My friend Jeff once found himself stopped at a four-way intersection with another car in Berkeley. Making eye contact to establish which car should go first, the other driver looked over — and was immediately recognized, by my friend, as Bill Graham. Jeff, who came from the sixties counterculture and scorned Graham as a sellout, shot his middle finger up.
Bill Graham looked him dead in the eyes, shot his own middle finger up in response, and drove off.
There are hundreds of such stories. Love him or hate him, it would be impossible to contain the vast legacy of Bill Graham — the promoter, showman and quintessential rock impresario who shaped San Francisco’s 1960s rock scene and the rock concert industry at large — in a single museum exhibit. Harder still would be to contain the man’s headstrong, larger-than-life personality, which propelled him to coddle rock stars one minute and berate paying customers the next.
Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution, an exhibit that opens March 17 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, accomplishes neither, because it wisely does not set out to try. Instead, the show — moving to its rightful home in San Francisco after a run last year in Los Angeles — is largely a nostalgic collection of photos, posters and memorabilia from concerts that Graham promoted in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, each live production growing larger and larger up to his sudden death in 1991.
It is at times hard to see Graham through all of it, and that’s probably the point: aside from introducing bands, wishing people a safe drive home while playing his customary exit music “Greensleeves” over the P.A. and his annual stint as “Father Time” at the Grateful Dead’s New Year’s Eve shows, he was at his most active (and, some would say, megalomaniacal) behind the scenes. That’s why those who ordinarily breeze through historical exhibits without listening to the audio tour should pull out their smartphones this time around: The voice of Graham, a master storyteller, provides a vital personal complement.
Graham’s is a classic American immigrant story — he fled the holocaust, came to the U.S., found a niche, filled it with gusto and transformed American culture. At the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the exhibit’s entryway contains photos, videos and text related to Graham’s early life both in Poland and the Bronx, his harrowing journey overseas and service in the Korean War.
But quickly, the show runs through Bill Graham’s Greatest Hits. The early benefits for the Mime Troupe; the Trips Festival and then the world-famous Fillmore era (including the original Fillmore Ballroom, the Fillmore West on Market & Van Ness and the Fillmore East in New York) comprise much of the exhibit. Because this portion contains mostly now-famous posters by Rick Griffin and Stanley Mouse, or now-famous photos by Jim Marshall or Baron Wolman, it feels not only superfluous but woefully bereft of Graham himself. There’s Janis Joplin’s outfit, and Carlos Santana’s guitar. But aside from the cowbell on display that Graham played at Woodstock with Santana, where are his own stories? His experiences? Why is he hardly in any of the photographs?
The answer, I’m sure, would be that this was Graham: bringing talented people together, propelling them to be their best, in front of as many people as possible.
On a wall capping the decade, attention is paid to Graham’s famous curatorial skill of throwing black artists like Martha Reeves & the Vandellas on the same bill as white headliners like the Jefferson Airplane. (“I never give the public what it wants,” Graham famously said, “I give the public what it should want”; later he would pair Otis Redding with the Grateful Dead, Miles Davis with Neil Young, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk with Jethro Tull.) But still: these are posters and photos of others, no trace in sight of the exhibit’s illustrious namesake.
In the 1970s, with the opening of Winterland, Graham himself comes a little more into focus. A collage of letters from Grateful Dead fans using desperation, humor, flattery and more to beg for tickets to the band’s sold-out 1978 New Year’s Eve show is dotted with a constellation of “NO” written in red ink atop each one, a testament to Graham’s hardheadedness about admission policies. But among memorabilia from The Last Waltz, one of Graham’s crowning achievements, there are seemingly unrelated items on display as well (photos from Bob Dylan’s 1975 ‘Rolling Thunder Revue’ — a tour Graham did not book — and a remnant of a Fender Stratocaster smashed by Jimi Hendrix at the Royal Albert Hall, a show Graham did not promote).
By the 1980s portion, there’s no doubt that rock is ballooning. Claiming to be distraught about the inflated egos of rock stars who began playing larger venues like Madison Square Garden, we find that Graham nonetheless booked nationwide tours for the Rolling Stones, the rock world’s largest prima donnas. In an attempt to do good, he also spearheaded the 1980s trend of the Giant Charity Rock Concert, organizing tours for Amnesty International, concerts for U.S.-Soviet peace, nuclear disarmament, Neil Young’s Bridge School, earthquake relief, concerts for AIDS relief and earthquake relief and, most famously, the U.S. portion of Live Aid.
Amidst the tumult of juggling large egos and worthy causes, we see the remains of Graham’s offices South of Market, which were firebombed just days after he took out an ad in the Chronicle railing against President Reagan’s visit to Bitburg cemetery, the resting site of numerous officers in Hitler’s SS. The full-page ad, burned at the edges, is poignantly displayed just feet away from the charred remains of an office menorah.
At the close of the ’80s — the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Madonna, and Metallica all beginning to take over the scene, and the unwelcoming behemoth of Graham’s Shoreline Amphitheater hosting most of his shows — we already know the tragedy that comes next. Alongside photos of Graham with his family over the years, the exhibit ends with Graham’s 1991 death in a helicopter crash while returning home from a Huey Lewis & the News concert at the Concord Pavilion. Aerial photos of a subsequent blowout concert in Golden Gate Park commemorating his life show an estimated half a million people, a mere sliver of the population affected in one way or another by Graham’s presence in San Francisco.
It’s hard to say where Graham might have figured in to the industry today; despite his productions becoming larger than ever, he seemed to be simplifying his personal life, finally able to coexist with the internal engine always running at a high RPM. Whether he’d buy out other regional promotion companies and hire a nationwide staff, or whether he’d scale back to political and social work in the Bay Area, it’s impossible to say.
What is evident is that Graham’s legacy in the industry is everywhere. Following his death, Bill Graham Presents was sold to SFX Promotions, which then sold the company to Clear Channel, which morphed into Live Nation, the biggest live-music corporation in the world (and, ironically, a media sponsor of this museum exhibition). Locally, many of Graham’s former employees can now be found running the Greek Theater, Slim’s, the Great American Music Hall, the Independent, the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium, and the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass and Outside Lands festivals in Golden Gate Park.
As for his personality? Slivers of it can be gleaned from the exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum; a lonesome photo of Graham sitting alone in the upper deck of a stadium in Spain hints at his inner unease. In print, the oral history Bill Graham Presents, an autobiography by Graham and Robert Greenfield, remains the best single source (and is on sale in the museum’s gift shop), and the film The Last Days of the Fillmore shows Graham arguing with managers on the phone and angrily throwing musicians out of his office.
But those looking for the true essence of Bill Graham need look no further than the stories in the air of this city, stories like the one my middle-finger–wielding friend relates — stories anyone who was around in Graham’s time and had an unforgettable interaction with the man himself can tell.
‘Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution’ opens Thursday, March 17 and runs through July 5 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. More details and information here.