Now Presenting Bill Graham

ONE-MAN AND one-woman shows in the theater have traded on the renown of such public figures as John Barrymore, Truman Capote, Gertrude Stein, Richard Nixon and Emily Dickinson, to mention a handful. The name Bill Graham hardly supplies the same cachet, but the news that Ron Silver is going to play Bill Graham tends to get the attention of anyone who can remember the outsized image of the pugnacious impresario of rock.

Graham was the biggest promoter of his time, beginning in the late 60s and continuing through the next decade, but he was more than a promoter: as the owner of the Fillmore auditoriums East and West, he was the gatekeeper to the main stages of rock when rock took on a greater meaning, in part because of him. Passionate and belligerent, with an operatic vision, he brought an aura of art to the screaming blues of Janis Joplin, the mojo hands of Eric Clapton, Carlos Santana and Duane Allman, and the whole parade of suddenly significant tie-dyed performers bathed in the glow of the psychedelic light shows he helped introduce.

Mickey Hart, the drummer for the Grateful Dead once put it this way, “The Fillmore East was the church of rock and roll and Bill was the shepherd tending the flock.”

Silver, the much-traveled stage and film actor who won a Tony Award as a scheming Hollywood agent in David Mamet’s Speed the Plow, has already played Alan Dershowitz onscreen and brings a certain in-your-face potential to Bill Graham Presents, opening at the Canon Theater in Beverly Hills next Sunday. Graham, who died in 1991 at the age of 60, when a helicopter carrying him from a Bay Area concert back to his home in Marin County crashed into an electric transmission tower, had a legendary temper and was a controversial figure both loved and loathed by musicians and others in the rock concert world he helped create.

A holocaust survivor whose parents were killed by the Nazis, Graham grew up an orphan in the Bronx, fought in Korea and wanted to be an actor. Instead he became a leading player in the counterculture and watched it become big box office. He got rich but also grew disillusioned with the greed that set in. His Fillmores became quickly obsolete as bands headed for the bigger paydays of arenas and stadiums. He moved on to become chief tour promoter for the Rolling Stones and mammoth events like Live AID.

“It’s not a great life, you’re not talking about Einstein, not talking about Freud or Galileo or Michelangelo,” says Silver, “but it was a life filled with tremendous highs and lows. He was very much a part of the invention of something that is still with us and that has affected millions, if not hundreds of millions of people.

“It’s as much about the 20th century as it is about a man named Bill Graham,” says Ethan Silverman, the show’s director. “It’s about a man who changed the music business and then saw it change past him. He was scrappy, a hustler, one tough New York street kid. But he did what he did with a lot of honesty and a lot of soul.”

“There was a charisma to him,” Silver says during a lunch break at a restaurant not far from the theater. “People were unbelievably loyal to him. And loved him. And another faction that did not like him and were intimidated by him. And lots of contradictions and ambiguities. And that always interests me as an actor.”

“Bill was the kind of guy who used to run a movie studio,” says Robert Greenfield, the Bay Area writer who collaborated with Graham on his autobiography, Bill Graham Presents, My Life Inside Rock and Out, published posthumously in 1992. “He was dangerous, a little scary, you never knew what was going to set him off.”

Over a period of years Greenfield has reworked the book into a stage piece, in collaboration with Silverman and Silver. The setting for the play is a single night in 1989, when Graham, alone in his home office, is waiting to hear from the Rolling Stones and whether they want him to guide their Steel Wheels tour. The crisis at hand, as Silver notes, is simply “himself – how he copes on this particular evening with certain events that have happened.”

“He has gained the whole world but lost himself in the process,” says Greenfield.

His ruminations are, not surprisingly, full of all that music – Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Led Zeppelin, The Grateful Dead, The Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, Otis Redding – and Silver’s stories will be underscored and accented with a soundtrack of the period.

“It’s not really a play as we traditionally know it,” says Silver, who last appeared onstage in L.A. in another one-man show, and, by the journalist Roger Rosenblatt at the Hollywood Playhouse in 1992. “It’s kind of like the Greeks before they discovered they could have a second character come onstage.

“It’s exhilarating because everything revolves around you, but the responsibilities are quite burdensome and you don’t share them with other actors. I’ve seen a lot of them to check out how people handle it, what their relationship is to the audience. There’s no privacy, no fourth wall. When the scrim comes up, I see the audience, they see me and I acknowledge their presence. They are my partner in the play.”

“It’s a hybrid,” says Silverman, the director. “Part play, part performance art. What is a play but storytelling? And a one-man show is the essence of storytelling. It’s interesting that not all performance artists can play characters and not all actors can create their own believable world onstage by themselves. But Ron is an actor who can hold the stage. I would think of Eric Begosian,” he says, referring to the kinetic Talk Radio monologist. “Ron and I went to see Christopher Plummer in Barrymore and loved it, but this is not that.”

“I think it’s a far more interesting life than Barrymore’s,” says Silver. “I’d have very little interest in doing Barrymore. It’s far more compelling to me than Truman Capote’s story or Diana Vreeland’s story. And those were wonderful shows.”

“I hope that what drew people to those other shows,” says Silverman, “a well known actor playing a well-known person, draws people in, but I hope the result is more emotional. I’ve tried to take what Bill Graham did at the Fillmore and that inspired me as a kid and tried to recreate something on the stage – not a concept but the feeling people had when they saw their first rock show.”

While he will be impersonating Graham, Silver will not be mimicking him precisely, as he did Henry Kissinger in “Nixon and Kissinger” on TV and Dershowitz in Reversal of Fortune. “Kissinger I had to, everybody knows who he is and the accent. Dershowitz I had to because he’s on TV all the time. But with Bill, he’s not well known enough, at all, so this is a marriage of Bill and myself.”

Graham certainly was known to the readers of Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy, to those who have seen the 1972 documentary film The Last Days of the Fillmore and to people who followed the music business before it went corporate. But his scowling image has already drifted into a rock and roll past that seems more distant with the arrival of each new car commercial powered by a once-sacred anthem by The Who or the Beatles.

Silver himself is an actor’s actor whose fame, at least in Hollywood, has never quite caught up with his talent — not that he’s complaining. He tells the story of walking to rehearsal last week through the streets of Beverly Hills just as a tour bus was unloading. “I hear somebody say, `It’s Al Pacino, Al Pacino!’ So I’m walking, trying to get ahead, and somebody else says, `No, it’s not, it’s Andy Garcia, it’s Andy Garcia!’ I keep walking and finally somebody says, `No, it’s Ron Silver.’ And the entire busload almost together said, `Who?’” I shouldn’t tell that story on myself, but it was hysterical.”

Such is the lot of the New York stage actor who has made his share of notable films (Enemies: A Love Story, Silkwood, Reversal of Fortune) and had recurring roles on Chicago Hope and Veronica’s Closet but never had the breakthrough leading man part to make him a household face.

“I did no films after Garbo Talks, between `84 and `89, when I did Enemies. I just worked on Broadway. I addition to Speed the Plow, during that time he also starred in David Rabe’s caustic Hollywood play, Hurlyburly. “You know who my understudy was? Kevin Spacey. What happened to him, by the way? I haven’t kept up.”

When Silverman approached Silver about Bill Graham Presents, he was interested immediately, not only remembering Bill Graham but his own strangely coincident connection to him. “My grandmother had a job as an usher at Loews Commodore Theater in what they now call the East Village in New York , Sixth St. and 2nd Ave., and when I was a kid growing up on 7th St. and Ave. A, I used to go the Loews Commodore Theater religiously. I knew the place like the back of my hand. When the Loew’s Commodore closed, Bill Graham opened it up as the Fillmore East. And I was there all the time.

“I never met Graham, except once in a group of people, but I learned that he worked in the Catskills as a waiter when he was 16, 17, 18. I worked in the Catskills too at the same age – he was older – but at the same age he did and same hotels, same maitre d’s.

“So when he talks about the gambling, the games, the women up there, this is one of the few plays where I had to do almost no research. And I’m a child of the `60s so the music resonates with me on many different levels.”

The Greenfield and Graham book, which won the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for writing about music, was constructed as an oral biography, with Graham telling his life story while others who knew him weigh in with their own long, conversational recollections. And there are different versions of events in the book; Robbie Robertson of the Band and Graham, for example give different accounts of The Last Waltz, the Band’s farewell concert held in San Francisco (and filmed by Martin Scorsese).

But will the prickly, sometimes obnoxious side of Graham come through in a piece in which he is the storyteller? “We have to do that,” says Silver. “The guy wasn’t a saint. You have to see that he yells. You have to see that he justifies things to himself that others might have a problem with.

“Like anybody else talking about their own life, we’re all unbelievably unreliable narrators of our own lives. I mean, we know things that other people don’t know, but the picture we form of ourselves is within the eye of the storm. So, God help me, who knows what’s accurate or not? His manipulative skills were quite great obviously. You marry those two things together, with an eye for drama, a man in tremendous denial about his past…”

Greenfield, who wrote an early book about the Rolling Stones and has written a novel and another play, Temple, became a friend of Graham’s in the course of their collaboration. He acknowledges Graham was difficult but “a sympathetic person once you got to know him.” The play itself has been a long time coming, he says, “written and rewritten over years,” with workshop readings at Lincoln Center, the Berkshire Theater Festival and in Aspen.

The decision to stage the first full production in Los Angeles and not San Francisco, where Graham’s glory years were spent, the author says, is a matter of pure expediency. “Many, many people in San Francisco had problems with Bill. I feel more comfortable bringing it here before an L.A. audience.”

Though Silver is hoping to take the show to New York after a run here, he says, “Doing it in LA seems absolutely appropriate when you consider that LA was so central to the invention of the rock business. I would hope that after the play opens, it starts a conversation, at least among a certain group of people. I know a lot of musicians are going to be coming down. Pete Townshend has been very helpful, in terms of clearing rights to some come of the music.”

Silver is aware there are some people who yet may not know the difference between Bill Graham and Billy Graham, the world-famous evangelist. But this is not a problem. Should anyone buy tickets expecting a tribute to the Reverend Graham, says Silver, “I think they’ll be disabused of that in the opening. Once they hear Led Zeppelin and Bruce Springsteen, they’ll realize they’re at the wrong theater.”

Los Angeles Times 2000


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