The Unmaking of a Counterculture

Bill Graham was one of those beautiful tyrants of 1960s San Francisco who, along with minicelebrities like lawyer Melvin Belli, Episcopal Bishop James Pike and Satanist Anton LaVey, regularly appeared in Herb Caen’s columns or in the then-local Rolling Stone. Graham was in the news mostly for what he did (staging rock concerts), while the others were there primarily for saying things that were considered outrageous. Graham, who died in a 1991 helicopter crash, is the subject of author Robert Greenfield‘s one-man show Bill Graham Presents, based on Greenfield’s biography of the same name, and essayed at the Canon Theater by actor Ron Silver.

The show begins amiably enough, as we meet Graham fresh from an MTV awards banquet, where he has received a trophy for humanitarianism. The award is bunk, and so is MTV, he lets us know as he slips out of his tuxedo. Greenfield‘s Graham immediately tries to bond with his audience through food -- by dismissing the pastrami sandwich he unwraps as inferior. This is the evening’s first mistake, for Bill Graham was not Henny Youngman, and the attempt to pally up to a presumably large, middle-aged Jewish audience with deli jokes represents the kind of pandering that the real Graham probably would have despised.

From there Graham gets even kinder and gentler, obsessing throughout the 90-minute performance over not having received phone calls from his son David or from Mick Jagger, who has Graham hanging fire until the Rolling Stones decide whether to, once again, have Graham handle their latest tour. In other words, the great promoter is set up as a cultural father figure, and Graham‘s place in rock history is soon forthcoming: how he staged his first concert, a benefit for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, in 1965, then managed the Jefferson Airplane and eventually established his bicoastal Fillmore Auditorium empire.

It’s a rags-to-riches tale, for the German-Jewish Graham grew up in the Bronx after waiting nine weeks for a family to choose him from other children displaced by WWII. Greenfield‘s narrative jumps nimbly back and forth in time, but it is also defined by his subject’s talent for complaining about nearly everyone around him, from those New York Jews who took their sweet time adopting him, to the musicians who are always letting him down or doing terrible things to his dressing rooms. ”This is how crazy I am,“ he is likely to say by way of introducing a story, as though anyone would care to know how crazy a rock promoter is. Graham tries to be self-effacing, but it‘s only a calculated pose. Whenever he cuts corners to make a buck, he portrays himself as being resourceful; when others do it, they are greedy. Indeed, the man’s paranoid, adversarial self-image is summed up in the name of his Marin County aerie -- Masada.

This is a lavish production for a one-man show. The music in a performance such as this must be at least as crisp as Graham keeps telling us his Fillmore sound systems are, and Francois Bergeron‘s design certainly delivers. Keith Ian Raywood’s set evolves from Masada‘s office, whose walls vibrate with muted colors suggesting Graham’s famous black-light concert posters, to the Fillmore West (and the posters themselves), to Manhattan‘s Palladium ballroom, where Graham learned Latin dance in the late 1940s.

As Graham, the normally versatile actor Ron Silver never comes close to matching this layering of stage effects with his own emotional evolution, leaving little edge to his subject. Directed by Ethan Silverman, Silver plays Graham as a sometimes playful, sometimes wounded child of the Bronx who sounds more like Al Pacino in The Panic in Needle Park than like the man with brutish, almost Cro-Magnon features who spoke in a raw, pumpernickel-dense accent. In other words, Silver doesn’t want to be a bad guy, and neither does Greenfield, whose script meanders embarrassingly through forced sentimentality and a mawkish pastiche of rock anthems played out against Mike Baldassari‘s psychedelic light show.

Unfortunately, the implications of many of Graham’s anecdotes go unexplored. At one point, Graham recalls the time an East Village Other writer lamented in print the fact that Graham had escaped the death-camp fate of his family. I can think of no crueler thing to say about another human being, and yet I am even more struck by the kind of visceral personality that would provoke such a comment from the normally pacifist, free-loving counterculture. And remember, this wasn‘t an isolated sentiment: By the end of the 1970s, virulent anti-Graham graffiti were scrawled all over San Francisco by punk rockers enraged by his muscling in on their music turf.

The fact is that Graham was a control freak who insisted on governing the most out-of-control scene in America; furthermore, he was a Holocaust survivor who became a compulsive accumulator -- of food, money and property, but, here at least, seldom of love. He was an outsider’s outsider because as much as he wanted to surrender to rock, wanted to be moved by its bacchantic rhythms, he couldn‘t. Not because he had come from a straight-laced Jewish background or had been born on the wrong side of the English Channel -- he was simply born on the wrong side of 1940, a fact that cut him off from both his artists and his audiences.

Do all those middle-aged and elderly people in the Cañon Theater deserve to see their moment of rock & roll glory told onstage? Absolutely. Does Bill Graham symbolize enough of that glory to warrant a one-man show? Of course. Graham is a more-than-suitable example of the American achiever with the ruinous Midas touch who dies before his time. Yet this play soon veers off into what-were-they-thinking? territory. ”Greed and sickness had taken over,“ Greenfield has his Bill Graham say about the rock business at one point. The fact that the line is delivered with a completely straight face shows how little this Graham understands himself.


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