Remembering Bill Graham

Bill Graham's life story ended with his death in a helicopter crash in 1991 at age 60. As Herb Gold talked of him in his story, A Zen Hike with Bill Graham: "He was one of eleven Jewish children to survive a war-time hike from Berlin to Paris to Africa; two hundred started. His name used to be Wolgang Grajanka...He learned to be a streetfighter as an adopted child in the Bronx...and he was a Bronze Star, Purple Heart winner from Korea, road-builder paymaster, hustling character actor and revolutionary rock millionaire..."

Graham's first concert was a benefit for the San Francisco Mime Troupe while he was their manager. Held in a warehouse loft, it brought together the Jefferson Airplane, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the Committee, the Fugs, Allen Ginsberg and other San Francisco counter-culture acts.

Later, he built the Fillmore West on San Francisco's Market Street and followed close behind with the Fillmore East in New York's Lower East Side. By the time the Fillmores closed in 1971, almost every major act in popular music had played their stages.

Responsible for launching the success of rock groups like the Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Santana, tower of Power; he staged the Band's "Last Waltz" farewell concert and presented the first superstar acts, like the Who, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Bob Dylan, the Allman brothers Band and the Rolling Stones on stadium tours. In addition, he was behind the scenes as a critical support to mass music festivals like Woodstock, Monterey and Altamont.

In the world of rock management, Graham managed groups like Santana, Gamma, Eddie Money and the Paul Collins Beat. He ran a record company, advertising agency, two publishing firms and a stage and technical business for music productions which continues today under different ownership. He also pioneered mixed-bills, putting blues and jazz artists like Muddy Waters, Lightnin' Hopkins and Miles Davis on programs with groups like Neil Young and Crazy Horse and Quicksilver Messenger Service.

Graham was a prime mover behind the superstar benefits of the '80s, including SNACK, Live Aid, the Conspiracy of Hope 1986 and Amnesty International 1989. In San Francisco, he produced benefit events for groups like the United Farm Workers, Aid to Biafra, Lighthouse for the Blind, the Cambodian Emergency Relief Fund and the campaign to Save San Francisco's Cable Cars.

During one of his benefits, a rock concert for the San Francisco Vietnam Veteran's Project which featured the Jefferson Starship, the Grateful Dead, Boz Scaggs and Country Joe McDonald, I interviewed him for Rolling Stone magazine. I asked the highly decorated Korean war veteran why he was involved with a benefit for Vietnam veterans?

GRAHAM: Because most veterans are forgotten people. It's not just the Vietnam war but also the forgotten men of the Korean war. As we all know, due to the fact that America wasn't. quote, proud of their boyus in Vietnam and Korea as they were in World War II; these men did not come home as respected or with the dignity that soldiers should have.

RESER: How do you view the Vietnam and Korean wars?

GRAHAM: It was the exploitation of the common man for the needs of others. Korea and Vietnam were political games played by our politicians. The many men who are mentally disturbed and physically handicapped didn't even know whey they were there.

I was one of those people, I was twenty years old and I thought, well, I don't want to go to war, but I guess that's supposed to be my duty. Well, now I say, that's ridiculous, to go off and fight a battle in a strange land without any idea what it's all about.

The Korean veteran was somewhat forgotten and when it got to Vietnam we found out all the misuse of men and firearms, misuse of political clout and maneuvering. What a tragedy, that a man who was asked to lay down a leg, an arm or an eye, cannot b treated with dignity and respect on the homefront.

RESER: What do you think we have learned from our experiences in Vietnam?

GRAHAM: That the world in the last 15 or 20 years, is much more outspoken. Twenty years ago, who would have spoken out against the flag? I think it all came about when we realized the men in Washington were only human. Meaning that they were full of error, disrespect, pursuits of personal gains and power madness.

I came to America when I was eleven years old and a couple of weeks after that, in 1941, the war broke out. But the Japanese, the Germans and the Italians were the enemy and the allies were the good guys. There was some understanding as to why we were at war. Our nation was attacked, therefore, it was a defensive return to arms to defend our country.

I look back at Franklin D. roosevelt, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson...all of the leaders I grew up with in this country. Then comes Watergate, all of the Agnews and the corruption. That's when you realize why people begin speaking up, why there was upheaval in America and why there was a youth movement.

I think a lot of the marching by Americans did a lot to stop the war and bring attention to what was really going on over there. Just as the marching for gay rights and racial equality did for those issues.

What the last fifty years has created is the overt effect of people's right to freedom of speech and how it affects every one of us. That now, people will speak out against war, whereas, at one time, it was your duty to fight for your country. Automatically.

This included me. I was told you're going to get drafted and I said O.K., where do I go? the army sent me to camp in Arkansas and I learned to be a forward observer. Then I went over and fought some people who also didn't know why they were there.

RESER: So, what do you think it means to be a veteran?

GRAHAM: War as we know, is a hellish thing that we civilized people put ourselves through. The reasons are beyond my knowledge. It's nothing to be proud of. We all know the facts.

You get into combat and you see other guys who are twenty years old and they don't know why the fuck they're there. I didn't know why I was there. I guess it was for self-defense. It was me or him or this tank versus that tank. And for what? For who? For my sisters and brothers?

The soldier that lost his arm in Vietnam, well, he's back here now and we look at him and say, "Wow." We don't want to deal with them. Well, why not? We sent them over there. I think if I had it to do all over again, I'd probably become a conscientious objector. I would have served somewhere but I certainly wouldn't have served knowing war and knowing what I know now.

Phil Reser

[This revised article originally appeared in Walking Point, a San Francisco veteran's newspaper.]