Bill Graham Closes Down The Fillmore

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Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
May 6, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 18

Remember the Fillmore?
By Lucian K. Truscott IV

Out on the street, a group of black-clad, tough-looking longhairs who called themselves the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers were distributing a handbill. It was a bitterly cold Friday late in December of 1968, and few people passed on Second Avenue to take the hastily prepared statements describing a brief seizure of the Fillmore the night before and calling for a renewed struggle for a "Free Fillmore" over the weekend. The Fillmore East, or so believed the UAW/MFs, belonged to the "people," and it was up to the community to take what was rightfully theirs.

Inside sat an unshaven and unsmiling Bill Graham.

He had been clobbered across the face with a chain by an unfriendly biker during the previous evening's confrontation, and his swollen scarred nose glowed as he spoke in the colorful terms he was given to reciting during such times. "Those crummy fuckers. Those snotnose punks. Gimme that sheet. Lemme see what they're sniveling about now."

He came from the Bronx, the magazines said. As a kid, he was a member of the gang known as the Pirates. The distinctive green and yellow of the Fillmore jerseys is a hangover from his gang's old colors, said Graham, reading the UAW/MF handbill. On the streets of the Bronx he ran across the likes of the group parading around outside more than once. It seemed Graham already had ideas about how to deal with them. "They come in here last night yelling about ripping off the community. Those rotten pieces of shit. They all want something for nothing. One of 'em says last night, "Hey, Graham, why's your hair getting so long, huh? You trying to get hip?' So I told them. I don't give a half-assed fuck about my hair. I just haven't had time to get it cut, that's all."

He stopped and ran a thick hand through his hair. The phone rang. It was Mike Bloomfield, the guitarist who was then playing highly touted "Supersessions" at the Fillmore with organist Al Kooper. "Where are you? You stupid fucker. I told you to be here this afternoon. Don't give me this I'm snowed in shit. I don't give a flying fuck if Gravenites is gonna be here. Your name is on the program, not his. Listen, you better be on that stage tonight or it's your ass, and I don't care if you have to charter a fucking plane to do it." Slam. Smile. "Now where were we. Ah, yes, those scumbag fucks outside. I'm so sick and fucking tired of listening to that 'rip off the community' shit. I told those pieces of shit, you get the musicians, and you get the equipment, and you pay my stage people, and I'll let you have this place on Wednesday. Those crummy punks. They want it all done for them. Well let me tell you, I won't give them nothing. For all I care, this community can fucking shrivel up and die if they continue to let themselves be represented by that bunch of cheap-ass chickenshit punks." The phone rang again. More yelling. More threats. Silence. Slam. Bill Graham. Pig capitalist Bill Graham. The man everyone hates. Everyone.

It's been three years since the Fillmore East opened. Two years since the UAW/MFs last showed their faces on the Lower East Side. A year and a half since anyone has talked to Graham about a "community." A little less than a year since the deaths of two of the Fillmore's biggest headliners, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix. Six months since anyone at the Fillmore can remember much trouble with kids bad-tripping on acid. Now they're eating reds and putting a fuzzy, angry edge on things with cheap wine. Many of them pass out in their seats during the show. And maybe that, more than anything else, explains why Bill Graham announced last Thursday that on June 27, 1971, the Fillmore East will close, with its San Francisco counterpart close on its heels. "The scene has changed," Graham said in a prepared statement for the daily press, "and in the long run, we are all to one degree or another at fault. All that I know is that what exists now is not what we started with, and what I see around me now does not seem to be a logical, creative extension of that beginning."

It's hard to imagine Bill Graham confused, leading a statement to the press with an implied shrug and "all I know is...,' because he was there at the beginning and has led the way ever since. Graham has had few uncertain moments during the years since Ken Kesey's Trips Festivals in San Francisco, the first time that music and light and the burgeoning psychedelic scene were brought together in a public display. There was no doubt in his mind that such a thing could be reproduced, and it wasn't long after those first festivals that Graham quit his job as the struggling manager of the San Francisco Mime Troupe and began a new career as the greatest impresario of live rock music this country has seen. His business sense, a finely tuned and hard-edged perversion of the instincts he had picked up on the street as a kid, told him that his Fillmore could be the start of something big. It was. Graham has single-handedly produced more live rock music for more people in the years since he opened the first of the two Fillmores than any other man alive. And he's racked up that record with not just the most, but the best production and atmosphere in the business, bar none.

He's a pro. At his best, Graham has always reminded me of a good Army first sergeant. He is loud and abrasive, and he cusses a lot; in his own words, he's a "dictator." To him, there's no substitute for the job being done right the first time, no excuses accepted. "If I want that spot right there now," he told me last week with a snap of his fingers, "then it had better be there. Not one second from now, not one second before but now. That's the way it's got to be, and man, when it happens, there's nothing more beautiful. My fondest memories of this place will be of the people who worked here, the guys who got that spot right every time. This is not commercial, man. I'm a hard man to work for, but my people have done it, and they've done it in spades. When it works, it's beautiful, man, and it's been beautiful around here for a long time." I pity the people who try to re-create the Fillmore when Bill Graham and his crew leave, because that madman, that lovely, lovely madman has gotten the job done, and he's left one hell of a lot to live up to.

I think the time has come to heap some praise on old dirty button-down-shirt Bill Graham. Since the doors of his auditorium on the Lower East Side opened on March 8, 1968 (with Janis Joplin making her second major appearance), more than two million people have filed through to get their money's worth, and then some. The people who bitch about Graham and the Fillmore, the ones who have marked him "the anti-christ of the underground," as he put it, have forgotten some important facts. Graham has sponsored literally hundreds of benefits at both Fillmores for causes which have run from dying radical newspapers to VD to peace in Southeast Asia. "Show me a cause," Graham once said to me, "and tell me why I should be for it and get me the musicians, and if I'm with you, I'll do it." Not only Graham has been so magnanimous, however. His staffers have worked benefit nights for free more often than not, a fact that is little known and even less appreciated. And Fillmore benefits have been more important than many people realize. The anti-war movement alone must be intuit he Fillmores for thousands.

Who could forget the free concerts, given chiefly by the Grateful Dead and other San Francisco bands which have been friendly with Graham over the years. The stories behind the concerts are rife with the kind of secrets old anti-christ has shared with few. One concert given by the Dead in Central Park is a good example. To get the city to agree to use the park bandshell by the band, Graham had to provide the Parks Department with several hundred wire trash baskets, due to a shortage claimed by the city. They remained in the park when the Dead were long gone, a rather expensive donation from the Fillmore for that "free concert." He also gathered 200 kids of the streets of the Lower East Side that weekend as his clean-up detail. They cleaned the park from 59th Street to Bethesda Fountain twice the day of the concert. Graham gave them Fillmore t-shirts, seats close to the stage during the concert, and breakfast and supper at Ratner's. They worked from 5 a.m. till dark, and old capitalist pig Graham was right there with them the whole time.

Then there were the things the Fillmore did for people "in the business." Thanksgiving dinners in New York, Christmas dinners in San Francisco, and New Year's Eve celebrations in both places. Ask the musicians about playing the Fillmore sometime. Ask Paul Butterfield, who never played there that he didn't find his favorite beer and pizza waiting in the dressing room between shows. Or Al Kooper, for whom Graham rented a harpsichord at $200 a night so he could plink out one song on it each show. It's the little things that count, they'll tell you. And the Fillmores never missed.

Okay, okay, maybe Graham isn't so perfect. And maybe I'm a little more fond of him than most because of my general affection for beasts and flamers who do a job well with little pomp and no circumstance. Professional. Austere. I admit it. I like that. And because I like it, because I see a place in the scene for a guy like Graham, this piece is a tribute, an appreciation of the man who started the production of live music as we know it today.

Alas, the scene, as Graham said Thursday, has changed. Prices are up; rock acts that sussed to be bands are now huge corporations; agents are promoting not just one group but a "package" that more often than not includes a mandatory third-billed act along with the headliner; audiences have changed from amorphous masses of psychedelic teenyboppers to angry mobs of hungry consumers that scream "more" as a demand, not a plea; and finally, the drug scene has become a frightening monster -- bad trips may be few in the Fillmore these days, but fights are breaking out for the first time in the history of the place. The scene, on both sides of the stage, is big and powerful and dangerous; pretty soon, there won't be britches big enough to fit the thing Bill Graham started. When that happens, he won't be around to yell and cuss and wreak outrage from black eyes and gritted teeth.

He'll be missed. The promoters who have shoved their acts into massive caverns like the Garden, and the musicians who have twanged their way all the way to the bank from those hollow environs, will lament when there's no Fillmore to fall back on when the 20,000 seats just don't fill anymore. And the consumers, that tough crew with the mean taste for their money's worth, may as well hang it up. He's been an angel and he's been an asshole, but the rules that Bill Graham set down to play the game by have been as regular and reliable as clockwork. You play the Fillmore alone, and you play for one half the gross. No more, no less. You buy a ticket and listen to the music, and you listen to the best. No more, no less. For better or worse, it isn't that way anywhere else, and come this summer it won't be that way ever again. It's the end of an era, folks, and I, for one, am said to see it go. Damn sad.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]

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