Back to November of 1969 – Thanksgiving was coming up in a few days and my sister Ellen (the famous rock writer) called and asked if I wanted to have Thanksgiving with her at the Fillmore East. They were having a Thanksgiving dinner for staff and some guests, and she could bring me along.
Thanksgiving came and Ellen and I walked into the Fillmore East’s main entrance on Second Avenue. Ellen introduced me to Bill Graham and he briefly shook my hand. I got the sense that Bill was a gruff guy. He had a reputation for being volatile and explosive. Anyone who has been to any Bill Graham concert has likely seen Bill out front denying access and threatening undesirables, potential gatecrashers, or dealers. When annoyed, he used a tactic of standing a bit too close, leaning in with the apparent threat of violence (a threat only) while cursing in a loud and intimidating manner. He also had an opinion of certain creative aspects of the music business and the people involved and history did not always prove him right. However, I think we could assume his motives were not vindictive. An example would be his first entertainment job in 1965 as manager of the San Francisco Mime Troupe.
When the San Francisco Mime Troupe was denied permits by the city, Graham and Haight Ashbury promoter Chet Helms, who founded Family Dog Productions, came up with the idea for a benefit concert at the Winterland Ballroom. “When somebody said, ‘Let’s put some talent together,’” as Bill told to journalist Ralph J. Gleason, “I started calling around. But the most significant thing about the beginning was that I really did not know about the scene. I heard about these groups and I called everybody. One of the acts that is listed on my first handbill is the Family Dog. Somebody said, ‘You should call them.” Great! I wanted a dog act! When they came, I said, ‘What do you do?’ They said, ‘We hold dances, man!’” They were rival promoters.
A short time later Graham and the Mime Troupe were in conflict about the act’s performance. The troupe felt that the business manager should have no say in the creative process. In protest, Bill resigned, but before leaving he held another benefit for the Troupe, and that was the start of his career as a concert promoter.
Frank Barsalona of Premiere Talent Agency (sold to William Morris Agency in 2002) called him “painfully honest” – but not many had found him consistently pleasant to deal with. On one occasion, a famous Hollywood actor called him the Rod Steiger of concert promoters.
Years later when Alice Cooper played the Fillmore West on their first tour (this is a story shared by an insider) Bill’s “goons” ripped them off the stage. It seems he was horrified; he thought he had booked a girl band. Bill’s management company struggled to keep acts on his management roster because he was a buttinsky about creative aspects, performance, personal schedules, and even details like the group’s wake up times.
We walked into the Thanksgiving dinner and down the right aisle toward the stage. It was a low key affair with a long catering-type table set up onstage with plenty of food. Carved turkey, potatoes, cranberry sauce and all the other Thanksgiving holiday foods and desserts were spread out. It was self-service with folding chairs sprinkled about the stage, though many of us took our food into the audience seats. There were about 130 people milling around with paper plates in their hands.
A mixture of musicians, (anyone who was touring and happened to be in town was invited) office staff and stagehands came. Everyone was friendly and after I ate, I wandered around the theater. Theaters, bars, and night clubs do not look the same in the daytime and they smell different too. I was walking backstage, and ran into Janis Joplin. She knew me (by sight) and we said hello. We chatted mostly about California and made other small talk for a minute or two, and then she said she wanted to go to Bill’s office.
One of the people I met at the party was the box office manager. She told me the box office was usually open seven days a week and for 10 hours a day, but was closed Thanksgiving day. We talked for a bit and then I asked her if I could buy some tickets. Sure, she said, and we walked out front to the box office. She unlocked the door and we went inside. Seeing the upcoming concert schedule, I picked out two concerts I wanted to see: the Byrds and the Doors. I think my total expense for both tickets was $7.50. Back in the day tickets were accessible and people could afford them. Yes, shows often sold out but usually if you wanted to go to a concert you had a chance to buy tickets. Then I hooked back up with Ellen and we left. It was an understated event, but I thought it was gracious of Bill Graham to hold a Thanksgiving dinner for industry people.
A week later was the Doors concert. My seat was in the orchestra, probably Row G and sightly off center toward stage right. Jim Morrison came out dressed in black leather. He looked great and the girls went crazy. He wrapped himself around the microphone stand like he was making love to it. A commanding figure, totally into the show, and Jim and the Doors – Ray Manzarek on keyboards, John Densmore playing drums and Robby Krieger on guitar – kicked butt. Great presence and powerful vocals, tight band. I would say I was seventy feet from him, so I had a good view, and the sound system was on point.
On a side note, Bill Graham was possibly the first rock concert promoter to understand the need for and use of quality sound and lights. At the time most other promoters felt this was an area where they could save money, so they skimped on the sound and lighting systems. Another great thing about concerts back then was that everyone stayed in their seats, which really enhanced the whole experience. You could really get a sense of the band and the music by watching and listening. If you want to dance then go to a festival.
The Doors really brought it, they were really on their game. It had to be one of their best shows, exceptional. Jim Morrison was dark, dangerous, and powerful. The girls found him hot.
A few weeks later I went to see the Byrds, and I was sitting a little further back, maybe Row R, and more stage left. The Byrds were good, seasoned with hints of country music twang combined with the smoothness of the West Coast sound. Great guitar and vocals with flowing harmonies. It gives me a pause just to think of the great musicians that passed through that band over the years – Roger McGuinn and people like Gene Clark, David Crosby, Clarence White, Gram Parsons, Chris Hillman and other incredible singers and players.
When I got home to my apartment the place had been robbed. I had metal gates on the window. They were accordion-like metal gates and the bottoms were like Vs extending to an inch above the inside window ledge. Being New York City, the six-story building had a fire escape. One of the bottom windowpanes was smashed in and behind the small window one of the Vs on the bottom part of the gate behind the window was bent back and up into the apartment. The space that it made was about nine inches by nine inches. How could anyone get through that? Maybe the robber had a small kid with them, and the kid wiggled in and then unlocked the door. Or maybe a trained monkey; I know that sounds ridiculous, but really, I could not see any adult, even a small one, squeezing through that little opening. They took the TV and the cash I had in the apartment, about $80, and some other things. I had a locksmith fix the gates and replace the broken windowpane with a bar across the bottom of the gate, so that avenue of entrance was then sealed.
The year was coming to an end and I ran into Michael Foster in the subway. Michael was a friend from California who had previously owned a head shop on Las Palmas Avenue in Hollywood. He invited me to join him and a group of his friends for a New Year’s celebration at the historical Luchow’s restaurant (est. 1882) on East Fourteenth Street and the corner of Irving Place, located in the almost farthest northwestern part of the East Village. Just a few doors west of the (former) Academy of Music. Luchow’s stretched from Fourteenth Street through the block all the way to Thirteenth Street. We were in a medium-size room seated at a table for eight. There were five such tables in the room so doing the math there were 40 people there. This was one of many rooms and banquet halls in Luchow’s – it was a big building. Seated at the next table was Judy Collins with her friends. New York being New York, nobody bothered her or went over to her table and tried to talk to her.
A year and a half later I was working for Elektra Records and the record company had an occasion to hold a big party for Jim Morrison. It was at the Hilton on 54th Street and the Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue] in the penthouse ballroom on the top floor of the hotel. Big room and easily 300 attendees. There was an open bar, finger food and music. It seemed like a happy party, but Jim Morrison, who had gained some weight, stayed in the corners of the ballroom. The crowd was having fun and people were on the dance floor. Suddenly, I saw a chubby bald guy, maybe 45 years old, get punched in the face so hard that it sent him sprawling flat on his back, landing with a loud thump. He got up, standing not far from the dude that punched him, and started dancing again like nothing happened. I looked at my watch and it was almost 11 pm, time to leave.
As I am walking out of the ballroom toward the banks of elevators, I pass by Jim Morrison all alone, sitting there with his arms crossed and a scowl on his face.
Header image: site of the Fillmore East, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Grye.
This article was first published in Issue 134.