Last week (Oct. 23), esteemed rock and roll photographer Bob Gruen celebrated another trip around the sun. Like most people, he celebrated his 69th birthday with a party -- but unlike most people, his party included performances by Billie Joe Armstrong, Jesse Malin, Debbie Harry, Alice Cooper and more, all inside a small bar in New York City.

"I've been having a birthday party every year, but this year was just over the top," Gruen tells us, reflecting on his celebration a week later. "You know, Debbie Harry has come a number of times, Billie Joe came last year. I had heard Alice was going to make an appearance this year, but I didn't know he was actually going to play. That was exciting."

He goes on, "Right before he went on, Alice told me that he's played small clubs like this one before. I said, 'Really? Recently?' And he said, 'No. I'm playing Madison Square Garden next week.'" Gruen finds himself laughing as he remembers the exchange, and urges us to look up a video of Cooper performing at the party:

So how did a photographer find himself hanging with rock stars on his birthday? "When I was 45, I was part of a group show at the CBGB gallery. I told the curator that it was my birthday and he made a big deal about it," Gruen explains. "People brought me cakes and it ended up in the newspaper. So, the next year my agent told me to do it again. I asked what he meant -- I didn't even do it!"

From the CBGB gallery, Gruen and his friends started finding places that weren't frequented by too many people. "It just turned into an annual event. Twenty-four years and I never know who's going to show up," he says. "We invite a lot of people, and a lot of people say they run into friends they haven't seen in years. It's always a good time for all."

This year's party hit a snag, though; the normal joint he's used the last few years suddenly shut its doors just days before his birthday. "It was almost disastrous," Gruen admits. "I was at a loss to find a place, because most of the clubs were booked months in advance for the CMJ festival. Jesse Malin came up with 2A in the East Village. He saved the day."

And for those lucky friends and family who attended the party, they didn't leave empty-handed. "Over the last 10 years or so, I've started putting up a photo exhibit at the party. I put up a selection of photos that I took in the last year, somewhere around 90-100 photos, and I think I had 105 this year," he says. "I don't really need the prints, so I let everyone at the party take one of them home. It's a unique exhibit -- it's not my normal work, it's current and it only lasts four hours."

As special as Gruen's birthday parties have become over the years, he says it's not something he always sought out.

"I used to be like most people and didn't like celebrating getting another year older," he humbly tells us. "But, when everyone shows up, and to be surrounded by friends and family, it just makes you feel good. It's much better than sitting home and being depressed on your birthday, I tell you that."

Much better indeed.

Bob Gruen's 69th Birthday Celebration -- New York City

David Appel
Alice Cooper and Bob Gruen (David Appel)
Debbie Harry and Bob Gruen (David Appel)
Bob Gruen and Alison Mosshart (David Appel)
David Appel