Tuned In To Music

Reflections from a lifetime

Review: Bill Graham Presents My Life Inside Rock and Out, Bill Graham and Robert Greenfield

People tend to expect their heroes to be all good and their villians to be all bad.  Curious since who among us is so simple?  This common desire may explain why opinion on rock promoter Bill bill graham bioGraham is so nakedly divergent with some thinking he was evil incarnate and others believing he embodied the very essence of the countercultural ideals of trust, love and caring for your fellow man.  Bill Graham appears to have been a complex man with great strengths and great weaknesses, a portrait that is vividly drawn by “Bill Graham Presents . . .”

Graham was the rock promotor who owned and operated The Fillmore, Fillmore West, and the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco and Fillmore East in New York.  He also promoted and managed many rock mega tours like the Rolling Stones US tour in 1981 and the “Conspiracy of Hope” Amnesty International world tour headlined by U2 in 1986.  Graham’s promotion, both in his venues and on tour, was known for his intense focus on both the experience of the customer at the show and the comfort and well-being of the musicians.  He believed wholeheartedly that if the musicians were made to feel welcome, comfortable and respected they would put on their best show for the customers.  And he was all about putting on the best possible show.  He was so successful that he played a central role in creating a monster that he came to hate.  Graham was instrumental in showing the music industry that rock and pop music could succeed in bigger and bigger venues.  As audiences got larger, the money made from individual shows skyrocketed, rock became a big money industry, and the behavior and attitudes of everyone involved got uglier and uglier.

Graham was legendary for his temper and proclivity for conducting every interaction over everything at a screaming level of intensity.  Not surprisingly, people who were subjected to this treatment tended not to like him.  In “Bill Graham Presents” that intensity is presented as the result of his desire to insure that the audience had the best possible experience at the show combined with his insistence that he and only he knew how to bring that about.  Whether or not he was the only one who knew how to fulfill the audience’s expectation of having a wonderful and memorable experience at his shows, he was often the only one thinking about it, as the attitude of many others in the industry was “We got the money, what else matters?”  Throughout his career Graham put on great shows because he always cared about putting on great shows in a business where almost everyone else only cared about the money.  Graham’s attitude about money illustrates what a complex man he was.  On the one hand, he fought with everybody about every nickel and dime of the cost of putting on a show and had a maniacal attitude about not letting people into his venues for free, on the other hand, none of the Fillmore’s had a cash register.  Money from tickets, concessions, everything was thrown in a box and counted up at the end of the night.  The whole operation ran, and ran exceedingly well, on the honor system.

“Bill Graham Presents” is unlike any biography I’ve read in that almost all of it is presented in the words of the participants.  Through most of the book the story is told through extensive interviews with Graham and many others who were part of what was going on.  Very late in the book coauthor Greenfield injects his own voice as one of the participants to fill in narrative detail about the last few months of Grahams life.  This is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do and Greenfield pulls it off brilliantly.  “Bill Graham Presents” is very compelling reading that almost never flags because the whole story is told with the immediacy of the people who were there.

In many biographies the obligatory tracing of family lineage and early years before the subject got going on the life that is of biographical interest is something of a slog.  “Bill Graham Presents” doesn’t get into the early San Francisco rock days until Part 2 beginning on page 135 and I approached the book steeled for a long and boring read before I got to the good stuff.  I couldn’t have been more mistaken.  Graham’s early family history told by his sisters is about Krystallnacht, Auschwitz and different ways of escaping, or trying to escape, Nazi Germany.  It’s riveting.  Graham was a highly talented story teller and his tales of his life as a young man in New York and the Catskills are, in many ways, the best part of the book.  His story about serving Marlon Brando, Trevor Howard and Eva Marie Saint roast duck and peche flambe when he was an unknown waiter in a LA restaurant had me laughing so hard I cried.  The accounts of the early years at The Fillmore are equally compelling but as the venues and the business gets bigger the stories become less enjoyable.  Part of this is because it’s hard to avoid the feeling that much of what was going on is being left out and part of it is because what is going on is so ugly.

Readers who have a rosy, warm, and fuzzy view of their favorite musicians might want to stay away from this book.  The venality, greed, dishonesty and blatently unethical and monumentally egotistic behavior of everyone involved in the music industry including agents, promotors, managers, publicists and the musicians themselves is a disgrace to everyone involved.  It’s all about the money all of the time and any behavior no matter how despicable that produces any increase in income no matter how small is avidly embraced.  Musicians making hundreds of thousands of dollars a show steal everything that isn’t nailed down and rip off restaurants for meals and waiters for tips, petulant stars refuse to perform at the last minute in juvenile attempts to demonstrate their power and assume control, musicians present themselves to the public as caring individuals who want to give their best for their fans while instructing their agents to go to extreme lengths and screw fans, promotors and everyone else to make sure that the musician gets every nickel and dime they possibly can while also seeing to it that their image isn’t sullied in any way.  It’s ugly, disgusting and unrelenting.

“Bill Graham Presents” is a fascinating and highly readable portrait of a complex man who was at the center of both the San Francisco psychedelic rock scene and the rise of rock and pop music to a multibillion dollar performance industry in the 1970s and 1980s.  He thought about things like like who he was, what he was doing and what was going on around him in ways that were very different from the way most people think about most things most of the time.  Talking about the early San Francisco days you read Grace Slick and others going on about how Graham was kind of out of it, “not like us”, kind of like their parents only, unlike their parents, they could talk to Graham, but he just wasn’t as advanced in his thinking as they were.  However, you’ve also read Graham talking about his life up to that point and you realize that he was so far out there in terms of the way he looked at and understood things that the counterculture kids couldn’t see him at all.  They were trying to understand Graham by looking back at what they knew which was the wrong direction entirely.  Bill Graham was a fascinating man and “Bill Graham Presents” lets us get to know him in as well as we possibly can now that he’s gone.  Highly recommended.

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08/29/2007 - Posted by | book reviews, music |

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