More than four decades after its closing, a commemorative plaque was unveiled last night at the site of the Fillmore East, the legendary East Village concert hall at 105 Second Avenue that presented the biggest stars of the music world from 1968 to 1971. A light rain couldn’t dampen the enthusiasm of the crowd that packed the sidewalk in front of what is now an Apple Bank branch.
The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation partnered with Two Boots to honor the iconic rock hall. Special guests included Joshua White, founder of the Joshua Light Show, and Lenny Kaye, rock historian and guitarist of the Patti Smith Group.
Andrew Berman, GVSHP’s executive director, explained that he was too young to attend concerts at the Fillmore but respects its historical importance: “Even for those of us who were not able to experience it ourselves, we know what an incredibly profound impact this particular music venue had on our culture, our music and our neighborhood and so it’s really an honor to be a part of the celebration here today.”Known as the “Church of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the Fillmore East was much more than that. Open for just over three years, producer Bill Graham filled the 2,700-seat theater with shows by the giants of rock, blues and jazz. Guitarist Steve Miller called it “the greatest melting pot of music in the history of civilization.” Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, B.B. King, Led Zeppelin, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton and Elton John all appeared.
Opened in 1926 as the Commodore Theater, it was one of many Yiddish playhouses along Second Avenue, then known as the “Jewish Rialto.” Loews later ran the Commodore as a movie house until, as the Village Theater, live performances returned to its stage.Bill Graham opened the theater as the Fillmore East on March 8, 1968, an East Coast companion to his Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco, which later became the Fillmore West. Tired of the deep-pockets competition for artists from large arenas like Madison Square Garden, the promoter closed the Fillmore East on June 27, 1971. Graham was killed in a helicopter crash in 1991.
The Saint, a concert hall that became a gay nightclub, occupied the space in the 1980s. The building’s façade remains but the site is now shared by the bank and an apartment complex.Joshua White, whose psychedelic light shows provided a trippy backdrop to the Fillmore’s music, spoke affectionately at the unveiling about Bill Graham and his commitment to great music. “The combination of Bill’s immaculate taste for booking acts, the fact that there was a very, very fine crew here who could do it, the fact that we were so young, just gave us a chance to do stuff that hadn’t been done.
“Bill realized early on that if he had a band that would sell out, then he could do whatever he wanted with the opening and the middle acts. So that gave him license to bring in the kind of music that he knew the audience hadn’t seen. This kind of wonderful Latin music, big band music, all kinds of interesting performers and we did a light show behind all of them.”
Lenny Kaye recalled the night the Fillmore opened, March 8, 1968. “I had the pleasure of being here for the opening night at the Fillmore way back in the last century. Big Brother & the Holding Company and Tim Buckley… I saw Neil Young here, I saw the Crazy World of Arthur Brown here.
“All I can remember thinking in those times was how wonderful it would be for me to be on that stage and I guess I finally made it.”
As Kaye introduced his song, marijuana smoke mixed with the drizzle in the air. “I remember the moment when I heard this song on the stage of the Fillmore East at about four o’clock in the morning one summer in 1969, ’70 maybe. The Grateful Dead were finishing a very long set and I was in the middle of a very long acid trip. And I just rode home thinking about this song never dreaming that I’d be able to sing it here at this wonderful theater.”
Kaye, accompanied by a violinist, performed the Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band.” The Fillmore East plaque was then unveiled.