“Nobody expected to be a star, most were expecting to maybe get a free drink or get laid” – Bob Gruen, punk’s evocative documenter


By Ella Joyce | Art | 24 August 2022

Above:Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols on plane with an unknown little girl, flying from London to Brussels. November 1977. © Bob Gruen

In early 70s New York, something magical was happening in basement venues as a new wave of musicians such as The Ramones, The New York Dolls and Television were grabbing the city’s musical tapestry and scratching out their own agenda-setting chapter. Eminent photographer Bob Gruen was the man capturing the best bits. In a new exhibition at D’Stassi Art, the sprawling archives of both Gruen and fellow music photographer Leee Black Childers have been curated by Stephen Colegrave into a definitive and visceral retrospective of the most iconic moments from the 1970s music scene.

Straddling the scenes of New York and London, Gruen was in the thick of what would become one of the most seismic epochs in musical history. As a regular at haunts such as CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City and Club Louise, Gruen became not just a familiar face but a friend to the likes of John Lennon, Joe Strummer and Soo Catwoman. Adopting the role of Lennon and Yoko Ono’s personal photographer and chief photographer at Rock Scene magazine, the genius of Gruen’s craft lies in its candidness. Mick Jagger laughs with Lennon seated at a piano, Sid Vicious munches on a hot dog and Tina Turner and David Bowie drink from a champagne bottle together.

Titled Legendary Moments, the new exhibition also unveils many previously unseen photos by the late Leee Black Childers. A true photographic raconteur, Childers moved from Kentucky to New York in the late 60s and soon found himself at Warhol’s Factory, where he told the legendary artist his aspirations to become a photographer and Warhol suggested he should simply call himself one. From that moment, he was a photographer, and tuned his lens towards the city’s subcultural stars: Warholians, punks, drag queens, club kids, Studio 54-ers and flamboyant night owls. He toured with Iggy, Bowie and The Heartbreakers, documented Elvis at the 1972 Hilton Press Conference ahead of his four-show residency at Madison Square Garden and shot that iconic image of Robert Mapplethorpe, leather jacket, cig balancing on his lips.

Speaking to us below, Gruen takes us through the exhibition at D’Stassi Art, recalling the first time he saw Bowie live, getting stuck in airport customs with the Sex Pistols and Joe Strummer kipping on his couch.

Ella Joyce: Have you got any personal favourites on display?
Bob Gruen: It’s hard for me to decide when someone asks what my favourite photo is, asking for a favourite is like asking for a favourite kid. [laughs] Someone once asked me to do my top ten records, and it turned out to be twenty-five. There are a lot of firsts on display, the first time I saw Bowie at Radio City Music Hall in New York and it looks like he was wearing pyjamas, it was the first time I’d ever seen a guy walk on stage dressed like that and I don’t think I’ve seen anybody since. I don’t know where he got that outfit but it was startling at the time. A photograph from the first time I met Johnny [Lydon] at Club Louise in London and he was the most obnoxious person I’d ever met. He didn’t affect me, I was more of a muse, he could come up with such a string of curse words and insults flowing out of him. [laughs]

Leee Black Childers – David Bowie on the Trans-Siberian Express, 1973


“I don’t question things, I don’t judge people, I’m very curious and I like unusual people – I find them fairly amusing. I’m not scared of them.”


EJ: How did the process work between you and your subjects, was it collaborative or more of a fly-on-the-wall approach?
BG: A little of both. After I got to know them it got a bit more collaborative, in the beginning, I was just quietly there. [Sex Pistols] had been introduced to me as a friend of Malcolm [McLaren]. I worked for a magazine called Rock Scene and for another one called Creem, both of them kind of took the piss out of regular press, it wasn’t like Rolling Stone where everything was serious. In Rock Scene nothing was serious. The punks liked Creem and Rock Scene because we made fun of the same things they made fun of. John Lennon was always respected, which was interesting to me. I saw The Clash at Leeds and Lester Bangs was with me and Strummer started saying, “No more Queen Elizabeth,” and everyone went, “Yay!” Then he went, “No more Led Zeppelin, no more Beatles – but John Lennon rules, okay,” and everyone went, “Yay!” And I thought, “Everything sucks but John is okay?” Then Lester and I said, “Well yeah, he’s a punk.” He was the original punk, he was the guy with the attitude and he was the wise guy in the Beatles, it was a punk attitude of questioning authority and not just going along with what is expected. When I first met him Joe it was at Club Louise, which was where the early days of the punk movement gathered every night. One night I met the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Marco Pirroni, Billy Idol, Caroline Coon and John Savage.

“I met Johnny [Lydon] at Club Louise in London and he was the most obnoxious person I’d ever met.”

It was all happening in this one club, so I came at the right time and the right place, which is partly why I named my book Right Time Right Place, because I just seem to have a habit of showing up at the right time and place. Malcolm had kind of prepped [the Sex Pistols] and told them I was from New York, I worked for Creem and Rock Scene and that I worked with John Lennon, which gave me a certain amount of respect from the punks who respected nothing. [laughs] So at least I had a good introduction. I don’t question things, I don’t judge people, I’m very curious and I like unusual people – I find them fairly amusing. I’m not scared of them.


(L-R) Dee Dee Ramone, Tommy Ramone, Johnny Ramone and Joey Ramone of The Ramones outside of CBGB’s, NYC. July 18, 1975. © Bob Gruen


EJ: You had a very close relationship with John Lennon, how did that come about?
BG: I met John when he was staying in New York with Yoko [Ono]. They actually lived around the corner from me, which I’d read in the papers but I never saw him, I saw pictures of him on the street but never when I was there. One night I went to a benefit at the Apollo Theatre for families of prisoners who rioted at the Attica Prison Riot, I was on my way there to see Aretha Franklin. I didn’t know John and Yoko were there but I walked in and I heard the announcer say, “John Lennon and Yoko Ono,” and I thought, “I’m finally in the same room as them.” I’d been reading about him for years and finally, I was there. Backstage when they were leaving, going through the systematic kind of pictures, I took a couple of pictures and John said something like, “People are always taking our pictures like this but we never see them, what happens to these pictures?” And I said, “Well I live around the corner from you, I’ll show you my pictures.” He said, “You live around the corner? Slip them under the door.” All very neighbourly, so when I rang the bell, to my surprise Jerry Rubin answered the door, the political activist – I didn’t expect that. He asked if they were expecting me so I said, “No,” and just left the pictures for them. Then about four months later, I was included in the first book about rock ‘n’ roll photography and the writer who was interviewing the dozen photographers in the book liked me and my pictures. He said, “I’m doing an interview with John and Yoko next week, would you like to come along?” And I said, “Yeah!” [laughs] The story actually wasn’t about John and Yoko it was about the Elephant’s Memory Band which was a local New York band John and Yoko were using as a back-up band to record the Sometime in New York City album. After we did some pictures I asked if I could come to the studio with them to take some more, I took some that night and they ended up using one of them in their album package for Sometime in New York City. It was about a month later when they contacted me and asked to see the pictures, that was the first time I went to their house and actually spoke to them. Yoko said they liked me and wanted to stay in touch – I’m actually still in touch with Yoko today.

“Nobody expected to be a star, most were expecting to maybe get a free drink or get laid, but nobody expected a record contract.”


Sid Vicious of The Sex Pistols ‘I’m A Mess’ in San Antonio, TX. January 1978. © Bob Gruen


EJ: I imagine for you it mustn’t have felt like you were on the cusp of something special at the time, but in retrospect what was it like being in the thick that moment? 
BG: Exactly, you didn’t really know that something was happening. Going to CBGB’s at the time we had no idea there was a punk movement, it wasn’t called punk. In the early days, the press was trying to say something was different and there was a new wave of music coming before Legs McNeil and John Holmstrom started Punk Magazine, which kind of gave the movement its name. But at first, it was just bands playing that were fun. CBGB’s was just a bar where all these misfits could hang out, meet each other and try to get laid basically. [laughs] They’d interact, lend each other equipment and it was such a small scene, the bands played very often, back then they’d play every few weeks and do two or three sets a night, they were playing a lot. When Blondie was on stage, Patti Smith, Television, The New York Dolls and everybody were in the audience, so the next week Patti was on stage and Blondie and everyone was in the audience. You saw the same people, so next time they got on stage they had to have a new outfit, they had to have a new song, because everybody saw it last month. There was a lot of friendly competition in that sense, people were trying to look good in front of their friends and look better than they did last time. When one band got robbed, the other bands would lend their equipment, people cared about each other. Nobody expected to be a star, most were expecting to maybe get a free drink or get laid, but nobody expected a record contract. Even if they did they weren’t expecting it to be like Blondie or Patti Smith and become a worldwide sensation, she gets awards in France now! [laughs] Kids at CBGB’s never dreamed that could be possible, it wasn’t even a thought.


Debbie Harry of Blondie in front of The Thunderbolt in Coney Island, NY. August 7, 1977. © Bob Gruen


EJ: How would you compare the scenes in New York and London at that time?
BG: In the beginning, there was no New York and London, it was just New York. They say punk started in England but it’s like when you go back to the 60s and look at hippies and then you look at Carnaby Street – England was always much louder and brighter, it was just more. We had bell bottoms, but we didn’t have purple striped ones. [laughs] The same thing happened [with punk], in America most of the punks still had longish hair, when I came over to London in ’76, which was the first time, I saw people with spiky, coloured hair. That was very different – very shocking, I remember the first time I saw Soo Catwoman, she had this black hair combed back into wings and the top was very short, she had eye-makeup that zoomed and the whole look was so bizarre it was like, “Who is that crazy girl?!” Recently I was looking at the picture and basically, it’s just a really short crew cut on top died blonder and longer hair on the side combed up, it’s not frightening – it’s not a bullet. [laughs] It’s just hair, coloured and combed, but at the time it was terribly frightening, you see something and you think it’s so unusual. I shared a cab home one night with what they called the Bromley Contingent, which was Soo Catwoman, Siouxsie from The Banshees and two or three other girls, and they were kind of scary. I knew we weren’t going home to party I knew they were going to drop me off and I might see them again, but there was no interaction. They were very nice but obviously we were in different camps with me being an old hippie. [laughs] It was definitely fun, I enjoyed meeting them.

I came back to London the next year and Sid [Vicious] was in the band [Sex Pistols], Malcolm had made me go with them to Luxembourg which was a fun, wild day. It almost didn’t happen, we were at the airport at  8am waiting for Johnny Rotten who was late, and planes don’t wait for nasty pop stars [laughs]. Luckily we got on the plane and started drinking orange juice and vodka, we got to Luxembourg and they took us to a bar to get to know the DJ and have some more drinks. Then we went to the radio station and I was taking some pictures as we were waiting for the elevator to go to the interview and Steve [Jones] dropped his pants, the receptionist was horrified and called security, we almost got thrown out before we even got in to do the interview. Sophie, who was Malcolm’s assistant, had to do some fast talking to get them to let us in. Then we were leaving and by that time we were drinking a lot, we got back to the airport, got through customs to the plane and the people on the plane said they weren’t going to let us on because we were too drunk, but the customs people were done with us and they weren’t going to let us back into Belgium. We were on this walkway between the plane and customs and they weren’t letting us get off on either end. Eventually, they let us on the plane and when we got back it was kind of funny because they picked us up on a Daimler stretched limo, and to these lot who were punks they were like, “Who let me in a limo?” [laughs] It was so not your usual image.

EJ: [laughs] That’s brilliant. When Stephen [Colegrave] was walking me through the gallery earlier, the pictures of Debbie Harry when she had brown hair caught my eye. It’s just so odd to see her not blonde. [both laugh]
BG: People can forget she’s a person. [laughs] For a long time she just had the front dyed which was an unusual look.

EJ: You got to see these artists’ careers from the very beginning all the way through, that must be special.
BG: Debbie always stayed a very natural person, she didn’t change. The world changed around her but she didn’t. Some of them crashed and burned, The New York Dolls were the talk of the town and then just broke up. It was just too much drugs and alcohol and the more their reputation spread, the harder it got for them to book because they would play a club and the club would get wrecked. People would have too much fun and then the next club owners were like, “I don’t want ’em!” They were on the cover of major magazines and couldn’t get a booking, so they broke up. But other bands like The Clash, from the very first day they played, they sold out every venue. They never played Madison Square Garden but they played bigger and bigger venues, eventually opening for The Who in stadiums and then they played US festivals where they were performing to half a million people. At which point they broke up, because that’s not what they intended to do, they were a band who were very committed to communicating with their audience, they were the only band I knew who always invited the fans backstage to the dressing room and would talk to anybody and everybody who showed up. A lot of venues are trained to keep people out of the dressing room, The Clash’s handlers would explain to those guards that they wanted to let people into the dressing room, because they did want to talk to the fans.

At any venue there was always a line because the band would have to dry off and talk to the record company or journalists but whoever waited around for half an hour got to see the band and talk to them, they could ask them whatever they wanted. Joe in particular was not the kind of pop star who just talked about himself, he was a person who listened. He wanted to know what the fans were thinking, what they thought about the show, what appealed to them, what didn’t appeal to them, he was there until five in the morning talking to anybody. He was fascinated by American culture. After I got to know Joe, he would come and stay at my house in the 80s and 90s, after he met his wife Lucinda they would stay in a hotel. But before that, he used to sleep on our couch and one time in Chicago we went to a club he was playing, then another club and ended up in a loft with some college students smoking pot. It was one of those days where it snows overnight then in the morning there’s a bright sun on new snow and we forgot our sunglasses, we were driving home and were all hungover. So from then on we always checked each other on the way out the door, going to dinner with Joe, we’d be like, “You got your sunglasses, right?” Because when you walk out of a bar at nine of ten in the morning then you need your sunglasses. [laughs] That was a definite with Joe, you were never getting home early. He was a lot of fun to hang out with and we miss him a lot.

“The Sex Pistols looked back with anger but The Clash looked to the future with hope and I always lean towards looking to the future with hope…”


Leee Black Childers – Elvis, Madison Square Garden, 9 June 1972 (Credit – Leee Black Childers Estate)


EJ: That physical relationship between a band and their fans doesn’t seem to exist in the same way anymore.
BG: Not at my age, I hope it happens for twenty-five-year-olds. [laughs] We used to stay out all night, maybe they don’t anymore. When I was twenty-five or thirty, hanging about on a bus with a bunch of twenty-four-year-olds drinking beer and getting stoned was a lot of fun. At this point, I’m an elder statesman, Don Letts had a good phrase that we are “living historical documents” but the kind of respect I get now doesn’t allow me to be part of a situation with a bunch of kids getting drunk. It doesn’t allow me to get candid photos like I used to, but that’s OK because now life is like this [the exhibition]. I get to sell the pictures I wasn’t able to back then.

EJ: With an archive as expansive as yours, where did the curation process begin for this exhibition?
BG: We’ve consolidated it down to four giant storage rooms and two studios. [laughs] They did a really nice job of curating the show. Stephen organised a really good exhibit for Leee [Black Childers], so then he came to me a couple of years later and the first thing we did was an exhibit in Liverpool with John Lennon pictures. Stephen is just a really good organiser and curator, he really understands. He was in a band in the 70s, which he probably won’t admit, but he understands it from that side, then he went on and had a real adult job working for Saatchi and learned serious corporate publicity. He knows how to promote and put those things together, he came up with some really good rock ‘n’ roll shows and I’m thrilled he came back to this.


(L-R) Joe Strummer, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of The Clash at Top of The Rock in New York City. June 1981. © Bob Gruen


EJ: Obviously this show is a combination of both yours and Leee’s work, what was your relationship with him?
BG: We were very good friends. Leee was a charming, funny, personable and very likeable person. I met him very early on during one of my earliest visits to Max’s Kansas City, about the third time I went to Max’s, Jayne County – he was called Wayne County back then – started coming onto me trying to pick me up and Leee stepped in and said, “Jayne leave him alone, he’s straight!” [laughs] After that Jayne and I became friends but it kind of cut the chase there. Leee and I were just always good friends. He told a really good story, and he would remember really personal details, he had a Southern accent which is charming in itself to hear a person speak with this lilting accent. We miss him a lot. He ended up drinking a lot and alcohol is a disease that affects a lot of people: some people manage to control it, it’s not curable but it is controllable with a certain amount of willpower, some people escape but Leee was not able to. It was sad to see him go, I’m sorry he’s not here now.

EJ: As someone who experienced its rise first hand, what is it about punk that translates so universally?
BG: The Sex Pistols kind of gave punk a bad name when they cursed on TV and then it was a slow news day so the newspapers jumped all over the filth, but I think punk is actually a much more positive movement. It’s a movement for positive change, for a more equal and positive future for people in the world. They say the Sex Pistols made people want to scream with rage, but The Clash gave people the reasons. The Sex Pistols looked back with anger but The Clash looked to the future with hope, and I always lean towards looking to the future with hope, I’m not an angry person. The Clash song where Joe starts, “What are you gonna do now?” is really poignant because that’s what people have to think about, not just how bad things are, but what are you gonna do now? I always liked that positive attitude from The Clash and a lot of other bands. The New York Dolls’ hit track Trash, because of their attitude people think they’re talking about their girlfriends, but it’s actually one of the first ecology songs. They go “Trash, pick it up, don’t take my life away,” and it just went right over everybody’s head – it still does. [laughs]

That’s the side of things I see, the positive side, and we had no idea in CBGB’s there was going to be any future at all for these bands, there wasn’t any other hope other than having a good time on that particular night in a bar. But I felt it was important, we’re having too much fun, people are going to find out about this, people are going to want to know about this. Even though I wasn’t selling very many pictures at all and Rock Scene didn’t pay any money… it was kind of a glorified fan zine, they would publish the pictures of unknown groups. Other magazines would only publish pictures of groups who had records out, Rolling Stone had a rule you had to have a record, so if they told you about it you could go and find it. A lot of people told me they moved to New York because Rock Scene made it look like so much fun and it always made me feel good knowing we had helped improve people’s lives in that sense. I was taking the pictures because personally, I felt it was somewhat important, I knew it was going to matter someday.

EJ: The exhibition is titled Legendary Moments – what makes a moment legendary to you?
BG: Well, what becomes a legend most? The beginnings of things that end up being part of your life. Led Zeppelin, Debbie, John Lennon, Pistols, these are part of people’s lives, so to see the origins and the moments all that came from holds a lot of meaning.

Legendary Moments is on display at D’Stassi Art until August 31st, more info here