Bill Graham Explodes: 'Quitting San Francisco'

The fat lady sings as the legendary concert promoter closes his club and loses his shit

Bill Graham Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

San Francisco– — As has been his manner for more than three years, Bill Graham was a lonely and angry figure August 4th when he announced that he was finished with San Francisco as a dance/concert operator, effective Decem-31st, when new owners take over the Fillmore West building.

Graham made his surprise announcement — –he'd been reported looking for a new location for his operation– — in front of more than 100 artists, musicians, and other persons gathered at the Family Dog to discuss the then-still-flickering light, show strike.

The announcement, made haltingly through a voiced choked and shaken by emotion, followed a lengthy, acrimonious lecture in which the pugilistic ballroom master hammered out a theme of "the reality of being a businessman," the rights of an individual. Time and time again he insisted: "I will never have anyone tell me to what level I support an art, what I must pay a light show." But Graham, long-ago ostracized from the hip community as a profiteer and the target of as much abuse as respect, had much more wrath to vent.

"This town has never stopped rapping an honest businessman for four fucking years," he said, brooding. "I leave here very sad ... I may be copping out, but your attitudes have driven me to my decision."

But Graham really blew his gnarled top only after Steve Gaskin, a resident communications lecturer at the Family Dog, stood up and told him: "When you started, you had to make a choice between love and money. You've got our money, so you can't have our love ... You've used dramatics today to fuck over a lot of heads with your emotional trips."

Graham's reply (as tape-recorded by the Good Times newspaper): "I APOLOGIZE, MOTHER FUCKER, THAT I'M A HUMAN BEING. I fucking apologize. Emotional – — you're fucking right. Fuck you, you stupid prick! Do you know what emotions are? Stand up and have emotions. Get up and work. Get up and sing. Get up and act. You think I'm an actor? You're full of shit, man, I have more fucking balls than you'll ever see. You want to challenge me in any way about emotions? You slimy little man ... YOU SLIMY ... LITTLE ... MAN. (To the crowd): Fuck you. FUCK YOU! (To a musician trying to calm him) Don't get peaceful with me. Don't you TOUCH me!"

With those words, Graham barreled out of the room, followed by a paled Time magazine writer working on a profile of the man.

Contacted last week, a still-petulant Graham at first refused to talk with Rolling Stone, citing the publication as "one of the other reasons I'm getting out." But he went on to confirm his abandonment of ballroom operations here. He is expected to maintain Fill-more East in New York, his Millard agency, the still-fledging Fillmore record label, and his residence in San Francisco.

"We're not good, we're not bad," he said, "but I think this city will know what it's lost by the first week of 1970."

Before his violent walkout at the Family Dog the focus of discussion (that word used loosely) had been the light show strike, called by the 500-member Light Artists Guild to force Graham and Chet Helms to raise wages. A picket line had been set up Friday, August 1st, at the beachsite Dog house, and another was planned for the uptown Fillmore West the following Tuesday — –the day of Graham's explosion.

Chet Helms had reacted to the strike line with predictably open gestures of brotherhood — –provision of electricity for a coffee percolator and for a Guild light show projected on the Dog's outside wall; flowers for the pickets, and an invitation to negotiate. The lines were down by late Friday night, and light heads agreed to meet with Chet, on his terms: a "common" gathering including not only light artists, but the community as well. That's why Graham, along with Jerry Garcia of Grateful Dead, David and Linda LaFlamme of It's a Beautiful Day, and numerous other scene-makers were at the convocation.

Helms, the mystic/Texan who has tried, in the past two months, to move his operation away from the big – name band and dance/concert hall concept towards a free-form environmental theater, opened the meeting by casting the I Ching. The hexagrams spelled out the need for unity. The judgment: "Holding together brings good fortune. What is required is that we all unite ... around a –central figure." Graham, seated with head hunched over, looked bored.

Then Helms, always considered the altruistic figurehead of the San Francisco music scene where Graham was the I-came, I-saw, I-conquered figure, laid the basic question across: "How is the community going to relate to (1) Mr. Bill Graham and to (2) Chet Helms?" For himself, he proposed recognition of the fact that the Dog had been losing money since its Avalon Ballroom days. "Money is tight in America, and we get the feeling we're disconnected from that scene," he said. "We're not. We're at the bottom of the totem pole and we're feeling the run on the bank first."

Helms proposed the need for "some new models" for "distributing the few potatoes available"– — perhaps a percentage-rate for all artists– — musicians as well as light shows– — at the Family Dog. But he wasn't speaking for Bill Graham. Graham made that obvious.

First, he smilingly brushed off Helms as "not a realistic person in terms of business." That set his theme. "You cannot tell the world, 'Look at what we're doing, it's right, you must come here.' You can only suggest. Chet runs this place on a dream, a nice one, but he's having financial problems because although he understands the problems of the business, he has refused to meet them."

Then he turned to challenge the rest of the meeting. "You do not tell me what to do. If you don't like the way I conduct my business, why the fuck don't you get off your asses and do it? Where the fuck does the artist come to say 'you the businessman must support us' when I personally think the light shows are not producing an income for me? The only way you can do this is to kill me and step over me."

Graham indirectly explained his choleric tone when he dove into a self-defensive spiel about his honesty and about the dues he paid before hitting onto the ballroom idea in late fall of 1965.

Finally nearing the nitty-gritty of his expostulation, he faced long-time archenemy and Light Artists Guild member Jerry Abrams, stating: "I'll challenge the Light Guild to tell me if their approach to the strike was the ethical approach." The Guild, before contacting either Helms or Graham personally, sent a blunt notice of new light show rates, signed "Ma." Then Graham got wind of a picket line being planned for the Fillmore– — still before any personal contact with the Guild– — and from that point on, Graham "lost respect" and any communications with the Guild–all of this aside from his insistence on the right to negotiate prices for acts on an individual basis.

His "I'm through with this town" statement came after a bitter, heated exchange with Abrams– — Abrams defending the Guild's approaching of various bands to gauge potential strike support and apologizing for the "tactless" letter; Abrams slamming Graham for "refusing negotiations over the last three years;" Graham insisting on the "reality" of the Guild's obvious disrespect for him and his operation. Graham made it painfully clear that now he would never hire a Guild show at any rate. And Helms hardly had enough money to buy a bag of potatoes each week.

Helms pushed in the final pin. "Friday night finished the Family Dog as a business," he said. (On Friday, standing outside his building looking glumly at the pickets, he had stated his theory about the few potatoes around to be distributed. "And if we can't get together and decide who eats, I don't see where we've arrived at in three years." Now, he said, Family Dog would give up the struggle to cover its $50,000 of debts. The new commitment, he says, is "to extend the form artistically, with a new mode of business and finances.)

"The dream burst Friday," he continued to the assembly. "I have a proposal to make at our next meeting Thursday. But if there's a picket line at the Fillmore West tonight, I won't bother to come up with a proposal, and Family Dog won't operate this weekend."

Within minutes, one Guild member, from the Garden of Delights, withdrew his support for the strike. Finally a beleaguered Abrams, trying to hide defeat behind various voices hailing "a new community" rising out of the shambles, then unofficially drew a curtain over strike plans. The reasons: Helms' statement and Bill's stubborness. "We are we and he is he," Abrams understated.

The actual strike lasted only about four hours, and all three booked acts– — Albert Collins, Afro-Haiti Dancers, and Grateful Dead– — honored their contracts with Helms. Only Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart of the Dead– — reportedly physically detained at the door by Abrams– — didn't cross the line. Inside, a small crowd saw lights worked by a Peninsula group called Glare, a strike – supporting Guild member until "we were turned off by the attitude at a strike meeting– — we were falling back into the Establishment trip." Glare offered to do the work this weekend for free, after seeing Helms' profitless loss statements, and spokesman John Darcy further stated: "This is the only new art form left in this City. Graham has prostituted it, but Chet's doing all he can for it."

It was a matter of relating with (1) Bill Graham and (2) Chet Helms.