Category: History

6 Ways to Dig the 60s

The Bill Graham Exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center

Bill Graham, an orphan of the Holocaust, became the most successful and influential rock music promoter in history.

The Skirball Cultural Center’s new exhibit, Bill Graham and the Rock and Roll Revolution, is an amazing representation of the 1960s counterculture movement and a moving portrait of the man, an orphan of the Holocaust who turned himself into the most successful and influential music promoter in history, and a dearly loved humanitarian. The exhibit is extensive and includes personal memorabilia, photographs, concert footage, vintage art posters and a psychedelic light show.

“6 Ways to Dig the 60s”

1. Meet a Wide-Awake Kind of Man
Bill Graham spent much his childhood fleeing the forces of Nazi Germany. He had to adapt to more than one new language, family and country by the time he was twelve. As a teen, he toiled as a waiter to the rich and famous in the Catskill Mountains while running an underground poker game, had the guts to speak up for worker’s rights before the employees were unionized, then fought in the Korean War and avoided a court-martial after refusing to go into a lopsided battle that eventually killed his commanding officer.

Although Graham didn’t talk much about his early life, or claim to remember either his mother or father, his experiences informed everything he did. By the time he promoted his first show, a benefit for the San Francisco Mime Troupe in 1965, Bill Graham had already built up a sense of himself, a feeling that he was ‘master of [his] destiny.’

2. Break Free from Hypocrisy

Shuttling through orphanages and foster homes and developing a keen street sense solidified Graham’s aura of autonomy and authenticity, which went over well with activist performers of the sixties. The Who’s Pete Townshend referred to him as a man ‘free of hypocrisy,’ with an unshakeable support for those fighting for freedom of expression and against the abuse of power. That, coupled with his innovative sense of the theatrical and a sharp brain for business, made it possible for Graham to back an assortment of talented, radical, drug-soaked performers and allow the countercultural rock icons of the ’60s and ’70s to reach a mass audience and effect social change.

3.Hang Out with Rock Stars

Jimi Hendrix – San Francisco, 1968.

What if you threw a party and Everybody came? Bill Graham produced rock concerts like that. He made the experience of music an immersive one. In their heyday, San Francisco’s Fillmore and Winterland auditoriums hosted acts such as Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan and Buffalo Springfield all on the same night.

He continually asked the performers he knew to recommend up-and-coming artists he’d never heard of, and then put those folks on the bill with more well-known talent. That’s how Santana got launched and how The Doors were brought to San Francisco. He wanted to educate his patrons, so he booked poets and even a Russian dance company. Bill Graham was also the first to expose B.B. King and Chuck Berry to white audiences.

4. Appreciate Art

Ingest a more than generous dose of bright colors, kaleidoscopic patterns and distorted typography by viewing all the incredible vintage posters on display. Artist Lee Conklin’s 1968 poster advertising Vanilla Fudge and the Steve Miller band has a drawing of two naked bodies. It looks like they are facing each other, but they have no faces. They are only human up to their shoulders, and then they become hands, clasping one another. Some posters are more gruesome, but always compelling. A New Year’s Eve concert poster offers up a painting of an hourglass, with the flopping bodies of hundreds of little humans trickling through.

Tune in to some of the guitars on display, like Jerry Garcia’s ‘Wolf,’ or a chunk of a Fender Stratocaster salvaged from Jimi Hendrix’s collection. The belt Mick Jagger wore at Altamont hangs on one wall, and a handwritten note from Donovan on another, calling Bill Graham ‘by far the friendliest and most considerate promoter I have ever had the pleasure of working with.’ You can also read letters from fans begging for tickets to the last show at the Winterland auditorium: ‘Grateful Dead is not just a rock concert, it’s a state of mind.’

Take a look at the charred relics from the offices of Bill Graham Presents, which was firebombed in 1985 by suspected neo-Nazis. Read the original, typewritten 1967 ‘Summer of Love Proclamation,’ with quotes from Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary, who sought ‘to give young pot smokers and young acid heads a sense of their historical meaning.’

5. Live By a Strong Inner Code
Bill Graham wanted everyone to feel warm and secure, so he took care of all the aspects of production, like running out to get Otis Redding ice cubes, displaying current-event news clippings in the lobby to give shy patrons a chance to get comfortable or placing a basket of free apples at the entrance. Soon, it wasn’t as important as who was playing at the Fillmore as it was that you were at the Fillmore.

Some performers resented that Bill Graham was ‘making bread off the scene,’ but Graham was more than willing to give back to the community. He understood the promise and power of rock and roll, and he lived by a strong inner code that acknowledged both the tremendous power of music and his obligation to use that power as a force for good: ‘It’s that question of what do you know, and then what do you do with it?’

What Bill Graham did with his power was to continually build his relationships and his humanitarian mission, branching out from Bay Area causes to international relief victims in Africa. Graham promoted performances in conjunction with Amnesty International, a concert to benefit the victims of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, and organized a huge concert to welcome Nelson Mandela after his release from a South African jail in 1990. Sadly, Bill Graham’s life was cut short when he was killed in a helicopter crash the following year.

6. Absorb the Whole Experience
You’ll start your visit looking at pictures of a little boy in a German orphanage, and you’ll wind up gazing at an enormous butterfly costume suspended from the ceiling. You can hear ‘White Rabbit,’ ‘Respect,’ and many others blast from the light show as you look around. In theater seats behind red velvet curtains, projected swirls of smoke and colored oils let you watch and wonder, listen and let your mind drift. You can even dance if the mood strikes. One thing you can’t do is take pictures. Like the sixties themselves, there is no substitute for being there.

Skirball Cultural Center 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd. Los Angeles, CA

Hours: Tuesday–Friday, 12:00–5:00 p.m.
Saturday–Sunday, 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.
Free to All on Thursdays
Bill Graham Exhibit Open through October 11th, 2015


Bill Graham’s Biography
Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out by Bill Graham and Robert Greenfield
The Making of a Counter Culture by Theodore Roszak



History Podcast Keeps Me Connected to My Hometown

No Comments

I’m one of those born and raised San Franciscans whose heart was left there when they moved away. So, my ears, now residing with me hundreds of miles away, gratefully absorb the weekly Outside Lands San Francisco Podcast — the podcast of the Western Neighborhood Project, a group that studies and preserves San Francisco history, especially of the “western neighborhoods” of San Francisco.

I am continually surprised and entranced by the stories they bring to light of the people and places that existed before, interesting well-known and/or lesser known folks and the homes and neighborhoods in which they lived. These stories, especially of “ordinary” people, remind me that everyone who calls themselves a “San Franciscan,” (including me!) holds in their memories and experiences a valid sliver of a piece of the City’s history.

I especially enjoyed the recent Carol Schuldt podcast. Woody LaBounty’s descriptions of this “Queen of the Beach” acknowledged her eccentricity while a personal, reverential tone shone through. He and his co-hosts succeeded in painting a picture of a rescuer/rebel in all her glory.

It’s too bad that it was the intensity of Schuldt’s connection to nature that made her seem so odd. It made me think about how our present disconnect from nature is what is really more odd.

I wish I had known her — and to be honest, I wish I had known OF her. I lived in the city till I was seventeen years old, but was not a beachgoer, and I am at once thrilled to hear about her and sad that I was not able to enjoy even the knowledge of her existence all those years she was alive.


What’s Roosevelt Got to Do with Redford?

FDR’s Repeated Appeal
I got hooked on the myth of FDR when I was just a kid.  Ever since I saw 1973’s “The Way We Were,” sympathizing with  Streisand’s smart, go-getter Katie Morosky character, In my eight year old mind both Katie and I worked hard hoping to be discovered, we both considered ourselves un-pretty, and we both adored Robert Redford. But there was that other part of Katie.  Her idealism and fascination with Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

I was naturally interested in history, but most classwork was centered around battles and dates,  This movie offered a peek into what happened on the Home Front while the men and boys were fighting overseas.  To think every citizen had to sacrifice.  From the ration cards and nylons to life itself.  And they seemed so willing.

It was less than thirty years since VJ day, but American was in the midst of a war that had splintered the country in body and spirit. In contrast, “The Way We Were” was a movie about a time when America had faith in its government, a time when America banded together behind a President who was beloved by the majority.

As we all know, he couldn’t have accomplished all that in one term, or even two or three.  Elected to four terms, before he died in office.

When “The Way We Were” came out I was too young to understand the complex political mood of the country in the waning years of the Vietnam war, after bloody battles, corruption, civil upheaval and heartbreaking assassinations, but I knew this movie was making a statement that it was different then.

Even with all I know now about the imperfect man FDR really was, I still can’t shake that legendary view of him and the heroic side of things.  Crippled by polio but radiating strength, he did what he had to do to bring us out of the Depression and lead the nation through the battles of a generation to win victory over Nazi Germany and the Axis powers.



Categories: History Memorabilia

A Trip to Carville

Excerpted from “Long Journey to Now”

Anna took herself into the fog of memory, into San Francisco’s Outer Sunset, circa 1915.  There were several streetcar lines heading out to the beach back when she and Ed were courting.  Mr. Adolph Sutro and Mr. Sol Getz saw to that.  They were building a city where the rest of us saw sand.  Tunnels constructed from downtown to dirt.  They are the ones that made this city happen.

Ed, he didn’t ever own a car, unless you count his home in Carville by the Sea.  It was a retired Cable Car, There had been quite a surplus of cable cars after the quake. Many lines were damaged and never rebuilt.  Abandoned after years of service, they had at one point been loved, trusted, and relied upon. Ed looked at his home as a rescue, an adoption of an almost sentient being, and slowly fixed it up.  He took out one row of benches and put in a mattress. Turned the front conductor pod into a little kitchen/hotplate with a breakfast nook that almost resembled a porch.  He had screened it in, but the winds and sand had torn it in so many places over the years that the patchwork repair had become a kind of signature to his place.  A welcoming flag of many nations.

Hundreds of people took to the task of turning assorted outdated Cable Cars and carriages into habitable spaces, clubhouses and cafes.  Ed was one of the small percentages of folks at Carville who used his car as his only residence, not just a beach cabin or place for a secret rendezvous.  Ed’s job demanded seriousness, but when he wasn’t a gripman on the Powell and Mason line, he lived like a Bohemian, with the ocean and the air.

Carville gave Ed the chance to relax and admire the world and even himself, in uninterrupted surroundings of the polished wood and brass of a public car.  It made the hours he worked grabbing cable a fine counterpoint to contemplation at the beach.  It was easy rejuvenation, and he didn’t question it.  He liked making his living in something physically hard, and of course he liked the control and power of the machine. It took mental focus, too.  He couldn’t allow himself idle banter with the passengers.  He knew when to shut up and do his job.

Ed wasn’t easy to get to know in those days.  Anna was just a girl, after all.  A girl riding to the Fair.  The cars were always crowded and noisy, and Ed would have to admonish the patrons, ‘Step back!’  He would lurch with his entire body to fix the handle in the right position.  After cresting a hill he’d bring the stick back, and be like a goose with his neck craning around the tops of people’s heads, watching for the cross traffic and ringing his bells, slowly creeping forward to a stop.  The view was spectacular, and when they got a glimpse of the Fair, the assembled would gasp in excitement.  That’s when Ed would pause a little longer and let it sink in.  We are grand again, San Francisco!