Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Revolutionary Bay Area impresario

Fine Arts

Ken Friedman, Bill Graham between takes during the filming of "A 60s Reunion with Bill Graham: A Night at the Fillmore," Fillmore Auditorium, San Francisco, 1986. Chromogenic color print. Photo: Courtesy of Ken Friedman.
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Peter Coyote once described the formidable rock impresario Bill Graham as a cross between Mother Teresa and Al Capone. It's a good line that encapsulates Graham's demons and dualities: the gruff Mephistopheles and the benevolent, let's-get-it-done den mother to the druggy, narcissistic musicians he sometimes managed and befriended; the generous philanthropist who organized multiple benefit concerts and the domineering, abrasive figure with a hair-trigger temper who nonetheless inspired a loyal staff and the affection of his sons.

A polarizing, larger-than-life persona in the Bay Area rock scene of the 1960s and 70s instrumental in developing the careers of Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and the Allman Brothers, among others, Graham finally gets his very own show. Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution, by far the most successful of the Contemporary Jewish Museum's recent forays into the Jewish intersection with popular music, chronicles an immensely entertaining history. The exhibition is essentially a scrapbook, with numerous onstage and candid backstage photographs of musicians such as Bob Dylan with Joan Baez, Levon Helm, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young at the Fillmore East, Aretha Franklin, the first R&B performer to headline the Fillmore West, and a dual portrait of Grace Slick and Janis Joplin that leaves one wondering if there was any oxygen left in the room after the shoot. It also includes a bevy of psychedelic posters and playbills, a fragment of the Fender Stratocaster guitar smashed by Hendrix at London's Royal Albert Hall, and treats like Joplin's paisley bell bottoms, pink feather boa and tambourine, Santana's custom 1970s guitar, and Keith Richards' leather boots, hastily repaired with duct tape by Graham during the Rolling Stones' 1981 tour. In contrast to the museum's Amy Winehouse show last year, a missed opportunity where the singer's huge, heart-rending voice was strangely absent, this time around there's plenty of music by bands Graham fostered, and headphones positioned around the gallery so that visitors can listen to playlists from their concerts.

Robert Wedemeyer, Note from Donovan to Bill Graham, San Francisco, November 1967. Offset print with inscribed ink. Photo: Collection of Robert Wedemeyer.

The exhibition is enlivened considerably by tasty anecdotes and quotes from and about the man himself, drawn from Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out, an autobiography written with Robert Greenfield, and extensive interviews with family, friends and associates. It helped that the gravel-voiced Graham, a natural storyteller who knew how to work a room, was refreshingly blunt and tact-free. He remembers the year he managed Jefferson Airplane, for example, as "the longest year of my life."

What lifts the proceedings above the standard-issue rock memorabilia show and yet another nostalgic trip down memory lane, though the latter will be counterculture nirvana for fans of the era and its music, are not only those pointed recollections, available in the master's voice on the audio guide and excerpted on wall labels, but Graham's personal origin story; his complex psychology, and how a war waif childhood and flight from the Nazis shaped him, tantalizingly touched on here, could have made for a fascinating exhibition of its own.

Born in Berlin in 1931, the son of Russian Jews, Graham, nee Wolodia "Wolfgang" Grjonca, spent his early years in Nazi Germany. (His childhood photo ID card with swastika and the Reich's eagle insignia is on view.) Shortly after the Hitler Youth came calling, his mother put him on kindertransport to France in 1939; it was the last time he saw her. She died on her way to Auschwitz. One of his five sisters died there; another, also deported to the camp, miraculously survived. Initially sheltered in French chateaux for Jewish orphans, Graham soon boarded a boat in Lisbon bound for the U.S; 11-years-old and weighing 55 lbs., he arrived in New York City in 1941. His teenage years were spent in the Bronx with a foster family, and he bussed tables at Catskills resorts, where he decided to become an actor. Though he abandoned that dream, he held onto a love of theatricality that he would bring to his rock spectacles, with their light extravaganzas and dancing in the aisles. Eventually he wandered into the budding hippie wonderland of San Francisco, as many did back then, and produced his first fundraiser, in 1965, for the San Francisco Mime Troupe; the rest, as they say, is rock & roll history.

Baron Wolman, View from the audience: The Rolling Stones at Day on the Green, Oakland Coliseium Stadium, Oakland, CA, July 26, 1978. Gelatin silver print. Photo: Courtesy of Iconic Images/Baron Wolman.

Orphaned and living by his wits at a young age resulted in an intestinal fortitude, tenacity and emotional torment he carried into adulthood. "He was from many places, and he wasn't a peaceful man," observes his oldest son, David, who fondly remembers the father to whom he bears a striking physical resemblance. "He didn't find peace anywhere except in San Francisco, where he felt safe, and safety was paramount to him. Over the years, being here, he mellowed."

It's ironic that Graham escaped the Nazis only to be killed in a helicopter accident at the age of 60. But hey, he had one hell of a rich rocking life along the way.


Through July 5. Check out for a list of related talks and events scheduled throughout the run of the show.


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