Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution Exhibit belongs in SF

Francis Ford Coppola, Marlon Brando, Bill Graham (Photo: Michael Zagaris)
The name 'Bill Graham' is synonymous with the iconic music explosion of the sixties that reverberated out of San Francisco and throughout the world. In fact, the city recognized the legendary concert promoter's historic and cultural impact by renaming the San Francisco Civic Auditorium -- originally built in 1915(!!!) -- to the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium in 1992 shortly after his death.
Bill Graham (Photo: Ken Friedman)
What I thought I knew of Bill Graham was completely transformed this past week when I took the opportunity to visit the Contemporary Jewish Museum at 736 Mission Street (map) to see the new "Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution" exhibit that will be on display until July 5th.

The exhibit is on loan from the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles and will be hitting two more cities over the next 18 months. When it launched at the Skirball last year, the exhibit marked the 30th anniversary of Live Aid and the 50th anniversary of Bill Graham's first promoted concert -- not to mention the 50th anniversary of the Grateful Dead's live debut.

For those of you not familiar with Bill Graham, he was a legendary concert promotor that worked with just about every top musician to come out of the 60's. But what I never realized, was that Bill Graham was also a Holocaust survivor and later in life, the leading promotor behind benefit concerts such as Live Aid, A Conspiracy of Hope, and Human Rights Now! Although a prolific concert promotor, he always wanted to act -- and was actually type cast as a concert promotor in the films Apocalypse Now and The Doors. He died tragically in a helicopter crash in 1991 flying home from a Huey Lewis and the News benefit show at the Concord Pavilion.

I had the chance to speak with one of Bill's two sons, David Graham, and asked him:

SFBAC: Were you aware of any artist that your dad didn’t work with who he wanted to?

David Graham: Well, he never worked with the Beatles. I think he tried, and I’m not sure how far he went with it. But at one time, there was a crazy idea to have them play Alcatraz and set-up speakers all over the Bay Area and have them play there. That obviously didn’t happen… There were bands that he didn’t work with *again*, that I think he would have liked to… Mainly the Stones, the Stones would be the one… But really, he worked with everyone. And again, the Beatles stopped playing, what, around ’66? And that’s really when he started right around then, so even the Beatles were a bit of a long shot. There were a few bands that wouldn’t work with him for personal reasons, but I don’t think he really cared. No, there were very few bands that he didn’t work with.
Alex & David Graham (Photo: Kevin Keating)
SFBAC: And do you have a favorite concert memory?

David Graham: My favorite concert experience was December 31st 1978, which was the closing of the Winterland. The Winterland was kind of the Fillmore of the late 70’s, and it was decided that it would be closed. The last 5 shows of the month were Dead shows. And basically every New Years Eve was the biggest night of the year for my dad, because it was always a production. Dad always played Father Time, and would always ring in the new year on some sort of contraption. One year he came in on a motorcycle, one year he came down on a lightning bolt, one year he came in on the Golden Gate Bridge. But this year, 1978, at around midnight, the house goes dark, and all the spotlights hit the back of the room and illuminate a huge 10’ joint that’s flying out of the top of the Winterland with my dad in it, throwing out roses, dressed as Father Time. And they had pre-rolled like thousands of joints and put them in bags. All the crew starting handing out joints to the crowd. And as dad’s descending towards the front of the stadium, he hits the stage, the band starts playing "Sugar Magnolia", the balloons come screaming down from the ceiling, the Dead play from like midnight to six in the morning, I think it was like 2 or 3 sets. I was only 10 years old, and at the end of all that, we served breakfast to the crowd… And all of that was preceded by my Aunt Esther and I feeding all the dead heads carrot cake and soup on the corner at like five in the morning, because all the dead heads got in line for New Years Eve the night before. So they were all lined up all day. So basically, the day started with my Aunt and I serving them carrot cake, and ended with my dad coming in on a joint. And as a 10 year old, it was just glorious, because it was completely innocent for me. You know? Everyone else was having a different experience than I was, but it was, perhaps the single most unadulterated display of joy that I’ve ever been around. And so that’s always stuck with me… Now granted, I probably didn’t see one second of the show itself, but as a show experience, it was by far my favorite.

By far, this is an outstanding exhibit showcasing a treasure trove of live music artifacts from Bill Grahams' past. Surprisingly, this will be only a temporary exhibit before traveling to Philadelphia, PA and Skokie, IL later in 2016. Let's hope that it finds a permanent home, where it deserves to stay, in San Francisco at some point in the future.

Be sure to visit the Contemporary Jewish Museum website for more information here.

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