As the band was winding down a series of Rolling Stones covers at Red Shoes, a rock music club in central Tokyo, veteran American photographer Bob Gruen pushed through the overflow crowd, wrested the microphone from Japanese rock star Makoto Ayukawa and began to warble the 1920s song “When You’re Smiling.”
The event was part of the celebrations around a retrospective exhibition of Gruen photographs and the Japanese publication of his book “Rock Seen,” a collection of iconic images that represents a visual record of rock music history from Elvis Presley to Michael Jackson.
Gruen is best known for documenting the lives of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, perhaps the first and certainly the most infamously controversial West-meets-East coupling in the rock world. Gruen often traveled with Lennon, at his request, recording moments that the musician thought important. When Lennon was shot and killed in 1980 in New York, Gruen was asked for a picture to use at the memorial service in Central Park and the media. Gruen chose an image of Lennon wearing a New York City T-shirt, a photograph that Lennon had staged himself.
In a universe of selfies and celebrity tweets, Gruen’s curiously intimate and gently revealing portraits remind me of a lost time when photography was uniquely personal. His break into rock photography came when he took photographs of Tina Turner, long before songs like “Proud Mary” propelled her to stardom. “I was a fan and decided to take some pictures. One of the shots captured five images in one photo and showed the energy and power behind what she does,” he said. “In a world of digital photography, nobody takes these kinds of pictures any more. They just don’t exist.”
The Turner photograph led to travels with her band, and Gruen’s first album cover. When a magazine editor invited Gruen to meet Lennon and Ono in the early 1970s, they developed an almost instant friendship. Gruen accompanied Ono on a Japanese tour in 1974. While there, he met the editor of the hugely popular Japanese music magazine Music Life. The connection helped to launch Gruen at the magazine.
Several bands brought Gruen back to Japan to photograph them, leading to the wide recognition he enjoys in the country today. He traveled worldwide, and in Japan photographed “rock royalty” such as Kiss, Japanese singer-songwriter Eikichi Yazawa, and Lennon.
Sense of freedom
A big crowd showed up in July for the book launch at the gallery within Ikebukuro’s Parco department store, which featured Gruen and Japanese rock icons Ayukawa and Yuya Uchida. The crowd reflected the Japanese fascination with rock history and celebrities. “I think my photos resonate because I’ve always tried to capture the feeling and passion of what I see,” Gruen told me. “I think they help Japanese people feel they are sharing the inherent sense of freedom created by rock music.”
Present-day Japan is a country of contradictions. The nation is technically one of the most sophisticated in the world. But most people still listen to music on CDs and watch films on DVDs, instead of streaming content. Most concert tickets are hard copy, printed out at convenience stores. Flip phones and fax machines are still used. Japan is high-tech and low-tech at the same time.
Perhaps the Japanese fascination with 1980s music reflects a nostalgia that connects to a deeper emotional current, in this case the possibility of touching a past that is rapidly changing, yet inherent in Gruen’s analog photos. Hideya Kawakita, a former professor of graphic design at Tokyo University of the Arts, has mused that until recently advertising could use the emotional power of a single image to engage people in a way that has required interactive communication since the advent of the internet.
Gruen says he noticed at the 2017 edition of Fuji Rock, a major Japanese music festival played in the past by legendary artists such as Red Hot Chili Peppers and Bjork, that there were fewer punks than previously. He fears that today’s young Japanese are becoming more conservative.
Gruen recorded rock’n’roll images as the language of postwar disruption. But there is now a new global language of disruption. While there is a deep Japanese fascination with celebrity, perhaps a reluctance to embrace the inevitability of change in a culturally conservative country such as Japan has also created a nostalgia for past forms of expression, much like the scenes and the characters in Gruen’s images.
Fran Kuzui is a writer who divides her time between New York and Tokyo.