In trippy times, Bill Graham took care of reality

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In trippy times, Bill Graham took care of reality
Posters and photos hang on a wall in “Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution,” a multimedia exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, Feb. 11, 2020. America’s best-known rock promoter brought local acts like the Grateful Dead to the national stage — a new exhibition in Manhattan shows how he did it. George Etheredge/The New York Times.

by Jon Pareles

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- Many concert promoters keep a low profile. Theirs is mostly a backstage job, dealing with the mundane: contracts and equipment, schedules and security, advertising and accounting. Yet those tasks are essential to building any live music scene.

Bill Graham — the promoter who got started in hippie-era San Francisco, opened the Fillmore East in New York City in 1968 and went on to present concerts worldwide — was by no means self-effacing. He made himself America’s best-known rock promoter from the 1960s to the 1990s.

In the late 1980s, when Graham presented annual New Year’s Eve arena concerts by the Grateful Dead, he would take to center stage at midnight in costume. As a young man he had wanted to be an actor; he got bit parts in “Apocalypse Now” and “Bugsy,” typecast as an agent and a gangster. Graham carved himself such an outsize public role that after his death, in a helicopter accident after a concert in 1991, San Francisco renamed its Civic Auditorium arena after him.

His career provides ample material for “Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution,” a fond multimedia exhibition — photos, videos, concert posters, instruments, costumes, even a light show — that opens Friday at the New-York Historical Society.

A proximity-sensing audio guide orchestrates the show with vintage rock and soundtracks to the videos, including live performances from Graham’s “Day on the Green” concerts in Oakland, California, and an excerpt from “The Last Waltz,” the 1976 farewell concert by The Band. The exhibition has plenty of artifacts to trigger boomer nostalgia, as well as reminders that the 1960s ended long ago.

Graham was a brash, scrappy entrepreneur who made himself indispensable to spreading San Francisco’s emerging hippie culture. Actor Peter Coyote famously described Graham as “a cross between Mother Teresa and Al Capone,” though the exhibition shows little of the Al Capone side. There is a Fillmore West staff basketball team jersey with a feisty logo: a raised middle finger with “BG” on the knuckle. But there are no contracts or other glimpses of how he built Bill Graham Productions.

Yet in a San Francisco underground that was inventing itself out of whimsical Beat philosophies, psychedelic revelations, idealism and hedonism, Graham made it his business to transform all-night ballroom jams into sensible financial propositions and create stable outlets for music that was anything but. Working in the trippiest days of the 1960s, Graham recalls in one of the exhibition’s audio snippets: “I always felt that someone had to relate to reality. That was me.”

Graham had a vital role in turning locally renowned San Francisco bands — the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane (whom he briefly managed), Big Brother and the Holding Company, Santana — into nationally known stars. A sense of whimsical camaraderie comes through photos from the scene; one brings together Graham and other band managers, with their hands in each others’ pockets.

From 1968 to 1971, Graham ran both the Fillmore West in San Francisco and the Fillmore East in New York City, theaters that were small by today’s standards (around 3,000 seats) but mightily influential at the time. The beat-up letters spelling out FILLMORE EAST at the exhibition are from the theater’s original marquee.

Graham’s visual choices, like the warped free-form typography of Fillmore concert posters and the pulsating blobs of concert light shows, are now inextricable from cultural memories of the late ’60s. When flower-child utopianism gave way to a more straightforwardly commercial music business, Graham was pragmatic and scaled up, producing events including a 1981 stadium tour for the Rolling Stones, and the 1988 “Human Rights Now!” tour to benefit Amnesty International, with 20 concerts across five continents.

This exhibition originated at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, and it has toured places devoted to Jewish history because Graham came to America as a Jewish refugee: Wulf (or Wolfgang) Wolodia Grajonca. His Russian Jewish parents had moved to Berlin, where he was born. In 1939, his family arranged for him to escape Nazi Germany on a children’s transport to France. He eventually found a foster home in the Bronx, where he traded a German accent for a distinctively Noo Yawk one. His Americanized last name, Graham, was the closest thing in the phone book to Grajonca.

There’s a galvanized tub of apples near the entrance to the exhibition because in the 1960s, concertgoers at Graham’s Fillmore theaters were greeted with barrels offering free apples. During desperate times in France, Graham had helped feed the transported children by stealing the fruit from a neighboring farm.

Graham embraced his Jewish identity as a public figure. In 1975 he financed the building of a public menorah in San Francisco’s Union Square. And in 1985, he vehemently protested President Ronald Reagan’s visit to a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where Nazi SS soldiers were buried, with newspaper ads and a speech at a rally. Graham’s office was firebombed soon afterward; the exhibition includes a melted telephone and a charred model of the Union Square menorah.

The exhibition lingers over Graham’s halcyon early years in San Francisco — the years of the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Trips Festival, the Human Be-In and the original Fillmore Auditorium, which Graham booked from 1966 to 1968 before moving on to the larger Fillmore West. A wall of concert posters still vibrates with the era’s mixture of op art, art nouveau, twisted anachronisms and comic-book brashness. And the concert lineups, once the lettering is deciphered, reveal one of Graham’s personal agendas: mixing styles, slipping jazz and blues onto the bills alongside rock headliners. “I never give the public what it wants,” he said at the time. “I give the public what it should want.”

As rock headliners left behind theater shows for arenas, Graham closed both Fillmores in 1971, and he concentrated on the 5,400-capacity Winterland Ballroom, where “The Last Waltz” was filmed. Rock was no longer an underground; it had become mainstream entertainment. But Graham had built an infrastructure that could handle the larger crowds. When Bob Dylan and the Band teamed up for a 1974 arena tour, Dylan’s first major tour in eight years and a surefire sellout, Graham was the promoter.

He was adept at handling multiple superstar egos in one-time events, which made him a go-to producer for benefit shows. The exhibition includes his letter to performers at the marathon televised Philadelphia concert for Live Aid in 1985. He thanks the musicians profusely, but he also underlines that they must have “awareness of time,” insisting they be ready to go onstage at or before their assigned slot.

In a letter from 1980, during a Grateful Dead residency at the Warfield Theater in San Francisco, Graham writes to his staff about broken seats, noise from a slamming door, and how to keep fans from pilfering Dead memorabilia during the last show. It’s not a distant, wealthy chief executive’s thank-you note; it’s a glimpse of someone concerned with the smallest details, making sure everything go smoothly behind the scenes. He was still determined to “relate to reality.”

Exhibit Information:

‘Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution’

Through Aug. 23 at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, Manhattan; 212-873-3400,

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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