June 28, 2015

Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution

Graham between takes during the filming of A ’60s Reunion with Bill Graham: A Night at the Fillmore, 1986. Photo by Ken Friedman; courtesy of Ken Friedman.

Visits the Era Again

By Harvey Kubernik

The Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles presents Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution, May 7-October 11, 2015, the first comprehensive major exhibition retrospective about the life and career of renowned music industry impresario Bill Graham (1931–1991).

Recognized as one of the most influential concert promoters in history, Graham launched the careers of countless rock & roll legends in the 1960s at his famed Fillmore Auditorium and was a prime mover behind the 1967 Summer of Love. Graham conceived of rock & roll as a powerful force for supporting humanitarian causes and was instrumental in the production of milestone benefit concerts such as Live Aid (1985) and Human Rights Now! (1988).

As a promoter and manager, he worked with iconic artists including the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Fleetwood Mac, the Who, Led Zeppelin, the Doors, and the Rolling Stones.

Graham motions from backstage as Tina Turner and Mick Jagger perform at Live Aid, 1985. © Lynn Goldsmith.

Graham motions from backstage as Tina Turner and Mick Jagger perform at Live Aid, 1985. © Lynn Goldsmith.

The Skirball Cultural Center is dedicated to exploring the connections between 4,000 years of Jewish heritage and the vitality of American democratic ideals. It welcomes and seeks to inspire people of every ethnic and cultural identity. The exhibition is especially timely as 2015 marks the thirtieth anniversary of Live Aid, the fiftieth anniversary of The Grateful Dead’s live debut, and the fiftieth anniversary of Graham’s first-ever concert. Through memorabilia, photographs, archival concert footage, historical and new video interviews, ephemera, and psychedelic art, Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution is both a deeply personal reflection on Graham’s life and an exploration of how Graham helped transform rock music into the immersive, multi-dimensional, and highly lucrative phenomenon of rock theater that persists today.

Treasured photographs and artifacts from Graham’s early life and career will be on loan from the Graham family, many on view to the public for the first time. Also for the first time ever, preparatory drawings and the original artwork of several iconic Fillmore concert posters will be on museum display, revealing the signature visual styles and creative process of poster artists Bonnie MacLean, Wes Wilson, Stanley Mouse, Victor Moscoso, David Singer, Greg Irons, and David Byrd. Vintage photos from Jim Marshall, Baron Wolman, Robert Altman and Herb Greene inform the journey along with several artifacts like Keith Richards boots, Pete Townshend’s Gibson guitar used to perform Tommy, along with dresses worn by Janis Joplin and Grace Slick.

Bonnie MacLean

Bonnie MacLean

Visitors will also be able to see, for the first time in more than forty years, the original apple barrel that greeted fans with fresh apples at the entrance to the Fillmore Auditorium; letters and gifts from performers and fans; and remarkable live performance and backstage photos from the Fillmore, Winterland, Day on the Green, Live Aid, and other Bill Graham Presents concerts throughout the era. An installation of The Joshua Light Show — the trailblazing liquid light show conceived in 1967 by multimedia artist Joshua White, which served as a backdrop to many Graham—produced shows — will be customized by White specifically for the exhibition. It will be one of several gallery components designed to evoke the sights and sounds of the era.

The exhibit is assembled by Graham’s two sons, David and Alex, and traces the life of a man formerly known as Wolfgang Grajonca, to Bill Graham, a name he plucked from a telephone book. Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution also illuminates how Graham’s childhood experiences as a Jewish emigrant from Nazi Germany fueled his drive and ingenuity as a cultural innovator and advocate for social justice.

Born in Berlin, Graham arrived in New York at the age of eleven as part of a Red Cross effort to help Jewish children fleeing the Nazis. He went to live with a foster family in the Bronx, and spent his teenage years in New York City before being drafted into the U.S. Army to fight in the Korean War. Graham moved to San Francisco just as the hippie movement was gathering steam, and became the business manager for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a radical theater company that performed for free in parks.

The first show Graham presented was on November 6, 1965: a fundraiser to support the legal defense of one of the Mime Troupe actors.

It was a transformative moment for the thirty-four-year-old, who’d finally found something he was good at by which he could also earn a living. Soon afterwards he took over the lease on the famed Fillmore Auditorium, where he produced groundbreaking shows throughout the 1960s, including sold-out concerts by the Grateful Dead, Cream, Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Doors, among many others. Graham’s mastery at promoting, marketing, and managing artists propelled him to become one of the music industry’s most important figures.

“On November 2, 1967, the night before I shipped out for Vietnam, three Army buddies and I drove out of the Oakland Army Terminal across the bridge to Winterland in San Francisco, remembered SSG Roger Steffens USA ret.

“It was to be the debut of a new English band, but we were there to see the opening act, Janis Joplin and Big Brother and the Holding Company. I had grown up in the ‘50s in NYC and had seen almost all the major figures of the era in Alan Freed’s big stage shows. But not since Jackie Wilson had I seen a performer of such soul — searing power as Janis that night. She was like an exposed nerve ending with a voice and I felt totally drained emotionally after her startling set.

Note from Donovan, 1967. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer, Collection of David and Alex Graham.

Note from Donovan, 1967. Photo by Robert Wedemeyer, Collection of David and Alex Graham.

“Then Richie Havens appeared in the middle of the huge dance floor, alone on a stool with his acoustic guitar, encircled by a couple of thousand kids, holding us in the palm of his hands for the next hour, after which Bill Graham came out on stage looking very apologetic. ‘I know you all came here tonight and spent three dollars to see three acts, but Pink Floyd can’t get out of Customs in time. So I went to the [local club] Hungry I and got the current group there to fill in. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Ike and Tina Turner!’  

“Janis raced out of the dressing room and worked her way to the foot of the stage, right beneath Tina, and nearly drained a bottle of Southern Comfort during Tina’s outlandish, heart — racing set, whooping and hollering encouragement all the way through.

“After that, Janis decided to do an unannounced second set, and to this day it remains my most precious musical memory. Indescribable, except to say it was twice as good as her astounding opening set, our minds completely blown. A few hours later I was on a plane to Saigon and the war, leaving the States with a vow that if I made it through the war alive, I would come back and live in the Bay area. I did, and I did,” reinforced Steffens, now a noted music historian, radio legend, actor and author. His 2015 published book is The Family Acid.

For the August 21, 1976 issue of the now defunct Melody Maker, I conducted an interview with Bill Graham, before I taped another conversation with Jerry Garcia and Carlos Santana during my two-hour visit inside Graham’s house in Mill Valley, Ca.

I really liked Bill Graham. Around his concert promotions and productions he was always hectic and frantic. But at his pad it was a mellow scene.


Kubernik: Bill, can you remember your first meeting with Carlos Santana and Jerry Garcia?

Graham: I met Jerry in 1965. H was doing the acid tests. I thought he and his entire band were from another planet. I was very disturbed at those first parties because — and there’s a lot of differences in opinion — grownups as well as kids were testing their metabolism. I was producing theater in San Francisco at that time, where the group was still the Warlocks, doing benefits involving these groups. I got to know him later on.

“Carlos was in 1967. I had the Fillmore in San Francisco, and (Paul) Butterfield was playing. My office was right above the marquee. There were windows over the marquee and you had to go through that door in my office on the second floor to change the lettering. Anyway, I’m sitting in my office in the middle of the night and head some noises outside my window. I went to the window to look outside and there are two guys who climbed up a rain pipe to get to the seond level to get it. It was Carlos and Michael Carabello, who was a conga player friend of his.

“They were trying to get in to see Butterfield. He told me he was Mexican and liked Latin music, and my real joy in life is Latin music. We started talking and he said he had some musicians, and I said let me hear them — and that’s how we met. Besides, being a nice player, the thing I like the most about him. And respect the most, is that in the area of business, it’s not that he gives me carte blanche, but that he listens. The Bay area is a conglomeration of professional rejects from the rest of the world, actors, who couldn’t make it, dancers who couldn’t make it.

“Before Woodstock, if you had a hit album, 700,000 or 800,000 units. Today an album will sell three million units and there won’t be any headlines. How can you retain the quality of the soup when you add water?

Is there still a viable San Francisco music scene? It looks like there has been a rebirth the last few years with groups hailing from up north: Doobie Brothers, Journey Tower of Power.

There was never a San Francisco sound, or a Boston sound. They may do the same thing to an audience though, which is give them pleasure.

“There is something that they’ve [Grateful Dead] always had in common from the beginning, something hardly spoken about in the media after all these years. The San Francisco bands, starting with the Dead, always went to the gigs with the intention of putting it out there. It was the lack of professionalism at the beginning that made that possible. It wasn’t that the contract said 45 minutes and ‘that’s what we’ve got to play.’ They were the first one who asked to play longer. They wanted to extend the relationship between the audience and themselves. And that prevails to this day. You can’t get them to play shorter sets. Carlos always wanted to play longer which is very different from the professional attitude that you get.

“One of the reasons for that — and Jerry won’t say it — is you get a man like this who can make all kinds of money across the country. The Grateful Dead just came off the road, and he has a desire to play, and he takes his band and plays a club that holds 400 people! When you go out, you want to make music and you want to make a living. There are times when I really think the Grateful dead are demented. Insane. They could have made ten times as much money.

Graham gives young son David a piggyback ride, 1969. Photo: Bonnie MacLean; Collection of David and Alex Graham.

Graham gives young son David a piggyback ride, 1969. Photo: Bonnie MacLean; Collection of David and Alex Graham.

Do you feel parental about some groups or individuals you’ve got close to over the years, Bill?

Words are thrown around — brother, sister, parental. All I know some ten years ago they think I’m a very good business man. I think I know how to deal with people, but not a very good business man. I think I have some idea about music and what the streets are all about, and about what downtown is all about. I was a New York energy freak to some extent, and I still am. But I found out every mile didn’t have to be four minutes. I didn’t have to catch that plane. If you would have told me ten years ago that I would someday live under trees, I would tell you you’re crazy. I learned this from the Bay area, from the feeling in the Bay area.

“Jimi Hendrix once came late for a show. I’m pacing in front of the Fillmore, and he gets out of the cab, and I’m yelling at him, and he looked at me and said ‘there was this great movie on in the motel.’ Little by little, it took me four or five years to learn this. I finally realized that after the gig I could do the yelling. In the long run it’s the public that has to get the good energy from them. I really sincerely feel this, is that the reason the relationship lasted over the years, is that those of us who live in the Bay area and lasted over the years have always had the same goal. We want to turn people on and we want them to have a good time.

“That’s the dilemma a musician has. A musician may think he played a shit set, and the audience out there is going crazy.

Rock and roll has moved into the big arenas. Was that the logical extension from the Fillmores and even the ballroom circuit?

You can’t get any bigger, Man, has reached the largest securable facility. The reason Woodstocks don’t work is that you can’t put up walls. You can put cement around a stadium. Okay, if you want a couple of hundred thousand people, there are no facilities that large except for cocker. It’s been proven that if you can put up a fence to contain 450,000 people, how do you stop the other 200,000?

Could you predict the vastness of the present concert situation?

Yes, and I must be honest at the same time and cop to the fact that a lot of the things I was putting down predicting what would happen, did happen, and I joined the ranks. We may have created the ranks and everybody joined them. Basically, what it amounts to is supply and demand. The artist’s theory is that “my life is so busy now,” and he would like to be with the luxuries life has afforded him. If the Dead could spend one night in San Francisco playing a big gig instead of three smaller shows, the next two nights are theirs to be in their home or with their lady. That’s the key; it’s not that they want to play less. In the summer of 1973 or ’74, we took Crosby, Stills Nash and Young, who came to us and said, “we want to play a lot of indoors and outdoors dates,” We did a 31 city tour. Seventeen of those dates were in ballparks. That was the beginning. The logistics could work.


Robert Greenfield is the former London bureau editor of Rolling Stone. He is an award—winning journalist, novelist, and the author of nine books, including studies on Grateful Dead lead guitarist Jerry Garcia, LSD guru Dr. Timothy Leary, Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun and the classic examination of the 1972 U.S. tour of the Rolling Stones, STP: A Journey Through America With the Rolling Stones.

Greenfield authored Bill Graham: My Life Inside Rock and Out (co-written with Bill Graham) which won both a Ralph J. Gleason music Book award and the ASCAP — Deems Taylor Award for Excellence. The title has been re-published by Da Capo Press with a new introduction by Pete Townshend of the Who.

Greenfield’s one play about Bill Graham, starring actor Ron Silver, earned the Outstanding Theatre Presentation at the Aspen Comedy Arts Festival and was produced in 2000 at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills.

During early 2000, I interviewed Robert Greenfield about Bill Graham. Currently, Greenfield is involved in a feature film endeavor based on Graham’s life as well as an HBO series about the early days of Rolling Stone.

Kubernik: The book, Bill Graham Presents that you collaborated and penned with Bill Graham, then laid the foundation for your stage play, ‘Bill Graham Presents,” which starred Ron Silver.

Greenfield: I made a connection one night with Bill at a Jefferson Airplane Winterland concert. After that, every time we would see each other we would talk. It’s a long, slow courtship, and then he decides he wants to do this book. Actually, he tried before with a couple of other guys. He picks me and that begins a story that is unparalleled. We went to New York and pitched publishers. We worked the book for five years. The original manuscript was 2,500 pages. He wanted to do this book for years. It’s an immigrant thing. The book was his obsession, not mine. Bill often showed you his worst side first. And if you got through it, there was a reality behind it that was really worth working for.

Bill Graham Presents was assembled like an oral history. Like your Jerry Garcia oral history, Dark Star. Do you personally like this multiple voice format?

Here’s the point. For Bill, I interviewed 125 people. For Jerry’ book, I interviewed 65 people. If you’re gonna say there’s objective truth, it is when people who have never met one another are telling you pretty much the exact same story. That’s what the oral history will do. I don’t like to stick myself in. I’m not interested in hearing myself talk. I’m not that kind of writer. I don’t like the voice of God.

That’s why I like the play. Because what people have to understand about the play is that it’s a man talking about himself. It’s his P.O.V. on Bill. And it’s also peeling the layers of the onion, which is as the play progresses, Bill is starting to realize things about himself. He’s telling the audience things he never told anybody.

“Listen, some of the reviews said, ‘Why do a play about this guy?’ And that’s a fair thing to say. And my response would be, if you came from the streets like I do, Bill was the ultimate guy. Like rap now. Guys who make it from the curb. Bill came here with nothing but a yarmulke and a prayer book. He made it from nothing. Did he do a good job on everything? No. Did he piss people off? Yeah. He yelled at people. He was mean. He did this. He did that. He’d sneak people inside the side door. He’d kill you over a dollar sometimes.

But the corollary story is, first time (Jimi) Hendrix played for Bill he got $750 dollars. At the end of the weekend, Bill did so much business, Bill gave Hendrix $20,000. Do you know how much $20,000 was back then (1967)? Now, somebody who hates Bill could say, ‘Sure, he gave Hendrix $20,000 ‘cause he made $50,000.’ It’s true, but then, you know what? Most guys wouldn’t have given Hendrix $20,000.

What would Bill Graham think of the current state of the music business and especially the new corporate greed heads running the scene?

The business has gone to hell. Bill would turn over in his grave.

In retrospect, even though he liked hustling and owning everything, he had concerns about the people in the crowd.

“He cared about the audience. Bill’s obsessions was ‘the kids’ as he called them. He wanted to put on the best show possible for the artist and the kids. The thing that Bill lived for was the moment, the get off. The show would happen.

“He was truly a producer and an entrepreneur. He was Zigfield and his concern was the show and sure he was obsessed with the money. He cared about the money but he had a political and social consciousness. Since he’s gone we don’t see the great rock benefits anymore. We don’t see rock being used as a force to raise enormous amounts of money for good causes.

“It’s a different time in the world now. And people back then thought rock ‘n’ roll should be free. How absurd that seems now. Bill took a lot of heat during his life, but compared to what is going on now, he was a prince. As much as he cared about money he never did it on the ticket prices. Bill always kept the ticket prices reasonable. He would be shocked and horrified at what a ticket costs now. What it costs to see a band now. Bill would not believe it. I don’t know what he would have done. To put it in perspective, if anyone remembers, to go to the Fillmore East it cost $3.50. And you saw 3 acts.

Harvey Kubernik has been a music journalist for over 42 years and is the author of 8 books. During 2014, Harvey’s Kubernik’s Turn Up the Radio! Rock, Pop, and Roll in Los Angeles 1956–1972 was published by Santa Monica Press. In September 2014, Palazzo Editions packaged Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows, a coffee—table—size volume written by Kubernik, currently published in six foreign languages. BackBeat/Hal Leonard Books in the United States. Harvey and Kenneth Kubernik wrote the text for photographer Guy Webster’s first book for Insight Editions published in November 2014. Big Shots: Rock Legends & Hollywood Icons: Through the Lens of Guy Webster. Introduction by Brian Wilson). In November, Back/Beat/Hal Leonard will publish Harvey’s book on Neil Young, “Heart of Gold.”


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