New Bill Graham Exhibit Relives Rock’s Cultural Heydey

Legendary rock impresario Bill Graham, who worked with Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, the Stones and Santana, was in his heyday at a time when music was our tech.

The only differences between the two fields: The older generation pooh-poohed the music, our parents were not our friends, and you had to leave your house to experience it. But over the course of a decade, the entire younger generation was infected by the sounds made by a bunch of renegade players who weren’t interested in getting rich so much as in making a statement.

I almost didn’t go to Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution — the exhibition of his work and times at Los Angeles’ Skirball Cultural Center — because I didn’t think I’d have time to get to it before the exhibit ended Oct. 11.

Now, I’m glad I did. Walking through the exhibit transported me to a strange time in a faraway place — the ’60s happened 50 years ago, even though they happened right here on the Sunset Strip, and up north in the Haight. California was the epicenter of everything new and different, where limits were tested and culture was developed. It still is, not only in Silicon Valley, but Silicon Beach. In D.C. you kowtow to the powers that be and do what’s expedient; in California you ignore the rules as you invent a new game.

The exhibit blamed Reagan, the legitimization of greed and the cutback of cash for social programs for the counter-revolution that ripped apart the social fabric of our nation. But when the Fillmore East ruled, tickets were $3-$5. The exhibit had one of the green football jerseys the Fillmore East staff wore, as well as Graham’s mind-blowing watch — the one with two faces, for East Coast and West Coast time.

“It was a time when … you wanted to hang with the throng … connect with the music. The last place you wanted to be was home. Today, that’s where all the action is as we commune online.”
Bob Lefsetz

Also on display: Grace Slick’s Woodstock dress, and Janis Joplin’s stage outfit … back when things were handmade and looked like it. And Duane Allman’s guitar from Fillmore East, and Pete Townshend’s Gibson from the Metropolitan Opera House.

It was a time when it was all about going to the show. Sure, you wanted to hang with the throng, but even more, you wanted to connect with the music. The last place you wanted to be was home. Today, that’s where all the action is as we commune online. And there was no delusion that everyone could be a leader; that was only for the anointed few. But we wanted to participate, and we joined the movement, instructed by music and those who played it. Music was the culture.

But now it’s done. We’ve got the trappings, but none of the soul.

Yet there are so many things I like about 2015. I’m never bored and never lonely. Back then, the only time I felt connected was when I was at the gig with my tribe. Everybody went to the show the way everybody now owns a smartphone (and the introduction of the new iPhone is nothing compared with the release of a new Beatles album). Radio told us the album was coming out, we bought it and spun it for months, everywhere. You could hear the sound coming out of windows across the nation.

Can it ever happen again?

If  so, look for it to begin where you’re so many time zones behind you can barely communicate with outsiders, where the populace is a rainbow of colors and we accept people of different ethnicities.

I went to the Fillmore East mere months after it opened, even though it seemed like years back then. I bought more albums than anybody I knew; the music saved my life.

But I’m stunned at what a long strange trip it’s been.

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