A midnight Rambler

I really was not into Rock and Roll until my 40’s.  I was re-inspired tonight by a documentary on the Stones (Crossfire Hurricane) on HBO …..it will continue to be shown at various times.

It was produced by the Stones…and I think it showed some footage from Robert Frank’s 1972 documentary “c*** s*****  blues” which is owned by the Stones and they never permitted a public showing (although I was fortunate enough to see it in 1974 when Frank brought his copy to UC Berkeley.  We sold advance tickets through BASS Tickets with CS blues as the title).  There were some very depressing scenes in it from open sex on the plane to Keith shooting himself up back stage…..They did have some flashes of the plane footage.

I can’t tell you how many times I have seen the Stones, certainly after 1974 whenever they were in the Bay Area.  I think they still are the best-performing band.  The Who was more musically constructed, Springsteen more powerful, but nobody is as much fun as Mick and the gang.

It is so hard to try to tell anyone who has only listened to recordings the effect that live music has on a listener…..it can transform you.  For some reason some artists seem to have a shield between them and the audience; in my experience Merle Haggard, Bob Seger, Whitney Houston, and Diana Ross fall into that category; you like their music, you want to see them, and somehow they don’t move you.

The Stones can move the Walking Dead.  You know all of their songs, Mick’s moves, Keith and Ron’s riffs and Charlie’s indifference, but you just don’t want them to stop.  When I first saw Ron Wood he was with Faces, the band that played with Rod Stewart; he belongs in the Stones; some how those craggy faces seem to fit each other.

Photo by Rubenjob from stock.xchng.com.

They spent quite a bit of time in the documentary at the Altamount concert.  Bill Graham refused to front their free concert; he felt there was no way it could be secure, and it certainly wasn’t.  Watch it and see just how terrifying it was.  No real security, not the best idea to get the Hells Angels to do it for beer.  and I think I saw Deakon out front.

The best was when Bill convinced the group to do some dates at Winterland along with the big outdoor stadium shows.  To hear any of these groups in this intimate surrounding was a great experience.  At that hallowed 4400 seat venue I also saw The Last Waltz withThe Band and Dylan,  Blue Oyster Cult, Montrose (with Sammy Hagar), the Pretenders, the Sex Pistols, and on and on.  And I had the thrill of hearing the one band I managed (in my spare time !), the Russian Rockers Sasha and Yuri open for Blue Oyster Cult at Winterland.

I truly feel sorry for those today who don’t have exposure to these great musicians, with ticket prices at $10 and service charge of $2.50 (with $1 going to Bill Graham).  Brown Paper Tickets could make everyone honest and draw more people if everyone used them.

I would say to you all, if you get one more chance to see these almost 70-year old rockers – and it is the only live concert you go to that year – do so…….It is one of these things that will always stay with you.  and please complain about the service fees.  Tickets for the December show at Barclay Center in Brooklyn are on sale:  $454 plus $46.50 service fee…….the service fee alone is over 3 times what the tickets cost for the Stones when we sold them……sorry about that.

Bill Graham and BASS

For those of you thinking I am talking about the pontificating Billy Graham, you are so wrong.

Bill Graham in 1974. Photo by Tony Morelli.

Bill Graham invented Rock and Roll promotion, he was the very best at it.  I first met him right after Roller Derby had been shut down, and we had decided to go into the computerized ticketing business.  Hal Silen had some dealings with him on a legal basis (I think he represented another promoter), but Bill didn’t hold that against us.

If you are looking for a full biography of Bill here, you won’t get it; you will only get our dealings with him and what we knew about him.  We had heard that Bill was very unhappy with Ticketron who had been handling his tickets in Northern California.  The reason was that outside of lousy service, the executives in New York had decided it would be smart if Ticketron cooperated with another promoter on the East Coast in backing a festival.  Bill was furious; he felt that if Ticketron was making money from him, they should not be in the promotion business, and we approached him at the perfect time… Of course today the largest promoter is not only owned by the ticket company but also controls most of the best box office drawing acts…..Bill must be spinning.

What was interesting was that although we had never met, we had been presenting our Sunday night Roller Derby games at Kezar Pavilion in SF which was just a short distance from the Haight and from the Panhandle where the bands played and near the Fillmore.  I had gone to the Fillmore a few times, had seen John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, and two other major bands along with the light show for just $2.50 and had been given a choice of an apple or an orange.  Eventually I saw Jimi Hendrix and other early greats but was not really into it at that time.   I was always interested in what was going on that people liked.

Bill and I met at his office and he greeted my with “I have heard some very good things about you, and I believe that we should give each other an honest con”.  I think we understood each other from the start.

Bill had been separated from his parents during the Holocaust and fled across Europe with his sisters.  They were shielded by various wonderful people, and as unlikely as it sounds, they all made it to the U.S.  Bill ended up in a camp north of New York City.  He never heard from his parents again.  Every Sunday people would drive up to see the children there to consider adoption.  Bill was never selected.  His name was Wolodia “Wolfgang” Grajonca (I could have misspelled that).  Later on he had a music club in San Francisco which he called Wolfgangs, but I believe that was the only time he used his original name.  Obviously, his childhood and youthful experiences had a powerful imprint on the rest of his life.  When he was old enough, he went to New York City, opened the phone book, pointed his finger on a page and it came to rest on Bill Graham, and that is how he got his name.

He always felt that he was dramatic (boy, was he) and that he could be an actor, but he studied bookkeeping to be employable.  He headed out to San Francisco and became business manager for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which performed throughout the City.  For a fund raiser they asked three of the bands that played for free in the Panhandle (maybe the Grateful Dead with Pigpen, Moby Grape, or others?) to headline a concert.  It was so successful that a light went on over Bill’s head and he left the Mime troupe to put on his own shows at the Fillmore auditorium.  Within a very short time, all of the great bands were playing at Bill’s venue, and he became friend and mentor to them, all which paid dividends when they hit huge,  as most remained loyal to Bill over the years.  Interestingly enough, the Fillmore was just a half a block away from Jim Jones budding religion, but I never asked Bill about it, especially after Jones essentially killed all of his congregation in the fatal Kool Aid mass suicide.  But I digress, which you should be used to.

There were a number of things you had to understand in dealing with Bill and his organization:  any ticket customer was his customer and had to be treated well.  (I hate to tell you how many times in the middle of the night either Hal or I would get a call from a screaming maniac:  “Pacific Stereo in San Jose opened late so they could pull tickets for the employees for the Dead shows and I am going to throw all of your f——  machines in the street!!!!)  We would respond immediately to solve the problems, including working out with him what tickets could be held for employees to buy – never near the front by the stage.  If Bill who constantly walked around with his clipboard at the concerts saw anybody who worked for us, for him for record labels, etc in those first rows, he could go into a rage.  Not like today where it is very hard to get those great seats without paying a tremendous premium.  And if any fans rushed the stage, he would get right in the middle and pull them away.

Also, his shows were presented like no other promoters.  I really got to know that as I traveled the country later with Ticketmaster.  Bill’s major concern was for the presentation and to keep his core audience happy.  That is one reason he did so well at the Fillmore, later at Winterland, and at all the other venues he promoted.  The Days on the Green were spectacular.  They were held at the Oakland Stadium with over 50,000 seats.  The stage design and what was surrounding it blew you away.  I really was able to understand what it meant to listen to music with a great multitude and understand the positive effect it could have.  Many parents never go to understand that.

If  someone was in trouble, Bill was a soft touch.  But the drive that was in him never stopped.  If he could make the best deal ever, he would.  Also, he did some things that you would have thought that would have been beneath him.  Every weekend there would be three or four nights of the same acts at Winterland in San Francisco.  Winterland was approved to hold 4400 people by the SF Fire Department.  BASS was given 4300 tickets to sell and Bill held 100 tickets at the box office “for the kids who just couldn’t get tickets in advance”.  Now these door tickets were magic tickets……somehow they were never torn and somehow ended up back in the box office.  Remember, no charge cards at the box office, it was all cash.  At some shows, the manager of the group would say “Great show, the audience was really jam-packed!”……and they were all settled on the basis of 4400 sold.  I heard a rumor that as many as 7200 were in the building one night.  Luckily, the fire department never shut it down.

One of his close associates told me a story about Winterland that I hadn’t heard.  At the end of a Friday night show the manager of the band came in to settle and remarked to Bill that there must be over 7000 people on hand, and Bill told him that was impossible, since the fire department capacity was 4400.   They got into a bit of a tiff.  The next night even more people were on hand, and when the manager came to settle, he asked testily how many people were there that night.  “4300” responded Bill.  “What do mean 4300, the building is even more jammed than last night!”  “Saturday’s crowd is always fatter” said Bill coolly.

Then again, the rumor goes, early in the week a “courier” would get on a plane for Switzerland and deposit the money in a secret account.   At least, that is the rumor.

We kind of reached an accord.  To keep his account, we raised the service charges on the tickets and split the proceeds with Bill (no I don’t think the bands knew).  When people would contact his organization about the high service charges, they would tell them it was BASS’s fault…oh well.

Bill still wanted to be an actor and was good friends with Francis Ford Coppola.  If you saw Apocalypse Now and remember the scene where a helicopter lands where the troops are, and a sleazy promoter  gets out with Playboy Bunnies, that was Bill.  His real acting coup occurred in the movie “Bugsy” where he was given the prime role of Lucky Luciano and acquitted himself quite well.   He told a friend while the movie was being made, that he should have played Bugsy, but that was Bill.

Photo by Mark Sarfati

Bill was bigger than life, but it all came crashing to an end when one night when he was in his helicopter with his girlfriend and pilot (whose name was Killer), and he had flown from Shoreline Amphitheater to check out a show and then on to the Concord Pavilion where Huey Lewis was performing.  The rain was really storming down and Huey said to Bill, wait till the show ends shortly, and you go back with me in my limo.  The next thing everyone knew, the helicopter roared off into the night and crashed into a power pole along Highway 37 on his way back to his home on top of a hill in Marin County.  The name of his house was Masada.  As he was not expecting to die, among other things he had left undone was to give anybody the code to the secret Swiss accounts.

One story I will always remember that was told to me by Dave Furano:  Bill and Dave were in New York and staying at the Park Lane Hotel on 59th Street by Central Park.  Bill went across to FAO Schwartz to get some presents for his son.  When he got back to the hotel he realized he had not only forgotten his key, but his room number.  Of course the front desk would not tell him, so he got on the house phone and asked for Bill Graham’s Suite.  “This is Dr. Billy Graham” a voice answered, and Bill went crazy, swearing and shouting “Dave, stop clowning, I need to get up to the room”  Yes, it was Dr. Billy Graham whom I’m sure never forgot the Bill Graham sermon I heard so often.

Derby to Dylan, Part 2

Once rehearsals were ended for Dylan and company for the Rolling Thunder Revue, my job began.

It was determined ahead of time that no venue over 3000 seats would be booked on the tour, and some more would be added as it went along, kind of like traveling troubadors  going from town to town.  The first concert was going to be in Plymouth Mass, the home of the famous Plymouth rock where the Pilgrims first landed.   The auditorium was a little over two thousand seats, all tickets were general admission and not very expensive.

My crew and I had handbills on which we printed the particulars of the concert which was scheduled for the following night…no ads, no promotion.  As we walked through the legendary town we stopped people and handed them the handbills.  One lady who was pushing a baby stroller looked at the piece and threw it back to me “Who the f— are you trying to kid?  Dylan in this town tomorrow and we haven’t heard about it on the radio?”

We immediately realized we were up against a major problem….even Springsteen does not just show up and play unannounced.  I was under strict orders not to let any media know about the events, and the building managers were told if any word got out the dates would be cancelled.  At this point I through this was the craziest thing I had ever been associated with.   So of course I called a radio station in Boston with a rock and roll format and said I lived in Plymouth and people were handing out handbills saying Dylan, Baez et al were performing the next night in Plymouth.  Well the word got out, we put tickets on sale at the building box office next morning, and the show sold out that night.

That show was the first time I was able to hear Dylan in concert; without trying he had the audience enthralled.  You could tell that he and Joan were happy to be performing together again and the rest of the show picked up the energy.  I was only able to see a couple of the nights of the tour as I was always out in advance but they were playing in small venues and the audience could reach out and almost touch them made me think they were playing clubs.

The subsequent dates became easier because obviously people were aware that the shows were for real.   We would show up, pass out some handbills in the cities, put tickets on sale the next day at the venue box office and then move on to our next city.

My younger son Richard who was 12 at the time had a vacation, so he flew into Hartford and I met him and he joined us.  We had a couple of days clear, so we met with the whole traveling party.  Joan Baez immediately became friends with Richard and told the members of the press who wanted to interview her that Richard was her bodyguard.  He also got to watch over the Dylan dog, an untrainable beagle.

After 10 days Richard had to go back to school and I had my longest conversation with Dylan; his son was joining the group shortly and was about Richard’s age and asked if he could stay longer.  Unfortunately  he couldn’t, so we never knew if my son could have eventually joined Jakob’s band The Wallflowers.  (My other son, Steve, played lead guitar in Sascha and Yuri, the first Russian  Rock and Roll band to play in the US.  They weren’t bad, featured on Walter Cronkite and other national media.  Unfortunately the Russians hated each other.   This was my first and only attempt and managing a band).

At the same time of the tour, Dylan employed the whole revue in a movie he was shooting in the daytime or after the show called “Renaldo and Clara”. I don’t know if it is still available, but the only scene I was in was when we were handing out handbills and announcing the date the next day at the University in Storrs Connecticut and we were rushing through all the dorms at night with the cameras following us.  Unfortunately, I never saw the film or my memorable scene.

Another night the performers had been invited to a house where a colonial pageant was being staged for them.   I was hanging out in front by the gate with security when some young women came up to us and volunteered to perform some unusual acts on us if they could get in…..We didn’t let them and I thought this is certainly different than Roller Derby.

We became aware that the tour was losing money so suddenly the decision was made to go into larger venues such as the Providence Civic Center, a building I rented for Roller Derby.  My phone calls were now going to many different stations.  I don’t know if Dylan or Barry Imhoff knew about them at this point, but I don’t think it would have made much difference to them.  Dylan became very involved with the unjust incarceration of Hurricane Carter, the prize fighter who many felt had been framed and jailed in New Jersey.  He wrote and performed “Hurricane” at one of the concerts and then went to New Jersey to try and visit him.

My six weeks were up and they wanted me to continue; Madison Square Garden  (another of my Derby venues) had been booked as well as buildings in the south, but Hal and Bill Graham would have  killed me if I didn’t come back.  I was able to get them someone to take my place and I returned to the Bay Area.

After that tour, I was very careful just to stay with ticketing and never get too close to the performers or those associated with them…I had had a great experience touring but realized that I never wanted to get in the middle between the arenas, theatres, and promoters who were my clients and the acts they brought in.

From Derby to Dylan, Part 1

When the Roller Derby was shut down I knew I had to find something else to make a living. Coincidentally I was approached by someone working for Ticketron who was leaving and starting a computerized ticketing system on a stand alone HP derivative computer, and would I be interested in the San Francisco Bay Area.  What went on after that was a whole unbelievable story (Harold Silen and I putting up our houses, having to go to Denver first and ending up with software we found out had been shall we say used without the legal owner’s permission.)  Somehow we overcame the problems and were up and operating by Fall 1974.

Our main client, Bill Graham, was to give us all his rock and roll business, but ended up holding back and having us share with Ticketron until he was confident that our system could operate.  The first big show we handled alone was “SNACK”, a concert at Kezar Stadium that Bill had put together with many of the top rock acts and MC’d by Marlon Brando and others to raise money for the arts in schools that even in 1974 were being cut back.  There was only one tiny drawback to handling this massive (50,000 plus ticket) event;  Bill wanted us to agree to donate our service charge (75 cents) to the cause.  We did and then had to go to our stores that sold tickets to get them to go along with it.  Many had to pay extra employees for ticket selling and bring in security, so they were not thrilled.

Hal and I found out that our cost estimates were low, our revenue estimates high, and it took 7 years for us to break even in spite of having virtually all the sports, music, theatre and other entertainment tickets in the San Francisco Bay Area.

One day I received a call from Barry Imhoff.  Barry had worked for Bill Graham for years and took care of the major acts (Stones, Led Zeppelin, etc) when they were in the area.  It turned out he had a super-secret tour coming up, and since I was the best ticket man he knew (probably the only one, and I had not been doing it long),  he wanted me to come to New York, meet with him, and help set up the tour.  I thought this would be a great way to really understand the rock and roll business which would become our major staple over the next 25 years.  We were in the midst of a number of problems at BASS tickets, and Hal was not pleased when I said I probably would be gone for six weeks or so, but he said OK.

Ticket stub from Rolling Thunder Revue, University of Southern Mississippi. This was the last concert on this tour. Image: Wikimedia Commons, Author:Dcurbow

When I met with Barry he swore me to secrecy and said this was going to be a Bob Dylan and Joan Baez tour, with other leading musicians (T-Bone Burnett, Roger McGuinn. Jack Elliott) with them, and others would join later for 1 or more nights (Joni Mitchell. Arlo Guthrie and many more.)  Dylan was the promoter and Barry was working for him.  Barry told me that Bob was fed up with the huge arenas tours and the difficulties that fans had in getting tickets.  Therefore, there would be no computerized ticketing (!) on this tour, and when I was shown the schedule I ordered pre-printed tickets from a bonded printer I knew with only the heading: Rolling Thunder Revue.  No artists were listed.  And there was to be no pre-publicity.  I was given a mobile home, two assistants and told to go to the various cities one day ahead and hand out handbills announcing the tour.

Well even in the 70’s this was an impossible way of promoting the tour, but I did as I was told.  First we all were booked in a resort in Falmouth, Mass,  in the Cape Cod area.  Since this was November, no one else was there.  Rehearsals were held in a conference center at the hotel and the musicians, technicians, personnel and those who traveled with them started to show up.  Now with Roller Derby, we traveled with 28 skaters, a physical therapist, two referees (one drove the truck with the track in it), and a manager.  The skaters and the  referees set up and tore down the track, programs and novelties were in the truck, one skater made extra money by sewing and repairing uniforms, and skaters drove from place to place in cars, 3 to a car and they were paid mileage.

This certainly was not rock and roll travel.  At least 100 people showed up including wives, girlfriends, hangers on, etc and they all had to be housed and fed.  The possible cost was overwhelming to me.  Security traveled with them also.  I made a number of friends including Tom Mooney whose wife Ann worked at Ticketmaster when I did in later years.  Also Mike Evans handled security and other jobs and today he works as a leading figure in the company out of Philadelphia that owns or manages major arenas, theatres, and sports teams throughout the world.

Rehearsals stared, and Alan Ginsburg also joined the tour.  He played the triangle.  The  music I heard was great.  I did not have much interplay with Dylan as he was either putting the show together or with his inner circle.  Everyone seemed to get along fine.  The local papers were getting curious about what was going on at the Hotel, and Barry and I were outside one night when a reporter approached and asked if he could go in.  Barry told him no and he left.  The next day in the local paper was a very dark photo of us with the caption “two hefty security guards keeping people from observing what is going on at the Falmouth Inn”…..I was upset, Barry was large but I certainly wasn’t hefty at the time.

One day during rehearsals all the equipment had to be moved out of the hall as the hotel had pre-booked a canasta tournament.  At a break in the action, the hotel manager came in and told the ladies they were in for a special treat:  he had booked two folk singers for them, Bob Zimmeran and Al Ginsburg.  Dylan came out played the piano and sang, Ginsburg played the triangle.  I don’t think the ladies ever knew who they were.

I will add part 2 to this blog tomorrow.