I Was A Teenage Hippy Poster Artist part 2
My time at the Fillmore Auditorium throughout 1966 was exciting. I enjoyed designing and painting the boards at the top of the stairs and hanging around the place was so interesting. Bill Graham alone was a fascinating guy and listening to him wheel and deal on the phone was mesmerising.
Also I became part of the furniture there. When I’d stay for an evening show I would hang out with Rock Scully’s brother Dicken whose job was guarding the door to the band room and making sure that only certain people entered. Bill had a lot of people working for him and though he wasn’t making any of them rich he was very honourable about paying them on time. This fact alone put him ahead of Chet Helms over at the Avalon Ballroom.
A night at the Fillmore finished about two in the morning and Bill would be there sweeping up as the last patrons left. He would be back at his desk early that same morning to get the New York agents on the phone. This was what he meant when he criticised Chet Helms for not getting up in the morning. He worked a punishing schedule and there were few jobs he’d delegate to others. Of course the posters were designed by Wes Wilson and, at this time, that was one area where Bill didn’t interfere. Wes would show up on Friday afternoons with that week’s posters wrapped in brown paper and Bill would put them up and look at them. On Saturday mornings he’d put them in a special knapsack and drive his Vespa over to North Beach where he’d put them up in City Lights bookshop and other places then he’d cross the Bay Bridge to Berkeley where he’d put them up all over the place.
While painting the boards I got to know a lot of the musicians as they’d lug their equipment up the stairs. One fellow who had looked very different when he was in my sister Katie’s class at Old Mill School was John Cipollina, the lead guitarist for the Quicksilver Messenger Service. He had seriously long straight dark hair, a thin handsome face and usually wore a black cowboy hat.
Quicksilver was managed by Ron Polte, a guy about Bill’s age who didn’t look at all like a hippy. He had short hair and wore horn rimmed glasses. All of these bands were constantly looking for graphic design ideas so one night I went over to the house in the Haight where Quicksilver was living. Polte may not have looked like a hippy but as I walked in the door he handed me an enormously fat joint and within moments I was seriously stoned. I doodled some ideas on the pad I’d brought with me and one by one the various band members came over to see what I was doing. Cipollina was particularly friendly and took more of an interest than the other guys.
Now the Grateful Dead were managed by two guys who definitely looked like hippies: Rock Scully and Danny Rifkin. Rock’s dark hair was straight and Danny’s was curly and they both looked very out there. I remember one day at the Fillmore when they turned up to see Bill. They both had expressions of glee on their faces and all I could hear as they sat down in Bill’s tiny office was: “We’ve got fifty grand, man.” Bill closed the door so I heard no more but presumably they wanted advice as to what they should do with this money.
I did lots of work on spec for all these groups in the hope that a commission would come my way but there were aways obstacles. Marty Balin nixed most of my efforts because I kept including vintage prop planes in my designs. “We’re not an airplane, man,” he complained. And with the Grateful Dead it was Bob Weir who moaned about designs using skulls and bones. Mind you this didn’t stop me trying.
The situation with the Airplane’s management was changing by the day. The first time I met Bill Graham he told me about their manager Matthew Katz, a man he had an almost irrational hatred for. Bill Thompson, who he had known from when he was a copy boy at the Chronicle, was now the Airplane’s road manager and Graham was angling for him to take over the band’s management from Katz. Thompson was constantly on the phone asking Graham for advice and I once heard Bill say: “I don’t want to take them away from you but if I have to, I will.” I repeated this to Wes Wilson one day and Wes said: “That means he’s going to.” It was a prophecy which came true.
Bill Graham was a very complicated person. Born Wolf Wolodia Grajonca into a Jewish family in Berlin in 1931, he had five sisters and as his father died just after his birth, his mother put him and one sister into an orphanage which then sent the children to France to escape the Nazis. Soon after their arrival, the second world war began and when the Nazis invaded France in 1940, Wolf and his sister were herded south with the other Jewish children towards the Spanish border. Tragically his sister died of pneumonia so it was only young Wolf who arrived in Manhattan on his own where he was put in a foster home in the Bronx. The kids at school made fun of his German accent and called him a Nazi spy. Bill and his step brother worked hard on his accent and ultimately he became someone who spoke like he was from the Bronx. He also was drafted into the US Army and served as a soldier in the Korean War.
So there was a complicated set of experiences behind the decisions this man, now called Bill Graham, would make as he made his way through the emerging rock music scene in San Francisco. At each evening show at the Fillmore Bill would march from station to station checking every detail: the boxoffice, the bar, the light show, the musicians. He was a formidable character who faced every challenge head on. He seemed to have no fear at all and I saw him confront some very scary guys. He was tough and direct and his ability to make split second decisions was impressive.
The music he was selling was not something he was familiar with. He was of the generation that idolised Frank Sinatra and Eddie Fisher and a few of the bookings he made through the New York agents were not as well judged as they might have been. He presented Sam The Sham and the Pharaohs for a weekend and this group which had hit records like Wooly Bully and Little Red Riding Hood were just not as hip as the Airplane or the Dead, but Bill never made the same mistake twice. Other hitmakers he booked were The Association, The Turtles, The Young Rascals and a return gig for the Irish band Them. Their support act was The Sons of Champlin run by Bill Champlin from my year at Tam High.
Graham was constantly innovating and turned the big space on the top floor into a dining area serving food. It seemed to be popular with the crowds. They served hamburgers.
By now I had taken LSD a few times but my experiences had been very mild. One of the young women behind the bar asked me if I wanted to buy some acid so I decided to have a go and paid her five dollars for a tab which she assured me was “very good.” I dropped it just as the crowds were coming in. I walked over to have a chat with Dicken Scully as he guarded the door to the musicians’ room then had a wander around and bumped into someone I knew from Tam High. It was Nina Wachs who was two years older than me and lived up on Molino in Mill Valley above our old house on Seymour. It was unusual to have somebody familiar to talk to at the Fillmore so we went upstairs for a bite to eat in Bill’s new dining experience.
It was pretty clear that Nina was not a hippy. She was dressed very smartly and had a clear eyed intensity about her but she was interested in the scene and that was why she’d come to the Fillmore. As the Chronicle was featuring daily stories on its front page about the Haight Ashbury and LSD, it was the current subject of interest and Nina was intrigued by it all. So as we munched our hamburgers I told her that I had dropped acid not long ago and would be coming on sometime soon. This fascinated her and she was curious to observe any change in my behaviour.
I must have finished my meal before the effects began to take hold and the first change I noticed was that my vision became compartmentalised. Every object in front of me, the plate, the glass, the fork, each shape became a separate swirling entity with a life of its own. Soon the room was a cascade of shapes which all had the texture of a giant fingerprint which was constantly moving. The sensation I then experienced was that my identity was dripping away from me and I felt the need to hold onto it. I told Nina all of this and she became a bit alarmed for me. I could hear Van Morrison’s rabid vocals from the dance floor below as he seemed to be improvising like a wild animal and it made my sense of panic increase.
I kept saying: “I must hold on! I mustn’t let go!” Nina asked if I wanted to leave and I said yes. She’d come by car. We got up from the table and I found myself clinging to her and repeating my mantra: “I must hold on! I mustn’t let go!” We walked down the steps towards the foyer. The wild screaming of Van Morrison continued from the dance floor. I saw Bill Graham march towards his office, taking his keys out of his pocket to unlock the door and the expression on his face was that of an angry monster. This was nothing new but in my current condition he was just another horror to avoid.
Nina walked me down the steps to the foyer and then down again and out onto Geary where her car was parked. She asked where I would like to go. I was able to think clearly enough. I considered going back to my parents’ flat in North Beach but quickly came to the conclusion that it would be a nightmare. If I were to tell them what I was going through it would throw them into a panic. A mutual friend lived near to Nina’s house in Mill Valley and we decided that was my destination as this guy had a small house out in their garden where he slept.
Nina’s presence at the Fillmore that night was a godsend. As I hadn’t known anything about the experience I was to have until I was having it, she looked after me and was a good friend. She dropped me at my pal’s place where I sat up hallucinating into the early hours. I guess this was what my friends described as a bad trip. When I woke in the morning all the swirling fingerprint shapes were gone and I was back in control of myself. As I walked down Molino to put my thumb out, I knew I’d take it again. Having a ‘good trip’ became an aspiration.
Back at the Fillmore an opportunity came my way. Due to his workload Wes Wilson was unable to do a poster for the dance/concert featuring The Mothers and Bill agreed that I could have a go at it. I had to go out to the apartment in the Haight district where he and his wife Eva lived. Wes gave me the copy which had to be on the poster and an 8×10 photo of Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention. As I got up to leave Eva, who was many months pregnant, asked me if I was any relation to Nell Myers. I said she was my sister. It turned out that Eva’s maiden name was Bessie and she was the daughter of my parents’ good friend Alvah Bessie. “You’d better sit down again, John,” said Wes.
Being a copy cat I used the colour combination that Wes had utilised on his Lenny Bruce poster. I sat down at my parents’ kitchen table about 8pm and worked through the night. As dawn broke I had the artwork complete and took it to the printer. Wes had briefed me on the process. They would shoot a negative and positive film of the artwork and use them to do the colour separation. The result was good and I was very pleased with my first effort. Wes was paid $150 per poster and said I should get the same and that I must write the year and a © symbol next to my name as this would ensure that the copyright was mine. So I wrote ©1966 John H. Myers.
Bill Graham, however, was not of the opinion that I should be paid as much as Wes for my poster. This guy who worked every hour he could around the clock took a big chunk out of his working day to negotiate with me. One thing I learned as I sat in Bill’s little office that day was that any chance to negotiate was, for Bill, like catnip to a kitten. He simply could not resist. He explained that he was giving me an opportunity that was worth much more than the fee I was asking for. His theory was not unlike that of low budget Hollywood director Roger Corman who paid actors and technicians rock bottom wages but gave them all a chance to prove themselves. I honestly don’t remember the outcome of this talk and how much I was paid but I never had to go through it again. This was my first professional job for Bill and I was determined that it wouldn’t be my last.
To be continued…
I must thank a few people in researching this piece: Deborah Wachs, the late Wes Wilson, the late Bonnie MacLean and Natalie Snoyman of the Mill Valley Library. Two books have also been helpful: Rage & Roll – Bill Graham and the Selling of Rock by John Glatt and Bill Graham Presents by Bill Graham and Robert Greenfield.
For those researching Mill Valley history you can contact Natalie Snoyman: email@example.com