MORE with Bob Gruen–the Alice Cooper beer plane, climbing mountains with the Clash

by Kara Nesvig

You have taken very enduring photographs of some figures who have since passed away, like [Sex Pistols bassist] Sid Vicious and [New York Dolls/Heartbreakers member] Johnny Thunders. What can you tell me about these punk rock legends and more importantly, the people behind the photos?

They were both pretty sensitive people aside from the public persona. Sid talked about Nancy and he had deep feelings for her but at the same time, he didn’t take any crap from anybody. He was called Vicious because he was so sweet. He wasn’t vicious by nature, mean or cruel.

Johnny would always tell me about different books he was reading. He spent a lot of time traveling and was an avid reader. He cared a great deal about his kids. Unfortunately, he didn’t care about his own life. He took drugs because he felt so bad he couldn’t see his kids. He’d tell me he needed to have a girlfriend and if he could get that, he’d clean up. I’d say, “Look in the mirror, Johnny. Would you go out with someone who looked like this? First you clean up, then you get the girlfriend.”


Bob Gruen on Alice Cooper’s beer plane:

[Zeppelin plane story, for reference point] The funny thing about the plane is that they didn’t own the plane. You rent them. That plane was called the Starship and I’ve been on the same plane with Elton John, Alice Cooper, the Allman Brothers. 

You rent for month or two and when you pay big bucks for a plane like that they paint your name on it. Alice wanted to paint a beer can; it’s interesting to see how advertising has changed–Alice drinks a lot of beer, or he did at the time, and he wanted to have a huge beer can flying over America. Budweiser was absolutely horrified—of course, Alice would pay for it, but nowadays they’d pay him to do it.


On memorable photos:

. . . Some great experiences, like going to Statue of Liberty with John Lennon. If I had a list that would be pretty close to top. It was a concept I thought of to dramatize his immigration case. I was really happy he agreed with the idea. It was one of few pix I’ve done that was thought about in advance to make a point. I was thrilled John Lennon agreed with me, so we went out and did it. It has become kind of iconic.


Also going up Mt. Tamalpais in San Francisco with the Clash. They had gone to Sausalito, went to a flea market. I always go to Mt. Tamalpais when I’m in SF. It’s a  grounded place, sacred place. They wanted to come along and we had a little compact car, roadies had to get back to set up for show, none of their crew/handlers could come with us. Just me driving, the 4 guys in the band, and we went.


On Hilly Kristal:

Hilly Kristal was kind of like your uncle when your parents go away for the nite and he sits with a beer and watches TV and you kids can do whatever you want as long as you don’t disturb him. That’s what he was.


On music today/his favorite bands:

My favorite group today would be Green Day. They have an album coming out in a month and I’m really excited to hear it. As for local groups, there’s one in NY called Sex Slaves. It’s very direct and very much fun in a punk driving loud way.


People say the Clash are only band that really mattered [in punk]. They say say that Sex Pistols made people want to scream with rage but the Clash gave people the reasons why.


Also New York Dolls, Blonde, Patti Smith—New York groups.