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  • Bob Gruen

    Posted March, 2010

    bobgruen1Bob Gruen @ MoMA Collage Exhibit © Mandi NewallElvis.  Aerosmith. Elton John.  The Stones.  Alice Cooper. Zeppelin.  Lennon/Yoko. Dylan. Frampton.

    These artists and icons dominated my mind (besides girls) in my youth.  Photo’s torn from my favorite rock magazines and posters purchased in the store (for the astronomical price of $1!) hung on my bedroom walls.

    The images are burned into the firmware of my mind.  Their poses, grimaces and smiles frozen forever in their youth.  The close that they were in the shots influenced how I dressed and looked.  Jeans and jackets were purchased because of something similar Bob Dylan wore in a photo.  Platform shoes?  Thank you, Elton John.  Hair?  Thanks to a still shot of Mick Jagger in concert at Madison Square Garden, I started parting my longish hair in the middle, trying to feather it back just like Mick.

    What single thread runs through these memories?  Many of the photos that hung on my walls, influenced my “look” and burned into my memory banks were taken by famous rock photographer, Bob Gruen.

    Gruen was destined for rock and roll.  An avid fan of The Who in the sixties, they were the band that compelled him to join a crowd a half a million strong at a place called Yasgur’s Farm.  There, he witnessed not only the band that he braved the crowds and eliments to see, but many other historic performances that made the Woodstock festival the stuff of legends.

    After Woodstock, Gruen eventually worked his way to the position of chief photographer for Rock Scene Magazine.  This afforded him the coveted vantage point of creating candid photos of bands and artist on and off the stage. 

    Bob Gruen didn’t allow himself to be stuck in the seventies.  His interest in the music scene allowed him to effortlessly go with the flow of changes in the sights and sounds of musical tastes.  Gruen has covered almost every major act and artist the 70’s to today.

    I recently caught up with Bob Gruen, by phone, at his gallery in New York City.  For some reason, I decided to start off the interview by asking Bob what career path he would’ve chosen had he not gone down the rock photographer path.  As with his answer during the rest of our conversation, his answers are open, honest and transparent.

    “I have no idea.  Well, the 60’s were a different time from now.  Now, people really plan their future and their career.  In the 60’s it was turn on, tune in and drop out.  And that’s basically what I did.  I wasn’t really thinking about a career.  I didn’t really do very well in school and I didn’t have a major in college.

    “I had an older brother who was an overachiever who always got straight A’s and it kind of left me with not much will to succeed on that level – to compete on that level.  So, I was living with a rock and roll band and having a good time. “

    So, the obvious question in your mind would be, why photography, so I asked.

    “Photography was always my hobby and I got pretty good at it.  When the band got signed, they used my pictures for the publicity.  I started meeting publicists for record companies and they started hiring me to take more and more pictures.  It just worked out that way. 

    “I didn’t really have a plan to be a photographer in any specific sense – to be anything.  A policeman, fireman, anything like that. I really didn’t have a plan.  I was aimless.”

    Boy, weren’t we all!

    Having read his thoughts about attending Woodstock, I asked if he took any pictures while he was there.

    “I did, actually.  I went as a fan of The Who and I like camping out.  Me and a couple of friends went up there to have a good time.  It’s funny, the pictures I took.  I did take pictures of my friends inside our tent so I have some ‘head shots’ with a green tent behind them but they don’t show much of the festival. 

    “I did find a couple of dozen pictures of the festival that I took - a couple around my tent and a couple of the stage area.  I didn’t take any of the acts.  I wasn’t there to work in that sense.  I hadn’t yet started getting into the music business yet.  

    Last summer, a French magazine asked me to put down my memories from Woodstock.  He (the editor) liked the idea that I was there as a fan and not working so I put together a story and put it up on my website (here.).

    I asked Bob if he attended the 40th anniversary festivities back in August of last year.

    “Not the 40th.  No, we didn’t go – or the 30th.  We went to, I think, the 25th.  Not the one that turned into an overblown riot but the first reunion which turned into a drunken mess.   We left half way through it.

    “Actually, I went up the hill into Woodstock to see a real show.  We saw The Fugs, with Alan Ginsberg, who were playing on the Saturday night of the festival. 

    All of us have stories of regrets and missed opportunities.  I asked Gruen if there were any shots or gigs that got away from him that he regretted missing.

    “Oh, well, there are a lot of things I missed.  I wish that I could have photographed Otis Redding but I started a little too late to connect with him.  I met Jimi Hendrix once.  He said, ‘We’ll meet again’ but he was wrong” he adds with a sad chuckle before concluding by saying,  “But, other than that, I’ve pretty much met or photographed everybody that I wanted to.

    Lots of changes have happened both in the music business and in the world of photography in general.  I asked Bob what he viewed as the most positive changes in his line of work.

    “Oh, well, the ease of delivery.  We don’t have to rush to dupe slides and hire messengers and ship things to England overnight.  The idea of making multiple prints and rush and having to get them out to all the different magazines . . . now we just e-mail scans.  It’s a lot easier.”

    And the biggest negative change in his line of work?

    “Photography has gotten so easy that there’s tens of millions of people doing it!

    “It used to be that a photographer had to be somewhat nerdy – to be a bit of a tech guy.  You had to focus and know what F stops and speeds meant.  You had to be able to develop and print film.  All of those things have been automated.  Now, you just pick up your phone and push one more button and whatever you’re looking at can be seen around the world.  That’s quite an advance.”

    Gruen had voiced his displeasure with websites like Flikr. I wanted to know, though, if he saw the internet as more of a positive or a negative in his industry.

    “Well, it negatively affects the work because people tend to think that everything they see on the internet is ‘free’.  Content is what I’ve sold all my life.  Everybody think it’s free.  It’s similar to the downloading of music files, people just take pictures and move them from one site to another and use them any way they want without even thinking that they have to pay for it.  So, this tremendously cuts into the income when people aren’t paying for your work.

    I thought for sure that the proliferation of music videos and concert DVD’s over the years would have hurt the photography trade. Bob’s insights into this area set me straight on that perception.

    “People tend to watch videos on YouTube or whatever.  You can’t put YouTube on your wall unless you have a big screen on your wall.  It recently came up in an article.  There was an exhibit recently at the Brooklyn Museum of Art called ‘Who Shot Rock’.  It’s about Rock Photography.  The reviewer wrote that he felt that video was the better way to review it.  We all could’ve been up in arms about that. 

    “Video hardly captured the excitement of rock and roll at all.  To capture one peak moment in a still photograph that says so much about the energy and excitement, the mood of an artist - you can only do that in a photograph – a photograph that you can put on a wall and it’s just there.  You feel the inspiration.  Not like having to turn on a TV or to operate the machinery or video.  I don’t think that video cuts into the still.  The appreciation is still photo. “

    As stated earlier, Bob Gruen isn’t stuck in the past.  I was curious, however, what his thoughts of the past are.  His answer is both philosophical and reflective.

    “I respect the past and I think people should learn from the past but I don’t dwell in the past.  I don’t wish that I could go back to Max’s.  It’s like we shouldn’t even go back to high school.  Some people do but I certainly don’t.  I look forward , looking for new experiences.

    Fast-forwarding to the present, I asked Bob what bands and artists command his attention today.  His response is instant.

    “Greenday.  There are a few others that I enjoy. I’ve seen Courtney Love.  She’s a riveting performer.  You can’t take your eyes off of her.  But Greenday is certainly the top band of the land.  They’re the most powerful and meaningful band around.  And the most fun, especially if you’ve ever seen them live.  They’re the most fun band around today.

    “There’s a group here in New York that I like called The Sex Slaves. They’re very  blunt and also a lot of fun.  But there’s not a lot.  I was never somebody who ever sought to follow every single group that ever existed and have an encyclopedic knowledge of it.  I just follow what I like.  I’m a fan.  I mostly follow my friends or people friends recommend.  I’m not out every night on the prowl looking for a new band.

    “I’m a bit older now.  Thirty years ago it was fun for me to sit on a bus with 22 year olds who are getting drunk but it’s not really the same any more for me.”  With a laugh, he adds, “I’m a grandfather nowadays,  I prefer to spend time with my family.

    With the mention of his family, I commented on the fact that his son, Khris, is pursuing a little bit different route in the music business than his.

    “Yeah, he’s just finishing up his third CD, which should be out soon.  He’s got his fans and he’s getting more and more popular.   He started kind of late – somewhat intimidated by my reputation.  Also, my ex-wife married Joe Beck, the jazz guitar player, who is a world famous musician. And I think that, rather than encouraging Khris, it kind of held him back a bit because he felt he couldn’t on that kind of level.  And I’m very happy to see that he’s doing very well on his own and enjoying it a lot.

    In the course of the conversation, I mention the use of his photo of John Lennon that graces the cover of Philip Norman’s biography of the man.  It brought to mind the many others Bob Gruen had known because of his line of work.  I asked him who are some of the people that he misses either due to their death or retirement from active life and what is it that you miss about them?

    “I miss Joe Strummer – being able to hang out with him and spend time with him.  His shows were great.  He was great.  It was great fun. Whenever my wife and I would go out to dinner with Joe Strummer, we would have to remind each other to bring our sunglasses because we knew we weren’t coming back until after the sun was up.  When you walk out of a bar at eight in the morning you NEED your sunglasses” he finishes with a laugh.

    “Of course, I miss John Lennon – hanging out with him.  He was great. Every time I saw him, I felt that I learned something.   I miss a lot of people.  I miss Johnny Thunders.  Joey Ramone.  But I make new friends.  The Sex Slaves, Green Day.  You move on.  That’s the down side to living longer than your friends, missing them” he says with a chuckle.

    With so many accomplishments that he can point to, I asked Bob what he would like to achieve that he hasn’t already.  His deadpan answer floored me.

    “Make a lot of money.”

    Say WHAT?! I thought rock photographers made a lot of money?

    “No, this is a VERY low budget operation!  I don’t know if there was more than two or three times in my life when I started the month with enough money to finish it.  I mean, I never had a cushion where I knew my bills were paid.  I’ve always had to work every week to insure that I would have an income.

    “I think that people tend to think that if you hang out with Led Zeppelin or John Lennon that you have that kind of money – that you live on that kind of level rather than just visit.  I visit.  But then I come home to a small apartment in the Village.  I don’t have a yacht. For many years I never even had a new car.  Only recently, because my wife has an income and she shares with me am I able to lease a new car.

    “I’m doing much better than I used to.  I’m at least leasing a new car rather than driving my old beaters.  It’s a misconception that you live the high life and travel around and make a lot of money.  Some photographers do.  A few. Not many. 

    “Certain photographers working with a ‘boy band’ who sells dozens and dozens of pictures to every magazine around the world - if you have good access to them then you can make some good money.  But, for most people shooting most bands, especially nowadays there are so many magazines and so many online so-called magazines that pay practically nothing because there are tens of thousands of people interested in photography since it got so easy.  And many of them will just give away a picture for the credit.

    “So, though prices have increased ten-fold, payment for photographs haven’t increased much at all since the 70’s.  If anything, it’s going down because of so many more people willing to just put it out there for credit.

    “And then other things like Corbis and Getty – the major photo agencies that are buying up the other smaller photo agencies in the world – they’re trying to own the content and so they’re purposely setting out to put photo agencies and photographers out of business by licensing photos at tremendously discounted rates.  I mean, photos that we license for four or five hundred dollars, they license for five or ten dollars, literally that kind of difference. And to have to try and compete with those kinds of prices, we can’t.  That’s the point: those kinds of companies want to put all of the other people out of business.  They want to own all of the content for the future because content is king on the internet.”

    Wow!  Who woulda thunk it?

    How about touring exhibits?  I wanted to find out where I could see exhibitions featuring his art and if books were available featuring him.

    “I don’t really have a world-wide agent organizing that.  I’m still pretty independent here.  So, I only do a few exhibitions a year.  I do have a some planned in June for London and, possibly, in the fall in Paris.  My John Lennon book is going to come out in French next October in France. 

    “I just had a big collage piece of my work that was in the Museum of Modern Art over the last summer, but that’s over now.  ‘Who Shot Rock’ is going to travel to five other museums.  It may actually be down south there.

    “We’re also excited about getting the show together for the opening here in NY – I don’t even have the list of where it’s going.  It closed here January 31st.  But then I know that it’s going to travel to a few other places.

    “My website,, directs people to most of the available things.  My photos are available from several different galleries here in the states.  There’s one in particular that does a lot of business online.  My books, Clash is still in print but hard to get.  John Lennon is still available.  The New York Dolls book is available on Amazon or or whatever website people want to go to. 

    “The best collection of my work, called Rockers. Currently it’s only published in Brazil but it’s available on my website but it’s a little pricey because it’s heavy and we have to ship it.  I think its $60 or $70 with the shipping.  But that’s the biggest collection of my work.

    “I’m currently just beginning to work on a book that will be out in the fall 2011 that will be an American published collection of my work.”

    My time with Bob Gruen was quickly coming to a close and I had a couple of more questions that I just had to ask.  One had to do with his thoughts about the artists’ he knew (other than Lennon) who are no longer with us.

    “Joe Strummer comes to mind first.  I spent a lot of time with him.  Joey Ramone.  He was a wonderfully sweet guy. Johnny Thunders was a good friend.”

    What about the other artist who he wasn’t quite as close to?

    “Quite a lot of my photos were just done as jobs.  They were friendly but not necessarily friends.  You’re pleased to see each other but you don’t go out to dinner with each other. Some of them you develop friendships with. As in any business where you work with a lot of people there’s certain people that you hit it off with and wind up being friends with.

    “I was lucky in that way to have a number of good friends.”

    I thought I was wrapping up the interview by commenting as to how I thought it said a lot about him with the fact that he was able to develop the relationship and friendship with John Lennon and Yoko and that he still has the relationship with Yoko.  Only expecting a “thank you” for the compliment, Gruen, instead, takes the opportunity to defend his good friend, Yoko Ono.

    “You know, Yoko’s been very maligned in the newspapers and in the press.  With her new album in the past year, she’s got quite a bit of positive press.  But, when people ask me what kind of women Yoko is, I always say that she’s the kind of women that John Lennon could marry.”

    Since he opened the door to discussing Yoko Ono, I asked Bob what he thought the biggest misconception about her was.

    “The biggest misconception?  That she doesn’t have a sense of humor. John said that she’s the most famous unknown artist in the world.  Everybody knows who she is but nobody knows what she does.  And I think with her new album out, she’s getting a lot of press, she’s getting a lot of attention.  More people are getting to see her perform and starting to get an idea of what a wonderfully open and how much humor her work has.

    “She’s quite prolific.  On her website, Imagine Peace, she answers 10 to 15 questions every week from people all over the world.  They just write in questions and she comes up with almost zen-like answers.  She’s got a Twitter feed that she updates every few hours with, again, zen-like conceptual art ideas.  She’s just fascinating.”

    Soon after, we wrapped up our chat.  While going through the rest of my hectic schedule on that January day, I reflected on the gems that Bob Gruen gave me in the way of stories and quotes.  I also realized that Bob still influences us today.  Long gone is our ability to squeeze into hip-hugging bell-bottom jeans and whose feet can handle wearing platform shoes? And I don’t even want to go down the path of discussing my hair. 

    No, those are pains we can do without.  However, while Bob’s work from the past brings us smiles and memories, his work today is creating new impressions that will stay with us for the rest of our days.

    Thank you, Bob Gruen, for all that you’ve done and are doing.

  • Bob Gruen Discusses "See Hear Yoko"

    April, 2015

    BobGruen CBGB 102006 HannaToressonPhoto by © Hanna ToressonIn a world where fame and notoriety comes and goes and technology can make skilled artisans obsolete, legendary photographer, Bob Gruen, is still on the cutting edge of capturing intriguing and relevant images of people we’re all interested in.

    Yet, as he still successfully crafts sought after photographic excellence in a world of Instagrams and YouTube, it’s the iconic work of his past that still excites people. 

    Known for some of the most touching and historic images of the last nine years of John Lennon’s life, Gruen continues to work with Yoko Ono as her photographer and, more importantly, is still there for her as a trusted friend.

    A couple of years ago, Bob and rock radio’s “Voice of Austin, Texas,” Jody Denberg, put together a book of photos Gruen had taken over the years and quotes from Jody’s work with Yoko. The tome was a gift for Yoko’s 80th birthday (yeah, way).

    As is often the case with Yoko, things tied to her and her late husband tend to generate lots of buzz and demand. This book that was originally intended to be a gift of love to her friends soon lead to being published into a commercially available book entitled, “See Hear Yoko.”

    It has been five years since I last interviewed Mr. Gruen (here).With the flurry of activity surrounding the release of Yoko’s book, I wasn’t sure that he would have time to sit for a phone interview with me. After graciously sending me a copy of the book to review (here), he generously made time out of his very busy schedule to talk with me about the book and what was on his plate in the near future.

    Bob had this to say about the background and story behind the book.

    “It was a very personal project. I’ve been friends and worked with Yoko for over forty years. She was turning eighty years old, and what do you get the woman who has everything? Jody has been interviewing Yoko for her official EPKs (Electronic Press Kits) for over twenty-five years. He came up with the idea to take quotes from her interviews and pairing them with my pictures from over the years to make a book we could give Yoko as a gift. These days, you can lay out a book in a program online, and they’ll print a nice hardcover book for you. 

    “As we were making it, people asked if we were going to publish it. We said, ‘No, this is a personal gift for Yoko.’ We kept all commercial ideas out of the project. All of the photos were picked out for Yoko - pleasant memories, things that we did together, things she would like to have in a photo diary. She liked it so much, when I saw her at an event a month after I gave it to her, she said we should publish it. She came over again a half hour later and said, ‘I mean it. We should publish this.’ A month later, her lawyer called and said, ‘By the way, Yoko wants me to remind you that you should publish the book’. 

    “It’s not always easy to find a publisher, but as things worked out, Jody knew somebody who knew somebody who knew JohnYoko1972Gruen72John & Yoko 1972 by Bob GruenJohnny Depp. He has his own publishing imprint called Infinitum Nihil. He’s done a couple books- a Hunter S. Thompson book and an unpublished Woody Guthrie book. He liked our book very much, so he brought it to HarperCollins. It just came out now since it takes awhile to go through the publishing process. The finished book is even nicer than the online version, which is kind of basic. 

    “We didn’t really change the book at all. It’s pretty much what we gave Yoko. We changed the captions a little. There was nothing in the book that was a surprise for Yoko or me. They were all pictures we’d seen over the years, so I didn’t have to put very detailed captions for Yoko. For the public, we put the place, date, what was going on, who is in the picture, and so on. Jody and I both added a thank you note that Yoko sent as an introduction. People seem to like it a lot.

    “There are a little over 200 pictures in the book. I first started working with John and Yoko in 1971. After John passed away in 1980, I continued working with Yoko for another thirty years. A lot of people aren’t aware of what Yoko’s been doing for those thirty years, but she’s been doing a lot. She’s been traveling around the world. She does art exhibits. She’s been raising Sean. The first quarter of the book or so is a lot of John and Yoko pictures, and then you see Sean as a baby with John and Yoko. Throughout the book, Sean grows up. 

    “After John passes, there’s a period of mourning. You can see Yoko and Sean getting closer. He was five at the time- a very exuberant kid. By the end of the book, I think he’s older than John was at the beginning of the book. It really covers a long period of time. There are a lot of quotes in the book from Yoko’s interviews that are related to what’s going on in the pictures or related to her life at the time we took the pictures. It’s really a nice project, and I’m glad we can get it out to the public. 

    “There were a lot of pictures in there that Yoko and I knew about, but they were never publicly published- Yoko at her art shows, pictures of her traveling, pictures at home with Sean. There may have been something here or there published in an article, but by and large, these have not been published. They were done for Yoko at the time. So it’s nice to sum it up, put it in a book, and make it public now.

    “John Lennon said that Yoko Ono is the most famous unknown artist in the world. Everybody knows who she is, but nobody knows what she does. I hope this book gives a little bit of insight into what she does. There are all kinds of charity events. There’s Strawberry Fields in Central Park. There’s an event where she was speaking at the United Nations General Assembly when they performed ‘Imagine’ with about 135 countries around the world, a lot of her art shows, introducing the Imagine Peace Tower in Iceland. So it gives a lot of insight into what she’s been doing the last forty years.”

    I mentioned to Bob that I saw a picture of Yoko a few months ago, and that she looks better at 82 than I do at 55. 

    JohnYokoCentralPark1973Gruen72John & Yoko CentralPark 1973 by Bob Gruen“She pretty well. Since I’ve known her, she has a pretty healthy diet. She taught us about the macrobiotic diet early on. I don’t know if she strictly follows that, but she’s a very healthy eater. She gets good exercise. She’s just a healthy person. She’s more active, alert , and aware than a lot of people who are thirty years younger than her. She’s pretty amazing.”

    I was curious if there were there any surprise emotions that he or Yoko encountered while working on this project.

    “There were a lot of very fond memories. There was nothing really I forgot, but coming across them, it was really familiar… a lot of happy moments. My first trip to Japan in 1974 was with Yoko, and that’s covered in the book. There’s a beautiful picture- I think it’s on the back cover- of her coming off the plane. There’s a mass of photographers waiting for her, and she just descends like an angel to them. Remembering all these moments, it was fun. I’ve always had a lot of fun with Yoko.“

    Then, being the true friend to Yoko that he is, Gruen shared this story:

    “Somebody asked me the other day for something people don’t know about Yoko. I think it’s her sense of humor. Yoko’s got a great sense of humor, and it’s always fun to be with her. You couldn’t live with John Lennon without having a sense of humor. In her photos and in public, she always seems serious. She works with a lot of serious causes. A lot of her work is peace. A lot of it is to help feed children, to help hospitals, and to make the world a better place. Those are very serious things, so a lot of her photos look pretty serious. But, in person, she’s got a great sense of humor. She’s really fun to hang out with, so while going through the pictures, there were just a lot of happy memories.”

    I shared that, to me, the picture she took of John’s glasses that he wore at the time of his death was one of the most moving photos I have ever seen. But the behind-the-scenes photo in the book of the staging of that photo that was also staggering in a symbolic way. I asked if she has indicated what is the most emotional photo for her from this collection?

    “Well, that’s a pretty strong one. As are the pictures of the memorial – I think there was one shot outside of The Dakota or something with the crowd gathered. The day we took the picture of the glasses was a very difficult, very emotional day. Yoko is not afraid of strong emotions, so I was able to include that. It was a memory of something she did that was part of her life. She never shied away from any difficult times. Doing that picture was very difficult. We were both crying while we were doing it. When she took the glasses out, we both just started crying. It was such a real expression of what happened. To me, it’s horrifying when you see that picture. You see the blood on the glasses.

    “At the time, over the winter, a number of people said, ‘How is Yoko? She must feel terrible. I can’t imagine.’ When you see that picture, you’re so horrified. You actually feel some of what she feels. Just a little bit. You don’t have to ask the question anymore. You kind of know how she feels. 

    “That’s the thing about Yoko’s art. It doesn’t just make you think about things. It makes you feel things. She’s very good at Yoko Ono Performing 1986 by Bob GruenYoko Ono Performing 1986 by Bob Gruenthat. A lot of people don’t like being in touch with their feelings, particularly a strong, painful feeling like that. Yet she’s open to it, and she lives with that as we all should. 

    “A lot of people don’t like to live with their feelings. When they see her art and react strongly to it, they get very angry. They don’t like reacting strongly to things like that. Rather than seeing that Yoko is a really great artist that made them feel something deeply, they say, ‘She’s terrible. She made me feel bad. I don’t like her.’ 

    ‘As I said before, Yoko is the most famous unknown artist in the world. Everybody knows who she is, but nobody knows what she does. I’ve never met anybody who has met Yoko who didn’t like her and wasn’t amazed and in awe of her. I have met a lot of people who haven’t met her, only heard about her, who think they don’t like her. That’s really kinda funny.

    “When she first came out, and The Beatles were breaking up, they blamed that on her. There was also a lot of racism in England, and they just couldn’t understand why John was with this weird, crazy little artist instead of a beautiful blonde bombshell. When you meet Yoko, you’ll understand why. People ask me what kind of woman Yoko is, and I always say she’s the kind of woman that John Lennon could marry.”

    “At one point, John was just getting too drunk, and Yoko couldn’t live with a complete drunk anymore. She sent him off to California, and during that time, he got so loaded. When they were together in the beginning, people would say, ‘Oh, what’s he doing with that horrible woman?’ After what they call the ‘lost weekend’ that lasted a year and a half, everyone was so happy and saying, ‘Thank God he’s back with Yoko! Isn’t that wonderful?’ 

    “I noticed that these same people that used to say that they wished those two would break up were so happy when they were back together. It was just a symbol of togetherness, and he was obviously so much better off when he was back with her. He stopped drinking and carrying on. He cleaned up his life, Sean was born, and he stayed home to take care of Sean. It changed his life enormously.

    And what does Yoko hope people take away from this book?

    “She was willing to open up and share a lot of her private life- what her life is really like. There are a lot of private times with Sean, and there are times she’s working and appearing in different art openings. Some of it is very playful, and yet very thought- provoking. There’s a picture of Sean and Yoko sitting at a chess set. It’s one of her pieces called ‘Play By Trust’. It’s a chess game where all the pieces and all the squares are white, and she said that way you have to remember who’s on your side and who’s not. It’s much more like real life. It’s very difficult to play, and so is life. I think that’s the point she is making. I think it really shows a lot of who she is.

    Yoko & Sean Playing Chess 1991 by Bob GruenYoko & Sean Playing Chess 1991 by Bob Gruen“Had I planned to make a book for the public, I probably would have included a lot more information. There are a lot of places we went and things we did that aren’t in the book, because it was just a random collection of good times for her. It wasn’t really thought out as an explanation of who Yoko is or what she does. In many ways, it was somewhat random. I have so many good pictures. It wasn’t difficult to edit because there was no pressure on me. It was just making a nice collection for Yoko, so I didn’t really have to tell a story as I would have had I been planning on making it for the public. It does tell a story, because there were so many pictures, so many places, so many different things that we did.

    “At the beginning, there’s a lot of John and Yoko where you can see that they’re a team. But when he’s gone, you can see she’s in a period of mourning. She comes out of it with the help of Sean. You can see what an exuberant kid he is. There are a couple great pictures of him. Some of my favorite pictures in the book are actually the two pictures of Sean playing. You can see how that relationship starts developing. She kinda comes back to life, and she starts getting more active. Now days, she’s more busy than she’s ever been. At 82, she has not slowed down. If anything, she’s speeding up. She’s constantly traveling around the world, constantly appearing at places. She has new exhibits, retrospective exhibits of her John and Yoko period, and countless charities that she works for.”

    Gruen said this about the audience’s reception of the book:

    “We’ve been receiving a lot of compliments saying it’s beautiful. It’s insightful and really interesting to see these things that were so much behind-the-scenes, to see a collection of so many different things that people didn’t know Yoko was doing. Yoko likes it very much. At her birthday party this February, she had a small party of about thirty people. As a takeaway gift, she gave everybody a copy of the book. At a Beatles fan event last weekend, she gave them six copies of the book to auction for charities. She’s supporting it. We’re doing a book signing together next month, actually, at the Marc Jacobs bookstore on Bleecker Street in New York. She’s not doing any interviews, because she’s got her own projects going. 

    In support of his dear friends projects, Bob says of them, “In May, she’s got a big retrospective of her work opening at the Museum of Modern Art here in New York. It’s a very big deal that they’ve finally come around and accepted her.  Luckily, she’s alive to appreciate it.  A lot of artists don’t get that until long after they’re gone. Like I said, she’s a powerhouse- nonstop coming up with new ideas, old ideas, and a lot of charities.”

    As he alluded to earlier, Bob said that Yoko is viewed by some as a controversial figure. I asked him if he thought this book will help clear up misunderstandings about her and soften her critics view of her.

    “I hope so. A lot of the critics don’t know her, and a lot either haven’t even seen her art or are afraid of it. A friend of mine was someone who really didn’t like Yoko, because she had ‘broken up The Beatles’. That was her opinion. As I got friendlier and friendlier with Yoko, my friend just couldn’t understand it. 

    “Then Yoko had a retrospective of her art at the Japan Center here in New York. My friend went and came out saying, ‘I didn’t realize Yoko had such a sense of humor or how deep and interesting she was’. It completely changed her mind when she actually saw what Yoko did. 

    “All of the Beatles have said that Yoko had nothing to do with their breaking up. It was just more convenient to blame her instead of blaming The Beatles themselves. I was with John Lennon once in Central Park, and some guy yelled out, ‘Hey, John, when are you going to get The Beatles back together?’ He yelled back, ‘When are you going to go back to high school?’ There is a time and place for everything, and they had their time and place. 

    To help shed a John and Yoko’s relationship in a little bit different light and from a different perspective, Bob said, “Some people say that meeting John Lennon was one of the worst things that happened to Yoko, because she was a rising star in the avant garde art world which is very respected by many people and unknown to most people. Yoko doesn’t sing like Frank Sinatra, but Ornette Coleman doesn’t play the trumpet like Herb Alpert. Ornette Coleman is friends with Yoko, and they actually did some shows together. 

    “When John met her, Yoko had her own one person exhibition. For a female artist, even now, to have a one person show is Yoko Ono 1982 by Bob GruenYoko Ono 1982 by Bob Gruenunusual. In the sixties, it was unheard of. Yet Yoko had her own exhibit, and that’s where John met her. She was doing fine on her own. In fact, she was doing very well. She was excelling- becoming quite well-known, understood, and appreciated in the avant garde world. Then she met John, and she all of the sudden was thrust onto this world stage in front of people who like pop music which had nothing to do with her life. They all started criticizing her without even knowing what she did.

    “From my point of view, I’ve actually always liked Yoko and what John and Yoko did. I’m one of the few people, I think, who heard about Yoko before I heard about The Beatles. I remember, the summer before The Beatles came here, I was reading a story in a magazine about a Japanese woman who had a loft on Canal Street. You could pay five dollars to go into the loft, and it was full of large bags. You could actually get inside one of these large bags with somebody and, to use a hippie expression, do your thing which basically meant anything you wanted to do. Or you could go in the loft, not get in the bag, and wonder what the people in the bags were doing. I thought that was about the weirdest thing I had ever heard of called art. It struck me as really funny and weird, and I wished I was old enough to go to the city and go the exhibit. Actually, I think I was old enough, but I think by the time I was reading about it, it had already happened. 

    “A few years later, there was this weird little Japanese woman with John Lennon, and they were sitting inside these bags. I thought, ‘Well, there can’t be two people like that’. The things they started to do- first, it was appearing in bags and saying who they are doesn’t matter. What they are saying matters, because all they were saying is they wanted peace on earth and an end to war. Then they sent an acorn to the leaders of every country in the world, and they asked them to plant the acorns so the world could grow together in peace. 

    “When they were trying to plan their honeymoon, and the more they tried to think of a secret place, the more they realized the press would hound them no matter where they went. The more secret they are, the more the press would try to find them. Yoko suggested they turn it around, and they invited everybody in the world to come in and see them on their honeymoon in their marital bed, which was what the press wanted most. So they said, ‘Come on in and look’, and they put the word ‘peace’ behind them knowing that everyone who took a picture was going to print it on the front page of the newspaper. That way every newspaper in the world would say the word ‘peace’. How can you hate somebody who does that?”

    I shared with Bob that I had met Ringo recently and that it was striking to me the peaceful and loving way he treated the band and how they treated each other and fans. 

    “Peace and working for peace is a part of everyday life, all day every day. There were bodyguards/tour managers named Patty and JC Callaghan. JC, for many years, was the head of security for the Rolling Stones and The Who. When you’re head of security for a band like the Rolling Stones and The Who, you have to deal with a lot of very macho characters, so the Callaghans were pretty tough brothers. Yoko hired them to be the tour managers for when we went to Europe around ’84 or ’85. JC would ordinarily just take kids and toss them out the door when they tried to come in the wrong way or something. In this case, he would say, ‘Peace and love, please stay outside’. It even affected the way they were dealing with these people trying to sneak in. When I saw JC saying ‘peace and love’… that was kinda unusual.”

    Are there any plans for a follow up to this book?

    “There aren’t any plans, no. But now that I’m getting familiar with the book and looking at it as more than just a gift for Yoko, I realize there is a much bigger story I could have told. In the future, I might be doing more. I’ve got a lot more books in me, that’s for sure.”

    With regards to what he’s working on now, Gruen shared, “I have several projects. I have an exhibit coming up in Helsinki at the end of May. I have an exhibit that will be in Liverpool at the end of August. I have two books being re-issued this year. Ten years ago, I put out a book called ‘John Lennon: The New York Years,’ which is being updated and revised with some new pages and new cover. That will be reprinted for John’s 75th birthday in the fall. 

    “About fifteen years ago, I made a book with all my pictures of The Clash. It’s been out of print for a number of years, and that’s being reissued by Music Sales Omnibus

    in London. It’s an edition of 1250, and it’s got a box flip case with a limited edition signed print in each book. That’s coming out in about a month when I finish signing all the prints. Those are the major projects right now. I’m also working on a proposal for a biography.”

    Bob then graciously answered a couple of questions offered by Boomerocity readers. The first asked if he had ever been put in an embarrassing situation while on a shoot. 

    “Not offhand. I’m not easily embarrassed, and I kinda take things as they come.”

    The second question wondered if he had ever fallen or injured yourself while shooting photographs.

    “I do remember one time I got hurt. It still affects me a little bit. I was onstage with the New York Dolls in Japan, and I went to jump off the side of the stage. There was

    a 5’ plastic pillow in front of the stage, and there was gravel around it. I was going to jump on that and step off, but my foot got caught. Instead of stepping off, I fell right on my knee on the gravel. But I haven’t been seriously hurt, luckily. God knows why not, because I’ve certainly been in a lot of horrific situations and total chaos in front of stages. I’ve seen other people close to me get hurt falling off chairs or getting banged around in the crowd. I haven’t broken anything, and I hope I don’t. 

    “I’m still in some of those chaotic situations on occasion. I don’t photograph like I used to. I don’t go to every show that I can, and I don’t photograph four shows a night. The media has changed so much that everybody is taking their own pictures. I used to take pictures at the show then go home and develop the film. You make some prints, and a couple days later you send them to magazines. A week or a month later, they would print them, and it would be news. Now everyone takes cell phone pictures and uploads them so quickly that, before the first song is over, there are pictures around the world. I don’t really try to compete with that. Luckily, I have enough old pictures that can’t be reproduced that I make a living on those.”

    As we wound up our chat, Mr. Gruen updated me on the coming changes to his website,

    " allowtransparency="no" width="120" height="240">“I launched the website in 2000, and by 2001, people were telling me I needed to revise and update it. We have finally revised and updated it, and in a couple weeks, we’re going to launch the new website. It’s going to have a search feature which was glaringly missing all these years. I have two major sections of the website- one relates to all the files from the past, and the other is what I call 'The Photo of the Day,' which is all the current work I still do. I still do take pictures. I go out pretty regularly. I don’t do it with the intensity I used to, but I still go our four or five nights a week to take pictures. I post them in 'Photo of the Day' which has turned out to be photo of the season since I only update it every three or four months. All those photos will be searchable now. It’s not online yet, but we’ve had what is hopefully our last meeting with our webmaster and should have the final glitches touched up in a week or two.”

    Glitches or not, Bob Gruen’s work is still exciting and captivating. He’s one of the few photographers that Boomerocity is intrigued by and anxiously looks forward to seeing what’s new from. 

    John would be as proud as Yoko is.

    Note: Please do keep up with Bob Gruen’s work and activities at where you can also purchase his work. You can also order and/or download “See Hear Yoko,” by clicking on the widget above right.

    You can also read our first interview with Bob on Boomerocity (here) or on Yoko's website, (here).

  • Bobby Keys

    Posted April, 2012


    Bobby Keys With the Stones in 2003. Courtesy of Jane Rose/

    I’ve been a Rolling Stones fan since my teen years in the seventies. Tunes like Brown Sugar and Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’ (along with many other Stones tunes) commanded my attention on so many levels – especially the sax solos.

    Since those days, the sax figured prominently in other favorite Stones tunes like Miss You, the live version of Going To A Go-Go, to name a couple. Because of my appreciation of those solos, I became very aware of the man behind that sax: Bobby Keys

    What I wasn’t aware of until recent years – and especially until I read Keys’ autobiography, Every Night’s A Saturday Night, was the long list of other rock and roll royalty and their iconic tunes that he’s played on. Musical monsters like B.B. King, Carly Simon, Delaney & Bonnie, Eric Clapton, George Harrison, John Lennon, Joe Cocker and many, many, many others. Saturday Night is a wonderful read and you can catch the Boomerocity review of it here. But it bears repeating that the tone and feel of the book is very conversational. You get the feeling that you’re chillin’ in Bobby’s TV room, shootin’ the breeze and listening to him share a ton of stories of his life in the business.

    I recently called up Bobby at his Nashville area home. It was my first time to have the privilege of chatting with him. His warm, Texas/Southern drawl told me that he’s the kind of person that I can immediately connect with. He’s as country as cornbread and never meets a stranger – my kind of people.

    As we got down to starting our chat, I asked Keys how he liked Nashville.

    “Ah, man, I love the town! It’s just a rotten place for saxophone players – but I LOVEthe town, I really do! I like the people that live here and I have a lot friends that live here. There’s just not a lot of sax biz that goes on here. That’s nothing personal against me. Ha! Ha!”

    As we set the stage for what the chat would cover, I mentioned that I would not ask if his main gig, The Rolling Stones, were going to tour or not. I was startled that he gave me a comment about it anyway.

    “Boy, I hope they do! I tell ya what, I really hope they do! I honestly don’t know. I found that it’s best for me not to speculate – especially publicly. Every time I think that they’re gonna jump left, they jump right. I just had one little brief line from Keith. He just said that he’ll let me know. That’s the extent of it. I’ve learned after all these years – you know, I’ve been playing with the band since, I don’t know, ’69 – forty-three years – and in that time I’ve learned that speculation about what those guys are gonna do is no way, really, to base your future on what you think they’re gonna do. I think there’s a good possibility of it, are my own thoughts on it. I hope so!”

    We shifted our attention to Bobby’s book. Since the book is a tales-from-the-road kind of tome – sharing all sorts of funny stories, I asked him what the reaction has been to it.

    “Well, so far, it’s been really good. I went to New York about ten days ago and did a gig there with my band and also did a lot of media – some radio, interviews and stuff. It’s all been really, really good! When I finished speaking into a microphone – I didn’t do I any writing – you always wonder, ‘Well, I wonder what is gonna come of this – how are people going to receive it?’

    “It’s been very rewarding to me because I’ve had nobody come back at me – except one guy said that there wasn’t enough sex and drugs in it. The thing of it is is that scene has been pounded into the ground for years and years and years by everybody that’s ever written a book about the Rolling Stones. But most of them knew very little about the Rolling Stones. The thing that I like about the Stones is playin’ with them! I love their music and that’s what I wanted to talk more about in the book than anything else was the music.”

    When I commented about all the people he’s worked with over the years such as Buddy Holly, Bonnie Bramlett and a whole bunch of others, I told him that he struck me as the friggin’ Forrest Gump of rock and roll. He cackled out laughing and said, “Now there’s a hell of an analogy! That’s funnier ‘n hell!” Then, obviously turning to his wife who was in the room with him, he said, “He just called me the Forrest Gump of rock and roll! Ha! Ha! Ha!”

    After having a good laugh, I asked Forrest – er – Bobby who hasn’t he worked with that either he wishes he had before they passed away or, if they’re still alive, want to work with?

    “Well, you know, that’s a very good question. I’d like to work with Stevie Wonder – LOVEhis music, you know? I’d love to work with more of the Motown acts, too. But, you know, I’m really pretty happy with what’s happened and what’s happened has really been kinda the left hand of God puttin’ me through a lot of this stuff. I never really planned out any master scheme to achieve what I’ve achieved. I’ve just been in the right place at the right time with a saxophone and was able to do pretty much what needed to be done. It’s just the feel of the music and the way rock and roll had an impact on me.

    “When I heard Buddy Holly playing that guitar on the back of that flatbed wagon and Joe B. up there playin’ bass and J.I. playin’ drums, man! That had an impact on me. I fell into the saxophone by accident. It didn’t start out that way. I got hurt playing baseball and I couldn’t play football so I went into the band and all that jazz. Somebody else has been pullin’ the strings – I’ve just been dancin’! Ha! Ha!”

    Since I’m real partial to the great Bonnie Bramlett, I was stunned to read in Saturday Night that she was one of those originally considered for the female solo on Gimme Shelter. I told Keys that I would have spent his last tour check to have heard her sing that – not that Merry Clayton was any slouch on her solo, of course. That revelation prompted to ask, Bobby if, from where he sits, there any one thing that he feels should have been done majorly different on a Stones song and, if it had, would’ve changed rock history as we know it?

    “Huh! Well, I’ve never considered it but, personally, I’ve agreed pretty much what the Stones have done – at least during the times I’ve been recording with them and the tracks that I’ve played on - and, of course, with Jim Price. He was a big part of that, too! But, as for the Stones, one of the things I’ve always tried to get them to do is I’ve always wanted them to do an instrumental and put it on one of their albums. It was never seriously considered. I seriously considered it but the minute it got it out of my mouth the laughter didn’t die down for about two hours!

    “But, nah, I don’t think there’s anything that I would go back and change, particularly. But I tell ya, the way I play, I play a lot off of the other musicians. I listen to other elements – what the guitar is doing rhythmically. I’ll play along with that. I’ll pick something out of that strata or that level. I’m very much a rhythmic saxophone player so playing with the Rolling Stones is really fun for me!”

    Keys says in his book that he always viewed Keith Richards as a kindred spirit – that, if he wasn’t born in England, he would’ve had to be a Texan. I asked him to expound on that just a bit. He was laughing his genuine, infectious laugh as he said, “Well, I had him made an honorary Texan. I had the Texas flag flown over the Alamo on the day of his and mine birthday (they both have the same birth day). I knew some people in Texas who were associated with the Texas Historical Society so I had them fly the Texas flag over the Alamo on December the 18th, got it documented and sent it to Keith, hoping it would finally induce him to take into consideration about coming down to Dallas and joining the team! Ha! Ha!”

    Since we were on the subject of Keef, I asked Bobby what the least understood thing is about the Stones guitarist. Without even a nanosecond of hesitation Bobby said, “His temperament. This is a guy, man, that goes out of his way to save the life of a little stray dawg in Russia. Keith is portrayed as a dark person, more or less and he’s anythingbut that! He’s one of the funniest sumbitches I’ve ever known in my life, man! 

    “Some people look at him as having his blood changed at some Transylvanian medieval castle, you know? Those people are not going to believe anything I say. I mean, I’ve met people in bars in hotels we’ve stayed and they’ll go, ‘How about that Keith Richards thang? Were you with him when he had his blood changed?’ and I’d go, “No, man, the guy didn’t have his blood changed!’ They’d say, ‘Ah, man, you can’t say anything about it, huh?’ It doesn’t make any difference how many times I say somethin’ ain’t right, they ain’t gonna believe me anyway. But the guys a sweetheart and chicks dig him for some reason! They really like him - chicks and critters! Ha! Ha!”

    A Boomerocity reader wondered how it worked out that Keith just let Bobby write his own side of the stories in Keith’s book - like maybe, Keith, "Hey Bobby, man I don't remember any of that, here why don't you write the story?"  Here’s Keys’ take on how that all happened.

    “He’s got a hideaway sort of place down in Turks and Caicos Islands and the writer, James Fox, was going down there to talk to Keith. I was asked to go down there. I spent five days down there. Keith would be in the same room. I’m not bashful, man. James Fox just asked me questions and I gave him answers. Keith didn’t say anything like, ‘No, I’d rather you not say this. Maybe not touch on that.’ He didn’t say anything about what I said. He said, ‘Just talk to James Fox and tell him whatever he wants to know.’ And that’s exactlywhat I did! I answered James Fox’s questions and we spent a lot of time talking over a period of a couple of days.

    “But it’s easy to talk about Keith. He’s a pretty memorable fella! I’ve been around him sometimes when it got verymemorable but the thing I remember about him and the most important thing is that he’s the most honest sumbitch and the best damn guitar player. I love playing music with Keith! He’s just got a feel for it that I can really relate to.”

    Success and failure are often determined by the opportunities grabbed or passed on and Bobby has certainly jumped at lots of great opportunities that have brought him to where he is today. Is there a particular song or album that he had a chance to work on and, for whatever reason, didn’t or couldn’t and now looks back and says, “Crap!”

    “Well, shoot! Let’s see. Well, of course, during the recording of Exile on Main Street, George Harrison did his Concert for Bangladesh gig. Jim Price and I had played on the All Things Must Passalbum from which he (Harrison) took most of the material to play at that concert. Anyway, he invited Jim and I to go play at the concert. I thought it was for a real good cause and I wanted to go do it and Jim wanted to go do it but we had already obligated ourselves to work there in the South of France. I would’ve always liked to have been there for that. It’s not like a great big, huge hole in my life because I wasn’t. I was having a pretty good time down in the South of France.

    “Also, not that it ever would’ve happened, I would’ve liked to have played some live stuff with John Lennon. I really loved him - and Harry Nilsson! I tried and tried and tried to get Harry to do a live gig but he was dead-set against it. He never did do a live gig. He did one video.”

    Bringing a little levity to the conversation (as if we needed any more), I interjected that, according to his book, he did manage to provide a frog sound on one of Yoko Ono’s albums to which he chuckled, “Oh, yeah, man, that was indeed a red letter day! There, again, man, some hand of Providence touched me there because I had no idea what I was gonna do. I was looking at John like, ‘Hey, man, give me some feedback here, son! Help me!’ He just looked at me and rolled his eyes like, ‘You got this one all by yourself, Bobby!’

    During my recent interview with Keys’ fellow Stones band mate,Chuck Leavell, I told him that I was working on an interview with Keys. He had this to say about Bobby and his book: “Bobby is a great friend of mine. We are ‘Southern Brothers’ - he from Texas and me from Alabama. We talk a lot about both on tour and off.  I'm so glad he is getting his story out there. It is a remarkable story. He has played with so many icons . . . John Lennon, Bonnie and Delaney, The Stones, the Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour and so much more. He has so many great experiences to tell about. I can't wait to get my copy!”

    At the time of my chat with Keys, I hadn’t yet these comments with him. However, I asked him what his thoughts were of the Stones keyboardist.

    “Oh, yeah, I’ve got lots of good thoughts about Chuck! One thing is he’s a brother from the south! So, we’re both brothers of the Confederacy. Heh! Heh! I believe that the earth is a southern planet! Ha! Ha!

    “Before I met Chuck I knew his name and was aware of his work, man! He stepped into some pretty big shoes and just by virtue of the fact that was, more or less, recommended by Ian Stewart – whose opinion really resonates with all the members of the Stones, I can tell you that – or it did before Stu died. Chuck stepped into a situation, man, where he had a lot of bases to cover that hadn’t been covered before. All of a sudden he was actually the musical director on the stage. He was the one that was in charge of going in and making sure that the songs were the correct tempo and that everybody started and ended at the same place which, generally, didn’t take a whole lot. But he brought together a lot of people. It’s a big band. I think there’s 13 or 14 of us counting the singers and horn players. Chuck has to walk a pretty tight line, sometimes, between the camps of Keith and Mick. He’s very much a southern diplomat to be able to do that because many have tried and few were successful.”

    With a well received book now under his belt and waiting to hear if the bad boys of rock and roll are going to tour, I asked Bobby if he was going to come out with a solo CD.

    “Yeah, well, actually, the guys I play with here in town – we call ourselves The Suffering Bastards – we’ve been into the studio. We’ve got four tracks that we’ve recorded and we’re probably going to be doing some more future gigs we’ll be having a CD available pretty soon online and at the gigs we play.”

    And when Keys boards that great tour plane to heaven, what does he hope his legacy will be and how does he want to be remembered?

    “A guy who loved rock n’ roll music.”

    It’s Bobby Keys’ love of rock and roll music that has allowed him to be a lively part of the soundtrack of our youth that continues to play to this very day. Somehow, I have this sneakin’ hunch – I just know it in my knower – that Bobby is going to be on many more great rock tunes to come. 

  • John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky

    Above.Us .Only .Sky .0John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky
    John Lennon and Yoko Ono
    Studio: Eagle Rock Film Productions
    Release Date (DVD): September 2019

    John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky is a brilliant film that tells more of the story behind Lennon’s album, Imagine, that the world hasn’t heard about before. Peeling back the press hoopla and misdirected public “dislike” towards Yoko, the movie shows the couple in simplicity and honesty.

    Directed by Michael Epstein, he was given extraordinary access to the massive audio, video and photo archives that yielded a ton of previously unseen goodies. The result is jaw-droppingly amazing.

    Trust me on this. You’re going to see a ton of stuff that the most ardent John Lennon fan hasn’t ever seen before. 

    To me, the most poignant part of the film is when we see, once again, by Claudio, the visit by the shell-shocked Vietnam vet. The footage has been out for years. However, there was something about its inclusion in this documentary that, to me, more deeply revealed Lennon’s heart-felt compassion towards another human being. You could see the compassion in his heart as he tried to reach – and calm – Claudio’s troubled mind. It wasn’t at all lost on me that it was during a similar act of kindness that John was shot by another man with a troubled mind.

    We all have our heroes. Some of us put them on too high of a pedestal. Some others elevate our heroes to ‘god” status. Claudio clearly did. What struck me is that the same man who told the world that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ, told this man, “I’m just a guy that writes songs. I’m just a guy, man” as he looks at the troubled Vet with obvious compassion. He then invites Claudio into his home to have something to eat. The voiceover said, in effect, that Lennon had great empathy which can be quite painful.

    Watching that pain only heightens the thoughts of what might have been had the senseless, tragic events of December 8, 1980 (was it really that long ago?!) hadn’t ever happened.


  • Mark Rivera (2012)

    Posted July, 2012


    markrivera1Mark Rivera.  Perhaps only to the most die-hard music nuts like yours truly will the name immediately be familiar.  However, to any fan of rock and roll, you have definitely been touched by the music this incredible talented artist has been inextricably a part of.

    First and foremost, you would know Rivera’s work as the sax man for Billy Joel since 1982.  Prior to joining the piano man, Rivera worked with a long list of musical dignitaries. In 1975, he worked with John Lennon and Yoko in a tribute to Sir Lew Grade that turned out to be Lennon’s last TV performance.  Mark remembers that, for that gig, “Yoko Ono had us put on skull caps and have a replica of our face to show the duality of American society. So, we did that gig and I did a couple of TV shows with him and he produced a Gary U.S. Bonds record that I played on.”

    Mark went on to work with Sam and Dave as well as with Mutt Lange (“Mutt’s one of my favorite people in this business. I love him!”) and Foreigner on their groundbreaking Foreigner 4 album. In fact, Mutt, Lou Gramm, and Rivera sang all of the backing vocals on Juke Box Hero and Waiting on a Girl like You.

    In 1982, Mark joined Billy Joel’s band and has been with him ever since.  While working with Joel, he has shared the stage with the likes of Elton John during the Face 2 Face tour and, during the historic The Last Play at Shea concert, performed with greats like Don Henley, Steven Tyler, Tony Bennett, Roger Daltrey, John Mellencamp, John Mayer and Sir Paul McCartney.  When not working with Mr. Joel, Mark has worked with other greats like Hall & Oates, Peter Gabriel, and Simon & Garfunkel.

    Oh and there’s his current gig that he’s also held since the mid-nineties as music director for some guy named “Ringo Starr”.  Perhaps you’ve heard of him?  I didn’t think so.

    Mark and I became acquainted by way of our mutual friend, acclaimed rock photographer, Rob Shanahan, whose work Boomerocity features each and every month in our Photo of the Month feature. Rob is Ringo’s official photographer as well as a trusted friend and it’s through this association that Rob and Mark know each other.

    I was pleased to learn that Mark has been working on his first solo album ever and has just made the single available. Naturally, my ears perked up like a Doberman on that bit of news and so I knew that an interview with the sax man was certainly in order.  E-mails were exchanged and a time set as Mark was more than gracious enough to grant my request.

    I called Rivera at his hotel room in New York City in between gigs with Mr. Starr. As he was cleaning up and awaiting the arrival of the lovely Mrs. Rivera, we exchanged small talk about the tour and how it was all going in its early stages – including my question as to why the All-Starr tour wasn’t stopping in Dallas for the second year in a row.

    “Ah, I don’t know what’s up with that. We’re not going anywhere near Texas, in fact. I was hoping Austin, at least!  I know he (Ringo) loves Billy Bob’s and that’s in Fort Worth. I don’t know. I don’t know. But, what are ya gonna do?”

    After discussing the All-Starr tour, we shifted the focus over to Mark’s new single and his plans for supporting its release after the All-Starr tour.

    “Absolutely! What I’m going to be doing is pull some gigs together in the city (New York). I’ve got to put some final touches on my CD. I’ve got to do some vocals yet and couple of other things but nothing big but enough to get my happy butt busy, you know what I mean?”  But as for the complete album being released, Rivera adds, “It looks like it’s going to be more like October or into November, depending upon what the reality is. I’d rather get it right and spend the time to get it right than to push it and find out that I missed whatever part of it I wanted to get right.  I’m going to take my time and get it done.”

    The single that Mark was referring to is the rocker, Turn Me Loose (read the Boomerocity review of it here), and, boy does it rock with lots of great sax work (read the Boomerocity review of it here). I asked Mark to tell me a little bit about the song and how it all came to together.

    “That particular song – Jimmy Bralower is the producer and co-writer. He and I, we’ve been playing together forever. He kind of pushed me to even think of this project as a viable situation and that I should have a CD out. Because I’ve worked with so many people, it’s been difficult for me to actually spend the time to do it. Jimmy Bralower had a track with the guitar player, Jonny Gale and when I heard it, the first thing that I sang was ‘Turn Me Loose’.

    “Anyway, long story short, Jimmy Bralower was the push behind all this. He had a track of guitar and some loops – some percussion loops that he had put together – just a barren track. For some reason, the person he was working with didn’t jump on it. He played it for me down in the basement one night – this is before I even had a thought of really doing a CD. I started singing stuff immediately. In fact, ‘turn me loose’ was the first or second thing out of my mouth and he said, ‘Buddy!’ and he pressed his iPhone and we had a hook. That was the germ of the whole thing.

    “Again, everything took a long time because I was either touring with Billy or doing a bunch of corporate dates. But Jimmy said that we’ve got to up the ante and get into a real studio and get players. I wanted to use my very, very dear friend, Charley Drayton, the drummer. At the time, he was working with Simon and Garfunkel and then he was working in Australia with Cold Chisel and now, currently, he’s with Fiona Apple.  The guy is obviously very busy.

    “So, I kept pushing the date around and, finally, the stars lined up and Charlie was available and my other very dear friend, Steve Conte, the guitar player. He lives in Amsterdam and now he’s touring with Michael Monroe. So, we got in there in the studio and that song was ready to go. We cut eleven tracks, all told, in two days, which is pretty ambitious. But, look, we had the right guys and we had the right studio. We did it at Avatar, which is the old Power Station where I did Sledgehammer (with Peter Gabriel) which had some sentimental value to me – or some vibe to it. Everything else went along well.

    “That vocal in the room – as a scratch vocal – with the band and it ended up being the one on the record. If I remember right, Jimmy was upset with me because my favorite headphones are from another very dear friend of mine, John Grado, makes headphones.  Are you familiar with Grado Headphones?  They’re, like, state-of-the-art!  I love those phones and I had them on but they’re not meant for isolation. So, you have some drum leakage because I had the drums blasting in my ears. But I can’t sing his (Bralower’s) praises enough. Without him, this dream would’ve laid dormant forever. I guess that’s a long answer but that’s what got this thing going. I’m very, very proud of it and very pleased with the response I’ve been getting.”

    In another part of our conversation, Mark indicated that the album has been in the works since August of last year.  However, songs that wound up on the album were written long before then.  Rivera explained, “There’s one song called Hard to Let Go – which Jimmy and I wrote together and Nils Lofgren’s played on that one – that was written, believe it or not – man, this will frighten you – back in 1991.  I’ve always written songs. In fact, I have two more that I’m ready to go back into the studio with. Jimmy always says that, before the actual CD comes out, the last thing you put on is sometimes the best thing you do because you’re not always ready to do it in the beginning. So, I still think some of the best stuff is still there to go!”

    Then, almost as an afterthought, Mark added, “I’m 59 now and it’s pretty crazy to think that this is where I am now. I’ve done a lot of work with a lot of different people but this is my first solo album. This is the one!”

    With Rivera mentioning the fact that he’s worked with so many different people, I mentioned that he should write a book like one of his other sax-playing peers, Bobby Keys, recently did.

    “I have to tell ya, Bobby is in a position because of the people he’s worked with – this is really a compliment – he can say, ‘Hey, man, I can say it just like it was’ because he and Keith (Richards) were born on the same day – the same day, the same year. Pretty incredible. He can tell what it was like because he was in the thick of it all.

    “I really believe that – I don’t know if it’s karma or whatever – I really don’t want to say anything that would put anyone in a bad light. Unfortunately, people want to read about the dirt about who was messing with who and who was doing drugs. Look, there’s no halo over my head. I’m not proud of everything that I’ve done but I will say that I don’t feel the need to cash in on that. SO, if I was to write a book it would be a nice book and nice books don’t sell!  I love talking about things I’ve done and sharing stories but it’s a crazy world out there with all of the reality TV and stuff. People drive by an accident, they can’t help but keep looking. I just say, ‘Keep driving and be grateful that you’re not hurt.’  That’s how I feel.”

    In Mark’s forty year career, he has obviously worked on a ton of albums that had to have prepared him for his work on Common Bond.  I asked the sax man if, still, there were any surprises that he didn’t anticipate while working on the album.

    “Yeah, the amount of work that goes into it – the amount of effort to get things right. That’s why I’m so amazed when I hear or see the level of how prolific the Beatles were – how much they did in such a short span of time. It always blows my mind.  I think what’s really surprising is the result because it’s really a double-edged sword. I mean, I’m shocked, first of all, that anybody cares and then I’m even more shocked when I hear the stuff.

    “I’ve got to keep referring to Jimmy Bralower. He said, ‘When we mix these songs and work on these songs – and they’re like our children – you listen to them and until they’re at the stage that you feel so comfortable – you’re kind of holding your breath that something’s going to go wrong or that you’re going to hear something that you hate. When I finally heard the tracks in their final mix, I was then able to actually breathe! I’m not saying that my pitch is perfect or anything like that but there’s a great vibe, I think, and what’s being done with the song – it far surpasses anything – it exceeds my expectations far and away.”

    Then, drilling down to what really surprised him, Mark added, “The surprising part is that I actually did it! That’s probably the biggest surprise. And, not to sound corny, but the fact that I took the time. I mean, I’m a working guy. I work for my family. I take care of my family. The time that Jimmy allotted for me – he’s running around. He’s got his own record company – Dynotone Records. Hopefully, I’ll put this CD out on that. He’s everything!  So, the fact that he would take the time out – he’s like, ‘Buddy, we’ve got work to do!’  So, by the grace of God – and Jimmy Bralower – I got this thing done!”

    Rivera often lends his more than capable talents to very worthy causes and to help out friends in need.   A personal high point for him took place in January, 2007. Aninha Capaldi, the wife of the late Traffic co-founder, Jim Capaldi, tapped Mark as music director for the Jim Capaldi Tribute Concert at Roundhouse in London.  In that event, he worked with rock royalty such as the late Gary Moore, Steve Winwood, Joe Walsh, Jon Lord, Paul Weller, Bill Wyman, Yusuf Islam, Steve Lange, Ray Cooper, the Storys, Dennis Locorrieree.  Many of those performances were captured on the DVD, Dear Mr. Fantasy Featuring the Music of Jim Capaldi and Traffic: A Celebration for Jim Capaldi.

    These days, Rivera works with such worthy charities as the Red Cross, Cure Autism Now Foundation, The Miami Children’s Hospital and Michael J. Fox’s Foundation For Parkinson’s Research.  The passion that Mark has for his music is brought full-force to help these groups raise money for their causes.  As if that’s not enough, he, along with some of his musician friends, is developing a program designed to educate and motivate young people in inner city school systems to develop their musical talents.

    As we wrapped up our chat, Mark Rivera shared some introspective closing thoughts.

    “The main thing is, just like my having been blessed by playing with bands like Foreigner on Foreigner 4, in particular; the work I did with Peter Gabriel on Sledgehammer and the work I’ve done with Billy, and one of my favorite bands ever which people don’t realize until they hear Start Over, is a band like Traffic. It’s going back to those times and this is a collection of all my records and all the songs that are in my head. Remembering, I guess; not allowing myself to forget that I’ve had an incredible ride so far and to, hopefully, let it continue.”

    The ride continues with the release of Common Bond this fall. Until then, you can see Mark perform in Ringo’s All-Starr Band this summer and who knows what other friends he may be helping in the meantime?