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The Motherfuckers

Occupy Nightclub! A blow-by-blow account of the battle between the owners of the Fillmore East and hardcore hippies

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View of a crowd of young men and women lined up outside the Fillmore East, waiting to attend a performance, New York City. March, 1969

Jack Robinson/Hulton Archive/Getty

The contretemps between Bill Graham and the New York Motherfuckers contingent has been simmering and broiling toward bloody violence for weeks. A full report on the background, the foreground and all the attendant emotions that, brought the rock people and the revolution people into confrontation, as prepared by Rolling Stones’s New York bureau chief, follows.

New York — In retrospect, the stormy and sometimes violent ten-week battle between Bill Graham’s Fillmore East and the “revolutionary” Motherfuckers-led segment of New York’s East Village hip community was a clash between two styles of life — two philosophies, if you will — which would have had a difficult time adjusting to each other under the most favorable of conditions — and conditions were far from favorable during the entire entanglement.

On one hand, Graham delights in taking responsibility for his actions and is deeply concerned with operating his business at maximum efficiency. He clearly regards the Fillmore East as “my property, since I pay the rent.” On the other hand, the amorphous “community,” a coalition of various factions without any duly appointed leadership, seems to reject any collective responsibility, preferring instead the protection of segmental camouflage.

The dispute goes to the heart of capitalism: who owns what. Graham is into “property”; Ben Morea, Motherfuckers spokesman, feels that “property” is the least consideration. The most important thing is people’s lives and living. One of the basic things in our culture is the absence of property or the lack of respect for property.”

Morea continues: “The Fillmore’s interests are not our interests, and that’s the conflict. They’re a business. We’re not a business — we’re a people who feel we have a culture which we want access to, that’s been taken from us, and that’s being used to make money for other people. We don’t want just a show, we want to go back to those original attempts at having a community culture, not a money-making thing. By nature of the conflict, they’re into making money, and we’re into living. They’re somewhere else, which don’t dig and which is bullshit.”

Here is what Kip Cohen, manager of Fillmore East, thinks of the Motherfuckers: “Oddly enough, the Motherfuckers, as an organization, while they may not be the most passive of the community factions, have become the spokesmen for the community — and the community has allowed them to become the spokesmen. When all the trouble was occurring, we were extremely disappointed in some of the saner members of the community who allowed this to go on without speaking up, the basic point being that it seemed that no one was willing to lose his cool by standing up and making a statement.”

It is plain to see why the twain never really met.

Play Rashomon with us now as we examine various viewpoints about several key incidents. •

The WBAI-FM Caper. Cohen claims that, in late October, the Motherfuckers, as representatives of the community, made their initial demands to “liberate” the Fillmore East for one free night a week over radio station WBAI-FM. According to Bob Rudnick and Dennis Frawley, rock columnists for The East Village Other, the community planned to use the hall for “free food, music, dancing, smoke, tumbling, nude dancing, and a flock of meetings … a free exchange of goods and energy.”

Graham was eventually approached on the matter, but only after subsequent demands were made in the form of pamphlets distributed in the East Village. He said that he would have to approve the community’s plans first. According to Cohen, their answer was: “Man, we ain’t got time. Next Wednesday is our first show.” Graham lost his temper and ordered them out of the building.

Morea denies a good deal of this. He claims that Graham, in early October, agreed to let the community use the hall one night a week but later changed his mind “for no reason. None of the Motherfuckers were ever on WBAI, there’s no question about that. But there were other groups involved.”

Ah, semantics. •

The Living Theater Benefit. Both sides are in basic agreement on what happened in the early part of the evening. Morea: “We spoke to the Living Theater. They agreed that we should have the free night. So, on the night of their benefit for Columbia University strikers [held at the Fillmore], we decided to appeal to the audience to try to make it clear to Graham that a lot of people felt that the demand for one night a week was not out of the question.

“That night, the Living Theater did Paradise Now, but the performance was interrupted when somebody announced from the stage that the people were here and uptight about not having the theater. Graham came on stage and went through his whole riff with us about how ‘You’ll never get this theater’ and all that shit. So nobody left the theater for a couple of hours. We negotiated with Graham, and he agreed to give us a night in the next week for a town meeting.”

According to Cohen, the argument raged well into the early hours of the morning and the “town meeting” was to be at least partially a debate between Graham and the community.

Morea: “No, it was not to be a debate. They gave it to us as a community assembly night to discuss what we would do with the Fillmore. They weren’t supposed to debate with us whether we’d get it or not.” •

The Town Meeting or the Debate. Cohen claims that, on arrival, the Motherfuckers told Graham (who had flown in from San Francisco especially for the meeting): “Fuck you. Fuck your goddamn town meetings. We don’t need to talk. We don’t need to rap. This is a fuck-in, man. We’re here to have a good time. This is our crash pad for the winter. Can you dig it?” At midnight, they finally agreed to talk. An angry Graham told them that he did not recognize the Motherfuckers as true representatives of the community and once again ordered them out of the hall. Retaliations were threatened and the “debate” ended with “minor skirmishes and minor damage to property. Once again, we had to wait it out until they all left.”

Morea: “When we got there, Graham had the stage set up with two tables and a lot of microphones. He told us that it was a debate between us and him. We said that we weren’t there to debate, we were there to talk to ourselves, to eat together, to hear some music together, and to have a community night — and not to debate him. But he wasn’t excluded.” •

The Free Nights and the Law. Cohen: “After the debate, some responsible members of the community asked to see us and told us that they didn’t dig what went down that night either. They asked permission to come to us with a proper and responsible program. Our answer was an obvious yes. They came back a couple of days later with creative, constructive measures, and we agreed to give them the free use of the Fillmore East each Wednesday night.

“The first free night, in late November, was organized with music and workshops, but the theater was also full of Bowery bums, winos, people just dropping by, and speed freaks from St. Mark’s Place who were not about to partake in anything creative. It was plain there would be obvious problems with the law.” (Graham later specified them in an “open letter” to the community as “smoking on the premises, incidents of physical confrontation, and the blatant use, distribution, and sale of drugs on the premises — obviously illegal.”)

Morea agrees that “There was one problem — dope. There was free use of dope, or fairly free. The police became very uptight because they knew they couldn’t come in there and stop it because there were, like, a thousand people acting freely. So they pressured Graham and told him that they were going to close his theater down unless it was stopped. We told Graham that we would try to stop it in the way that we could. We could never stop people from using dope altogether — that’s not part of our thing — but we could try to get them to cool it in the Fillmore. The next week, we made some announcements about it from the stage in, to be honest, a not-too-heavy manner. Some of it did stop, but there was still some use of it.”

Cohen: “Inspector Pine from the First Division came down and asked us what had been going on on the free nights. We told him, and then he told us — and knew the story in greater detail than we did. He asked us what we could do to control it. I said I didn’t think we could do anything to control it, since the green shirt of a Fillmore East usher wasn’t about to be respected by the Motherfuckers. He told us that unless a conscious attempt was made to control certain problems, we would be in jeopardy of losing our license to operate. We told the community, and they said they understood.

“The following free night was a little better. The Wednesday after that was very bad. There was open dope smoking and damage to property. All through the free nights, sound equipment was constantly stolen or damaged — hundreds of dollars worth every single week.”

Morea denies that equipment was stolen from and damage done to the hall: “There might have been like, one seat or something wrecked, but there was no essential damage on any of these nights.” •

Graham’s “Open Letter.” Again, the law — this time with a final warning. Graham circulated his “open letter” to the community via a public relations firm and pamphlets declaring the end of the free nights. He urged everyone “to accept our predicament (which is now your reality) with intelligence, understanding, and grace.”

The Motherfuckers circulated an answer: “Situation: Pigs and Bill Graham stop free night. Why? They say we smoke, they say we take dope, but we know it’s because they’re afraid of us. Afraid that we’ll learn it’s ours. Afraid that we’ll get together there to destroy their world and create our own.

“The pigs threaten to close Graham down unless he stops our free night. He doesn’t have to worry about the pigs. We’ll close him down. No free night, no pay night. Thursday night, they scheduled a ‘free’ concert for Elektra Records. We’ll be there. And Friday and Saturday and always. The Lower East Side community has lost the use of the Fillmore. The Fillmore must lose the use of the community.”

On the Monday before Christmas, which was to have been a free night because of the Wednesday holiday, the doors of the Fillmore East were locked and the police told to stay away. According to Morea, the Motherfuckers had asked to use the hall that night “not as a free night, but to discuss the use and non-use of dope in connection with the whole problem.” The request was refused. Morea: “Kip Cohen, who was somewhat sympathetic, called Graham in California. Graham said, ‘I don’t owe these people anything.'” •

The MC5 Concert. Thursday, December 26. All hell broke loose. Elektra had rented the hall to present the MC5 and had given 2300 tickets to local radio stations to give away free to their listeners. There were a few hundred tickets that remained in the hands of the Fillmore East management. The community wanted them and threatened (in a telephone call to Elektra’s Bill Harvey) to burn the hall to the ground if they didn’t get them.

Morea: “We, as a group, didn’t threaten to burn the theater down. Somebody might have. We didn’t make any threats. We told Graham that we were going to have the theater again, that we would, if necessary, take it.

“We had an understanding with both Elektra and with the MC5 that we would get at least 500 tickets for the community. Elektra gave the tickets to Graham.

Cohen: “Fearing trouble, we didn’t want to give the tickets away. We were running the immense risk at that time of really being wiped out by the law. We knew of some threats. At the last minute, we decided that it would be safer to give out the tickets and get all of that energy — both creative and hostile — inside of the theater rather than at the doors trying to get in.”

Jac Holzman, president of Elektra Records: “I had been advised by Bill Graham three or four days prior to the concert that the cops had closed them down and that he thought there would be trouble on our free night. Graham asked me to consider cancelling the concert. I told him that, because of the radio stations, I couldn’t. I felt that the concert should go on and that we should go on and that we should just take our chances with it.

“I said that I would speak to the MC5 and explain the problem to them and that some of the MC5 militancy just might be quieted down a bjt. Actually, the MC5 had met the Motherfuckers, had played the Fillmore East the previous Wednesday during the free night, and had been rather dragged by people jumping up on the stage and kind of interfering with their act.

“The MC5 said, ‘We’re just going to go out there and we’re just going to play music. We’re going to make very few speeches, we’re just going to play rock ‘n’ roll.’ Which is what they did.”

David Peel and the Lower East Side opened the program, but the real show was the pressure and tension inside the hall. Although most of the seats were filled, the crowd outside the theater wanted in — and the people inside supported them with cries of “Open the doors! Open the doors!”

Morea: “The Fillmore had agreed to let us fill the empty seats — and there were hundreds of them. We understood that they didn’t want more than capacity. The concert started, and there were still fifty to a hundred people outside who hadn’t gotten in. Then, there was an attempt from the inside to open the doors.”

Cohen: “We insisted on order and kept the doors closed. The crowd was very angry. It wasn’t an ego trip or a contest of wills, it was a demand for order on our premises because of our risks. Bill Graham was guarding the front door and, in the process, was hit across the face with a chain, his face bloodied and his nose broken.

“A strange thing happened. The minute that they saw the blood on Bill’s face, there was a strong reaction from the crowd, and these hundreds of people who had been swarming on top of him, backed away. A lot of people were very disgusted, and it seemed to be a turning point in the whole thing.”

Morea: “Graham knows, more or less, all of us. I’m sure he could tell you that it was not one of us who struck him.”

The evening went on, and the concert ended. Most people left. However, about four hundred to five hundred people stayed and according to Cohen, “swarmed on the stage and started their big jumping, screaming, freaking kind of thing. As you looked up at the stage, you wondered if this was the total creative effort that the East Village community could come up with: Bowery bums and young ten- and eleven-year-old kids with sticks bounding around the stage.

“They were banging on the MC5’s equipment and broke a drumhead. The MC5 split in a limousine rented by Elektra to Max’s Kansas City for dinner, a not-too-unusual move for a rock group under any circumstances. It was not received too well. A Motherfucker at the mike made a public announcement about what the group was doing, a crowd swarmed outside, pulled them out of their car, messed them up a bit, threw their records at them, came back in, and announced to the crowd that they had been betrayed by ‘phonies.’

“That seemed to be the end of the MC5 with this particular audience of four hundred people. It was ironic and somewhat strangely amusing.”

Did Morea feel that the MC5 had betrayed the community? “Oh, yeah, absolutely. They projected themselves as a ‘revolutionary’ rock group. They knew that there was something going on that was much deeper than politics, that had to do with exactly what they talk about: cultural revolution. They knew that they could play a certain role. Nobody asked them to seize the theater, but there was no question that they could have done something. In fact, they did the opposite. They stood up there and said, ‘We’re here to play music and we don’t give a damn about politics.’

“Then, they ran out, symbolically getting into a limousine going to a restaurant which nobody in our community has ever been in. The whole image of that was rather obnoxious.”

The evening droned on. Graham made an agreement to go to the police to see if anything could be done about another free night for the community.

Cohen: “After the agreement was made, someone was hit over the head with a microphone and hospitalized, a young Puerto Rican boy was stabbed, and one of our ushers had his arm fractured with a metal pipe. In addition to that, one thousand dollars worth of equipment was damaged or stolen and the asbestos stage curtain slashed by knives.”

Did the Motherfuckers feel in any way responsible for the injuries and the damage? Not for a moment! Morea: “Well, nobody could take responsibility except Graham. Because Graham, as far as everybody is concerned, caused it all by taking away the free nights and thus creating the tension. In fact, we have a letter from Graham which states that we are not responsible for the damage. He knows that it was the result of a misunderstanding.

“We are all sorry that certain things happened. I’m not particularly sorry about Graham’s theater — because I don’t care too much about his theater — but I do care about people being assaulted.”

Graham, using the words “filthy, low-life scum,” did later place the blame for the damage on the Motherfuckers and on a motorcycle gang called the Pagans whom he claims were “brought in to ‘liberate’ the Fillmore.” •

The Aftermath. The next day, Graham felt that he could no longer support the community even to the extent of going down to the police station as he had said he would. Cohen: “We’ve been raped publicly six times by now, and it’s a question of how many times you can take it. That Friday, a lot of people from the community began to see that maybe we weren’t such bad guys after all.”

Morea’s only comment on the “rape” statement was: “Well, that might have something to do with his own psychological thing.”

On the evening of December 27, WBAI presented a forum on the Fillmore East-Motherfucker problem. As a result of this broadcast, Graham’s insurance company threatened to terminate the hall’s fire and liability coverage completely. The Motherfuckers were informed. According to Cohen, their reaction was: “‘Fuck insurance. Fuck the insurance man. We don’t care.'” •

The Choice. Cohen: “On Saturday, December 28, the important thing happened. Bill said to the community: ‘Look, when are you going to face up to the fact that you’ve blown it here? You can’t have the Fillmore. You have made that impossible.’ Their answer was: ‘You made it this way. You resisted us. You caused the trouble.’

“Then, Bill said: ‘Look, I’m not trying to buy you off, but you find another place, you find a constructive, realistic program that works within the framework of the law — even if it is inherently an attempt to change that law — and I will support it. I’ll support it. I’ll support it administratively, I’ll support it technically, I’ll see that you get talent over there, and I’ll support it financially.’

“And he laid it out — very, very detailed. Some of them said, ‘Yes, this makes sense. Let’s do it.’ Some of the Motherfuckers said, ‘No, we want the Fillmore.’ Bill described figures of several thousand dollars a month.”

The community is still meeting and mulling to come up with an answer to the proposal. According to Morea, “We can either find another insurance company — which Graham can pay for — and continue to have the free nights at the Fillmore, or we can take his money to pay the rent on an alternate spot. We’re discussing both possibilities now. The majority feel they want the money to have their own place, but some people feel that we should have the Fillmore because it’s part of our culture — and we want access to it for that reason.

“If no insurance company will cover the Fillmore, we can understand that. It’s obvious that you can’t force somebody to do something they can’t do. That’s why there has been no pressure on Graham or the hall in the past few weeks.” •

January. For the moment, everyone is playing the waiting game. All is quiet on the Eastern Front. Ironically, throughout all of the turmoil, the most eloquent defenses of the other side’s point of view came from the adversaries themselves.

Said Cohen of the Motherfuckers and the community: “A lot of these people were in Chicago during the Democratic Convention. If some of them say, This is what I think about a cop,’ a lot of them have a very good reason to make that statement.”

Answered Morea, not one to be outdone at anything: “I don’t feel that the Fillmore ever distorted the facts.”


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