Just like yesterday…..

Photo by Ana Labate from stock.xchng.com.

It’s funny how things come to you…..The local PBS station had a Woflgang’s Vault (I’ll explain that later) program on last night as a fund raiser.  It was a Peter Frampton -Lynyrd Skynyrd concert from the Oakland Stadium “Day on the Green”, July 1977.  It was such a deja vu moment:  It was a concert that BASS had sold tickets for…..after the first Day sold out I was able to convince Bill Graham there was enough interest to add a second and eventually a third date; they all sold out.  It was fun watching how the performers and audience looked:  they have to be in their fifties or sixties now.  There was Bill walking around the stage busy, the Barsottis (production), Eric Christensen,  Jerry Pompili and I might have even seen the famous photographer Baron Wolman.   And I knew I was sitting somewhere behind the stage in the backstage area.

I never thought when I was promoting Roller Derby that I would ever be associated with Rock and Roll.  But if I had thought about, there were definitely things in common:  the intensity and empathy with the spectators, how much they all got into the performances and the game.

One of the main reasons I loved Roller Derby was that I could get just as excited as the other fans with a great block, a jam (I loved the speed and agility of the skaters) and the game itself.  And rock and roll, that was a whole different but similar story.  I had gone to the Fillmore before as a curiosity but never got into it.  With my Atherton friends we had gone to the Oakland Arena to see Jimi Hendrix  just so we could dress up sixties but I didn’t appreciate him.  And when we took my son Steven to see the Beatles at the Cow Palace, the audience was so screamy and the sound system so inadequate that we couldn’t hear them.

But after Hal and I started BASS Tickets I really wanted to understand why the “kids” were so fanatical about the music.  I started (in my forties) to go to the shows, obviously to see if there were problems with the ticketing, but also to hear the music.  I think my first Winterland show was Montrose (who?), which I really enjoyed.  Then there was BTO (not so much), Beach Boys (cute, kind of boring),  Blue Oyster Cult, and then finally the Who (no one better), the Stones (more fun than anything), Led Zeppelin (who I hated, but not just because of their music), Rod Stewart (before he got on his oldies kick)  The Pretenders, Joan Jett, and so many more.

Photo by Charlie Balch from stock.xchng.com.

It was only after I got the music and the audience energy that I really grew to understand what so many “adults” didn’t:  it was such a great release, you had such community with those around you, and you just felt good.  I really miss that in today’s music…Obviously I got the same feeling from Motown.

I was at one concert with a friend that was amazing:  I had heard Springsteen on records on the radio but wasn’t that impressed.  However in person, I think he is the most dynamic performer there is, if you can last the four hours.  And an amazing thing happened.  I was sitting in the tenth row and Bruce came off the stage during one song, jumped on the chair next to me, and my friend and I held his legs while he rocked on.  I guess that is the ultimate bonding experience.

Now about Wolfgang’s Vault, as I told you in an earlier blog about Bill Graham and me, Bill’s real name was Wolfgang.  Apparently, after Bill died one of his storage buildings was sold off.  I understand the buyer was not that concerned with the building (who is he?) but with all the unheard tapes from Winterland, Days on the Green, and memorabilia that was stored there, and he has turned it into a very profitable business; of course if he hadn’t I wouldn’t have seen the program last night.

I really learned about the rock and roll people when I toured with Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue; if you haven’t already, read my earlier blogs on the tour.  I do have some funny stories to tell about it, but not today.

As for Led Zeppelin:  they were scheduled for two Days on the Green and they sold out immediately and Bill had about 3 mil waiting to be split.  The drummer Bonham’s son was walking around backstage being a smartass with no backstage passes on, and one of Bill’s blue shirts (security) stopped him.  Zeppelin’s manager, a real creep, sent his goons out and they beat the guy up.  This was the first day of the two-day stop.  It turned into an impasse, Zeppelin refusing to go on the next day unless Bill and the security signed a statement that it was settled andthey wouldn’t sue or prosecute.  I know it killed him,  but Bill did it.  However, after the concert ended the next day the Oakland police somehow came around with a warrant for the perps arrest.

Bill knew he had blown it with the Zeppelin but I sure admired him for it.  He was always more concerned with all of his people and that included his $30 a day security.

In later years I heard the Eurythmics, Culture Club, Dave Mathews and on and on, but I have always felt Rock and Roll in the sixties and seventies represented our last real happy time.   You can argue with me if you want.

The music of the 21st Century:  you can hear at any Derby Girls game.

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Sasha, Yuri, Valery, Yakov, and Steve Seltzer

I read recently where Sasha Lehrman, a well known professor of Language had died…..did that bring back memories from 1976.

Photo by steved_np3 from stock.xchng.

Did you ever want to manage a Rock and Roll band of Russian immigrants?  Neither did I, but I did.

A good friend of mine, a fraternity brother from Northwestern called me and said he had been at a gathering the night before and had heard two wonderful Russian immigrant folk singers, and because of my affiliation with BASS Tickets and the various music clubs I might be able to get them bookings.

And thus I was to meet Sasha and Yuri.

They had not known each other in Russia, but were able to emigrate, theoretically to Israel, but both came to the US.  Sasha was an expert in the similarities of languages (there is a specific title, but I forget it), and Yuri had been an attorney in Moscow.  I invited them to perform at my son Richard’s upcoming bar mitzvah, and everyone enjoyed them.  They happened to be outside my older son Steve’s bedroom, and they heard him playing the guitar and asked to meet with him.  They listened to him play (we had tuned him out and didn’t pay much attention) and they remarked how good he was…..wow!  Then Sasha said they really played rock and roll “underground” in Russia, because the Soviets only allowed “official” music.

They had met with two other immigrants from Latvia, which was also under Russian control, who wanted to play the music they loved in America.  There was Yakov, who was a drummer, and Valery, who was a singer.  Yakov had wanted to go to the Berkley school of music in Boston, but when he saw Berkeley CA on a map, that’s where he thought it was, so he ended up in the Bay Area.  Yakov was a computer engineer, Valeri an architect.

They had all gotten together as a group, and Sasha, who could play any instrument, played bass, Yuri rhythm guitar, and the other two their specialties.   They needed a lead guitar and asked Steven to join them.  He was 18 at the time.

They had all been in different “official” bands in Moscow which played traditional songs and light rock music (“like the Hollys”, Sasha said).  Led Zepplin, Beatles, Pink Floyd etc records either were smuggled into Russia, or the music lovers taped the Voice of America music.  And what astounded me was there were huge underground rock festivals in the Russian countryside; famous bands (famous to the Russian afficinados) played before thousands…..if the officials came upon them they had to disperse, otherwise they faced prison).

So began the saga of Sasha and Yuri.

Not having anything else to do other than to work with Hal on getting a computerized ticketing company into a profit position, and having returned the previous winter from the Dylan tour, I became the manager of this band.

They actually sounded quite good, Sasha an accomplished musician, Yakov a strong and powerful drummer (he really was into soul and wanted to be in a funk or soul band;  he was eventually), Yuri was ok on rhythm, but drove them all nuts with his insistence on using the fuzztone,  and Steven was a huge surprise as lead guitar and added to the group.  Our explanation for Steven was that his grandparents came from Russia (well almost, a Polish town right on the border;  the joke was the town would be part of Russia one year, part of Poland the next and my grandmother would say quite happily, “Thank God, I couldn’t stand another Russian winter”).

They practiced and were ready to perform.  Valery was the novelty we needed.  Although he was bearded and spoke with a heavy accent, when he sang he sounded like a cross between John Fogerty and Joe Cocker; he sang with animation and would end a song with a standing flip.  Sasha had a great voice and he and Yuri had good harmony together.  And our family friend, Steven Marcus, became the roadie, driver, tuner, and official keep the Russians from killing each other person……all for no pay.

I booked them into my friend Jeff Pollack’s original Old Waldorf club where the popular rock bands played.  Jeff was willing to go along because he knew that the novelty of having the first Russian band would attract people.  And he was right.  I think the audience expected to hear the “Volga boat song” and instead the band opened with a rockin’ version of “A little Traveling Band” and clicked through a set of cover songs, done in their own fashion.  They closed with Sasha’s version of the Beatles “Back in the USSR” which was transposed to “Out of the USSR” expressing their happiness to be in the US.  The crowd was on its feet.

On the second or third night they were at the club, Joel Selvin, the rock critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, came and listened and gave them a very positive review, with some nice things also said about the guitar playing of Steven.  Later on, Joel and I became good friends, and he was responsible for the “uber” party at my house on the hill in Sonoma one night after the Sonoma Music Festival when the Steve Miller band and most of Sonoma’s well known citizens crowded into my upstairs living room and deck, and Joel barbecued and we partied until 3 am.  But I digress again.

Bookings came easy:  the band opened for Elvin Bishop who was so gracious; he talked to the group and told them he was also the descendant of East European Jews; hard to believe.  They also opened for the band that became “Night Ranger”, and in Santa Cruz they were on the bill with “The Band”, featured in the Martin Scorsese film “The Last Waltz”, filmed at Winterland (yes, I was there, too).  And their dream, Bill Graham booked them at Winterland to open for Blue Oyster Cult and the audience which booed them when they first came out cheered them at the end.  And Bill had nice things to say to them.

Since these bookings represented their total income, and I had to pay additional expenses out of my pocket, they were getting disgruntled that they were not getting more income (often the bands just took part of the “door” at the clubs), and since they had added some Russian songs Sasha had written, they wanted to know about a record deal.  A producer volunteered his services and produced a demo which was sent around, but there was no response.  We also sent the demo to The Voice of America, and when they played songs from it and explained the group, all of them heard from friends “behind the iron curtain” who were thrilled.

I decided to take them to Los Angeles and booked them in the famous Troubadour. I invited all the TV entertainment editors and the newspaper critics.  We drove up to the club and there was Tom Waits, sitting outside with a drooping cigarette.  I don’t think he even looked up.  One of the TV stations asked if they could broadcast a song live, and their guy would introduce it on the 11 PM news.   Of course I said yes; meanwhile, Channel 7 ABC was showing it live also and were extremely pissed when the competing newsman introduced them…..I remember the guy named David from ABC coming and screaming at me that I was now dead in Southern California.   Thank God I didn’t run into him when I went down there for 10 years with Fred Rosen and Bob Leonard at Ticketmaster!  While in LA, the band performed on Midnight Special, and occasionally I look at the tape.

So we had interest;  Rolling Stone did a feature, Walter Cronkite news did a piece on them, but no big offers.  We were running into trouble.  Sasha and Yuri didn’t like each other, Yakov needed to make more money so he was going to work down in Silicon Valley before it was Silicon Valley, Yakov wanted his own band with his own songs…….so of course the band broke up.   Sasha went to become an instructor in his specialty at Yale, Yuri drove a cab for awhile, Valery found his band, Steven went to school, chased a blonde back to New York, where he eventually became sommelier at the Rainbow Room and then at Tavern on the Green.  He is in the wine business today in Connecticut and raises ducks along with the beautiful Saquana, and they just had a wonderful son named Aaron.

If you know a great band that needs help, don’t come to me.

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.