Why You Need to See the Bill Graham Retrospective at the Contemporary Jewish Museum
From his life as a Jewish refugee fleeing Nazi Germany to his legendary success as a music producer, the Contemporary Jewish Museum fills in the biography of the man who rocked our world.
The late rock ’n roll impresario Bill Graham could be described in many ways. According to those who knew him in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s in San Francisco, he could be irascible, “steadfastly loyal,” cranky, funny, temperamental, “extremely tough,” flamboyant, kind . . . the list goes on. He was also a great storyteller. But he did not often tell the story of his life prior to arriving on Ellis Island in 1941 as a French- and German-speaking 11-year-old with rickets, and no personal possessions.
Now, a glimpse of those formative years unfolds in “Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution,” an exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, along with the more familiar story of his rise to fame as a music producer during an exceptional era in the history of San Francisco, and of America. Shipped here from the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, where it premiered in a somewhat larger version last spring, it is the first major, comprehensive retrospective of Graham’s life. His two sons provided many of the artifacts.
Divided into five sections, the exhibit comprises 250 objects: photos of dozens of rock stars of the era plus personal and family photos; psychedelic-style posters (for the first time, the original designs for the posters displayed alongside the finished products); costumes (including Janis Joplin’s feather boa, and a pair of Keith Richards’ leather boots repaired by Graham with duct tape during the Stones’ tour in 1981); musical instruments (Carlos Santana lent one of his 1970s guitars); an audio guide with Graham himself talking; ephemera such as a 1966 dance hall permit for the Fillmore Auditorium and a model of the two-story menorah displayed at Union Square that Graham underwrote; concert footage and audio interviews with musicians, and other assorted memorabilia. Much of the material, never before seen publicly, comes from the personal collection of Graham’s sons, David Graham and Alexander Graham-Sult.
A series of accompanying “gallery talks” includes, on March 18, Robert Greenfield (who co-wrote “Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out”) discussing Graham’s public protest of then-President Ronald Reagan’s visit to the Bitburg Cemetery in Germany, where SS members are buried, and the firebombing of Graham’s office that followed (the perpetrators, presumed to be neo-Nazis, were never caught).
For the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the Bill Graham exhibit is part of a trilogy of music-related shows comprising the museum’s own, ongoing “Hardly Strictly Warren Hellman” and the recent “Amy Winehouse: A Family Portrait” from the Jewish Museum London. All three fulfill CJM’s primary mission, which is to “make the diversity of Jewish life relevant for 21st-century audiences,” explains Executive Director Lori Starr. “This is a chance for us in the Bay Area to re-examine Bill Graham as a real hometown hero.
“You see him from a lot of different angles,” she continues, “a smart businessman, an artistically demanding producer. . . .What’s so great is you hear about him through people who worked with him most closely—how he was prickly, sweet, exacting. His sense of tzedakah [the Jewish concept of charity].”
Adds Contemporary Jewish Museum Chief Curator Renny Pritikin, “Bill Graham managed to re-invent himself in America. It’s the quintessential American story. The flip side is that toward the end he became such a philanthropist, putting on rock concerts to address social problems.” The exhibit, he says, highlights a “notable historic moment, and San Francisco was at the center of it.”
Bill Graham Memorial Foundation executive director Bonnie Simmons, who contributed to rock history as a radio personality on San Francisco station KSAN from 1970 to 1978 and who knew Graham well, remembers him as a man who always stood up for his people, a man who, if he believed something was unjust, said, “Wait a minute.” “Many of us here in Bay Area that have gone to various music- and theater-connected jobs since Bill has passed—we carry the stuff Bill taught us,” she says. For her part, Simmons, who’d curated a smaller Bill Graham exhibit five years ago at San Francisco’s Jazz Heritage Center/Lush Life Gallery, wanted as much as possible to tell Graham’s story in his own words. And what a story it is.
When young Graham arrived in New York as a Holocaust refugee, a foster family in the Bronx took him in. He spent his teen years working piecemeal on the streets of New York and in the Catskills before being drafted into the army for the Korean War. Later, heading West in the 1960s, he became the business manager of the satirical-political San Francisco Mime Troupe and created his first rock dance and light show at the Fillmore in 1965 as a bail benefit for Troupe founder R.G. Davis, who’d been arrested for what was deemed an “obscene” play in Lafayette Park. (It was the first of many benefit concerts Graham would go on to produce for social causes, including Live Aid and Human Rights Now!) Not long after, he took over the lease on the Fillmore, and the rest is history. During the next few decades he booked such famous groups (many of them locally based) as the Grateful Dead, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, Santana and many more in the original Fillmore, Fillmore West (and in New York the Fillmore East) and Winterland and organized tours for groups like the Rolling Stones and The Band as well as Bob Dylan.
Still, it is perhaps the lesser-known story that is the most telling when it comes to understanding the complex man that Bill Graham was to become. Born in Berlin in 1931, he was sent to an orphanage by his overworked mother; his father had died soon after he was born. From there, in 1939, he joined a kinder transport to an orphanage in France. When Paris fell, he and other Jewish children took a long and arduous journey through France and Spain to Lisbon, where they then sailed to New York. In his book “Season of the Witch,” San Francisco author David Talbot writes that Graham walked across Europe with one of his five sisters but had to leave her in a hospital in Lyon, France, when she got pneumonia. He never saw her again. (Talbot and Peter Coyote will converse in a gallery chat on June 12.) Ultimately Graham helped two sisters emigrate to San Francisco. Four had survived the war; the fifth, and his mother, died in Auschwitz.
“Bill didn’t remember or choose to talk much about the details of his life from the age of seven to landing America,” Simmons says. She took on the task of researching that part of his life for the earlier, Jazz Heritage exhibit. Googling at 2 a.m., looking for one of the chateaux that was turned into a hostel for the kinder transport kids on their trek across Europe, she was randomly scrolling through a website, reading a Shoah testimony, when a photo at the bottom of the page caught her eye: two five-year-olds with their arms around each other, one dark-haired, clutching a basketball, squinting into the sunlight with head slightly lowered, the other smaller, blond. An accompanying note read, “Someone told me that my friend Wolfie, with me on the entire journey, later became a music promoter named Bill Graham.” Says Simmons, “I went, ‘Holy mackerel! That’s Bill!’” Ralph Moratz, the little blond kid, was Bill’s friend from orphanage to a new world. By the time he’d found out that “Wolfie” was Bill Graham, and tried to contact him, it was too late: Graham had already died, in 1991, in a helicopter crash. Through Moratz, Simmons collected photos of Wolfie and Ralph in Europe; a color postcard of the Portuguese liner, the Serpa Pinto, on which they (and thousands of others) sailed to America, along with the ship’s manifest with their names on it (Graham is listed as Wulf Wolodia Grajonca; he chose his more Americanized name from a New York phone book); and more. Moratz, unlike Graham, spent much of his life researching and examining his past, says Simmons. “Who can say what is the thing to do?” she wonders. “Bill may have chosen not to.” A recent video interview with Moratz is included in the exhibit.
As for the barrel that famously held the apples that Graham provided for Fillmore audiences? To the man who’d once stolen apples from an orchard to stave off starvation, they were symbolic.
Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution
March 17-July 5
Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., San Francisco