“Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out,” has been sitting on my bookshelf for years. It is the biography of the music impresario who promoted many of the biggest names in folk and rock at the Fillmore East in New York City and Fillmore West in San Francisco, and who is credited with almost single handedly developing the iconic music scene that started an era.
I intended to read the tome before this, but other books kept pushing it further down my “to-read” list. Writing about Graham’s involvement with the band The Last Waltz in my last two columns, however, renewed my curiosity, so I pulled down that thick volume of over 500 pages, with Graham’s grizzly-looking face on the cover, and began to read.
The biography, I must admit, is not what I expected. It is very engaging, don’t get me wrong, but it is unusual in that it is presented as a series of candid quotes about a particular event drawn from interviews, albeit in somewhat chronological order, from not only Graham himself, but also from some of his relatives, business associates, and musicians who knew him.
I had thought it would be a more traditional account of Graham’s life, with the biographer’s filtered words, thoughts, and analysis. By the time I was midway through, though, I found myself unable to put it down, welcoming the book’s Rashomon-style alternative, which produced in me something akin to listening to multiple gossipers give their versions of a particular event or juicy tidbit over the backyard fence.
I had always associated Graham with the two Fillmores, the ‘60s meccas for counterculture music. Beyond that, I knew nothing of his life. I was surprised, then, to learn in the opening pages that he was born in Berlin in 1931, and that he could have wound up, and probably died, in a Nazi concentration camp if it had not been for some lucky breaks.
First, anticipating the advance of gestapo boots, Graham’s mother sent him, along with his youngest sister, to stay at an orphanage. The Berlin orphanage, in turn, sent Graham, his sister, and other Jewish children to France to further protect them from the Third Reich. After the Nazis invaded France, the German “kinder” were spirited away once again, this time to the United States. Graham survived the difficult trans-Atlantic journey, but his sister did not. His four remaining sisters eventually ended up in the U.S., as well. But their father died before the family’s dislocation, and their mother perished in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Graham stayed at an orphanage in New York City until he was eventually adopted by a couple who he came to call his parents. He attended public school in the Bronx, often getting into fights with boys who taunted him, ironically enough, because of his German accent. He graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School and earned a business degree from City College, which, no doubt, enhanced what must have been his natural inclination as a businessman.
In his 20s, Graham lived an unsettled life, despite his steadfast adoptive family and country. He worked at a number of odd jobs, including as a waiter/maître d' at big Catskill resorts in upstate New York. He did a stint in the U.S. Army. He vagabonded back and forth across the U.S. and Europe. He became a member of the San Francisco Mime Troupe for a spell. He even tried acting, but gave it up after being told his face was “too strong looking!” In looking at pictures of him in the book, his face, with its heavy-hanging thick eyebrows, deeply etched lines, high cheekbones, and intense gaze, gives the appearance of a cross between a gangster and Spencer Tracy’s caricature of Mr. Hyde in the classic 1941 film “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” The “too strong” look, though, eventually landed him the gangster role (what else) of Charles "Lucky" Luciano in the film “Bugsy.”
During those years, one constant remained in Graham’s endeavors: He was always on the lookout, it seems to me, for ways to make a quick buck. While in the army he purloined food from the commissary and sold it to his fellow soldiers. During his stretch as a waiter, he engaged in gambling “opportunities.” And, after moving to San Francisco, while with the Mime Troupe (which performed free political satire plays in Bay Area parks), he tried to turn counter-culture fundraisers and festivals featuring the group's political plays into extravaganzas to make them more profitable. His budding entrepreneurial bent, however, clashed with the counterculture’s idealism and ethos, and the “art-for-political-sake” philosophy of the troupe’s leader, Chet Helms. Graham eventually left the group, but by this time he had found his life's groove in the music business.
Despite the fact that Graham knew almost nothing about the folk and rock music scene at that time, he found a way to become the grand impresario for so many of the great ‘60s musical acts. And, after opening both the Fillmore East and West in late 1968, he turned them into counterculture icons of the decade. This was challenging because, by this time, Graham was already in his 30s, a decade or so older than the young musicians and counterculture audiences who had as their mantra “never trust anyone over 30.” They never considered him part of their hippie scene. He didn't do drugs, after all, and, at first, he didn’t even like their music. In the beginning days of the Fillmore West, he admitted that he didn't understand the music he was promoting, preferring, instead, a Latin sound, or at least something more sedate. “I'm a Carmen McRae fan,” he would tell people.
In Part II, in February’s column, I will discuss how Graham began his rise to prominence in a business he knew, more or less, nothing about.