Kris Gruen Reflects on Rock & Roll Photography of the ’70s & ’80s

My name is Kris Gruen. I’m a singer/songwriter living in the sacred green mountains of Vermont. My father is the renowned rock photographer, Bob Gruen, who lives in the same part of New York City I came home to from New York Hospital when I was born in 1974.

photo by Bob Gruen

photo by Bob Gruen

I started frequenting NYC nightclubs when I was a toddler in 1976/77. My father was still in the beginning of his career. Spending weekends with him meant racing from gig to gig all afternoon and evening, dressed to kill in unreleased plastic and denim fashions from around the world. Going out in those scenes was hard work as a kid. Each night was a little different, but all-in-all, my dad would eventually lead us through a viable cross-section of the hot, throbbing, claustrophobic canals of punk rock and pop iconoclast culture. Back then it would still be the road less traveled by, so for a three-year-old, the rooms were the dens of nightmare; often smashed and unhygienic, wild-dark alternately punched out by siren bright strobes, gapping faces appearing out of nowhere in throngs, all washing out into the sick yellow subway tunnels and streets of the East Village, the Bowery and stadium parking lots at 3 am.

Rock and roll childhood was a black balloon with a white skull and cross bones. Babysitters were pirate runaways, dangerously sexy, looking to regain some of the sophistication of their childhood innocence by caring for a child, if they could keep from nodding off before their shift ended.

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I had to trust my dad and keep up. He was always bright, even when he was sick, or distracted, and I always felt safe enough to get by. All that in balance with the explosive symphony of new rock and roll – the legions crying for more humanity over the lung-crushing bombast of drums and guitars maxing their channels. My father’s camera was a supple organ in his hands, his lens – malleable, like an eardrum – could capture the smell and grit in the air off the stages he shot. Whatever was alive in his frame the moment he snapped the shutter would become immortal, not because photography immortalizes as a rule, but because some photographers can find the essence of life force in their subjects. Like band members pushing a song toward the ecstatic by anticipating one another’s attack, my dad played along, anticipating the movements of the music, of the room with his camera – for all intents and purpose, his camera was an intricate and complex percussion instrument clicking and cranking out a visual story in its metal cage.

Like a football player looking to retire his bruised, aching frame, I was happy to let my rock and roll childhood slip away as I neared my teens. My mom took us to the country. I went to high school in Woodstock and fell in love with nature. The city and the energy of the music I was exposed to in the late seventies, early eighties, became memory. It wasn’t easy to explain the good and bad of it to my friends, so it remained an internal influence until I went to Goddard College in Vermont. It was at Goddard that I resurrected the specters of my rock youth with a photograph my father sent me in the mail, Chuck Berry, licking the neck of his guitar. It was signed to me, something my dad had been holding onto for years, and when I hung it on the wall, my ears filled with enormous swollen echoes of Max’s Kansas City and CBGB’s – the haunted, residual notes of a Stones sound check at the Garden, or Giants Stadium. The internal influence now started a decade long transition to wellspring, and the music I’d been fed – both as an audience member, but also through my dad’s images strung along the walls of every home I’ve known throughout my life – became an undeniable resource for my own creativity. I chose my own path, diving deep into world music and electronica. But though I loved the music, there was little in those genres in the way of personality. Everyone of my father’s subjects have had something to say, and so I gravitated toward the artist who had a way with writing, style, speaking to the room and performing like they meant it.

I’ve developed my own songwriting practice now, performing regularly, and am on a small label in NYC (Mother West). I live in the hills, but work in the cities. I move through the same legendary spaces I did as a child, but now in the shoes of the subjects my father and I would press the clock to catch, to hear, to see, to learn from. My father’s pictures have given me a family connection to personalities that discovered modes of self-expression for millions. The demystification is a profound gift. We all resonate with the desire to communicate what moves us, and by moving us, bring us closer together. I’ve had the experience of seeing and hearing it all my life.

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