Bill Graham's death diminishes rock APPRECIATION

October 28, 1991|By Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn,Los Angeles Times

More than the death of anyone in rock and roll since John Lennon's in 1980, the loss of Bill Graham Friday night in a helicopter crash represents the end of another era.

In the narrowest of terms, Mr. Graham was the nation's most celebrated rock promoter -- a man who staged concerts or entire tours over the past 2 1/2 decades for such major attractions as the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin and U2.

In the widest sense, however, Mr. Graham also was a conscience and activist in rock -- a man whose name was linked not only to most of music's great names, but also to its grandest causes, from the landmark Live Aid benefit concerts in 1985 to the worldwide Amnesty International tour of 1988.

He was a colorful, outspoken, gregarious, deeply serious man who frequently was disillusioned by what he saw as greed on the part of agents and artists in rock. He always seemed to be talking about retiring or, at least, scaling back his massive concert, merchandising and management organization to devote more time to his personal life. Yet he loved the "sizzle" -- as he put it -- too much to ever follow through.

Mr. Graham, who retained a street-wise New York accent even though he lived most of his professional life in San Francisco, sometimes spoke of his role as that of a chef -- someone who tried to mix ingredients to shape the perfect meal. He delighted in surprising and enlightening rock crowds by adding a tasty appetizer or an exotic main dish to the evening's basic rock fare: a jazz hero such as Miles Davis or a soul favorite like Otis Redding.

In the end, no one in rock worked harder -- and no one got more joy from the music. Mr. Graham would pamper the artists --

turning formerly drab backstage areas into warm, personalized settings -- in hopes of coaxing them into their best performance.

Yet, Mr. Graham would confront artists when necessary.

"How dare you keep the fans waiting!" he screamed at a superstar performer in the early '70s, when many rock acts thought it was cool to be late to the show.

Part of his drive may have grown out of his background. Born in Berlin in 1931 as Wolfgang Grajonca, he was turned over to an orphanage by his mother after his father died. During World War II, Mr. Graham and other orphans were brought by Red Cross officials to the United States. He learned later his mother had died in a concentration camp.

Despite his childhood, he found ways as an adult to believe in the goodness of man and in the soul-stirring celebration of art. Like so many of his generation, he lamented the loss in recent years of the sociological connection that existed between performers and fans in the '60s -- the shared sense of optimism and social values. Unlike many peers, however, he didn't lose hope of regaining that connection.

He was typically optimistic two week ago at a Metallica concert he staged at the Oakland Coliseum. He saw something, he said, in the intensity of the audience -- an intensity that once more encouraged him.

Mr. Graham stood backstage, looking at the young faces -- 15, 16, 17. "There's something going on out there and I'm not sure I understand it -- a certain anger. I look at them and wonder if they have a right to be so angry at such a young age.

"But the youth may know something about life we didn't know at that age. . . . Wouldn't it be something if we see some of the changes in the '90s that we just dreamed about in the '60s?"


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