Monday, January 19, 2009
Wolfgang's Vault in City Hall's Basement 1: Bill Graham
Another great exhibition went up in San Francisco's City Hall basement last week wth the unwieldy title, "The Art of Change: The Influence of Rock, Music and Art on Social Change."
The history of how this huge collection of imagery and posters from the last 50 years of rock and roll appeared on these walls is almost as interesting as the artworks themselves.
Bill Graham was a Berlin Jew born in 1931 who was smuggled from one orphanage to another until he ended up a foster child in The Bronx. His mother and most of his sisters died in the Nazi holocaust. After being drafted into the U.S. Army and doing his time in Korea, he worked at Catskills resorts as a maitre'd/poker room attendant, where he later claimed he learned his skills as a "promoter." (Click here for an evenhanded Wikipedia account.)
Graham (pictured above) showed up in San Francisco in 1965, became involved with Ronnie Davis and the San Francisco Mime Troupe's leftist theater happenings in public parks, then hijacked the San Francisco rock music promotion scene from the visionary Chet Helms who actually helped to create it.
Over the next 25 years, he arguably became the most important impresario of the rock music world in its 60-year history through his promotion of musicians at his various rock palaces which included The Fillmore (West in SF and East in NY), Winterland, and the Shoreline Amphitheater among other venues.
Many of his first concerts were fundraisers for various left-wing causes such as Cesar Chavez' Delano strike above, and he obviously loved the idea of changing the world through the nexus of music, art and money.
His first major outdoor arena concert was a 1975 benefit in Golden Gate Park's Kezar Stadium for the San Francisco School District, which was going through draconian budget cuts that threatened all extracurricular sports and music programs.
With everybody from Neil Young to Bob Dylan playing at the event, it was an assertive demonstration of how he could Use Major Celebrities for Good (and yes, that's Brando and Coppola above, who Graham had been hanging out with while filming the "Playboy Bunnies" sequence in "Apocalypse Now.")
This led to the "LiveAid" concerts and worldwide benefits of every kind, including one after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. It was after that event in 1991 that his helicopter crashed on the way home to Marin County and Bill Graham died at the age of 60. It was the end of an era.