Concert promoter Bill Graham brought rock royalty to the East Village in 1968 when he opened Fillmore East. Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Who, Elton John, the Allman Brothers and Eric Clapton all performed at the former movie theater at 105 Second Avenue. Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution explores the impresario’s life and career in an exhibition that opens today at the New-York Historical Society.
At an event last night, guests got a first look at more than 300 items, including rock memorabilia, photographs and concert posters that spanned Graham’s arrival in New York at age 11 after escaping Nazi Germany; his move to San Francisco, where he began his career in rock when he founded the original Fillmore and Fillmore West; his return to New York to launch Fillmore East; and the philanthropic causes he championed until his death in a helicopter crash in 1991.
A large part of the Fillmore East experience was the Joshua Light Show, the hypnotic liquid light show that provided a psychedelic backdrop to the performers. Multimedia artist Joshua White created an installation of wildly colorful, choreographed projections set to music that greets visitors as they enter the exhibit.
“I was called by the Skirball Center in Los Angeles when they were first putting the show together,” says White. “They wanted a modern light show cut to historic Bill Graham concerts.
“We shot the video for this installation but the techniques are the old techniques. The Joshua Light Show started performing again in 2005 and we made a video specifically for this show.”
During Fillmore East’s three-year run, Graham split his time between San Francisco and New York. Jerry Pompili, a member of the Board of Directors of the Bill Graham Memorial Foundation, was the House Manager of Fillmore East. He recalled Graham’s feuds with the local press.
“The relationship with the Village Voice was very good but when you get to the East Village papers, the East Village Other, the Rat, Bill was the big capitalist asshole to all of them. Bill didn’t really care about people calling him that. Bill used to say, ‘It’s not the money, it’s the money.’ People always misunderstood that.
“‘It’s not the money’ means, it’s the game. And ‘it’s the money’ means that’s how you keep score. Bill was playing the game in a time with some really good game players. Guys like Irving Azoff and Howard Rose, the agent. These were tough guys. And Bill just loved dealing with these guys and fighting with them and he loved them. Because where’s the fun in browbeating some schlub?”
In Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out, written with Robert Greenfield, Graham recalled a confrontation at Fillmore East with the Hell’s Angels. “A group of Angels came into the outer lobby and asked if they could get in. I was standing outside the doors that led into the inner lobby and there must have been a hundred people there, 30 to 40 of them bikers. We were going through the same kind of rap I would always do with them, me explaining that we were sold out and there were no seats.
“They said, ‘Open the fucking doors!’ I said, ‘You can’t come in here this way, and that’s the way it is.’ There was a yell and from the very back of the crowd, this guy threw a chain at me. A tow chain.”
“I was standing right next to him,” says Pompili. “All of a sudden it just stopped and Bill just stood there, a little blood coming off of his nose. And he just glared at them.”
“There was almost no sound,” wrote Graham. “They just left. From that point on, there were really no problems with the Angels in New York.”
Greenfield moderated a panel discussion with former Fillmore East staffers that included Pompili, White and film director Allan Arkush. It was an hour rich with tales of the excessive tastes and outsized talents of the bands Graham presented to New York audiences.
“New York’s the greatest city in the world,” says Pompili. “If Bill had a choice to do anything other than what he was doing, I heard him say this many times, it would be mayor of New York City.”
Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution is on view Feb. 14 – Aug. 23, 2020 at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West at 77th Street. Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: How One Venue Changed Rock Music Forever, to be released later this year.