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Bill Graham Interview

He wasn't a singer. He wasn't a songwriter. He wasn't even a musician. Yet, he's one of the all time legends of the rock world. He — is Bill Graham.

Bill Graham burst onto the national scene in the 60's with his Fillmore West and Fillmore East concert halls. He was at the center of the concert promotion business in San Francisco, and later New York. He knew and promoted all of rock's greatest talents.

However, to say that Bill Graham was just a promoter would not do him justice. He was much more than that. He was one of the most colorful characters the world of entertainment has ever known.

Sadly, Bill Graham was killed in a freak helicopter accident in October of 1991. He was 60 years young.

Before he died, Bill collaborated with writer Robert Greenfield on his autobiography. Titled "Bill Graham Presents, My Life Inside Rock and Out," it's published by Doubleday.

We talked with Robert Greenfield about Bill Graham.

Q. There are some people who, for whatever reasons, you can't imagine being dead. You think they'll be around forever. Bill Graham was one such person. Since you spent so much time with him, did you find him to be this larger than life kind of character?
A. You know, I think it's true that nobody who knew Bill really ever thought that he would be dead. Most of the people who worked for him were 10, 15 and 20 years younger. I'm referring to the musicians, The Grateful Dead, people in the Jefferson Airplane. I believe that most of them thought they would work for Bill for the rest of their lives. I think they always thought that they would die before he did. Bill was, in the words of the cliché, someone who never was sick a day in his life. He had super human energy, even at the age of 60. There were people who were 20 years younger than him who had difficulty staying up with him, in terms of work. And, in terms of work, I don't think I ever met anybody who could work harder or go longer without feeling fatigued. So, the death in this case being sudden and dramatic by nature came as even more of a shock to everybody. People who knew him, I don't think can still really comprehend the fact that he isn't here with us anymore.

Q. When Bill comes on the screen in "Bugsy," he's right where he belongs. He is a star, and it's clear he no longer needed to promote other people. Had Bill lived, would he have divorced himself from the concert promotion business and concentrated on his acting career?
A. Bill basically was an actor. It was the great desire of his life to become one. One of the great rejections and one of the great traumatic experiences of his life was when he was forced to realize that he could not deal with the rejection associated with the business of acting. He couldn't take being passed over for parts that he thought he was right for, and therefore gave up acting. It was the frustration of having given it up, and having gone into a straight job that really led him to putting on concerts, rock 'n' roll shows. Having been with him personally at the time when the role of Lucky Luciano was offered to him by Barry Levinson in "Bugsy," I can't tell you how delighted Bill was. He was like a child and totally possessed by the part. It wasn't like he was concentrating on other things while he was acting in "Bugsy." He really made this the focus of his life. I do believe, if he had lived, you would have seen him doing a lot more acting. It was something that gave him great personal satisfaction.

Q. Marty Balin (Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship) believes that if Bill Graham had not been around, there would have been no San Francisco scene, as there was, in the mid 60's. Is that how you see it?
A. I think there would have been a scene in San Francisco in the 60's, with or without Bill. I don't know if that scene would have survived, and I don't know if it would have become a national scene. What Bill did was legitimize the scene in San Francisco. He made sure the bands were paid. He made sure the shows began on time. He made sure that the people who came to those shows were given their money's worth. There would have been many ballrooms that went into business and went out of business without Bill. Bill's greatest contributions to the music business was that he took what was going on in San Francisco, and brought it back to New York, and changed it for the Fillmore East. In other words, he gave New York, what New York wanted, which was the music set in a very professional, very legitimate theater setting, with the lights and sound, at it's highest level. It was Broadway. He took Broadway, and brought it into the Bay Area rock scene, and I don't think that would have happened without him.

Q. How did you hook up with Bill to co-author this book?
A- I first encountered Bill by going to concerts at the Fillmore East. The first show I saw at the Fillmore East was in the summer of 1969. It was ten years after opening, the Staple Singers were on in the middle and the headlining act was Big Brother and the Holding Co. with Janis Joplin. I then went regularly to the Fillmore East every Friday night, to the late show, which was the show that everybody who thought they were cool would go to. I first met Bill in 1972. I wrote a book called, "STP, A Journey, Through America with The Rolling Stones." On the ‘72 Tour, The Stones did 4 shows at Winterland for Bill. After the tour, I went to Bill’s house in Mill Valley and I interviewed him. He was just so funny. The stuff he gave me was so outrageous that Bill made his way into the book to a far greater degree than I think I had thought he would. (Laughs). From that point on whenever I could I would go up to his shows, and we would nod to each other and say hello. It was always Bill's idea to do this book. He had the typical immigrant's need who makes it big in America to show everybody what they had done, and how they had done it. He talked about doing the book for years. I think at one point Alex Haley was being considered as his co-author. For what reason he selected me, I have no idea. Bill had a very sharp sense of people and who he hired to work with him and for him. He saw things in people that reflected aspects of himself. On some level we share a general background. I'm also from New York City. Why he selected me, only Bill knows, and he's not around to tell us.

Q. How long did it take to put this project together?
A, It took us very, very long. We worked on it for nearly 5 years. Part of the problem was Bill would never take a day off his real work, to work on the book. So, we would work weekends, holidays. I would often go months without Bill giving me my interviews for the book. When we worked together, it was very intense. Bill could sit for 12 to 14 hours at a clip and talk. All I would do is change cassettes and try to stay up with him. But, he had so many other things going on that I was forced to go out and find other people to fill in the gaps in his story. Aside from Bill, there are over 120 speakers in the book.

Q. Was it a highly emotional experience for Bill to recount his childhood days? Did he ever break down and cry?
A. That's a really good question. Bill's memory of his early childhood was pretty much depressed, and he doesn't really recount his earliest days in the book. His sisters and the people who knew him back then, tell those stories. The astonishing thing about Bill was that he had a lot of distance from his own life. He was disassociated from his own experience. I can remember sitting with him in the house the first time he read his book, the first time he looked at his own book. There's a part where we go from his sister Esther being in Auschwitz to Bill being in the schoolyard in the Bronx. People who really don't know that much about the Holocaust, or have that much personal association with it, have read that section of the book and cried, and really been upset about it. Bill read it, looked up at me and said, " Auschwitz. Schoolyard. Nice Cut."

Q. How hard was it for Bill to remember Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, and Jimi Hendrix? Did that bring him down?
A. It was not hard for him to remember them at all. The interesting thing about Bill is that his father died before he was born. His mother died when he was very young. His sister died when he was walking with her to escape the Nazis. He was someone who was accustomed to death and what it does to those who remain behind. I was with him on the day that Paul Butterfield died, and that was someone who basically worked for Bill as much as anybody, who was the house band at both the original Fillmore and the Fillmore East. I was devastated. Bill was not. When someone died, for Bill they were gone. I don't think he grieved that much for their loss, and it was one of the reasons why he was able to survive. It might sound hard to say that about him, but I believe he makes a comment in the book and admits that he misled himself. He walled himself off from feeling this kind of pain, because if he had felt this kind of pain, I don't know if he would have been able to survive.

Q. Do you realize that in Syracuse, Bill's death did not even make the front page? Was he thought of as a West Coast personality? How did L.A. and San Francisco cover his death?
A. I would say that the coverage of his death was actually fairly extensive, perhaps not in Syracuse but it was a running story on CNN throughout the day. It was in fact front page news in all the San Francisco and Los Angeles newspapers. Bill got an extensive obituary in the London Times which is something not offered to many Americans, much less Americans in the field of rock 'n' roll or pop culture.

Q. Merchandising has long been recognized as one of the most profitable businesses in the entertainment industry. So why then did Bill sell his merchandising company to M.C.A.?
A. I think the business was sold because an enormous price was offered for it, and the people who were running it, saw a chance to cash out, I guess. It is an enormously profitable business. I think there's probably more money in t-shirts now then there is in selling tickets to rock 'n' roll shows. This is something that 20 years ago did not exist. There were no t-shirts associated with going to shows. (Laughs). You just went there for the music.

Q. Bill was really upset about losing the '89 Stones Tour. How come? He'd already promoted them in ‘81.
A. Well, he had already promoted them in '81, but I think I try to make it plain in the book that professionally that was probably the highlight of Bill's life. The Stones to him represented his own career. As Jon Landau (Bruce Springsteen's manager/ex- Rolling Stone writer) points out, they are the only band left from Bill's original era. Bill was the only guy left from his own original era. I think he had it in his mind that if he could put on the Steel Wheels Tour, it would be his farewell to the business that he helped create. He assumed that he was going to get the tour, and it proved to be an incorrect assumption. It's a pretty painful section in the book. Bill really suffered. It was astonishing to me, that someone his age could be in that much pain, but really losing The Stones Tour in 1989, was the signal event of Bill's last years. I think it changed him more radically as a person than almost anything else he came in contact with in the world of rock 'n' roll.

Q. How was Bill as a manager? Did any of the acts he managed suffer because he played this dual role as manager and promoter?
A. I don't think Bill was the best manager that ever lived. I think that's made plain in the book when Janis Joplin calls him and begs him to manage her. He turns her down and sends her to Albert Grossman. Certainly, he could've made a lot of money managing her, but as he says in the book, he knows it would've been a full-time job. Now, not only is managing a full-time job, but it requires you to put your ego below that of the performers and basically take care of and provide for and worry about and be really concerned about, every aspect of the star's life. Bill did not have the personality to do that. He managed Van Morrison at one point. It was an insane and disastrous relationship. On a long term basis, he managed Santana through other people as well as personally. That was also a difficult relationship although Carlos (Santana) has nothing but respect and admiration for Bill, and recognizes him as the person who really did help Santana's career from the beginning. Bill Graham's company manages Eddie Money. That's a long term relationship. They manage the Neville Bros. They manage Joe Satriani. I think Bill did best as a manager when he allowed other people to do the hands-on managing.

Q. How will Bill Graham be remembered? What is his legacy?
A. I don't know how Bill will be remembered, but I think his legacy is everywhere. His legacy is MTV (Laughs), although they may not realize it, and didn't pay any attention whatsoever to this book. They would not exist if it were not for Bill Graham. His legacy is not just the music business. His legacy is all those shows. It's not even the music per se, because Bill did not create the music. All those artists created the music. What Bill did was give these artists a place to perform their music where people could sit in an atmosphere and experience the high degree of art that was in that music and in those performances. What Bill did was to take an illegitimate form and make it legitimate. What Bill did was give his heart and his soul and his passion and all the years of his adult life to something he loved, which was rock 'n' roll and the people who were in rock 'n' roll. I think his other great legacy is the fact that Bill raised more money for good charitable causes through rock 'n' roll then any other man who will ever live. He was obsessed with the need to do benefits and he was obsessed with the need for rock 'n' roll and the business of music to have some kind of social and political conscience. In terms of the good work he did through the money he raised, Bill will also never be forgotten.

© Gary James All Rights Reserved