Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution is an informative exhibition on legendary rock promoter Bill Graham now touring across the country. The exhibit includes Jerry Garcia’s wolf guitar, original Fillmore poster art, photographs, costumes, Joshua Light Show installation, memorabilia, and more. Following a residency at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, it will move to the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco March 10-June 12, 2016. After that it will travel to Chicago, New York, and Cleveland. The following piece was inspired by the exhibit, with a special thanks to curator Erin Clancey and liaison Laura Cohen.
Many are familiar with legendary acts like the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, and Santana. What about the man behind the curtain? Bill Graham was the concert promoter that made many of the budding counterculture acts come to fruition. Yet before bands of the flower power era took off, they were playing in living rooms, performing in parks, and rehearsing in warehouse lofts. All the musical key holders to the psychedelic movement were ready for a door.
The scene began to blossom in the sixties with happenings like the Acid Tests, which were early experimental concerts featuring the Grateful Dead. They danced their way on the ‘magic bus’ into the ether of psychedelia, unknowingly about to blast off into kaleidoscopic waves of superstardom. As these merry bands of weirdos were jamming their early grooves, Bill Graham was also sorting out his place in the world. He was young, driven, but the road unclear.
Over time Graham built his Fillmore legacy, which included legendary concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium & Fillmore West in San Francisco, and the Fillmore East in New York City. Graham put the Grateful Dead on the bill more than any other band, playing over 43 concerts from 1968-71 alone. His careers as an established promoter via the self-entitled Bill Graham Presents became the road, and the musical key holders were granted the door they needed.
Before his arrival in America, Bill Graham was a young Jewish refugee, fleeing persecution from a war-stricken Germany. When the war struck he was separated from his family, and sent to a quasi-orphanage in Paris. In the middle of the night, Bill would escape out the window to collect red apples from the nearby orchards. He would bring them back to the other boys so they wouldn’t starve. Later in his life as a concert promoter, Bill Graham would leave barrels filled with red apples at the doors of the Fillmore. There was a sign which read, Take one, or two. Both a symbol from his past and his character, the apples were Bill’s way of making people feel comfortable. Bill was known for running a tight concert operation, but he always cared about the bands and the fans he put on shows for. Amidst the chaos of rock & roll, Bill kept it all together.
On September 24, 1941 Bill arrived in New York City. He was just ten years old. Once in New York City, Bill was taken in by a family who wanted Bill to tutor their child in German. He was the last one to be taken from the orphanage, and the family never formally adopted him. His foster brother taught him English, and one day Bill picked up a Bronx phone book, landed on the last name Graham, and never looked back. As his life in New York was beginning, the war brewed on. His mother died on a train to Auschwitz concentration camp, and one of his sisters died inside. Two of his sisters escaped, and made it, to San Francisco.
After hitchhiking back and forth from New York to San Francisco, Bill landed in the Bay. Acting did not work out and straight business did not satisfy him so he wanted to try something new. He decided to manage a radical theatre group called the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Soon he produced a concert in the park featuring performances by the mime troupe and bands like Jefferson Airplane, Great Society, and The Fugs, who rehearsed in the same loft as the troupe.
The radical countercultural community in San Francisco was woven pretty well together. One thread easily connected one person or band to another. There was potential for all these pieces to form a truly groovy puzzle, and Bill Graham saw that. He saw an instant bond, a community that came together, had a good time, and danced with strangers. When Bill noticed the music was the top interest, he too focused on that in his productions.
In 1966 came the Trips Festival. Ken Kesey produced the fest with some other friends, which featured music of the Grateful Dead, beat poetry of Allen Ginsberg, and a massive slew of experimental projections and happenings. Kesey asked Graham to help work the event. Graham was surely the only one running around with a clipboard, trying to bring order to the chaos that was a homegrown acid-lovers music festival. During the festival, Graham approached Kesey, who at the time was wearing a space suit made by Mountain Girl (Carolyn Garcia). When Graham told him to stop letting people in for free, Kesey flipped down the visor of his space suit, did not say a word, and kept the floodgates open.
When it came time for the Grateful Dead to play, Jerry Garcia was nowhere to be found. A little too much Kool-Aid, and Jerry forgot he had to play. So, Bill amplifies a message on the overhead projector that reads, “Jerry Garcia plug in!” Upon reaching the stage Jerry discovered his guitar had been smashed to pieces. He watched as Bill Graham got down on his knees, attempting to piece the guitar back together with his bare hands so Jerry could play. In this moment it is said that Jerry proverbially ‘recognized’ and loved Graham. From here the bond blossomed and Bill Graham put the Grateful Dead on at the Fillmore more than any other act.