Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Big Time, Bill, Big Time

Good evening, we welcome you...on behalf of the group...we should introduce:

On the piano...we have Mr. Keith Godchaux.
On the drums on stage left...Mr. Mickey Hart.
On bass and vocals...Mr. Philip Lesh.
On rhythm guitar and vocals....Mr. Bob Weir.
On the drums on stage right, Mr. Bill Kreutzman.
On the vocals...Mrs. Donna Jean Godchaux.
And on lead guitar and vocals...Mr. Jerry Garcia.

Would you welcome please...the Grateful Dead.

I bought the Dead's One From the Vault live double disc in either 1994 or '95. And that purchase changed my life forever. Okay, that's a bit overdramatic, but it's partially true. I'm pretty sure that was the first time I had ever really heard the Dead perform live, and they were fantastic. They ripped it up. A ridiculous Help > Slip > Franklin's, a great Music Never Stopped and one of the bestest Eyes of the Worlds I've ever heard, still to this day. Gorgeous.

But it was also the first time the name Bill Graham landed on my radar screen. He is the orator of the Dead's introduction that I re-printed above, and both he and it are flat out awesome. I used to recite that thing non-stop in Graham's weird accent and made old campers of mine memorize it. It was the perfect lead-in to the Dead's 4/13/75 show at the Great American Music Hall, segueing right into the first song of the night.

At the time I had absolutely no clue who Bill Graham was, other than the fact that he had the same name as the WWF grappler and the televangelist. As the years unfolded, though, I began to learn what Bill Graham was all about: He wasn't just the emcee...he was the man that created the scene that paved the way for my favorite bands to become big time.

He operated the Fillmore in San Francisco, where he booked groups like the Dead and Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service to play. He opened the Fillmore East in New York and brought groups like the Allman Brothers to prominence. He flew to Woodstock, NY to persuade The Band to hit the road for the first time ever. He even staged the Watkins Glen festival in 1973, for which more than a half million people showed up.

Last week I picked up Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out, a 550-page book about the man's life. It's one-part autobiograpy and one-part biography, chronologically weaving together interview transcripts from Bill and everyone involved in his remarkable life. And it's not just his word against everyone else, if there's a discrepancy in his story, the other side is told right then and there.

It's fucking amazing what you'll find in this thing. I never knew he was a Jew that fled Nazi Germany as a seven-year-old and lost some of his family to the Holocaust. I never knew he grew up blocks away from Dad Cowboy in the Bronx, that he worked in the Catskills at the Concord and Grossinger's. I never knew he was a wannabe actor that volunteered to drive Buddy Hackett's car from NYC to LA in two and a half days by himself, then stole the car when Hackett refused to meet him in person to pick it up.

I never knew he discovered Santana when the 17-year-old Carlos tried to climb through his window to get into the Fillmore, that he was responsible for getting Santana on the bill at Woodstock. I never knew he found the Allmans, that he delivered Otis Redding to white audiences, that he put on the first all-stadium tour ever (CSNY '74). I never knew that a member of his crew was viciously assaulted by Zeppelin's manager, Peter Grant, resulting in the arrest of Grant, John Bonham and two other Zep-dudes, leading the band to decide never to play in the United States ever again.

And now I know. I know it all. There's so much more too, and the stories are incredible. This book is un-fucking-believable. It should be given out as a textbook in any and all music classes at liberal arts colleges. This is a MUST READ for anyone that loves the good ol' rock and roll music. The history conveyed in this book is off the charts.

The best chapter in the book, or more accurately my favorite part, talks in detail about The Last Waltz. The Band decided to call it quits after 16 years on the road and commissioned Bill to put on a concert in the city that started it all: San Francisco and the Winterland. They invited so many musical guests it almost didn't seem this could really be happening and brought in some dude named Martin Scorcese to document the marvelous night.

Rent or buy the concert film, it's one of the cooler music DVDs you'll ever see in your life. For real, b. You'll be blown away by Muddy Waters, Neil Young, Eric Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Paul Butterfield, Dr. John, The Staple Singers, The Lucious Bobby Dylan, the greatest performance of all time by Van Morrison (clad in a purple, rhinestoned jumpsuit doing air kicks and looking wasted)...and so many more.

Between the concert footage and the behind-the-scenes interviews with The Band, you'll think The Last Waltz is spectacular. But until last night, I had no idea how intricate that night really was, how fucking amazing Bill Graham performed his job day in and out. They pretty much re-did the whole venue, erecting the opera-like set from La Traviata on stage to go with the theme, putting up a $15,000 facade over the dirty balcony, sparing no cost to deck the place out to look as elegant as possible.

And since the event took place around Thanksgiving, Bill catered hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of turkeys and stuffing and potatoes and vegetarian dishes and whatever for the 5,400-person audience, setting up white-clothed tables on the ballroom's dance floor and ushering people in to eat. They fed the whole place in short order. Then they cleared out the tables one by one and had ballroom dancers to go out and waltz with patrons around the room, keeping with the theme as well.

The atmosphere was set and the show was amazing. As Bill says in the book, the show you see on stage and on the film explains only half of what went on that night. The people got their money's worth. And Bill says he lost $40,000 on the show, which in those days was a ton of money. But the people walked away happy. Nay, ecstatic.

That's what Bill Graham was all about, giving people the best show possible. Sure he was the capitalist that made his money, and that's talked about in great detail, but he wanted people to have the time of their lives for the money they were paying. Someone in the book describes him as a great supporting actor, the guy who provided the venue and the atmosphere for the stars to shine and be their best. That seems about right to me.

Big time, Bill, big time.


At 9:01 AM, Blogger Don Fiedler said...

"It's one of the honors of my life to be up here on stage with these people."...and to have a boulder of coke in my left nostril while I'm at it!

This post was too good not to get a comment. If you've never watched The Last Waltz, you're missing out on the best concert movie of all time and a revealing look at the coked-out Woodstock generation's last ho-down.

At 10:03 AM, Blogger Ace Cowboy said...

Hey Donnie...turn up your rad-i-o and switch on your electric lighttt.

--Mavis Staples

At 9:16 PM, Blogger irenie said...

Thanks, always great to find another Bill Graham fan...I was a Bay Area teen growing up during the Days on the green era...I miss Bill...It hasnt been as much fun with out him...

At 6:07 PM, Blogger darnnews said...

I heart CSNY, even if they were in it for the coke and money. I'm listening to a live show right now that features a long Steve Stills piano improv where he talks abous Jebus as the first non-violent revolutionary. Stills > Jebus.


The Darn News

At 2:46 PM, Blogger Justin Kreutzmann said...

Bill was the man. Had a great time at the Fillmore last night. Tonight is Bill's actual birthday and also the anniversary of the first acid test at the Fillmore. Weir's coming down to sit in with the new San Francisco bands.

At 5:23 PM, Blogger Ceri said...

Thanks for that! Love me some B.G. Oh by the way, you have a way cool blog. :)

At 9:19 AM, Blogger Ace Cowboy said...

Nah, thank you guys...

And Justin, let me know how that goes -- I'm a huge TLG fan around here, and would love to have been there for that.


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