Not every star is eye candy, but it helps if there is a certain synergy between image and sound. The Rolling Stones wouldn’t have been so successfully marketed as the bad boys of rock-and-roll if they’d looked like honor students, and Taylor Swift’s lost-love ballads wouldn’t sell as well if she didn’t look like Taylor Swift. You don’t have to look a certain way to succeed as a rock photographer, but reading Gruen’s memoir, I got the impression that it takes a certain type to rise to the top in that profession. You have to be adept with a camera, of course, and adopt the right-place-right-time way of going about your business, but after that, the most important thing is to be as unassuming as possible.
Take my word for it: On the page, at least, Gruen comes across as amply, abundantly, massively, unfathomably and titanically bland. Also, he’s no music critic. “The Clash was a powerful band,” Gruen writes, and they “blew me away.” The Bay City Rollers were “a lot of fun.” All he can say about a Merce Cunningham dance performance is, “I thoroughly enjoyed the evening.” One New Year’s Eve, he goes to a Blondie concert and says nothing about the show, but when Deborah Harry gives him an unexpected kiss, “it made my day.”
Like Candide, Gruen roams the earth, wide-eyed and clueless, at least at the start. He’s shoe shopping one day when he runs into a friend who asks him if he wants tickets to a Rolling Stones show. “What’s the Rolling Stones?” Gruen asks. “Satisfaction” had hit No. 1 just a few months earlier. Another time, he and a friend are loitering outside a theater when some roadies push them inside and they find themselves in front of one of the greatest blues howlers ever. “Who is that?” Gruen asks a stranger and learns that it’s Janis Joplin. When friend Mike puts an LP on, Gruen falls to the floor laughing at the “nasal caterwauling” of a poser named Bob Dylan.
At times, you may think that Gruen is in danger of being sued by the Coen brothers, creators of “The Big Lebowski,” for plagiarizing the character of the Dude, who slides through life with no greater plan than to hang out and whose motto is “the Dude abides.” I confess that at one point I had the same fear.
In the end, though, it’s Gruen’s innocuous character that gives his career a charge and this book its charm. He says he “never gave much direction” to his subjects, letting them pose as they wished or not at all. He becomes besties with such notoriously prickly characters as John Lennon. Rock stars are pursued and often betrayed by villains of every sort. It must have been nice to have someone as inoffensive as Gruen around. He never seems to hustle or scramble for work. He just finds himself in the right place at the right time. As he says, though, “then you have to do the right thing.”
This is really a coffee-table book pretending not to be one. The writing is tepid, the pictures priceless. Some people always look good — Tina Turner, Chuck Berry, Mick Jagger. Others just stand around with their mouths open. Most of the roughly 200 photos here are backstage or street-corner shots of musicians with a beer or a cigarette or both, and thus they come across as regular folks like you and me, only with more talent and more houses.
Revelations are few. The members of Led Zeppelin are “arrogant,” but you knew that. Gruen does come to the defense of the oft-maligned Yoko Ono, explaining that she vocalized to express emotion, not words. And he says the nicest band in the business is one you might not expect, the Clash. The anti-Zeppelins of the rock world, Joe Strummer and his mates are depicted as spending hours with fans and showing special kindness to their opening acts.
Toward the end, Gruen defines rock-and-roll as the freedom to get together with your friends and scream and not think about paying the rent. Thoughtlessness has its place. The parents and pastors and principals of this world are always on our backs about something. Sometimes you just want to have a good scream.
David Kirby is the author of “Crossroad: Artist, Audience, and the Making of American Music.”
Right Place, Right Time
The Life of a Rock & Roll Photographer