Friday, June 6, 2014

Bill Graham: Larger Than Life

 It was New Year's Eve, 1979, backstage at the Oakland Paramount. I was a wide-eyed senior from Skyline High who somehow managed to get coveted credentials to witness Pablo Cruise. How cool was that. My date thought I was impressive. So did I, mind you, but that's another story.


Long before the concert, I went back outside to the car to gather up some belongings --I think a cigarette, maybe some mints too, I was trying to be cool. As I gathered back to the side entrance to the theatre, I saw the familiar face and heard the booming, take-no-shit, get the fuck outta my way voice himself: Bill Graham. Wait, more striking, like, BILL GRAHAM, one of the most blunt, compelling, artful, important, entertaining figures in the world of Rock and Roll. And that's doing the man a little injustice because Bill Graham was far bigger than a mere rock and roll promoter.


Even impresario sold him short. Raconteur, heady businessman, asshole supreme, but asshole with a heavy heart and soul, a man and business empire that was a major part of Bay Area music culture in the 60's, 70's 80's and into the early 90's--Graham's life ended tragically; in the fall of 1991, he was killed in a helicopter crash on a stormy October night after a concert at the Concord Pavilion; a cruel event that eerily epitomized a Bill Graham constant: massive stubbornness--his friends and confidants pleaded with him to eschew the copter ride and go back to the city in a car because of the storm. Graham insisted otherwise. Fate took over and we know the rest of the story.


I had the pleasure of meeting Bill Graham. My older sister worked in the early 70's for Winterland Productions, the offshoot of the old Winterland Arena in the Fillmore, now demolished. Winterland was home to some of the most memorable concerts and performing artists ever, including luminaries like the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, the Mamas and the Papas and Jefferson Airplane--Graham produced all of them, including the one standout concert I attended, Winterland's last, the NYE '78 Finale with The Dead, The Blues Brothers, and seemingly all of San Francisco's social/cultural elite. It was interesting to witness a spectacle itself: Graham beaming down from atop the rafters at the moment of midnight as those in the crowd; hippies and geeks and reporters alike, looked like, "OMG, what the hell is this?!!" What it was really was typical Bill Graham-- master artful player, connoisseur of the unexpected, showman supreme and aficionado spectacular-LEE--the show ended New Year's Day with Graham serving breakfast to the 7000 or so attendees gathering their senses over scrambled eggs and black coffee. And a few other things that we won't mention, use your imagination.


Graham was one helluva character, as I mentioned really a showman in an era that had plenty of show people. He was mean but charming. Passionate and persistent, always there at the scene of the story from the bowels of the Oakland Coliseum Stadium to finish business with Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones to a run-of-the-mill Pablo Cruise encounter at the Paramount. You immediately knew his presence and were mindful of his command. Like I said, he could be a real prick, nasty too, but with Graham it was all about business. I didn't know the inner workings of the Rock and Roll world but I was able to gather that Graham's background, his mean streets, NY-bred, (although born in Germany), beginnings were at the center of his unforgiving persona. It was that very element, that personal, gruff demeanor that epitomized the Graham character himself. Herb Caen seemed to mention him daily, not always admiring but more than mere fodder; Bobby Slayton, a SF comedian, as part of his act, did a hysterical, convincing impression of the man himself--Slayton as Graham in New Yawk accent: "Hey, who are you? Get the fuck outta here!" It sounds sort of mean but if you know Slayton or knew Graham, you are laughing now and you were laughing then. Slayton often worked for Graham at the Punchline, (which Graham and his company, Bill Graham Presents), owned. Slayton too used to do private parties and they became good friends.


Graham indeed was rough and gruff. But he was also very charismatic, very altruistic and sensitive too. He gave lots of money to charities and was involved in supporting art schools and non-profits, particularly Jewish institutions with connections to Holocaust remembrance; Graham learned that his mother was gassed to death by the Nazis on a train bound for Auschwitz, the concentration camp where the Nazis sent his sister Ester.


In my brief experience with him, working as a cub reporter for K-101 Radio, I told him I was a fan of his business acumen. He wasn't all that impressed mind you, I figured he'd heard that before countless times, but he was cordial and respectful. He laughed a little too when I mentioned that he made the "blue jackets", (those people who were his venue security guards), rich and famous. They were as much a presence as Graham and in typical Graham style, he paid them better than average wages and provided benefits. He was loyal to the core and about as black and white as could be. Cross him and you were done. There was no middle ground in the world of Bill Graham. But he was consistent.


There is no Bill Graham today, literally, of course, and figuratively speaking. The concert business, like everything else, is largely run by corporations. Graham's former bigwigs at BGP, soon after his death, formed their own company and it eventually evolved into today's Another Planet Entertainment, (APE), which manages shows at the Greek Theatre and Oakland Fox, among others. To its credit, APE has maintained, slightly, a Graham homage: the blue jackets still exist, too bad Graham weren't alive today to see one of his signature ingredients, a relic to the past.


A past of Pablo Cruise, The Stones and The Dead, Jerry Garcia, Carlos Santana and Elvin Bishop. Eddie Money and Ronnie Montrose. The Beach Boys and The Eagles. The Day on the Green at "Oakland Stadium."


There is NO one, no one ever really, who will ever be Bill Graham --who was always larger than life, even today decades after his death.


You had to be there.


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16 comments:

  1. The crazy thing about the terrible loss was that while it was stormy in the North Bay, it was partly cloudy in the Silicon Valley, where I attended a Huey Lewis concert at Shoreline in Mountain View. Nobody knew then what was about to happen until the next day, a Saturday. I believe the day after on Sunday was when the Firestorm happened. One of the toughest weekends the Bay Area ever endured.

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  2. A lot of Bill Graham concerts and memorabilia is available at wolfgangsvault.com
    I think they charge for membership now. A few years ago you could listen to a lot of old concerts for free, seems like Bill Graham recorded a lot of events but now they charge for a lot of stuff. Still fun to browse old concert stuff for free though.

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  3. He was great as Lucky Luciano in Bugsy. It was a nice pairing with Ben Kingsley as Myer Lansky,

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  4. Good to see the marquee. In 1976 as a teenager standing outside Winterland hoping to get into the Last Waltz without a ticket, who pops out a side door but Mr Graham himself looking up and down Steiner. Remembering him from Days on the Green I shook hands and asked any chance to get inside. He smiled and said, "Nah, full house."

    Two years later while watching Martin Scorsese's excellent documentary of The Band's performance (and guests) I hear Levon Helm's vocals during The Weight (filmed later with the Staples) singing "He just grinned and shook my hand, no was all he said."






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  5. My first concert Lynryd Skynyrd at Winterland with the Outlaws. Amazing.

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    1. Best concert I ever saw!!!

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  6. Good story & pics, Rich. Well done. Rock still owes much to Bill Graham.

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  7. I saw Bob Dylan at The Warfield in 1980 during the Saved tour. Bill was working the food stand. I told him Bob says You gotta serve somebody, so serve me a carrot cake.
    Bill chuckled and took my money. He was flying home from the Huey Lewis concert at the Concord Pavilion when he died. I read that the Fillmore West is going to be torn down for condos.

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  8. Well, I knew Bill quite well because I was a roadie in the 60s and worked the Fillmore and the Carousel and Winterland a lot.
    One time when I was Michael Bloomfield's roadie we were playing the Fillmore West-I still call it the Carousel-and by contract Bill was supposed to pay for two Leslies from Harry the Hammond Man-the great Hammond repair guy in the Avenues. I asked Jerry Pompelli for a check for Harry, who was standing right there and Bill yelled " You tell Nicholas (Gravenites) he can pay for his own God damned organ." So I said that the contract said the hall paid and he repeated it. By this time he was in my face. Bill had a way of not looking at you when he was yelling at you and I said the unforgivable, "Bill, you can at least look at me while you're yelling."
    Boom, big explosion.
    And he threw me out on the spot. Of course I didn't leave, I had work to do, which made things worse.
    But everything was fine that night. that's the way Bill was. For an example of the full Bill Graham treatment see The Last Days Of the Fillmore or whatever it's called. Mile Wilhelm tries to get The Charlatans on the bill and hilarity ensues.

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  9. I remember going to a concert at t he old Avalon Ballroom with my late brother back in the late 1960s to see Santana and the Doors. I was just a wide-eyed 16 or 17 year old and as we walked into the concert hall (if you want to call it that), this thick blue haze obscured the stage. The sweet, unmistakable smell of grass permeated everything. "See you later...have a good time!" my older brother (then about 19) told me as went off to be with his friends. It was a wild scene and I was a little overwhelmed. But the music? Amazing!

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    1. Moby Grape record release party at The Avalon.
      'Nuff said.

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    2. Chet Helms ran the Avalon,
      not Bill Graham.
      just sayin

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  10. Almost met him at "LIVE AID" in Philly, where I was stationed in the Navy in 85'. It was a few days before the show, I was coming down the street near the then JFK Stadium, & up pulls a car with Bill in the passenger seat, window down, about 10-20' away from me. Can't recall if I said/yelled out, "Hey Bill !", but I Was at the Show, July 13, 1985, Dead Center on the Field, about 50 yds back so we could watch the screens from London's Wembley Stadium. --- Anyone who loves this guy, what he did, check out one of the Best Books I EVER Read: "Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock & Out"

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  11. Started as a "Blue Coat" Not Blue Jacket?? i then went to the production side of the company as a stagehand, his motivational speeches were epic and he was always nice to me, I am greatful for getting my start there. But am also glad i am in the Stagehand Union now since 1999.

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  12. I remember that Dead concert on New Years Eve. I was actually working with Elvin Bishop who also had a NYE show in the City. When he was finished, we all went to catch the last few hours of the Dead show. As it was 1978, and New Years Eve, and I was working with Elvin, I'm lucky to remember that much....

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  13. I attended that Huey Lewis and The News concert at the Concord Pavilion the night Bill Graham's helicopter crashed. It was a nasty evening of weather, and couldn't believe he got in a helicopter that night.

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