You may not know Bob Gruen by name, but you’ve no doubt seen his work. He’s the photographer behind some of rock’s most iconic photos, like John Lennon sporting a New York shirt. He’s worked with The Clash, The Sex Pistols, The New York Dolls, and Blondie. But it’s his work with Green Day that’s the focus of his latest photobook.
Gruen chats with GENRE IS DEAD! about his new photobook, what it’s like working with one of the biggest bands in the world, and the freedom of rock n roll.
GENERE IS DEAD!: The new Green Day photo book was recently released. Congrats! What made you decide now was the right time to share these Green Day photos?
Bob Gruen: It was coming up on 25 years, which is a good round number. A lot of it was that the publisher agreed to do it – he’s actually a fan. So, it all just came together and made sense.
GID: When did you first start photographing them?
BG: The first time I saw Billie [Joe Armstrong] was at [New York’s] Don Hill’s Club in ‘94, but I started photographing the band when I saw them play Don Hill’s about four years later. I was friends with the band Degeneration and they were opening for Green Day, so I went on tour with them. It sounded like a fun couple of days, so we went and met them in London for a few shows and then went to Paris with them. That’s when I really started to get to know the band.
GID: Speaking of touring, you’ve followed Green Day on some massive tours and captured the chaos of their live shows. What’s it like following the band around?
BG: Fantastic. They’re a really great crew, really good people, really fun to hang out with and they really take care of their people very well. They got me great travel accommodations, good hotel rooms, good food. But mostly they’re fun people to hang out with.
GID: Judging by how they are in interviews and on stage, they seem like a bunch of fun-loving guys who love what they do. And that’s part of what makes their shows so much fun. They seem to really enjoy being up on stage playing in front of thousands of people.
BG: I find that if the entertainer’s having fun usually the audience will have fun. Also, Green Day is a band that communicates with their audience. Some bands come out and they try to play the music as perfectly as they can. Other bands come out and say hello to the crowd and they talk and engage with them. They have a party together. And I think Green Day’s a band that engages and communicates with their audience.
GID: Definitely! Whether it’s in a small club or a stadium they do their best communicate with the crowd, always bringing up kids on stage to play with them, so they’re definitely a great band all around.
BG: That was one of the things that impressed me the most when I saw them. The first time I saw their show in England they brought somebody out of the audience. In fact, I was with a cynical friend of mine who’s a guitar player and older than most of the Green Day crowd. And she was jealous and wanted to be the person who got picked to play on stage. When they started playing stadiums I wondered if they could do it on that scale and I’ve seen them do it over and over.
Some shows I’ve seen them actually bring up a drummer and a bass player and replace the whole band. It just gives so many kids inspiration. There’s a quote in the book where Billie said they pulled some kids out of the audience in some town and when he came back a year later, they had formed a band.
GID: That’s what so great about them. They do the most to make their concerts special. And for those lucky few who get on stage with them, it can completely change the rest of their lives.
BG: Oh yeah! There was a 14-year-old girl in New York who was amazing. They brought her up on stage and kept her there for three songs. She was like a guest lead guitar player. She was fantastic and the audience loved her.
GID: That’s amazing. Who doesn’t want to get on stage with Green Day?
BG: Everybody does! Except me, I don’t really play much. I would feel funny doing that, but I like to watch. It’s really fun to see how excited the kids get and see the different attitudes because some kids aren’t good. I’ve actually seen people thrown off for not being good. There was one kid who started playing and Billie said ‘what a minute, you were here last year. Get off the stage!’ (laughs)
It’s a huge moment for the kids and for the audience to see Green Day saying yes, you can do this too. I’ve worked with other bands like The New York Dolls and people like Joe Strummer told me he saw the Dolls and was like ‘wow, maybe I could that.’ They inspired a lot of people. But Green Day actually brings the kids on stage and says yes, you can do this!
GID: It’s great that they can be such an inspiration to thousands of people around the world. Speaking of their shows, the live shots in the book are stunning and really capture the excitement, energy, and passion of Green Day’s concerts.
BG: Well, thank you because that’s exactly what I try to do. For me it’s all about the passion and the excitement and because I’m a fan of the music that’s what I try to capture. I want to capture the feelings, not just the facts.
GID: There’s so much going on at concerts, how do you know when to get the camera up and ready?
BG: Well like I said I’m a fan, so I’m feeling it. I have a feeling for when a dramatic moment is coming. You have to kind of anticipate what’s coming and be in the right place when it gets there to be a good photographer. You have to think ahead a lot and somehow I have a knack for doing that.