A Graham of Rock

Here’s a strange coincidence: Both my doctor and my rabbi share the same leisure pursuit: They are passionate about attending rock concerts. U2, The Stones, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen — If they perform, my good doctors of the body and the soul will attend. They both say it’s their way of relaxing from the stress of their respective jobs (and let’s face it, being in charge of my physical and spiritual well-being is some daunting task).

It’s not that I find this coincidence so strange … It’s just that doctors used to be into things like collecting kaleidoscopes, sailing, playing golf or squash and bad real estate investments and rabbis — well I’m not sure rabbis had hobbies other than the traditional staying up all night with the students, fleeing Cossacks or marching in civil rights rallies.

Although I associate the relentless pursuit of rock concerts as a student activity, it makes sense that this has become a leisure pursuit of the baby boomer professional class — a Four Seasons version of their student days — featuring the same bands as they saw (or wished they had seen) in their salad days, only now at exorbitant expense (i.e. ticket brokers, sky boxes, all to the tune of hundreds of dollars, and T-shirts that start at $40). Yes, everything old is new again, and like an iPod on shuffle, we are trapped in an endless looped cycle of our cultural references.

As I write this, I am listening to CD a friend gave me of a Grateful Dead concert we attended together in high school. I must confess that it sounds like I am hearing it for the first time — and God knows what it is I heard then.

And, coincidentally, by virtue of a new Web site, www.wolfgangsvault.com, I have been revisiting my wasted youth, much of which was spent at the Fillmore East in New York
Wolfgang’s vault refers to the archives of Bill Graham, the concert promoter, born Wolfgang Grajonca, who ran the Fillmore West beginning in 1966 and the Fillmore East beginning in 1968 until it closed in 1971, and after that produced many, many concerts and tours until his untimely death in 1991 in a helicopter crash. Although musical omnivores Clear Channel purchased Graham’s business, they agreed several years ago to sell Graham’s archives to Bill Sagan, a Minneapolis businessman who has set up the Wolfgang’s vault Web site to stream performances, as well as sell rock memorabilia.

Graham, whom I interviewed in 1986 for Interview Magazine, was born in Berlin in 1931 to Russian Jewish parents. His father died two days after he was born. Graham was the youngest child and the only boy among five sisters. As the situation in Germany got worse for Jews, his mother sent him and the youngest sister, Tolla, on a kindertransport, which placed them in an orphanage in France.

His eldest sister, Rita, had gone to Shanghai; another sister, Evelyn, fled to Budapest, living on false papers. His mother remained in Berlin, only to be arrested by the SS; she died in a train car on the way to Auschwitz. His sister, Esther, was hidden in a convent in Vienna, but when it was no longer safe there she traveled to Budapest, only to be put on the first train to Auschwitz, from which she survived. Sonja, another sister, also escaped to Budapest, hid there, and ended up living in Vienna after the war.

As for Graham, when the orphanage was no longer safe, a Red Cross worker led him, his sister and the other Jewish children out of France on a journey that took them to Madrid. On the way, his sister fell sick, and Graham was persuaded to let her be taken to a hospital, where she died. He continued on to Lisbon and Casablanca before sailing to Dakar, Bermuda and Cuba, finally arriving in New York in late 1941. After being placed in a Jewish foster home in upstate New York and then settling with a family in the Bronx, Graham attended Dewitt Clinton High school. At 18, he formally changed his name to Bill Graham and attended City College before being drafted for service in the Korean War.

Graham liked to say he was reborn at 35. He had moved to San Francisco and was moonlighting as the business manager of the San Francisco Mime Troupe. When the troupe was busted for a performance that was deemed too “risqué,” Graham staged a benefit concert in a loft with, among others, Allen Ginsberg, the Jefferson Airplane and the Fugs. It was so successful and overcrowded that he staged two more, this time at the Fillmore Auditorium. Graham had found his calling. His first nonbenefit concerts were held at the Fillmore on Feb 4, 5, and 6, 1966, with Jefferson Airplane as the headliners.

Graham opened the Fillmore East on March 8, 1968, with Big Brother and the Holding Company, featuring Janis Joplin, in what had once been a movie palace called the Village Theatre, on Second Avenue and Sixth Street, a few doors down from Ratner’s dairy restaurant.

Graham was gruff and combative — he resented being labeled “the businessman.” As he told me, he saw himself as part of an alternative culture expressed by the performers he was closest to — Joplin, The Dead, Dylan and The Stones — who, voluntarily or involuntary, the public came to see as leaders. Graham gave birth to the modern rock concert phenomenon and saw himself as the enabler of the counterculture, creating communities through events that ranged from Woodstock to Live Aid.

As the promoter, Graham saw himself as having the last word in a democracy created in the service of the artists and the audience. As a member of that audience, I can honestly say, that I never felt Graham was taking advantage of me (as I do today at so many concerts). He gave good value at the Fillmore East.

Thanks to a wonderful book by Amalie Rothschild, “Live at the Fillmore East: A Photographic Memoir” (Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1999, co-authored with Ruth Ellen Gruber), a chronicle more evocative than any dosed Madeleine, I was able to revisit the marquee, the ticket booth, the stage, the balcony, the view from the orchestra, the artists, the light show — all the details of a run-down wonderland locked faraway in the recesses of my mind, including the final image of the Fillmore East marquee with Graham’s parting words to his audience, “Thank you and farewell.”

Even more memory challenging, Rothschild included a list of every concert performed at the Fillmore East. Looking it over was pretty shocking. I remember sitting in the balcony the first time the Who performed “Tommy” in America — and the incredible light show the Fillmore had organized around it. I have an indelible memory of the Grateful Dead’s Pigpen playing stage right on the keyboards and sending flares up into the air as he was playing. Santana, Mountain — I know I saw them at the Fillmore — but others — such as Jeff Beck, Poco, Hot Tuna, Traffic, Johnny Winter — did I see them at the Fillmore or somewhere else? I’m no longer sure.

Here’s another thing I learned. As I looked at the dates of the shows that I know I attended — I realized that I went to several before I had turned 14. Talk about being in a den of iniquity. You might ask: what were my parents thinking?

But it now comes back to me. During the summer of my 13th year, my family went on a European vacation (our first). In Vienna, we visited with Sonja Szobel, who my father had helped escape from a prison in Budapest during the war. She told my father that her brother had just opened up a concert hall in New York, the Fillmore East. My father figured that if her brother was running it, I could go there on my own. It would be fine.

And it was.

Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he’s an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.