Skirball explores Bill Grahams Jewish dimension

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The legendary rock impresario Bill Graham was not a particularly observant Jew. There is nothing Jewish about the bands he worked with, such as the Grateful Dead or the Rolling Stones, or the venues in which he produced concerts, such as Fillmore West and Winterland in San Francisco or Fillmore East in New York. There’s nothing Jewish about the concert posters for which the Fillmore was famous, or the artist’s memorabilia, such as Jerry Garcia’s “Wolf” Guitar, Janis Joplin’s tambourine or a shard of a guitar from Jimi Hendrix.

So why did the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles organize the exhibition “Bill Graham and the Rock and Roll Revolution,” which opened May 7?

Bill Graham at the Fillmore East’s final concert, 1970 photo/the life picture collection/getty images-john olson

A key player is Skirball director Robert Kirschner. He was the rabbi at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El when Graham died in a helicopter crash on Oct. 25, 1991 along with his girlfriend, Melissa Gold, and the pilot, Steve Kahn. Graham was 60.

His death was reported immediately on radio and TV. Kirschner recalls hearing the news on the radio; a few minutes later, his phone rang. It was the S.F. novelist Herbert Gold, Melissa’s ex-husband, asking whether Kirschner would preside over the funerals of Gold, Graham and Kahn, which he did in three successive days.

Kirschner did not know Graham personally, but one couldn’t live in San Francisco and not know of Graham, the Marin County resident whose career stretched back to the late 1960s, to his benefit concerts for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, known as Acid Tests, to the early performances of the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, through the shows at the original Fillmore and its successors, to concert tours for Dylan and the Stones.

At Graham’s funeral, an estimated 2,000 mourners filled every seat, while still more stood at the door. Among the attendees were many of the musicians with whom Graham had worked. Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane and Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead spoke. Carlos Santana played an instrumental version of “I Love You Much Too Much,” a Yiddish song Graham had taught him.

Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia at Day on the Green, Oakland Coliseum, 1987 photo/ken friedman

Graham is buried in the Eternal Home cemetery in Colma beneath a long, undulating black marble headstone inscribed with his Hebrew name, Volvel ben Yakov. Instead of the pebbles traditionally left behind by visitors to Jewish graves, pilgrims to Graham’s resting site often place pennies atop his headstone.

In preparing for the funeral, Kirschner got a glimpse into Graham’s life that was not always on display: Graham’s childhood escape from Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied France, his Bronx upbringing, his work in the Catskills, his identification with the social idealism of the ’60s in general, but more specifically with bands such as the Grateful Dead.

Kirschner was aware that Graham underwrote the annual menorah in San Francisco’s Union Square, and he knew about Graham’s very public protest against President Ronald Reagan’s trip to the cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where members of the Nazi SS were buried, followed by the firebombing of Graham’s office by neo-Nazis several days later.

Kirschner was struck by how many lives Graham had touched, and has long intended to tell Graham’s full story. About three years ago, Kirschner reached out to Graham’s biographer, Bob Greenfield, who put him in touch with the Bill Graham Memorial Foundation and with Graham’s sons David and Alex. Turns out they, too, were interested in showcasing, as Kirschner put it, “the Jewish dimension of Bill’s identity formation and his values.”

Graham’s sons’ vast collection of memorabilia and ephemera forms the substance of the exhibition, which toggles between Graham’s own life and the concerts he produced.

Jimi Hendrix at the Fillmore in San Francisco, 1968. photo/iconic images-baron wolman

The exhibition opens with keepsakes from Graham’s Dickensian childhood. He was born Wolfgang Grajonca in Berlin in 1931, his father died right after he was born, and when his mother could not support him and his five sisters, she put him in an orphanage, which then sent him on a Kindertransport to France when the Nazis came to power.

He arrived in New York at age 11 and then had to wait to be chosen by a Jewish foster family in the Bronx, where he attended DeWitt Clinton High School and Anglicized his name to William Graham. He also helped two of his five sisters, Rita and Ester, immigrate to the United States and settle in San Francisco. (His mother and youngest sister died at Auschwitz.)

Graham traveled to San Francisco to see his sisters, and initially to try his hand at acting. However when a performance of the San Francisco Mime Troupe in Lafayette Park was busted for being “obscene,” Graham discovered his calling: concert promoter.

After the initial biographical component, the exhibition shifts to an impressive display of more than 400 artifacts that illustrate Graham’s professional career. Organized by Skirball curator Erin Clancey, the show includes concert posters, a re-creation of the Joshua White Light Show, which turned concerts at the Fillmore into multimedia experiences, concert photos and rock portraits, as well as Graham’s personal scrapbooks from the American portion of the “Live Aid” concert, costumes from the Grateful Dead New Year’s Eve shows, and some charred remains from Graham’s firebombed office.

Threading throughout the exhibit is a leitmotif of how Graham’s own experience informed his vision for popular culture. The apple barrel that greeted visitors at the entrance to the Fillmore (and which greets visitors to the exhibition) was inspired by the apples he ate to survive when he and childhood friend Ralph Moratz were in France. The artists who meant the most to Graham, including the Grateful Dead and Dylan, were anti-establishment in ways that created community. And Graham’s social activism was always instrumental in the many benefit concerts he organized and produced. That is why “Bill Graham and the Rock and Roll Revolution” is at the Skirball.

“We’re always looking at the multiplicity of the Jewish experience, the complexity, the nuance,” Kirschner said. “The Skirball seeks to understand Judaism as a cultural as well as a religious phenomenon. … When I look at people like Bill Graham, or others who are not religiously observant, their Jewish identity is still formative for them… [and] relevant to what he accomplished and the impact that he had.”

A version of this piece first ran in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.

“Bill Graham and the Rock and Roll Revolution”
is on view at the Skirball Cultural Center, 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd, Los Angeles through Oct. 11.