The Times They Were A’Changin’ part 6

The Times They Were A’Changin’ part 6

The Fillmore Auditorium stood at the corner of Fillmore and Geary.  It had a rather small old fashioned marquee outside which could be changed like one for a movie theatre with black plastic letters arranged against a lit background.  

   On a bright morning in April, 1966, I took a Greyhound bus into the city for my meeting with Bill Graham.  There’s something ghostly about a performance venue when there aren’t any crowds there and the empty Fillmore had just that quality.  As I entered from the street and climbed the wide staircase up to the foyer, I saw a pretty young woman with brown hair, glasses and a sketch pad.  She was drawing a picture and it’s quality told me she was a serious artist.  I introduced myself and she immediately knew who I was.  She was Bonnie MacLean who lived with Bill Graham.  She was warm, friendly and I liked her instantly.  She took me into the small office which sat over the staircase entrance where Bill greeted me.

   I was not surprised to see that he was the thirty something guy with the Frankie Avalon haircut.  I sat in his office for what seemed like a long time as he regaled me with stories about himself.  Whatever else you could say about Bill Graham, he was not dull.  

   He spoke with a broad Bronx accent and I learned that he was Jewish and German and had escaped the Nazis as a young boy.  He’d served in the US military in the Korean war and told me how he’d gone up and down Fillmore Street getting the various tradespeople to help him gain acceptance for putting on his dance concerts at the venue.    

   I’d read stories in the Chronicle about the troubles he’d had with the police who had repeatedly tried to shut him down.  He also told me about the man who managed the Jefferson Airplane and in doing so this charming engaging fellow suddenly exposed his darker side.  His eyes tightened and his teeth bared as he enunciated each syllable of the name Matthew Katz.  One would have thought he was describing Satan himself, so intense was his hatred for this man Katz.

  The job Bill offered me was to paint the two boards at the top of the stairs which would advertise the coming attractions.  Bonnie had been doing them but was happy to turn it over to me.  The pay was a mere $25 per board.  I said yes.  Basically I only had to do one board per week as they worked two weeks ahead.  

   I came away a disciple of Bill Graham’s.  This all happened at a time when my parents, Blackie and Beth decided to rent out their house on Catalpa in Mill Valley and move into the city so that Black could walk to work on the waterfront.  He was now a full member of the ILWU, local 34, which meant he could choose his jobs on the front as a ship’s clerk.

   They moved into a spacious apartment at 929 Union Street on Russian Hill.  It turned out to be very handy for getting to Graham’s venue as there was a bus which came up Union and took me all the way to Fillmore Street where I would transfer.

   My first day there was just after the weekend when Andy Warhol and his Exploding Plastic Inevitable had performed with Nico and the Velvet Underground.  I had never heard of Andy Warhol or Nico or the Velvet Underground so I was particularly taken by Bonnie’s descriptions of the shows.

   She spoke of Nico, being tall and beautiful with a voice which put her in mind of Marlene Dietrich.  She also described Andy Warhol as an absolute weirdo who looked totally uncomfortable and spent each of the three evenings hugging the wall while Paul Morrisey, who directed the films which were being projected did most of the interacting.  

Wes Wilson’s poster for the Andy Warhol “event” at the Fillmore with Frank Zappa’s Mothers as support.

   So I might have been unaware of Warhol’s notoriety but the same could not be said of San Francisco’s society elite who, according to Bonnie, turned up at the Fillmore en masse and she thought they came away very unsure of what they had experienced.

   Ralph Gleason, the jazz critic for the Chronicle gave the three shows a bad review describing the Exploding Plastic Inevitable as boring and uncreative.  He referred to the band as the Velvet Underpants and said the only mildly interesting thing to happen was that the guy dancing with them produced a whip.  The guy dancing with them was Gerard Melanga and over that weekend he was arrested by police in North Beach for carrying a lethal weapon which was, in fact, his whip.  Bill had to go bail this guy out which didn’t please him at all.

   Bonnie, who was a serious artist, was not impressed by Warhol at all but did find the atmosphere his gaggle created to be interesting.  She also felt that Warhol and his crowd were not the kind of New Yorkers that Bill identified with.  She felt they were too limp-wrist rather than hard-edge.  “Lou Reed might have been to his taste a bit,” said Bonnie, “But I think Bill preferred real entertainers to nihilistic philosophers of doom and gloom.”

   Getting down to my first board I followed Bonnie’s instructions and painted the previous sign over with black acrylic.  When that was dry, I would begin designing my picture in white chalk.  When I was happy with the shape and balance of the lettering, I would begin to paint it.  Using acrylic paints, I would fill in the wavy lettering in bright colours.  When that was dry I would take a wet sponge and wipe all the chalk off leaving just the bright colours against the black background.

   My first show was for June 10th and 11th featuring Jefferson Airplane and The Great Society.  I had only heard the Airplane on the radio with their hit single It’s No Secret but I had actually seen The Great Society with the very good looking Grace Slick performing at a shopping center at Strawberry in Mill Valley.

Jefferson Airplane as they were at this time. From left: Marty Balin, Spencer Dryden, Signe Anderson, Paul Kantner, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady.

   I would usually spend a few days on each board.  My only deadline was that it had to be ready for the next show on Friday night.  In fact it was pleasurable.  Bonnie was often there and she was a proper conversationalist so we would talk a lot.  

   Another regular face was Jim Haynie who was Bill’s handy man.  Jim was tall, probably late 20s with longish hair and he always seemed to be quietly amused by Bill who he called “Willy.”

   One highly entertaining aspect of being at the Fillmore during the daytime was hearing Bill on the phone in his office.  He had a very loud voice and an equally short temper and there was none of that ‘lock the door and whisper’ stuff.  He would bellow down the phone at whoever the poor person was on the other end.  “What are you trying to do, kill me?” 

   On Friday afternoons Wes Wilson would appear with a big brown package which contained the new posters, fresh from the printer.  Wes was very friendly with long dark hair and, like Bonnie, he was conversational.  One thing he was constantly talking about was the airbrush he was planning to buy.  I had no idea what an airbrush was or what it did but Wes made it sound like it would solve all his graphic problems.

Artist Wes Wilson who did all the posters for the Fillmore Auditorium in 1966.

   I remember Bill getting his ladder out and with his staple gun putting a row of the new posters up just above the staircase.  He then stood back, staring at the new poster and raised his right arm towards it with an extended thumb.  He then rotated his thumb from 12 to 9 o’clock.  What this procedure was meant to achieve only Bill knew but I think he was trying to find some clearcut way of judging the poster art.  Bill was about thirty five at this time and most of the bands he was booking were part of a scene he knew very little about.  He was of the generation which had idolised Frank Sinatra and really had no knowledge of artists like Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones.  I think he spent a lot of time and energy trying to formulate opinions he didn’t yet have.  Also he and Bonnie were not hippies.  He didn’t smoke or drink and he worked a very long day.

   The main rival to the Fillmore Auditorium at this time was the Avalon Ballroom which also ran dance concerts with psychedelic light shows on the weekends.  These were put on by a company called The Family Dog which was presided over by Chet Helms, a bearded long haired hippy from Texas.  Bill and Chet were very different.  I remember Bill saying: “What Chet doesn’t understand is that you’ve got to get up in the morning.”

Two rivals running dance/concerts in San Francisco in 1966. Chet Helms (on the left) and Bill Graham (on the right) both standing in front of photographer Herb Greene’s famous wall.

   One of the reasons that Bill was always up and at his desk in the mornings was to haggle with the agents in New York as there was a three hour time difference.  Bill was an unapologetic businessman first while Chet was a hippy first and a businessman second.  And when it came to dealing with the agents in New York, Bill regularly outsmarted Chet.

   As time went by I got to know several of the musicians in the different bands.  John Cippolino was the lead guitarist in the Quicksilver Messenger Service and he was a Mill Valley boy who had been in my sister Katie’s class at Old Mill School.  But the skinny short haired kid in her class photo bore little resemblance to the long haired cowboy hippy he was today.  They were managed by an older man named Ron Polte who I became friendly with.  I also became friendly with Marty Balin, the lead singer in Jefferson Airplane as well as their drummer Spencer Dryden.  

The Quicksilver Messenger Service with John Cippolino (centre) who had grown up in Mill Valley.

   Bill had already told me of his hatred for the Airplane’s manager Mathew Katz but it soon became clear that he was he was now in league with the band’s publicist and sometime road manager, Bill Thompson, and was hoping that Thompson would take over the management of this now very successful group.

   So I found myself something of a fixture at the Fillmore, painting the boards, meeting the bands, listening to Bill on the phone and getting to know most of the people who worked there.  It was an interesting scene to be observing for I was more of an observer than a participant.  I was only nineteen and living at home with my parents while most of the participants in this world were grown-ups out making their way in the big world.  Also I was still very involved with my Mill Valley friends who were all getting stoned and experimenting with LSD.  I could not see at all clearly what a turbulent time lay ahead.

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Author: milleravenuemusings

I am a semi-retired actor, singer and graphic designer who once designed posters for Bill Graham's legendary Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco in the late 1960s.

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