So you wanta be a Rock & Roll star? Well, it might be a bit late in the day.
But oh, there was a time and it all came flooding back when I opened Bob Gruen’s beautiful new book, Rock Seen – a sparkling collage of live concert shots and portraits from the last 40 years.
Who the hell is Gruen, you might ask. Well, he’s the guy who’s always there when scenes begin and is long gone before they become stale.
I used to wonder about Joe Strummer. Was he really so tuned in that he found Black 47 at Paddy Reilly’s early on?
Nah, Gruen took him, for Bob could hear the grass grow when it came to new music.
Strummer is on the cover of Rock Seen. Funny how you can miss something so obvious - even though I’d been up close to the Clash at their ferocious best I never realized Joes was such a knockout.
That’s Bob’s magic – he didn’t just click on a camera until he struck lucky. No, he waited until the moment was right and mainlined straight into the soul of his subject.
I used to see Bob at shows all over town but I’ve little memory of him with a camera stuck to his face. He was part of the scene – he loved the music and the players - he didn’t just run off home to bed as soon as he’d nailed a decent shot.
And that’s why if you want to know what Rock & Roll was all about in New York City don’t bother reading some self-serving rock critique. You’ve got the real deal now – a book reeking with the magic of so many electric nights. It may not be for you, but there’s a music head in your circle who has need of remembering, or someone who cares but was too young to be there when it mattered.
That was what they said about The Clash – “the only band that mattered.” But there were legions of others and many are nailed to the pages of Rock Seen – Chuck Berry, Ike & Tina, The Stones, The Boss, Bowie, Tom Waits, Led Zep…
Of course Gruen is synonymous with John Lennon. He took the iconic portrait in the New York City T-shirt. In fact Bob gave that shirt to his mate. Took the lovely Statue of Liberty portrait too – to hammer home the point that Lennon was a New York City treasure and shouldn’t be deported.
But, for me, it’s the downtown gang that lights up this book. The New York Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center before it collapsed. Johnny Thunders, young and beautiful, before the dope ate a hole in him. Debbie Harry, our Marilyn, in a tiger striped dress, and The Ramones so young and almost vulnerable.
Have you ever seen the inside of Max’s Kansas City? I nearly cried. Bob’s pictures brought me back to a Christmas Eve when I stood in a darkened corner with my Irish American Princess, Sid and Nancy next to us, listening to their junky conversation and observing that, “this guy will be lucky to be alive next year.” It never struck me that Nancy wouldn’t make it either.
There are scenes from CBGB’s so vivid the familiar lines of graffiti jump from the walls and I can almost inhale the particular smell of beer, sweat, leather and cheap perfume that pervaded this dump on the Bowery that changed music!
And friends in the crowd that I haven’t seen in thirty years! What are they doing now - gone like Strummer and Joey, or alive, survived and gratefully older like David Jo and Debbie?
Open up Bob Gruen’s book and the throbbing nights will come flooding out at you and with them the faces, wild-eyed but far from innocent, without a hint of irony, parody or American Express exclusivity - a lovingly detailed kaleidoscopic account of a bygone time when Rock & Roll was bible strong in this town.
Rock Seen captures the visual beauty and integrity of a precious scene before MTV and corporate greed irrevocably cheapened and distorted it.
Rock Seen by Bob Gruen Abrams Books