Monday, October 10, 2011

Bill Graham by Tom Pitts

It was a Bill Graham event. They were all Bill Graham events. In the late Eighties in San Francisco, if you were somewhere that needed tickets, a place so big that you couldn’t go to the door and pay a cover charge, in other words, somewhere that wasn’t cool, then you were at a Bill Graham event. He’d cornered the market on rock and roll in the Bay Area since the Sixties. I’d been to his shows, eaten his famous free apples. Overripe and overrated, the both of them.

I’d never met him. I’d done deliveries to the underpaid employees at Bill Graham Productions on 5th Street. I’d seen the tired arrogance in their eyes. It was nice being that close to the rock legend, glancing quickly at old Fillmore posters and gold records on the walls as those same tired arrogant eyes watched me leave, making sure I’d didn’t linger in their hallowed halls. It was a different world from the promoters of the punk dives and shithole bars I was used to playing. Such a great divide that I never considered the possibility of being part of that world, Bill Graham’s world, the man that made rock and roll happen in the Bay Area for the last twenty years.

In fact, I never would have been at this show, at Shoreline Amphitheater sweating my ass off in the midday sun, had I not had a friend that knew someone in the band. Didn’t everybody have a friend that knew someone in the band? The show was Aerosmith and Guns and Roses. Guns and Roses were the band of the moment, the act that everyone wanted to see, to be a part of, to emulate, to know, and in Bill Graham’s case, have a piece of.

The excitement was in the air, billowing up like the plumes of pot and cigarette smoke that, mixed with the sun-kissed sweat, gave that certain stink that only a rock concert could give. Even though we had seats, everyone was on their feet, clapping and shouting out to and open and empty stage. It was well over an hour before the opening act, Guns and Roses, was slotted to begin and we were already being jostled and shoved by the throngs of rockers behind us.

It had been so long since I’d been to a big rock show, the chants and shouts were foreign to me. The styles were the same, but the people seemed drunker, sloppier, but happier. There was a harmonious mellow buzz building that was starting to make me feel like I was part of something bigger, a historic rock and roll moment.

That’s when I saw him. The Man, Bill Graham. He was only a few feet from me, walking up the isle, smiling and shaking hands like a politician. People were in awe, they treated him like a rock star. Sullen fans who’d been bitching about being gouged on ticket prices moments before were now reaching out, crying, “Bill, Bill!”

I was amazed; he was so close, so approachable, so accessible that I wondered was it was really him.

“Is that who I think it is?” I asked my friend standing beside of me.

“Yeah,” said Greg nonchalantly. He’d grown up in the Bay; he’d seen Bill do his diplomatic schtick many times before.

I was too cool to stick my hand out like a teenage girl who’d first laid eyes on the real Paul McCartney, but I was deeply impressed by Graham’s confidence and swagger. I watched him work his way up the isle before turning to Greg and making some snotty remark about Bill’s financial status.

It couldn’t have been a minute later when we were shoved forward. A violent jolt that broke the harmony. The cigarette hanging from my mouth singed some frizzy blonde hair right in front of me. There was a commotion behind us, shouting, we’d gone from Woodstock to Altamont in the matter of a few seconds. I turned my head, all heads turned; we all wanted to see the side show. I could see a cluster of yellow security jackets moving around like angry bees, pushing people back, barking orders. I could hear yelling, but all I could see was the backs of the people clustered ahead of me.

Then the crowd parted and I saw Bill. His face was red and he was shouting unintelligible profanities. I wondered if someone had hit him. Then I saw the head clamped under his arm. Bill was dragging some unruly full-price ticketholder out in a headlock. He marched down the isle with some denim cloaked longhair locked under his wing like it was no more than a sack of potatoes. With a gang of supposedly trained yellow-jacketed security thugs by his side, the legend, Bill Graham, had taken it upon himself to police his subjects personally. His eyes were wild with rage, but I could tell that he was in his element. This was the real business of rock and roll. He was doing what he did best. It was the: If you want something done right, do it yourself work ethic that had made the man who he was.

I looked back at Greg, stunned. Stunned by the violence, stunned by man. I was star struck.

“Now that,” smiled Greg, “was Bill Graham.”

Tom Pitts 9\28\11