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Bill Graham Passes, Era Remains

The night they shut the Fillmore West down: music, nostalgia and basketball

Bill Graham

Concert promoter Bill Graham poses for a portrait in 1967 in San Francisco, California.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Bill Graham and I are both Capricorns, both left-handed, both Jewish, both lovable, warm people.
Judi Land, senior salesgirl at the Fillmore West concession stand

Like many people whose faces resemble caricatures or, perhaps, masks, Bill Graham appears almost too familiar upon first live encounter, a bit too close to the news photo version. Unnerving. At least that’s how it seemed June 29th, the night of the last Fillmore West in-house basketball game, audition and surprise jam. Though wearing an official purple Fillmore West jersey and matching trunks, Graham was instantly recognizable from his famous cartoon features — the terrifying arched eyebrows, the reptilian lines connecting his larger-than-life nose and mouth. It’s one of those high-contrast faces that can be xeroxed with amazing accuracy. Try it.

His reputation, too, is something of a caricature, a legend of immoderate energy and temperament, and this also made him recognizable that Tuesday night as he dribbled, coached and hollered up and down the strangely bright Fillmore West basketball court.

To Graham, a man of excellent form for 40 years, nothing is “just a game.” Someone mentioned the phrase to him at a basketball game two years ago and he bellowed, “Are you outa your fucking mind? Why play if you’re gonna lose?” That seems to be his creed and the creed he expects his employees to follow. Which presented kind of a problem Tuesday night, with one team of Graham people pitted against another — Fillmore West versus FM Productions. Tensions were so high, the score so close, there were three in-house altercations in the last five minutes of the game. Somebody threatened a referee, one player decked another, then the father of the decked came out swinging. Graham had to call time and embrace the enraged father. “Come on, Leroy,” he pleaded; “please, Leroy; please, Leroy.”

Right then a tall black kid who’d been watching from the side of the court yelled something, and Graham, furious, threw him out. “Get out of the fucking building!” is the way he put it.

“You play dirty, you motherfucker,” replied the kid, gradually walking backwards as Graham approached. “I paid my dues, cunt,” said Graham, “did you?” The kid grew defiant, but kept walking backwards. “Are you tryin’ me? Are you tryin’ me?” Graham answered with forced politeness. “Please leave this building.”

There was the usual assortment of security guards and doormen present, but typically, Graham insisted on finishing the job himself. (He recently told John Greenwald of the Daily Cal, “… it’s my candy store. I keep my hours. I have eggs when I want to. I have a Zimburger when I want to. I play with the microphone when I want to. And I leave the building when I want to.”) Insisted on personally backing the kid all the way down that wide, red-carpeted flight of stairs, past the peeling red and gold wallpaper and bathroom-like wall lights, through the lobby and out the front door, as the kid desperately sought a sympathetic audience.

“I’ll beat your fucking ass!”

“Please leave the building.”

“Bill Graham sucks pussy, you fucking little bitch!”

“Please leave the building.”

“You asshole!”

“Fuck you!”

And so, as curious drivers cruised slowly by, the two made their way down Market to Van Ness — the tall kid stumbling backwards, Bill Graham closing in, scoring a few last points in his tennies and purple basketball outfit — barking, cunting and bitching at each other halfway down the block. Then, just as abruptly, Graham returned to the building, walked under that mural-sized Mark Twain quote at the ballroom entrance (“Loyalty to petrified opinion never yet broke a chain or freed a human soul in this world and never will”), signaled time in, clapped his hands and shouted, “Keep it moving. Keep it moving.”

Graham’s team, Fillmore West, won 60-58.

* * *

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

That’s how Bill Graham bitterly announced the closing of the Fillmore West and his decision to get out of San Francisco rock. At least, that’s how he announced it in 1969, in September. Graham took control of the aging dance-band ballroom almost exactly three years ago, and for the last two of those three years — with his own peculiar style of fire-sale promotion — he has been announcing its closing.

To be sure, there have been real threats. Howard Johnson’s bought the property in April 1969, and has been toying with its future ever since. However Graham’s profit-loss statements for the last two years balance out, they most certainly don’t compare with the previous four that included his rocket to stardom at the Old Fillmore. But Graham never announces anything short and simply; he’s a master producer, with the ability to turn the most routine business news into a master production. After the first Howard Johnson threat, he announced he hadn’t made up his mind yet whether or not to fight it — hardly headline news. But with Graham’s Wagnerian touch, it became the Parable of the Sand Castle.

“The 17th sand castle you build is a masterpiece,” he said after relating the terrible wet fate of the first 16. “It’s the most beautiful sand castle you can conceive. And you build it far off the beach where the waves can’t get at it. And so a flood comes and wipes it out.” Then he quickly moved to the mountain metaphor. “Look, when circumstances put you on the top of the mountain, and you got a whole industry — a whole fucking industry — trying to pull you off … well, no motherfucker is gonna do that to me.”

That was in May 1969.

Thus, when in May 1971, he finally decided to really close the Fillmore East, to really close the Fillmore West, to really — well, eventually — retire from concert production, he faced the problem of convincing everyone he wasn’t just crying Wolfgang again. How he accomplished it proved once again that Graham is both one of the great producers and one of the great media manipulators of our time.

First, he held a press conference in New York and handed out a two-page, single-spaced, press release letter of resignation. Like almost everything Graham writes or says, it was a great document, a brilliant combination of bitterness, bullshit, self-pity, candid revelation, and his coach-like brand of big ball pontification. He attacked greedy artists, greedy agents, greedy fans, rock festivals and mediocre talent. And, of course, the abusive press. “The role of ‘antichrist of the underground’ has obviously never appealed to me,” he revealed in an imaginative bit of word coinage. Finally, and perhaps most telling, he simply said he was tired and desired a more leisurely and private life. (In January, in his interview with John Greenwald, he said much the same thing in one sentence: “I haven’t been very happy lately.”)

* * *

The press conference worked beautifully. Within days his announcement hit the pages of nearly every national magazine, not to mention the trade press. He became a familiar face on late-night panel shows. John Wasserman, a rock publicist who writes for the San Francisco Chronicle, saw in Graham’s “passing” whole morsels of insight which he expanded into several columns.

Now Graham was ready for the second phase of his extraordinary withdrawal, the part for which he was unquestionably the most experienced and adept man in the country, booking and producing a final series of sell-out concerts worthy of the Fillmore reputation. Naturally he succeeded. He closed the Fillmore East June 27th with Albert King, the J. Geils Band, Edgar Winter, Mountain, the Beach Boys, Country Joe McDonald and the Allman Brothers. He closed the Fillmore West with five shows the following week, including, among others, Boz Scaggs, Cold Blood, the Flamin’ Groovies, Elvin Bishop, It’s a Beautiful Day, the Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Quicksilver and Hot Tuna, finally declaring his independence from the San Francisco scene July 5th with Tower of Power, Creedence Clearwater Revival and Santana.

Actually he had not planned to close the Fillmore West until the end of summer; but during a Memorial Day concert at Winterland, someone from the Grateful Dead handed out Micrin-bottled acid mind-wash to the young audience. Many were hospitalized, and the resulting press hyperbole and police heavy-handedness so embittered Graham, according to many of his associates, he decided then and there to move up the date.

In the last week he appeared to relax somewhat, to soften his attitude toward the business and the community; often he could be seen warmly chatting with friends and employees, and it’s known he attempted some fence mending with past antagonists. But suddenly the bitterness would erupt again. “Fuck the public!” he told a reporter Tuesday night. “Fuck the customers! Fuck your readers! I don’t need ’em anymore. I’m going to Switzerland.”

And there was that shrine he made for himself at the Fillmore West, on one of those glass-encased bulletin boards usually used to post coming attractions. At the top he pinned his May press release; underneath that, a small, upside-down American flag and two flowers; at the bottom, a drawing of a thick, wooden cross. On each arm of the cross was a nailed hand — nailed right through the palm — one hand pointing downward, hands pointing to each side, and a hand pointing upward, giving the finger — to what? God? The flag? The Fillmore? Who knows?

It did seem a bit crude, even childish; but then the role of antichrist of the underground has obviously never appealed to him.

* * *

“Extra tickets for sale? Hey, ya got an extra ticket?” begged a thin lad in a brown velvet jacket and red “77” football jersey. The 4th of July concert had been sold out for days, and the lines of ticket holders, even at 7 p.m., stretched several abreast from the box office, around the corner and down Van Ness. As a movie cameraman took in the loyal fans, they responded by holding up one or two fingers, whichever first came to mind. Then the cameraman slowly panned upward and caught the marquee. It read:

PEACE ON EARTH/GOOD WILL TOWARD MEN

Inside, people were carrying out various tasks for the last time, setting up the stage, the lights, the sound. A few employees in Fillmore West T-shirts relaxed by throwing a Frisbee around the huge ballroom floor. Judi Land, an attractive, giggly, thin-faced blonde who has worked the snack bar longer than anyone else at the place, spoke of the future as she prepared her counter.

“I’m going to London next week, just a vacation, you know, then I’m going to go back to school to become a nurse,” she said, blushing slightly as a photographer snapped her picture. “Then I plan to get into clothes designing. I want the nursing if the clothes designing doesn’t work out. Medicine really interests me. I just love to sit and read my medical dictionary all day.”

She wants to attend the College of Marin, and would have sooner, she explained, except working for Graham 35 to 55 hours a week has kept her busy since she was 18. Now she’s 21.

“I was so afraid of him when I first started working here,” she recalled. “Now I really like him. Bill Graham and I are both Capricorns, both left-handed, both Jewish, both lovable, warm people. Sometimes when he’s back here he pinches me on the side, so I tickle him back, you know? We’re both ticklish.” Continued Miss Land, “One good thing about being here is I’ve met so many groupies, I’ll never become one myself. Most of them are very nice, but they really lead a nothing life.” However, she has met a lot of “really nice musicians,” she said. Her fondest memory is of the time she got to spend three hours in San Diego with members of Humble Pie, escorting them around town. Or maybe the time Elton John ordered apple cider and donuts and “kept coming back for donuts.” The music itself, of course — hearing some of the great performances in rock history — was the best fringe benefit of the job, she pointed out; a fringe benefit, however, not without occupational hazard.

“My hearing’s gotten bad since I started working here.”

“Really? Do you know that for a fact?”

“Huh?”

“Do you know that for a fact? That your hearing is worse?”

“Oh, positively.”

Apple cider, revealed Miss Land, has been her biggest selling item. “Often they’ll ask for organic cider, which we don’t carry — I don’t know why, we just don’t — and so they’ll say, ‘All right, then, give me some regular cider — plus three M&M’s, a Hershey and some ice cream.’ You know, so much for health food.”

As for the customers in general, she expressed mixed feelings. “Two or three years ago the people were great. But then last year. I don’t know, it was as if the people had gotten sick of the music. The music is at kind of a stand-still, I guess. But now the drugs are heavier. I’m getting sick of all the red freaks and junkies. I don’t use drugs myself; I get high from people, I guess.”

She admitted, however, that the sale of sweets and munchies zooms up after the smell of dope fills the air. “Oh yeah, I remember I sold $5 worth of candy to one guy.”

In the lobby downstairs, Avi, the night assistant manager, was preparing to open the front doors. He’s been an employee of Bill Graham’s for six years and a nephew of his for 21. But his huge size alone makes him appear much older.

“We’ve contained the drug flow at this ballroom,” he said in a deep, candid voice. ‘The liquor has been contained. The grass you really cannot contain, but we’ve succeeded in containing the dealers.

“Most of the people we’ve busted, we take their stash, throw it in the garbage can and throw ’em out of the building. If they have any money on ’em, we take it and give it to their favorite charity.”

“Their favorite charity?”

“Yeah. Often times they choose some Chicano group or the Black Panthers. Or if not, we ask ’em, ‘What school do you go to?’ and if they say, like, Modesto High, we send it to the P.E. department at Modesto High.”

It was nearly eight, time to open up. “Better stand out of the way. They’re gonna come running through here,” warned Avi. But it was the coach, Uncle Bill Graham himself, who actually, on this last night, opened the doors. He smiled at the crowd, acknowledged a few appreciative waves, then clapped his hands as if to say play ball.

It was a good crowd, generally an older one. They knew their way around. They had to get up early in the week to buy their tickets, then wait patiently in another line that night to get a good spot on the floor. Avi recognized one young couple, leaned over and gave them a warm bear hug. “They got married yesterday,” he explained. “What a place to go for a honeymoon!”

Suddenly a voice shouted from upstairs, “Hold it up down there! Don’t let anybody else in!” There was a pause for maybe two minutes. Then gradually the feet of four guards appeared on the middle landing. Slowly, methodically, the guards backed downstairs; they were dragging something heavy — what was it? — a kid, actually, some rigidly stubborn, bloated fellow in a farmer’s outfit. “I paid for this,” he protested. “I paid real money to get in here.” He was furious. In the lobby the guards got him to stand up, then pushed him outside.

In a few seconds he was back. “I forgot my bottle of booze,” he whined. Avi had no time for nonsense. “Get outa here,” he shouted, shoving him in the chest. “Don’t you touch me! Come outside and try that!” screamed the indignant farmer, his fist clenched. Avi lunged through the door but was restrained by two guards as a third yelled, “Avi! Get back inside, get in here!”

Moments later, Gary Jackson, the Fillmore West’s youthful, V-neck-sweatered manager, bounded down the stairs. “Where’s Bill,” he asked, shaking a small card in his hand. “This is a fucking phony ticket!”

Afterward Jackson said, “Phony tickets are just one of the hassles we go through all the time. We’ve had snipers, floods, fires — incredible things happen. It demands a lot of you. That’s why Bill’s getting out. He doesn’t need the ballroom. He doesn’t need the hassles.”

* * *

When Bill Graham walked on stage to open the show, the entire audience stood up and applauded; think of that, a standing ovation for a fucking businessman. The same thing had happened every night that week.

“This is going to be the greatest motherfucking evening of our lives,” he said, beaming at the crowd. This was the fun part. He loved the stage; he loved the role of MC. “And now, a bitch of a band from the East Bay — Tower of Power!” A gathering of musicians about as large and 10 times as loud as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir then walked on and played for an hour and a half.

Backstage, Ken Greenberg, a staff worker for FM Productions, asked, “Do you know anything about his history, his background? He was a war orphan. I just learned that recently, after working for him all this time, and it blew my mind. He really started from scratch, I mean from absolutely nothing. For years he tried to be an actor. But he couldn’t get anything but gangster roles, so he quit.”

And now he’s quitting this scene. “Oh, I wouldn’t say quitting is the right word,” said Greenberg. “He’ll still be producing concerts. We’ve got stuff lined up at the Berkeley Community Theatre and at Winterland. Who knows what he’ll be into?

“When he had the staff meeting to tell us he was getting out, he said something that I personally thought was revealing. He said, ‘I want to see if I can do nothing for a while. It scares me to death.’ I don’t know if he can or not. I think he can. I’ve seen him play with his kid and it’s a joy to watch.”

Tower of Power finished up and Graham was back on stage, devilishly toying with the FCC and the engineers at KSAN and KSFX, who were broadcasting the show live on quadrophonic FM. “If everybody would just move back half an ass,” he instructed. “You girls try wriggling your pussy a little bit.”

(Actually, the ballroom, while as hot and stuffy as ever, was not as crowded as it has been in the past. It was relatively simple to move about, another factor that contributed to the evening’s mellowness.)

Now Graham unwrapped the first big surprise of the night. “Here are some old friends of yours and ours — Creedence Clearwater Revival!”

It was like Christmas — the first live performance of Creedence this year, and the first ever minus Tom Fogerty. And Santa Graham had announced none of it in advance. The audience let loose with one of those roars you hear in your stomach more than your head.

They opened, appropriately, with “Born on the Bayou.” “I can still remember the 4th of July/Runnin’ through the backwoods bare,” sang John Fogerty, wearing a shocking turquoise cowboy suit. It was amazing how rich just the three of them sounded, compared to the old group, compared, for that matter, to Tower of Power. But isn’t that one of the things that makes electric rock so fine? It’s the great equalizer of music.

It was time to go hunting for red freaks and junkies, dig up some good weird dirt in the Fillmore West men’s room. The search was disappointing. The walls were spotless, the place clean and well-lit. Earlier there’d been several pairs of feet reported in one of the toilet stalls, whatever that meant, but now everything appeared in order. An elaborately costumed fellow was combing his hair in front of the mirror, well, not exactly combing his hair — arranging the feathers on a splendid, multi-pointed paper hat he wore.

“This is the sort of thing Montezuma and all those Incas used to wear,” he explained. “Of course, they used real peacock feathers and jewels.” Instead he had substituted some dime-store stuff and rather imaginative Crayola work.

He identified himself as Overby, “just Overby, one of the garbage children. You might call me a psychedelic gypsy.” How long did he have to wait to buy his ticket for the evening? “Well, to tell you the truth, I didn’t have a ticket; I just walked in behind that blond, long-haired guy in Jefferson Airplane,” admitted Overby, apparently referring to Jack Casady.

“Actually, Winterland is my favorite place. There’s more space and I like to walk around a lot. I feel less inhibited; I have more fun when I can just walk around a lot by myself. I just felt it my duty to be here tonight.”

Overby thought for a moment, twisting his moustache; then he asked, “Hey, are you really going to print this?”

“Sure.”

“Well, in that case, cross out Overby. Put down Iain Hamilton; that’s my real name.”

It was getting late, nearly 1 a.m. Before bringing out Santana, Graham decided to introduce a few friends. The first was Allen Ginsberg, who really needed an introduction since shaving his beard and cutting his hair. Dressed in an open green shirt and brown sports jacket, he looked more like a quiet Jewish grandfather than San Francisco’s most legendary poet. He invited the audience to join him in a minute-long Om (or “ohm,” as Wasserman put it, apparently alluding to some electrical version) “to the angels of the Fillmore”; but the audience really didn’t know how, and simply cheered and applauded when it was over.

Then Graham decided to introduce his employees, starting with the security guards. When someone in the crowd booed, Graham snapped back, “And to the young asshole down here who just booed, someday you’ll go to another dancehall and you’ll find out what real pigs are all about, OK?” The witty rebuff earned Graham a generous ovation.

Next he introduced Peaches and Helen from the coatroom, then a number of his business and production employees. After about 10 minutes of this, someone in the audience yelled “Music!” triggering another Graham assault.

“We’ll hear some music; I think after six years we’re worth two minutes, yo-yo, what do you think?” Another wave of applause.

In closing that part of the show, Graham then surprised everyone with a statement completely out of his public character. He publicly apologized.

“I hope the past animosities are put aside,” he said. “I’ve been guilty of some wrongdoing; I’m sorry for that. I hope the people that I’ve … chatted with in the past, over the years, will try to understand.”

He said it soberly and no doubt sincerely. It contrasted markedly — as Graham himself did — from the time two years ago when he made his last public apology, the “human being apology” that was destined to be one of the historic statements of the San Francisco Scene:

“I apologize, motherfucker, 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. … Don’t get peaceful with me. Don’t you touch me!”

Graham then gave the stage to Santana, telling the audience, “On behalf of the staff and the musicians, bless you, thank you.” The applause lasted a full minute.

After Santana — an incredible set — the real party started. Surprise after surprise. At one point Graham had Santana jamming with (a partial list) Van Morrison, Michael Bloomfield, Vince Guaraldi, Lydia Pense of Cold Blood, Jack Casady of the Airplane, Sweet Linda Divine, Big Brother Sam Andrew, former Quicksilver member John Cipollina, Charlatan old-timer George Hunter and the entire horn section of Tower of Power. The music was terrible (at one point Van Morrison insisted they all stop and try something else) but the show was great. Graham and his staff pelted the audience with gifts — paper plates, beer, champagne and ice cubes.

Sometime between 4 and 5 a.m., everyone gave up and went home. About 40 fans stuck around to shake hands with Graham, then left him to wander alone among the amps and debris.

He always distrusted the press and anything said behind his back. He once said, “It’s never what you say you are, it’s what people make you.” But he was wrong about that, at least in his case. He said he was an honest businessman, and essentially he was — brutal but honest. He said he paid his dues, and he did. He said he intended to present the best rock artists on the best stages with the best sound and lights in the country, and he succeeded.

And there were times — like the Aretha concert, and the Otis Redding concert, and New Year’s Eve, and the final 4th of July, and many others; when the lights were perfect and the sweet music blasted at just the right level from those twin black Voice of the Theatre speakers — when no one could dispute the fact: Bill Graham really had a pair of balls.

In This Article: Bill Graham, Coverwall

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