We were standing in the lobby of the Fillmore East one Saturday night, my girlfriend Barbara and I, watching the leisurely parade of long hair and tie-dye and crushed velvet and fringe leather and patchouli oil that was the style in the Spring of 1968. I wasn’t on weekend leave from West Point, so I was required to wear my Dress Gray uniform. They had bussed us down to New York earlier that day for the Armed Forces day parade down Fifth Avenue, and now freed of my parade duties, Barbara and I were at the Fillmore East to see the Charles Lloyd Quartet, second on the bill behind the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, with folkie Tom Rush bringing up the rear.
This was nothing new for me. I’d been to the Fillmore before, and to places like the Café au Go-Go, the Bitter End, the Village Gate and many other music venues. As a cadet, I was in the habit of skating out of whatever event in New York City we were compelled to attend and instead heading off downtown to listen to music. The city was alive with it in those years. I remember quickly exiting the NIT at the Garden one time – Bobby Knight was the basketball coach and my classmate Mike Krzyzewski was playing at the top of his game — and taking two subways downtown to the Five Spot to hear Thelonious Monk. As I exited the club around midnight to make my way back uptown to get on the bus back to West Point, I looked up St. Marks Place and saw Andy Warhol and his crew leaving another club. Edie Sedgwick twirled herself round and round in the middle of the street, her blonde hair and mini-skirt flying, while Andy assiduously sought to hail a cab.
Barbara was unique, nearly singularly so in my experience as a cadet, one of only two college girls I had managed to convince to go out with me during the previous two years, the war in Vietnam having come between the baby-killers at West Point and the largely anti-war female population of most college campuses. I met her one freezing Saturday night in February earlier that year. I was walking along Thayer Road when I saw this striking looking girl walking toward me like she was out for blood. As we approached one another she stopped in the middle of the sidewalk blocking my way and looked me in the eye and asked, are you going to ask me out, or what?
This got my full attention. For one thing, you didn’t see many attractive young women walking around unescorted at West Point, and for another, you encountered virtually none of them who stopped you and more or less asked you for a date. So I jumped. I said, sure, I’ll ask you out if you’ll go down to Highland Falls and get us a bottle of wine and meet me back here in front of Thayer Hall in 20 minutes. It’s a deal, she said, and off she went.
It turned out that she had been raised in a home overlooking West Point in Garrison, a small town just across the Hudson that might as well have been a thousand miles away because her parents made it a point early in her adolescence that she should never, and they meant never, date a cadet. So that night, according to the way she’d been raised, she was one down and two to go.
On the other hand all I had to contend with was the typical tight schedule of a cadet. I was a Cow – West Pointese for Junior – and a squad leader to boot, and there were plebes awaiting my expert attention back in the barracks. I checked my watch. Little more than a couple of hours before Taps, which is why I put a deadline on the deal for our date. I stood there at the entrance of Grant Hall, where my grandfather’s portrait hung on a wall across from those of Pershing and Patton and Eisenhower. But make it she did, returning with an ice cold bottle of Mateus Rose, which we proceeded to inhale seated on an isolated stone wall overlooking the Hudson amidst massive quantities of kissing and hurried stories about who we were and where we came from and frantically exchanging names and addresses and so forth. Even on a freezing West Point night in February it was fast and it was hot I sprinted back to the barracks and just made it by Taps, a feat of split-second timing which, while typical of cadets trying to get in one more swig of Mateus and one more kiss, I don’t think I’ve equaled to this day. Please let me know if you can think of anything more redolent of the 60’s than swilling Mateus Rose straight from the bottle and madly kissing a gorgeous girl on a stone wall at a university – yeah, West Point was and is an actual fully — accredited university. For me, when it came to the 60’s, that night with Barbara summed it up.
You can believe it or not, but standing in the lobby of the Fillmore East with her on a Friday night in the Fall of 1968 was a come-down from that cold night in February kissing her on a stone wall overlooking the Hudson. I mean, how many velveteen bellbottoms, how many mock Indian concho belts, how many fringed leather jackets can you see, how much patchouli can you inhale and remain awed? We were about to climb the stairs to our third-balcony general admission $1.75 seats when a guy with a full head of dark wavy hair in a wrinkled button-down shirt went past at a decidedly non-leisurely pace. He got a couple of steps beyond us and turned back.
Who the hell are you and what are you doing here? He asked this without a trace of menace in a voice which was fully capable of great menace and more.
I’m Lucian Truscott, and this is my girlfriend Barbara, and we’re paying customers and we’re here to see Charles Lloyd, I said back with as much muster as I could manage, which was fairly considerable. I’d been a squad leader, remember? Who the hell are you? I asked this knowing full and well who he was. I’d seen his photo in the Voice, I had read disdainful stories about him in Rolling Stone…oh, I knew who hewas…by sight, anyway.
I’m Bill Graham, he said with a hint of a smile, and I own this place. You’re that crazy bastard from West Point who writes letters to the editor of the Village Voice, am I right?
You’re really here to see Charles Lloyd? Not Butterfield?
Yeah, Charles Lloyd. He’s my favorite sax player.
Now Graham smiled widely and said come with me and pushed his way through the patchouli oil toward the right side of the stage. I took Barbara’s hand and we followed, uncertain of where we were going, but sure about one thing: We were following Bill Graham in his place of business, the Fillmore East, and something good was going to come of this.
And something did. A huge guy with a large belly and long hair was guarding a door at the top of a set of stairs back there. He held the door open and stepped aside. Bill led us into his oddly shaped office, a triangular room that was wider at its entrance than at its end, where his desk was. We passed several other desks where I recall young women speaking rapidly into telephones, massaging egos, putting out fires, the kinds of things young women who were assistants to men like Bill Graham did in those days.
As he reached the end of the room, Bill put his hand on the shoulder of a young black guy occupying the only chair facing his desk.
Stevie, get up and give the lady your seat, will ya? He joked.
Hey, Bill, how’s it going, said Stevie Wonder as one of his handlers took him by the elbow and moved him over against the wall. Barbara said thank you and promptly took Stevie’s seat. I could see her eyes flashing, taking in the action.
Bill rummaged in a drawer and removed several little cards and signed the first one. This is a door pass, he said. He signed the second. This is a backstage pass. He hesitated before he signed the third and looked up sternly. This one’s a pass to the sound and light booth, but I don’t want to see you up there very often. It’s small, and they are very busy. Then he signed it and handed all three of them over.
Where are you sitting, he asked. Second balcony, I answered, showing him our tickets.
Pompili! Pompili! He shouted.
A guy with a Bronx accent in a Fillmore East t-shir who looked like he could have been Bill Graham’s son appeared next to me.
All the stories in Rolling Stone and the Voice said Bill Graham was gruff. He growled at people. Bill picked up the phone and waved a hand, dismissing us. Jerry, show these people to our best house seats, he growled gruffly.
I’d like to say that night was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but I don’t think those were the kind of friendships Bill Graham had. He had regular ones, and so did I. This meant we treated each other’s space kind of like the sound and light booth. It was small, and we were busy, and we didn’t see much of each other, but when we did it was enough for a lifetime. The two nights I’m going to tell you about that I spent with Bill Graham were certainly enough for me, because I didn’t spend them with the other characters in the stories. I spent them with Bill Graham.
It was the day after Christmas 1968 and The MC5, one of the most heavily promoted bands at the time and the first rock and roll band that had declared its radical politics both in song and behavior was going to play a free concert. I knew enough about the Fillmore East and the way Bill Graham ran it to realize that none of the free concerts Bill promoted at the either the Fillmore or in Central Park or anywhere else was truly free. There were the usual costs associated with running the best rock and roll venue in the country…rent, electricity, insurance, paying the staff…and the bands were almost always paid for their free appearances. So I called Bill and asked him what was going on. Bill growled gruffly that it was supposed to be a concert for the community of the Lower East Side. He spat out the word “community” like a piece of bad fish. It was all bullshit, he said. The radical MC5, whose big hit on their first album was “Kick Out the Jams Motherfucker” had agreed to put on a show in support of the radical Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers. It was a clusterfuck of gigantic proportions and it was spinning rapidly out of control and Bill couldn’t think of why he had agreed to it except for the fact that the record label, Elektra, was one of the of the hottest in the business and had paid for the Fillmore upfront. He was locked in. He growled gruffly that it looked like the concert was going to happen, for better or worse, most probably worse. He sounded like a man who had just gotten married to a woman he didn’t recognize when he woke up the next morning.
The apartment where I was staying was only a few blocks away, and I made it over there early, crunching through the snow of the previous night’s blizzard. I found Bill in his office on the phone. He waved me away gruffly, impatiently. I left the office and encountered Jerry Pompili, the guy who had showed us to our seats the night we met Bill. Pompili, it turned out, was an Army veteran and served as what amounted to the platoon sergeant of the Fillmore East ushers, a gang of long-haired gentle giants similar in stature and appearance to the guy who had been guarding Bill’s office door.
What’s going on? I asked Pompili. Nothing good. They’re all full of shit, he said. The radical Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers of the Lower East Side and the radical MC5 rock and roll band from Detroit were now trashing the other as sell-outs to the establishment every chance they got. The establishment, it turned out, was the closest available vertical male human being with more money, possessions, and prestige than they had, and that man was Bill Graham. I had been following this controversy as it played itself out in the pages of the Village Voice and Rolling Stone over the previous months. You heard that right. There was a controversy about a rock and roll band in 1968. Wow.
Controversies about individual rock and rollers had been fairly few and far between during the rather short history of rock and roll. Smooth-crooning bands like The Association that sang four-part pap harmony were in vogue, and what did The Association ever do or say that drew anyone’s attention? Do you even remember The Association and its brand of Rock That Was Good For You? I’m truly amazed and a little ashamed that I remember them this many years later. Rock and roll controversies had generally centered themselves around such Important Issues as the clothing bands wore and how disgusting or cute their haircuts were. Remember The Rolling Stones? They were the ones who looked disheveled and a tad angry on their album covers. You were not suppose to want your daughter to marry a Rolling Stone. You were supposed to want your daughter to marry one of the Beatles in their matching suits and darling little bob haircuts. Before that, you had to go back as far as Elvis gyrating his pelvis and Jerry Lee Lewis marrying his 14 year old cousin to find controversy in the world of rock and roll. Really. That’s what had passed for controversy until the MC5 came along. This was different – it was political but it wasn’t Nixon vs. Humphrey. It was Us versus Them or so the rock and roll press and the Motherfuckers and the MC5 wanted you to believe. But most of all it was the radicals against establishment Bill Graham.
Although Bill was hardly one of Us as imagined by the alternative press and the MC5 the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers, he was one of Us to the Truscott family. To understand this distinction, you’ve got to understand something about people like me who grew up in the Army, most especially people like me who grew up in the Army as children of parents who grew up in the Army. That’s right, both my mother and father were Army brats, and Army brats didn’t need to know much more about someone than the fact that they had been in the service to believe they were something special, something wonderful, a part of the Us of this other military universe. It didn’t matter where: Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard, hell the Merchant Marine was still considered part of the “service” when I was sailing back and forth to Germany in the mid-1950’s on the “General Patch,” a troop-ship which had seen duty during World War II. (I’ll never forget our below-decks bunks and the sea water that sloshed underfoot every morning when we arose from our fitful sleeps, but that’s another story.) Given that back story, it doesn’t take much imagination to determine whose side I was on when it came to the Motherfuckers and the MC5 versus Bill Graham.
I trailed Jerry Pompili around that afternoon as he awaited he arrival of his troops, eventually assembling them in three ranks in the lobby of the Fillmore. Yes, three lines of huge hippies standing at attention. Pompili gave them a cursory inspection and declared that tonight would not be business as usual at the Fillmore East, but there would be no deviation from the Fillmore’s security policy. There would be a show. There would be an audience. The show would go on. They would maintain order. They would get through this. Dismissed.
Neither Pompili or I understood the nuances of what was about to happen that night as well as Bill did, and that was apparent by his demeanor. He had a meaner demeanor than usual, and that was saying something. As it turned out the MC5 and the Motherfuckers had used Bill and his Fillmore as a cudgel against each other. The Motherfuckers wanted 500 free tickets for the so-called community of the East Village and said they’d burn the place down if they didn’t get their way. John Sinclair of the MC5 threatened that the band wouldn’t play if the so-called community didn’t get its way. Bill figured that the Motherfuckers would use the free tickets to pack the place with Lower East Side thugs and punks – of which there were many in those days – no zillion dollar Avenue B condos back then — and when the Motherfuckers learned there would be no free tickets, they came up with a new demand that the MC5 should give their leaders the stage so they could take the so-called community’s demands straight to Bill Graham in his own house. The MC5 nixed that idea and the Motherfuckers went to war against them, too.
By the time the MC5 took the stage, the atmosphere in the place was poisonous. Paying customers had pretty much filled the place, and when lead singer Rob Tyner grabbed the mike and screamed “Kick out the jams wall motherfucker” — the first lyric of their big hit – things started to come apart. I was standing at the back with Pompili and a couple of his larger ushers. One of them wanted to head down the center aisle and start restoring some order, but Pompili held him back. On stage, the band rolled into the rest of its set to what sounded like equal parts cheers and jeers. I didn’t know where Bill was. Pompili said he was in the front lobby, guarding the doors and when looking for him. Just about the time the band ended its set the Motherfuckers thugs broke through the doors and stormed the place. It was turning into rock and roll hell, and it wasn’t pretty.
The Down in front, Motherfuckers thugs were jumping up the stage and kicking over the drum set and slashing at amps and wings curtains with knives. Pompili and Bill ran into the hall from the lobby. Bill had been slashed across the face by a Hells Angel wielding a motorcycle chain and his nose was bleeding profusedly. Pompile led his ushers into the fray and I followed Bill down the middle aisle. Just then a bunch of the Motherfuckers street thugs started climbing over seats, pushing people out of the way, waving knives and swinging chains. Bill was in the middle of one of the seat rows trying to help a girl who had been thrown to the floor in the madness when I saw one of the Motherfuckers thugs climbing over the seats heading for him with a knife. I yelled a warning at Bill and and threw myself across a row of seats and tackled the guy with the knife around the waist. He went down, hitting his head against a seat back and wasn’t getting up. Bill looked over at me gruffly, his face bleeding.
C’mon, let’s get those two guys, he growled, pointing at a couple of Motherfuckers thugs who were headed for the stage. So we did.
In the Spring of 1971 Bill Graham announced that he would be closing the Fillmore East. He told the press that he had made his decision based on changes in the concert promotion business and the music industry, but I knew he was just tired of the bullshit. I asked my editors at the Village Voice if I could write the obit for the Fillmore East, and they said, sure, go ahead. We wanted the piece to come out before the place closed and I didn’t want to bother Bill when he was busy around the time of the final shows in late June, so I called him up and asked if I could come over and interview him and take in a show, you know, for old times sake. Sure, he said. Why don’t you come by this Friday. We’ve got a good show…Leon Russell, Taj Mahal and Donny Hathaway. If you dig Charles…he was referring to Charles Lloyd who I had come to realize was one of his best friends…you’ll love Donny.
Bill had gotten his start in the mid-60’s out in California with the San Francisco Mime Troupe and the Fillmore Auditorium, later to be called the Fillmore West, but he was from the Bronx, and I had always thought his true love was the Fillmore East. Every year he held a Thanksgiving concert and gave a big dinner catered by Katz’s Deli up on Houston Street. He had a similar fete out in San Francisco on New Years Eve. I had attended the 1970 Thanksgiving feast with the Jefferson Airplane at the Fillmore East and in coming years, I would have occasion to attend a couple of the Fillmore West New Years extravaganzas. Trust me. He poured his heart and everything Katz’s could deliver into Thanksgiving at the Fillmore East. At the Fillmore West, it was New Years Eve and not much more.
I headed over there on Friday afternoon and spent a couple of very pleasurable hours talking to Bill about his baby, the Fillmore East. You can look up my Village Voice obit for the Fillmore East on Google, so I won’t bore you with the details of the Fillmore East’s rise and fall. For what it’s worth the whole thing is on the record out there somewhere in cyberspace along with everything else I probably ever wrote.
I stayed for the concert that night. Who wouldn’t? Leon Russell was as hot as he would probably ever get, and Taj Mahal would have been a pleasure to hear anywhere, but especially the Fillmore East where he could let loose and be himself. I wasn’t that hip to Donny Hathaway, but if Bill said I would dig him, who was I to argue? He was Bill Graham. He would know.
He gave me a couple of house seats – I wasn’t with anyone this time, just me reporting the story of the demise of one of my favorite music haunts, but apparently house seats came in pairs, so I took them and gave one away to somebody with a balcony ticket. I never took my seat however preferring to watch the show from the wings. Shows at the Fillmore East started at 8:00 and 11:00 pm sharp, and when Bill said sharp, he meant sharp. Woe be unto the rock and roller who figured he could be late to a show at the Fillmore, either of them. It would be the last show he ever played there.
But these were the last gasps of the good times on 2nd Avenue and 6th Street, and I had noticed that things were a little looser than usual. Pompili and his hippie ushers were taking it easy, and Bill wasn’t everywhere at once, his usual shtick. I was standing in the wings watching the end of Taj’s first set when I felt something poke my left arm.
Now you’ve got to see things as I saw them in order to understand what I’m going to tell you, which is to say you can’t see anything at all. The Fillmore East was utterly dark. No lights at all in the auditorium. None. And the only light on the stage was a pin-spot that caught Taj about from his neck up. Enough of the spot bled over to the sides so you could pick up the six tubas behind him. That’s right. Six tubas. Like I said, at the Fillmore, Taj could be Taj, and on this night, Taj was sitting on a stool playing his guitar with six tubas behind him. I felt something bump my elbow and I looked to my left. I couldn’t see a thing back there behind the curtain that was shielding me from the audience. Then I heard his voice:
Lucian…that you? He whispered gruffly.
Yeah, Bill, I whispered back.
Here, he whispered. Hold Leon for me.
And he handed me Leon Russell, his arms into my arms, just like that. Leon was either drunk or somebody had given him a line of smack or both, but either way he dead to the world in every way but actual death, I mean, racked-out as we used to say at West Point. He couldn’t have weighed more than 120, 130, so it wasn’t a big effort taking him from Bill.
I was standing there in the dark – I couldn’t see either Bill or Leon, you understand – and I whispered, Bill, what am I supposed to do with him?
Shut up, man, he whispered in a quiet growl. Taj is finishing his set.
We stood there for a moment as Taj finished his last number and then the stage blacked-out. The Fillmore didn’t have a curtain, so they couldn’t drop it at the edge of the stage hiding the change of bands. Instead, there were three performing stages on large metal rollers. When one band’s set was over, they would black out the stage, wheel away the first band and push the stage with the next band into position.
At the Fillmore, if you were second or third on the bill, you didn’t get an encore, so that was it for Taj. His set was over. The crowd erupted in applause but over the sound of the crowd I heard Bill: Listen to me he growled. When the Leon’s stage comes into positiion, I want you to take Leon out there and put him on his piano bench, understand?
But Bill…he’s asleep!
Just do what I say, he growled.
So I stood there holding Leon as Leon’s stage was pushed into position. I couldn’t see a thing. I heard the voice again, this time in a gruff stage-whisper, the applause for Taj having died down: You know what to do. Just carry Leon out there and put him on his bench.
But Bill, I can’t see anything I whined. Leon was getting heavier.
I heard the sound of metal wheels on wood grind to a halt. Silence.
Go! Came the gruff whisper. Watch out and don’t trip over the lip of the stage.
But Bill, I whined…
Go! He ordered gruffly.
So I stumbled forth, trying to see where I was going, but I couldn’t see a thing. Bill was back there stage-whispering – I never understood the meaning of a stage-whisper until that moment — step up! Now! To your right! A little to your left! You’re almost there!
I could hear musicians off to my right gently caressing their instruments, waiting to play, and I saw one or two teeny little red ready lights on the fronts of amps. But nothing else. That stage was blacked-out. Then my knees hit the piano bench and I heard his gruff stage whisper: Put him on the bench!
I eased Leon out of my arms onto his piano bench. His head fell forward and just missed the keys and instead landed on the edge the piano’s music stand.
I heard Bill’s gruff stage whisper: Put his hands on the keys! I tried to put his hands on the keyboard, but his long gray hair was in the way, and his hands kept falling back in his lap.
But Bill! He’s asleep!
Stop worrying do what I tell you and get your ass back here! He growled, louder now, losing his patience. We’ve got a show to put on!
I struggled with the hair and the flopping head and the loose hands but finally I got his fingers in the vicinity the keyboard with his head resting on the music stand and felt my way back toward the wings. Everything was still blacked out and I nearly fell stepping down from the rolling stage. I heard Bill’s mic stand scrape the floor as he stepped out of the wings to announce the next act. His gruff voice growled over the PA:
Ladies and gentlemen…Mr. Leon Russell!
The light booth guys hit Leon with six Super-trouper giant spots and about fifty zillion lumens woke him up and he began pounding the keys:
She came in through the bathroom window…
With the lights up I could see Bill now grinning at me gruffly and he growled: