Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

Bill Graham

I can't remember exactly what the speech was about. Like many men with hard-boiled pretensions, Bill Graham can be as fulsome as any other showbiz tough guy when mollified, and this was such an occasion. In between White Trash and Mountain, both of whom put in guest appearances at the Fillmore East's farewell show, Graham came on stage and uttered a few forgettable words before some guy in the balcony yelled out an interruption. The balcony speech I remember in its entirety. "Fuck you!" the guy said.

Graham glanced up and continued briefly, but soon someone in another part of the balcony began to shout. That stopped him. Graham looked in the direction of his first tormentor.

"I'm not going to say much more," he said. "It only takes one guy like you to ruin it for you."

I must admit I felt a bolt of sympathy for Bill. The poor fucker packs the house, admission by fucking invitation only, and a couple of ringers sneak in to haunt him. Not that there weren't plenty of enemies on the scene anyway. On Second Avenue there was a small riot as a horde of street folk, rock freaks, cultural historians, and outside agitators mounted one final crash at the citadel of the stars. Certainly, few of the rock writers I said hello to inside qualify as Graham's friends, and although the audience consisted largely of employees, that guarantees nothing. The story is that Graham used to take a perverse delight in suckering green-shirts who didn't know his face into insulting the boss. To be honest, I've yelled insults at the stage myself on occasion. But the consensus seemed to be that this was Graham's night. We'd all had our share of good times at the Fillmore East, and most of us never paid a cent for them. Some appearance of courtesy was in order.

Most people I know profess to have hated the Fillmore East, and I suppose they're telling the truth, but I never did. Maybe I'm like one of those carp that thrive on the pollution at the bottom of Lake Erie, or maybe it really wasn't such a terrible place. The complaints did vary, after all; sometimes they even contradicted each other; and they all boiled down to lovers of popular culture cringing from the rest of the populace. Those without money complained about the prices, while those who could pay complained about having to wade through the hustlers who surrounded the place every weekend. Hip mythmongers complained that Graham was ripping off the Lower East Side community, while those who have lived in the neighborhood all their lives complained that he was simultaneously attracting riffraff and driving up rents. Everyone hated the security freaks until they found someone sitting in their seats, and people who would shout fire in a crowded theater got pissed off because they couldn't smoke in the auditorium. Graham reneged on an early promise to rip out the front seats and put in a dance-floor and was accused of destroying the participatory energy that had made the Haight so exciting back in those balmy premedia days, but no one noted that in these smoggy postmedia days at San Francisco's Winterland, which is all dance-floor, there are a lot more people sitting around in the Coca-Cola than dancing. My own pet peeve was the endless encores, which rarely satiated the music-starved multitudes around me. Graham claims that he was forced to such lengths by his audience. The farewell show, which he presumably controlled, ran eight hours.

And in the end it proved to be a show indeed. Less than a year after closing the Fillmores East and West and promising (or threatening) the rock world with an extended vacation, he was producing more than any independent in the country. He had really pulled out, it was obvious in retrospect, because halls the size of the Fillmores were no longer the most efficient way to present live rock. The music had outgrown them, and for all Graham's complaints about rock's big-business aspects, there he was putting on the Stones all over the West Coast. To prove that the pullout was really only a show, the closing of the Fillmore West was recorded on film and released as a music documentary less than a year later. The title was simply Fillmore, but it could just have well have been Graham.

In Fillmore Graham reveals that rock and roll isn't really the life he would have wished for himself. He recalls--not dolefully, but with some nostalgia--that around the time he was managing the San Francisco Mime Troupe he wanted to be a character actor. What he doesn't seem to quite understand is that he has long since achieved his wish. Graham is typecast in a role he created himself, and he is always on. When the most entertaining moments in a movie that features San Francisco rock groups from the Dead and the Airplane all the way down to Cold Blood and It's a Beautiful Day are provided by a man talking on the telephone, you know he's exerting real dramatic presence. Gazing up at Graham's enormous likeness on the screen, I felt like Winston Smith at the end of 1984--I loved Big Brother.

This must have been more or less what Graham intended to achieve by diminishing his public identity. What would we do once we didn't have Bill Graham to kick around any more? Graham denies everything, of course. He admits to interviewers that he wants to be liked, of course, but he'd rather be respected, and if nobody respects him, that's all right, too, because he still knows he's the most creative rock producer in history. Ah yes, obviously a man at peace with himself. He should tell it to a shrink. Like so many impresarios, Graham is possessed by a need for approval as intense as that of the most insecure and egomaniacal performer's. In an essay called "Socialist Impresarios," written for the New Statesman in England in 1962, Colin MacInnes established the historical inevitability of such characters: "Ever since the days of ancient Egypt and beyond, popular arts have always been sponsored, initially at least, by loud-mouthed hucksters with artful patter and a big drum: in other words, by impresarios obsessed by the whole idea of promotion, themselves emotionally involved in the adventure whatever their other motives may have been." Bill Graham really is the world's most efficient and creative rock producer. No doubt, some people hate him just because he is successful. But many more hate him because he has the personality of a successful man.

The drama Graham gathers around himself has distinctly Freudian overtones--he plays the Reality Principle within a little world that is dedicated to the Pleasure Principle. This may appear contradictory, but not to someone who happens to embody the contradiction. After all, where else could the Reality Principle experience so much Pleasure? Where else could it contend with so many yocks and yo-yos--sybaritic musicians, gimme-gimme fans, utopian politicos? Fillmore deals mostly with musicians, who habitually test their own approvability with whims that shift like the phases of the moon. But it also records Graham's view of the transmogrification of the audience from a flower generation--although he was there, his descriptions sound strangely like the ones that appeared in Time and Newsweek in 1967--into a greedy pack of adolescent suburbanites, yowling for encores from any group the record industry could hype them on. And these kids lead us directly to the politicos, because Graham doesn't really distinguish between them.

Graham subscribes to the spoiled-brat theory of the American Left. For him, a fifteen-year-old hitter shouting for more Sir Lord Baltimore is a direct antecedent of the movement. "Might makes right," he tsks sarcastically as freaks fight bayonets with rocks in a newsreel clip in Fillmore, and oddly enough he is not talking about the bayonets. Unfortunately, Graham's theory has been supported by his experience. The radicals he has dealt with, like most radicals, have been long on rhetoric and short on experience. When they demanded a "community free night" at the Fillmore East, they assumed that there actually was a freak community that wanted to groove on its own nonimported, nonstar culture, and that this community attracted the Fillmore and its audience to Second Avenue. The reality--and the Reality--was more complicated. In any mass society, whatever its politico-economic system, hip entrepreneurs like Graham are as crucial to the spread of new culture as are subcultural enclaves to its nurture.

Because they turned out to lack this entrepreneurial knack, not to mention what MacInnes would call "the inspired impresario temperament," the people who took it upon themselves to run the free night never did get it together. As a resident of the Lower East Side and an observer/participant of both hip music and hip politics, this didn't surprise me, and yet I sided unequivocally with the radicals. But only now that I love Big Brother do I understand why. Graham's impulses are almost as good as those of a man who likes representing the Reality Principle within our present reality can be. He has staged countless benefits and free concerts, and he really does try (in his inevitably elitist way) to produce rather than just promote. He has done more than his share to turn people on. Yet he is far more ready to provide people with entertainment (Pleasure) than with power (Reality) because it costs him less to do so. Accumulated capital is might, and Graham has it, and it does not make right. Graham's own attraction to the Pleasure Principle is showing a heavily sybaritic side--a luxury apartment in San Francisco, a house in Marin County, a country place in Santa Cruz, and a villa in Switzerland are too much remuneration even for work as obsessive as Graham's. That's why musicians like him, fans get their music from Howard Stein, and politicos continue to breathe fire at the mention of his name.

Call it a paradox that won't be resolved until the millennium, when a just politico-economic system finally permits real spiritual growth. But understand that Graham relishes the paradox because it is identical to his role, and that by doing so he is not speeding the millennium on its way. We love Big Brother for his exhibitionistic hostility, his epithets, his profane intolerance of inefficiency. He's so good at it, so colorful, so right on. But what the politicos understand is that pleasure will never redound to everyone until we stop loving people just because they are colorful. Yes, Bill Graham is very good at what he does. If only he were utopian enough to try to be a lot better.

Village Voice, July 1971
Newsday, May 1972
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973


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