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Behind the Music

Reconsidering Bill Graham, the war refugee turned Summer of Love impresario who forever changed concertgoing

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Haight-Ashbury Street Fair, 2007
Haight-Ashbury Street Fair, 2007

I live two blocks from Haight Street in San Francisco, 1,000 paces from the epicenter of 1967′s Summer of Love, the largest migration of young people in United States history. Every store window on Haight wants to know how you will remember the 40th anniversary: With a tie-dyed onesie? A Ben and Jerry’s cone? A wreath of flowers in your hair?

Yet the one building with the most right to speak that piece of the neighborhood’s history has nothing to say. The Bill Graham Center, part of the Haight-Ashbury Free Clinic, celebrated the anniversary by moving to roomier digs a few miles east. Created to provide affordable heath care and substance abuse counseling to the torrent of young people who arrived that season, it’s now as silent as a dancehall at daybreak.

If scholars of the 60s agree that the Summer of Love actually began in January of that year, thanks to a Jewish poet from Newark, we can probably convince them that its legacy belongs to Bill Graham, a Jewish concert promoter who fled the Nazis as a preteen. Under Allen Ginsberg’s direction, the Human-Be-In, a 20,000-person celebration of the counterculture held in Golden Gate Park, brought hippies to national media attention. Graham (born Wolfgang Grajonca in 1931 in Berlin) took it from there, producing, managing, or promoting nearly every major rock act of his generation and making superstars out of locals like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin.

Human Be-In, 1967
Timothy Leary, center, leads thousands of people in a song at the Human Be-In, 1967

In doing so Graham not only made San Francisco’s counterculture America’s popular culture, but also transformed the rock concert from disposable entertainment into a way to direct funds and public attention to social causes. Although Graham didn’t invent the benefit concert (that honor probably goes to George Harrison’s 1971 Concert for Bangladesh), his relentless professionalism and trademark marriage of fun and philanthropy perfected it. Without Graham, this summer’s Live Earth would have been Live Couple of Cities.

“Bill Graham raised more money for good charitable causes through rock ‘n’ roll that any other man who will ever live,” says Robert Greenfield, co-author of Graham’s autobiography, Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out, in an interview in 1992. But that eulogy rubs down Graham’s edges instead of capturing him as he was: A ruthless businessman who made concert promotion a career choice instead of a small-time hustle and viewed how he made money and how he gave it away as indivisible. His enduring legacy may rest with his emphasis on the tikkun in tikkun olam, to repair the world, through work, rather than good intentions.

* * *

In 1939, Graham’s mother, a widow, sent her nine-year-old son and his younger sister, Tolla to France in a transport of children fleeing the Nazis. Two years later, after the German invasion, Graham escaped on foot (his sister died in his arms on the roadside), by train, and by boat to Madrid, Casablanca, and finally the United States. Though four other sisters survived the Holocaust, his mother perished at Auschwitz.

Graham served in the Korean War and then bounced around New York with stints as a Catskills waiter and underemployed character actor (the name “Bill Graham” was the closest to his own he could find in the Yellow Pages), before moving to San Francisco in the early 1960s to be close to his eldest sister Rita. In 1965 an acquaintance from his New York theater days introduced Graham to the San Francisco Mime Troupe, a struggling political theater group. Graham already had a job as an office manager but volunteered to take charge of the troupe’s business affairs. His first priority was a fundraiser to beat an obscenity charge leveled against the group.

A few days before the benefit, Graham arranged for a motorcade of fully-costumed mimes to file through downtown San Francisco handing out pamphlets. The police threatened to shut down the parade and the incident made the evening news, spurring disparate members of the city’s artistic community who, Graham recalled in his autobiography, had “never been under the same roof at once,” to offer their help. At the show, Lawrence Ferlinghetti shared the stage with jazz saxophonist John Handy and Jefferson Airplane.

Graham also encouraged the audience to be part of the act. His mission was to package the benefit as a show of solidarity. “Any statement or artistic expression you wanna make, fine,” he remembered telling prospective attendees. “A lot of people said ‘I’m gonna bring a stalk of bananas. I’m gonna bring ten pounds of grapes.’… Some guys asked if they could hang bed sheets and do liquid projections on them.” When November 6, the night of the event, finally arrived, the troupe’s 700-person loft filled to capacity by 9 p.m. with some thousand others milling on the streets outside. Beyond Graham’s network, there were “clean cut kids from Marin county whose fathers worked for the phone company,” as journalist Robert Scheer would later write. “Bill turned to me and said ‘This is the business of the future!’”

Graham would later write, “I didn’t know it was the beginning of anything, but I knew it was the most exciting experience of my life.”

Bill Graham introduces a band, 1971
Graham introduces a band during final days of concerts at the Fillmore West, 1971

Over the next quarter century, his company Bill Graham Presents amassed an impressive: tours and concerts for The Who, The Grateful Dead, The Rolling Stones, and U2, nightclubs like the Fillmore Auditorium and the Winterland Ballroom (a former San Francisco roller rink where both The Band and the Sex Pistols played their last shows) two record labels, artists management and music publishing interests. “Before Bill Graham came along,” wrote rock journalist Ben Fong-Torres in a recent appreciation in 7X7 magazine, “concert promoters flew by night. They’d book a facility and a few bands, using whatever sound system was already in the room, and herd in the kids, taking their money before moving on.” Graham trucked in Broadway-style lighting and stage props; a greeter offered free apples at the door greeter of his Fillmore Auditorium (still happens at the reopened venue) and spent thousands keeping bands happy with backstage amenities like swimming pools and volleyball courts. Even with a net worth estimated at $150 million, Graham would prowl his concerts with a clipboard, checking ice buckets and ashtrays, once telling thousands of concertgoers to stop standing on the chairs so everyone who paid could see the band.

Philanthropically, Bill Graham produced the American half of 1985′s Live Aid (seen by an estimated 1.5 billion people in 100 countries), which raised more than $100 million for Ethiopian famine relief, the 1986 Conspiracy of Hope tour, which helped raise Amnesty International’s profile, and countless benefits for Bay Area school programs, civic events, and political causes. School music programs, public radio stations, and Jewish communities continue to receive support from his foundation, established after his 1991 death in a helicopter crash.

Encomiums to Graham tend to favor either his professional or charitable accomplishments but regarding them separately misses the point. Whereas many wealthy Jews of his generation isolated their business and philanthropic interests, Graham negotiated just as hard and applied the same ferocious diligence to benefit work as he did to commercial producing. In 1975, Graham recruited the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Willie Mays, and Marlon Brando to appear at a benefit with the unsexy mission of saving extra-curricular activities in San Francisco public schools.

Rock ‘n’ roll may have been his business but Graham used it to sell famine relief as easily as it sold records. In this way, Graham’s work not only predicted current trends in Jewish philanthropy (accountability, return, an entrepreneurial approach to giving) but also streamlined competing definitions of tikkun olam. Social justice, liberal politics, ethnic solidarity, all are frequently used definitions of the term argued Rabbi Jill Jacobs recently in Zeek in her essay, “The History of Tikkun Olam.” The life of Bill Graham didn’t leave any of those definitions unexplored.

Yet Graham had a tenuous relationship with his heritage, acknowledging it but only in ways that cohered with his public identity as a producer of large-scale public events. In 1975, the Chabad house in Berkeley asked Graham to fund a giant public menorah in San Francisco’s Union Square. Graham agreed, but at the unveiling refused to light the first candle, saying, “Surely you could find a better Jew to do it,” according to John Glatt’s biography, Rage and Roll: Bill Graham and the Selling of Rock. Soon after, he also funded the construction of an adjacent Christmas tree. Out of view, Graham named his Marin county estate Masada, and when he had to stay at the office late, had his sister deliver matzoh ball soup to his home, where she left it for him in the fridge.

Ten years later then President Ronald Reagan announced he would visit the Bitburg Military Cemetery, where members of the SS were buried. Enraged, Graham organized a citywide protest. Reagan visited, and hours later, while Graham was in Europe discussing plans for Live Aid, two Molotov cocktails were thrown through the windows of his office, burning it to the ground. The walls left standing were spray-painted with swastikas.

Though friends and colleagues volunteered to hunt down the culprits, Graham dissuaded them, arguing that doing so would only incite further retaliation.

“My love for America was always founded on the feeling that here, I had my rights. In this country, in America, I could take my shots,” said Graham in his autobiography. “Obviously, some person had thought I was wrong to declare my feelings in print about the leader of our country condoning genocide. But what right did that person have to throw a fire bomb in my office? Why didn’t they come talk to me about it? I’ve been dealing with the public for twenty years. I knew how crazy people could be. But this one was so cold. I had no chance.”

* * *

Haight-Ashbury T-shirt store, 2006
Haight-Ashbury T-shirt store, 2006

On a typical day on Haight Street, it seems like the neighborhood has never recovered from its Summer of Love hangover. Although stores do brisk trade in 60s nostalgia and neighborhood homes sell for several million, the homeless population is among the city’s densest. As the San Francisco Chronicle recently reported, a cleanup crew in Golden Gate Park recently found hundreds of discarded syringes and related drug paraphernalia.

Haight Street isn’t the world the participants in its Summer of Love envisioned, but it’s close to the one Bill Graham created for himself, a ragged mix of ideals and harsh realities, of a triumphant youth culture somehow shoehorned into the unforgiving mold of business. Bill Graham Presents may have been swallowed by the concert colossus Live Nation, but their business wouldn’t exist without the elevated importance Bill Graham gave to the industry. Nor would we today see live entertainment as much more than entertainment, and poof!—there goes Live Earth, Live 8, The Concert for New York City after September 11th.

I may have arrived in Haight-Ashbury too late to know Bill Graham, and too late to do much but inhale the lingering vapors from 40 years ago, but I see the spirit of both has grown beyond these 20 square blocks. Anniversary or no, that’s something worth celebrating.

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Behind the Music

Reconsidering Bill Graham, the war refugee turned Summer of Love impresario who forever changed concertgoing

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