To promote his shows at the newly christened Fillmore West, Bill Graham plastered posters around Berkeley, California, at 3 a.m., because he couldn’t get owners to display them in their shops. Soon, though, young people began taking the posters down and hanging them on their walls at home.
Collecting posters, as many of us may remember, became popular in the ‘60s as a meaningful, but also a cheap way, to decorate our walls. It became so popular that Berkeley shop owners ended up asking Graham to provide them with as many posters as possible.
And so, the flying fickle finger of fate – remember that phrase from the popular ‘60s’ show “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In” – helped spread the word about the Fillmore West and boosted Graham’s fledgling business.
There was never any doubt that Graham considered the Fillmore East and West, and the Winterland as money-generating enterprises. In the beginning, the counterculture resented this and denigrated him for only being interested in money and not “in the music and in the message, man.”
But in time the bands that Graham had originally promoted and paid a few thousand dollars per performance began to ask for larger and larger sums of money. They were performing in increasingly larger venues, such as baseball stadiums, that could pack in tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of fans. The performers reasoned, rightly, that larger crowds generated more revenue from larger ticket sales, and they wanted their share. This trend wasn’t due only to what Gordon Gekko, the fictional character in the 1987 film “Wall Street,” would describe as the “greed is good” principle. Musicians had come to realize that if they could make more money per performance, they could tour less and spend more time with their families.
Added to this was the fact that big business had begun managing the musicians and their venues. What did all this mean for Graham? He found it difficult to compete, even though he did stay in the game for a while by promoting the tours of many musical groups, including the Rolling Stones, as well as promoting extravaganzas to raise money for social causes, such as the American component of “Live Aid” at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia (simultaneous with the “Live Aid” concert at Wembley Stadium in London) on July 13, 1985; “A Conspiracy of Hope” in 1986; and the 1988 “Human Rights Now!” tours for Amnesty International.
Reconfiguring his business model enabled Graham to continue to make money. However, by the ‘80s he had become disillusioned with the music industry that he had helped to fashion. He was worn out from having to deal with the super-charged egos and outlandish demands of the musicians and their managers. He was exhausted from maintaining a hellacious schedule that bounced him all over the globe. Also, about this time, the Rolling Stones, a group he had collaborated with for years in arranging their world tours, changed their working relationship with him by basically cutting him out of his managerial role and stuffing him into a smaller, limited “consultancy” box. None of this sat well with Graham, and it prompted the beginning of his spiral downward into a deep depression, something so uncharacteristic of the high-energy, can-do-anything fireball that had once been Bill Graham. He hung on for a while, until a series of events occurred that tipped him over the edge.
Graham had been in Europe consulting with Irish singer-songwriter, author, and political activist Bob Geldof concerning the first “Live Aid” concert when he learned that a fire had gutted the Fillmore West, resulting in its closure. As in such disasters, people usually give thanks that no one was hurt, and Graham was thankful for that. But he had spent years filling his office at the Fillmore with memorabilia for music fans to see, building, in essence, a shrine, or, depending on your perspective, a sort of museum of the music business he had developed.
There were irreplaceable items, some grand, some small. One-of-a-kind photos of Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. Gold records awarded to Graham. A pillow from the closing of the Winterland that said, “Thanks for the Memories.” A letter from a fan who had snuck into the Fillmore one New Year’s Eve without paying, along with five $1 bills and a 50-cent piece in a little baggie as repayment. The only picture Graham had of his parents.
Graham described the loss this way: “What was up on the walls in that office was my life on a day-to-day basis up to that point. The life I had found for myself when I was 35. I never put the things I loved in some big vault or a safe. They were up there on the wall for everyone to see. What was in that office was all the art I owned.”
And that was now gone.
The cause of the fire? Speculation was that some disgruntled people from communities near Berkeley started the blaze in retaliation for Graham running a personal newspaper ad criticizing then-President Ronald Reagan for visiting a military cemetery in Bitberg, West Germany, and laying a wreath near where some Nazi troops were buried. Graham felt, as he said in his plea, that the visit implied “the Holocaust horrors are part of the past, and should be forgiven and forgotten.”
Despite those devastating blows, Graham continued to promote other music groups and fundraisers until his death in 1991. At the end of October that year, he attended a concert at the Concord Pavilion, in Concord, California, in an effort to get Huey Lewis and the News to participate in a possible benefit concert for victims of a firestorm that had raged through the Oakland hills from Oct. 18-20. Five days later, on Oct. 25, the helicopter Graham took to leave the concert ran into foul weather and crashed.
How will people remember Bill Graham? There is no doubt he will be remembered for building the music scene in the ‘60s, starting with the Fillmores and Winterland, and continuing to build it into the ‘70s and ‘80s with the tours of music groups and fundraising extravaganzas, all under the marque of “Bill Graham Presents.”
On a personal level, there are differing opinions. Graham considered himself to be a creative person. Where the musicians he managed used their creativity to write and arrange songs, Graham said he used his creativity to promote entertainers, to handle negotiations and last-minute decisions and crises that required some of the same flexibility of mind. Ahmet Ertegun, co-founder and president of Atlantic Records, described Graham in the biography “Bill Graham Presents” as, “An immigrant who came to America with a lot of ideas and hopes and who found an incredible niche. He built a place for himself.”
Both, indeed, were Bill Graham.