THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES Bill Graham & the Fillmore West

38 years after its
closing, a return visit to the storied rock venue – on film, and in person.

 

BY
JUD COST

 

 

Bill
Graham realized the hippie ballroom scene had come to an end by the time he
closed his famed San Francisco concert venue,
Fillmore West, in July of 1971, a week after pulling the plug on his Fillmore
East emporium in New York.
Fillmore: The Last Days (Rhino), a
1972 film directed by Richard T. Heffron, documents the final five nights at
Fillmore West, perched above a carpet store at the corner of Market and Van
Ness. Graham opened for business here in 1968 when he left the original
Fillmore Auditorium for a larger building.

 

“The
flowers wilted and the scene changed,” says Graham wistfully, of his
reason for shutting down operations, during one of the movie’s candid
interviews with the late rock impresario. The scenes with Graham-feeding the
ducks with his toddler son, shooting hoops at the Tuesday-night basketball
scrum for employees or baring his soul about his flight from Nazi Germany as a
young boy in 1941-are the film’s best moments. Surprisingly, the music, with a
few notable exceptions, is nothing to write home about.

 

Too
bad this wasn’t shot in 1966-67, at the Haight/Ashbury’s apogee. Unfortunately,
by 1971, the Bay Area music scene was in eclipse. Janis Joplin had died of a
heroin overdose the year before, and Jefferson Airplane, shown here only
briefly, singing a medley of “Volunteers”/”We Can Be Together,”
was about to enter its death-spiral phase. To pad out the performance roster,
second-rate Joplin impersonators like Lamb’s Barbara Mauritz and the
mind-numbing Cold Blood featuring Lydia Pense are given too much camera time.

 

Quicksilver
Messenger Service was a shadow of its former self after S.F.’s most exciting
guitarist, John Cipollina, quit the band in 1970, and it was taken over by
singer Dino Valente, recently released from prison. A great close-up of Grace
Slick singing the line, “Up against the wall, motherfucker!” can’t
fully compensate for the Airplane’s cameo appearance. Contributions by It’s A
Beautiful Day, Elvin Bishop and Hot Tuna, a bluesy side-project of the
Airplane’s Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady, are interesting if not essential.
Ever the local outsiders, the Flamin’ Groovies, who played Wednesday night,
didn’t make the final cut (if they were even filmed, at all).

 

That
leaves the Grateful Dead and Santana to do most of the heavy lifting. A trim
Jerry Garcia sings lead on Dead staple “Casey Jones,” while a boyish
Bob Weir proves most adept singing Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” a
song Garcia introduces as, “Here’s the one it’s all about.”

 

After
a tough week trying to placate various factions, it was probably enough for
Graham that Santana even showed up for the Sunday-evening finale. Their solid
performance was gravy on the goose. A phone conversation between Graham, at the
end of his rope, and Santana’s management, finds the Fillmore boss spouting:
“If we had Suzy Creamcheese and Phil Spatoni’s All-Girl Orchestra, we
could fill the place, but they want Santana!”

 

The
most electrifying confrontation takes place in the film’s opening minutes when
Mike Wilhelm, former guitarist for the Charlatans-the Edwardian-garbed combo
who started S.F.’s psychedelic revolution with a fabled engagement at the Red
Dog Saloon in Virginia City, Nev. in the summer of ’65-shows up unannounced in
Graham’s office. Wilhelm tries desperately to convince the promoter to put his
current band, Loose Gravel, on the final Fillmore West bill.

 

When
Graham turns him down, Wilhelm explodes, “Well, fuck you and thanks for
the memories!” Graham, predictably, blows a gasket and chases Wilhelm down
the stairs, out of camera range. It comes too soon in the film, but it’s
somehow reminiscent of the final scene of many Charlie Chaplin silent classics,
with the little tramp waddling off into the sunset. It’s a perfect distillation
of the complex essence of the volatile yet fascinating man known as Bill
Graham. 

 

***

 

Cut
to 2009.

 

It
was a total mind-blower, climbing the ancient, winding staircase of Bill
Graham’s Fillmore West for the first time in 38 years. It felt like re-visiting
your old high school-and then finding they’d turned it into the world
headquarters of Kentucky Fried Chicken.

 

Graham
had only used the venue, formerly known as the Carousel Ballroom, for three
years before he shut down both his Fillmore West and East enterprises. The
doorway and marquee of Fillmore West were plastered over ages ago, when the
carpet showroom once located downstairs was turned into a Honda dealership.

 

I
can’t tell you how many times I’ve driven through the Market/Van Ness intersection
since those glory days, seeing the ghost of myself as a young kid lined up
outside the Fillmore West and down around the corner to see the Who, Country
Joe & The Fish, Fleetwood Mac, the Byrds, Quicksilver Messenger Service,
Traffic, Creedence Clearwater Revival, the Kinks, the Youngbloods, Procol
Harum, Moby Grape, the Rascals or Mott The Hoople. To see Jefferson Airplane,
the Doors or the Grateful Dead in those days, you had to go to much larger
buildings: Winterland at the corner of Post and Steiner Streets or the Cow Palace
in Daly City.

 

I’d
assumed the room that had once been Fillmore West, the place where I’d spent so
many happy nights, no longer existed. But no, it’s still there. Mike Doerner,
an employee of the Honda dealership who says he once played with L.A. legends Canned Heat,
is assigned to guide the curious around these hallowed grounds, commemorated at
the bottom of the stairs by framed photocopies of Fillmore West posters.

 

You
can’t help but gasp when you reach the top of the stairs and walk into the main
room. Gone are the broken-down couches at the back of the hall, the rickety
platform where the light show set up shop, the two basketball hoops that once
framed the place, even the stage and battle-scarred wooden floor where patrons
once sat to watch the music. The large room is now lit up and painted white
like a hospital lobby, but instead of doctors and nurses, the place has been
staffed with auto mechanics, busily performing routine maintenance in what is
now Honda’s service bay.

 

In
the backstage area, you can close your eyes and see Graham pointing at his
watch to get acts up-and-running. After peering into what was once Graham’s
office you can even re-visit the back staircase where the promoter chased Mike
Wilhelm out of the building 38 summers ago.

 

Bill
Graham’s priceless memorabilia collection may have been destroyed in the 1987
fire that wiped out his North
Beach nightclub,
Wolfgang’s, but the late impresario can still be found, roaming the battlements
of his old haunts like some Shakespearian phantom.

 

You
just have to know where to look.

 

 

 

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