech class was Carry Your Camera Everywhere You Go from an article in a photo magazine.
MR: One of my favorite Gruen pictures is from John Lennon’s New York City period, especially that iconic Statue of Liberty shot. I almost can’t think of John Lennon without thinking of that shot. If I remember correctly, I think it even influenced a childhood musical friend, Julio Gonzales, whose first original song was written about how beautiful the Statue of Liberty was and what it symbolized. Quite a contrast to how its message has been twisted lately to justify oppression. Anyway, Bob, do you realize that you and your camera have documented so many culturally significant moments?
BG: I’m beginning to realize that. I’ve been stopped on the street in Paris or Tokyo and certainly a lot around New York; the other day in the airport in Chicago as well. It’s really very vindicating to me when people stop and thank me and tell me how much they appreciate my work. Their eyes seem to be glowing and they seem to be sincere. You put a picture in a magazine and have no idea if anybody sees it or if anybody even cares to read the photo credit. The photo credit is the tiniest thing in the whole magazine. You wonder if anybody even sees it. So now that people come up and thank me for it, it really means a lot to me, especially that Statue of Liberty photo. I think it’s one of the most important.
MR: Was that your or Lennon’s idea?
BG: It’s one of the very few that I thought up and said, “Let’s do this on purpose, let’s go here and take a picture with this kind of meaning.” I originally thought it was a good idea when the U.S. was trying to deport John Lennon but it’s taken on a whole meaning of its own. It wasn’t really published much as far as his case went, but after he died, I think people relate to John Lennon in terms of personal freedom, very similar to the way they relate to the Statue of Liberty. I’ve always felt that’s one of my most important photos. A couple years ago, I did an interview for TV and we went out to the Statue of Liberty to film right there. In the twenty minutes we were there, every person who was there came around to the front and stood in that pose with the peace sign to take a selfie and have their friends take a picture of them there. These are people from all over the world who visit the statue of liberty.
MR: You might say they’re doing that “Bob Gruen Pose.”
BG: Uh-huh. [laughs] A lot of people there glanced at me doing an interview and had no idea who I was. Other people came over and asked for autographs. That happens nowadays too. It’s kind of weird.
MR: As a music history aficionado, where do you think we’re heading? Got any predictions?
BG: Nope. [laughs] That’s not my job. The world is changing so fast. I have no idea where it’s going, I can’t predict things. But it seems so derivative now because people have such access to influence. You’re not just limited to what you hear on Top Forty radio. Im mean, you can listen to radio around the world at the touch of a finger. I have no idea where it’s going but I’m fascinated. I love to wake up every day and see what happened.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne