It was 1966. In San Francisco, there was an event called the Trips Festival, where the burgeoning hippie movement conducted informal “acid tests” (LSD) while area bands played in a haphazard, rather chaotic setting. Jerry Garcia, guitarist and spiritual leader of The Grateful Dead, remembers his first encounter that day with “this guy running around with a clipboard, trying to impose order in the midst of total insanity.”
The band was due to perform, but when Garcia reached the stage, he found his guitar had been knocked over and irreparably damaged. “I’m holding it like a baby, cradling it,” he said, “and I look up at this guy with the clipboard, who says, ‘Are you The Grateful Dead? You’re supposed to be playing now.’ I say, ‘It broke. It’s broken, you dig?’ And immediately, without saying a word, this guy drops to his knees and starts picking up the pieces, trying to fix it for me. Everybody’s stoned, nobody really cared whether I played or not, but here’s this guy who doesn’t know anything about guitars, and he’s trying to fix mine for me. It was the most touching thing I’d ever seen. No matter how much he screams or what kind of tantrums he throws, with me, he’s never been able to shake that first impression of ‘Here is this helpful stranger.'”
That man, of course, was the late great Bill Graham, the legendary impresario/promoter who blazed trails and pioneered the rock and roll concert as we know it. He was a curious character with a keen business sense and a mercurial temper and, under it all, a heart of gold and a passionate desire to keep artists and audiences happy.
I urge readers to try to see a fabulous new exhibit — “Bill Graham and the Rock and Roll Revolution” — currently on display at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, and headed for San Francisco in 2016 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 2017. Chock full of unique artifacts of the era — Graham’s scrapbooks, backstage photos, period artwork, iconic concert posters, instruments and items of clothing from the Bay Area bands he helped make famous — it is an extraordinary “living in the past” opportunity for those who were there as well as for younger generations who want to see what it was like.
Graham had a traumatic childhood in Nazi Germany, fleeing to the United States as an orphan at age 10, living in foster homes, attending school and working in and around New York City and the Catskills in restaurants and nightclubs, learning important lessons about how to keep the customer satisfied. By the mid-’60s, he moved to California to be near his sister, and became involved with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a radical theater who staged free happenings in Golden Gate Park. He quickly saw the moneymaking opportunity and discovered how to present entertainment in a way that combined profit with pleasure.
He soon bought the lease to the infamous Fillmore Theatre, where The Dead, The Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and others took wing in the 1965-1968 period. He brought in acts from other cities like The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Otis Redding and Miles Davis, and British bands like Cream and Pink Floyd. He even sponsored non-musical performers such as Allen Ginsberg and Lenny Bruce. When the Fillmore’s neighborhood went south around the time of Martin Luther King’s assassination, he bought the Carousel Ballroom several blocks away and rechristened it the Fillmore West.
At about the same time, he took the plunge and opened the Fillmore East in New York City, and between these two venues, he hosted some of the most important concerts (and recordings) of the rock era. Fifty-eight different artists — the Mothers of Invention, Humble Pie, Derek and the Dominos, Aretha Franklin — recorded albums at the Fillmore halls. Indeed, the 1971 double live LP “The Allman Brothers Band Live at the Fillmore East” is generally regarded as the very best in-concert album ever released.
Graham tended to rub some people the wrong way but was fiercely defended by many of rock’s biggest stars. “For us, coming from the outside, Bill was very important,” said Pete Townshend of The Who. “His attention to detail was impressive, and crucial. Without him, all these airheads would fall to bits. He wasn’t doing acid. He wasn’t drinking. He wasn’t interested in anything except keeping that ballroom going.”
Eric Clapton credits Graham with introducing him to some lifelong musical friends, including Carlos Santana and Frank Zappa. “Bill’s great point was that he had deep-seated feeling for what was right with the music. He was very instrumental in getting people together, making sure I met the right musicians. And some of the best shows Cream ever did were at the Fillmore and Winterland. Those songs ended up on ‘Wheels of Fire,’ which was a #1 album for us in the US.”
In his phenomenal autobiography, “Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out,” first published in 1990 a year before his death, Graham acknowledged his innate talent for show business. “I seemed to have a knack for it. I realized, for example, that at two in the morning, these people who had been dancing all night long were not yet finished with their flight, even though the music was over. They were coming in like a glider lands. You can’t glide and glide and glide and then come right down bang on the ground. I remember asking, ‘Who turned up the house lights?’ When the music ended, I wanted the lights left soft. People appreciated that.”
Contrary to convention wisdom, Graham was not a fan of the big festivals. He attended Woodstock but was not involved in its execution except to recommend certain bands perform. He was particularly opposed to the poorly planned Altamont concert and the chaotic, violent debacle it turned out to be. “I didn’t want them to do a free concert, not without meticulous planning. I told the Stones, ‘As big as you are, you can’t do a free show.’ Free was the dangerous word. Anybody and everybody. You can’t stop anybody from coming. Doing what? Bringing what? To be part of what? I had a bad feeling and said, ‘I’ve got to get away from this.’ Altamont really was a tragedy, not just because of the people hurt but because it was more costly to rock and roll’s reputation than any single day in the history of entertainment.”
Graham’s book (co-written by Robert Greenfield) offers dozens of revealing anecdotes of outrageous behavior and unpleasant encounters with managers, government officials and the stars themselves. By the mid-’70s, he had closed his famous venues but went on to produce some of the major tours of that decade — Crosby, Stills Nash and Young’s 1974 stadium tour, Led Zeppelin’s troubled 1977 arena tour, and the Rolling Stones’ “Start Me Up” tour in 1981 as well. In each case, he found it ever more challenging to balance the egos and unreasonable demands of superstars with the needs and expectations of the paying customers. This dilemma was perhaps at its worst in 1985 when he produced the US portion of Live Aid at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, and again in 1987-1988 during the Amnesty International tour, where he reached his limits of tolerance and began scaling back his involvement in large-scale events.
As Graham put it, “No single project in my life ever saddened me more or exhausted me as much as the Amnesty Tour. The way I was treated, the people who took the bows and the credit for things they never did… The abuse of power on a high level was unparalleled. The world out there said, ‘Boy, what a great tour,’ and they were right. But what a price.”
Jon Landau, Bruce Springsteen’s longtime manager, said this about Graham: “I see Bill as the entrepreneur, the inventor of the rock concert. But here’s what happens when something is invented. Henry Ford invents the automobile. Then the process moves out into large numbers of people and it becomes a profession. Ford started the car business, but he would fail at the car business if he tried to be in it today.”
Despite the sometimes exasperating circumstances, Graham loved the music and loved his job, according to Peter Wolf, lead singer of the J. Geils Band, who supported the Stones on portions of the ’81-’82 tour. “Keith Richards lived and slept in this one pair of boots, and he had to play in them, but one night the heel fell off. And it was Bill who was there with the hammer and nails and tape, getting it fixed up well enough for Keith to wear. Bill loved the insanity of the artists, and he understood it. Because I think he himself wanted so much to be one…which, in a sense, he became anyway, through the presentation, and the artistry of the presentation.”
Following Graham’s death at age 60, more than 300,000 people turned out, fittingly, for a free concert in Golden Gate Park to honor Graham and the two others who perished in a helicopter crash in a storm in the autumn of 1991. Not long after that, the San Francisco Civic Auditorium was renamed the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium. His company, BGP (Bill Graham Presents), continued on for a few years with involvement by his sons, but once it was sold to Clear Channel Entertainment, discord about future direction resulted in departures of most of the core group from Graham’s days.
His legacy as a rock concert promoter remains immense. If you’ve ever attend a well-executed rock concert, you owe a debt of gratitude to Bill Graham. Even Richards, who along with Mick Jagger had a falling out with Graham in the ’80s, admitted, “Bill was the first bloke to do concerts in a big city on a regular basis. He created opportunities that changed a lot of things in the music business.”
For his part, Graham got a kick out of exposing audiences to music and artists they didn’t yet know about. “Watching the room turn around for supporting acts, knowing the audience had all tasted a fresh new fruit and would want it again, that was the greatest for me. When all this truly worked, it was magic. For me, the key element was the public. Their reaction was the payoff.”