Talkin’ ’bout My Generation: Memories of Bill Graham and the Fillmore East

Posted on: February 20th, 2020 at 5:08 am by

Photo: Lori Greenberg

While working on our story about the new “Bill Graham and The Rock & Roll Revolution” exhibit at the New-York Historical Society, this reporter started collecting personal stories and memories of Graham’s legendary music venue, the Fillmore East.

Located on Second Avenue and East 6th Street, the building began life in 1926 as The Commodore, a Yiddish theater and vaudeville house. A few decades later, it became a movie theater, although it still hosted occasional performances by Allen Ginsburg, Lenny Bruce, and Timothy Leary.

The Fillmore East was only open from 1968 to 1971, but it had a massive impact on the way that live music was presented. Mentioning the concert venue triggered so many stories, we decided to do a “Part II” of our Bill Graham article from yesterday.

Some of the recollections were told to us by people who worked there, others by old friends. But, all of them were recounted by fans who had incredible recollections of music that affected them on a cellular level. Doing whatever it took to get into the Fillmore.

Thom Lukas, Photographer

I was 15, and I didn’t let it stop me from going to opening night of the Fillmore East. I knew it wasn’t easy to get in. I had no money, it was sold out, and I’m a kid.

But, I had experience sneaking into places in the past. I had a few tricks that worked at other places. If you opened the side doors of the Ed Sullivan theater by grabbing the edge of the doors and squeezing with your fingers, it worked. It was painful, but it worked. There was also a line at Ed Sullivan with a guy at the front with a clipboard, and one time, I read a name off of his list. I said I was Mr. Martin. I was 12, and they let me in. This was for the dress rehearsal for the Stones show. And I was 11 when I snuck in for Gerry and the Pacemakers at Ed Sullivan.

This is how I got into the Fillmore East…

I went into the crowded lobby and I saw people in there, begging for tickets. I saw this girl who looked really dejected, and she was begging, and I didn’t want to beg. But, I’m good at looking dejected and sad. So, I copied the look of that desperate girl I saw, and a guy came up to me and said something like, “you look like you could use a ticket,” and he gave me one. He must have been a record company guy, he was handing out a few tickets.

This was opening night at the Fillmore East. Big Brother & the Holding Company featuring Janis Joplin was playing. Albert King was playing. Tim Buckley was playing.

So, this guy gives me a ticket. But, I wanted to save the ticket as a souvenir. So, I figured I would try my usual tricks to sneak in. I tried the guest list trick. There was a special entrance for guest list people, so I inched over to the guest list door and tried to sneak a look at the clipboard. I finally saw a name I could pronounce, it was in bold text, and it was easy to read off of the clipboard. The name was “Herb Cohen.”

So, I told the guy that I was Herb Cohen, and I got in.

Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution exhibit. Photo: Lori Greenberg.

Once I got in, I was awestruck, seeing everyone in the lobby. I was standing there, staring at all of the people, and after a while, I heard screaming nearby. The screaming was from the real Herb Cohen, who was mad that someone else used his name.

There was a big commotion and Bill Graham had to come up front. They got the real Herb Cohen in, and I disappeared in the crowd and they never found me.

I got to photograph Janis Joplin that night. It was the third roll of film I ever shot of rock band photos. My first two rolls were of Jimi Hendrix at Hunter College. After I shot a lot of bands that night, I developed the photos, put them in an envelope, and brought them to the box office. The envelope had one dozen 8″ x 10” prints that I had printed myself, and I gave them to the box office for Bill Graham.

They brought the photos to Bill’s office while I waited. Someone from his office saw the photos and came to get me. I got hired to take photos at Fillmore East shows. They used my photos in the program. I was 15!

I found out later on that Herb Cohen was Tim Buckley’s manager. He was also Frank Zappa’s manager [along with Linda Ronstadt, Tom Waits, Alice Cooper, Lenny Bruce and Odetta].

Eddie C.

When the Fillmore first opened, I was a teenager and finally got tickets for the first time. I was probably about 14, and thought I would meet some cool hippie chicks. I was quietly trying to sneak out of my house in Staten Island, and my mother stopped me and said, “where do you think you’re going?” I told her I was going to see some friends nearby, and we were going to a small concert.

She said, “Not without your brother, you’re not.”

I couldn’t leave the house without my brother. So, I had to take my 10 year old brother to the Fillmore to see Jimi Hendrix, and instead of meeting cool hippie chicks, my brother wound up having to sit on my lap the whole time, because there were no seats left.

Amalie R. Rothschild’s Fillmore East photos in exhibit. Top photo depicts the crowd trying to get tickets for Crosby, Stills & Nash, May, 1970. Photo: Lori Greenberg.

Joel Abramson, Musician

When I was 12, I heard that tickets for the Byrds at the Fillmore were going on sale. I left Jackson Heights early so I could get close to the front of the line. As it turns out, tickets for Janis Joplin at Madison Square Garden were also going on sale that same morning so, when I got to the Fillmore box office, I was the only one there! I bought one ticket, first row, dead center.

Of course, when I shared my great fortune with my folks, they freaked and had my 14 year old brother go buy a ticket so we could at least travel to the Village together.

The opening acts were the Sons of Champlin, who are still playing in the Bay Area today, [followed by] The Nice with Keith Emerson.

Still one of the great memories of my early life was watching Clarence White from six feet away. Not sure I ever took my eyes off of him for more than a minute. Such a unique and exceptionally gifted guitarist. I also remember that it was Skip Battin’s first show with the Byrds.

The sights, sounds and smells of that amazing evening have stayed in my rock and roll brain for 50 years now!

Fillmore East lineup, December 19-20, 1969. Collection of Joel Abramson.

Puma Perl, writer/performer/producer

My Fillmore story starts earlier that day. I was about 17, I think, and somehow my best friend, her boyfriend and I had wrangled an invitation to visit the Grateful Dead at their Chelsea Hotel room. Well, actually, it was the BF who had connected them and she insisted they take me.

I was staying in some guy’s apartment on Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn, and had somehow locked myself in and nobody was home, so I climbed down a fire escape 5 flights in my long Kristina Gorby skirt and lace up boots [from] Granny Takes a Trip.

The Dead invited us to the show that evening and I guess gave us backstage access. There was some opening band hanging around. Some Southern guys. Jerks. My friend liked Jerry Garcia, I had a crush on Bob Weir, and a third friend turned up who wound up going out with Phil Lesh.

Anyway, we were approached by some long-haired Southern guy and asked if we’d come party with them after the show, but we needed to get a few more girls. We asked why, and he drawled “Well, there are eight of us” – I wish I could write that in a Southern accent, it was thick.

We batted him away like a fly, and then it was time for him and his band to go on to open for the Dead. They were the Allman Brothers, of course. I think it was a roadie they sent to recruit us, but I’m honestly not sure because we had so little interest in them at the time.

Abby Weissman, designer and collector

I was going to see Pink Floyd. The train from Westchester stalled at 125th. We decided to risk walking the one block to the Lexington Ave train. Me, Ricky and Nancy made it to the subway steps but were mugged by two guys with a knife held to Nancy’s throat. We gave them our wallets but still had the tickets.

It was a real learning experience, because while we were getting mugged people were walking right by us on the stairs. We found cops who asked us “are they still there?” We laughed. They offered to take us to the station to look at mug shots. We opted instead to take the subway and made the concert.

At the show I remembered I had a bunch of orange sunshine tabs in my small jeans pocket. At intermission I sold enough acid to pay for our return trip train tickets. And the Fillmore had an on-staff doctor who liberally gave out free Valium. All you had to do was go up there and say you were having a bad trip. We used to get free Valium as often as possible.

I saw the Dead, Airplane, Traffic, Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Quicksilver, Miles Davis, Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin debut opening for Iron Butterfly, and many, many more amazing shows.

I was also there the debut of Tommy – the night of the Fillmore East fire as well.

Programs from the Fillmore East. Collection of Abby Weissman.

And, about that Fillmore East fire … Allan Arkush, director and producer, who is also a contributor to Trailers from Hell, had worked at the Fillmore East as an usher, stage crew member, and also in the psychedelic light show, “Joe’s Lights.” Below, he provides some color.

The Who were debuting Tommy live – this was the most exciting rock and roll show that I’ve ever been to. And, it’s not just because the music was great – a lot of shit happened.

So, The Who go on, and everything’s great, and they’re playing “Can’t Explain” and “Substitute.” The ushering crews had four people. One would be at the top of the aisle near the lobby, the other would be on the side door, the front corner, and then the best place to be was right down front, on the aisle – you were five or ten feet from the stage, you were standing in front of The Who. And, we all took turns rotating on that first show.

And, I was down front watching the amazing journey, just pinned back by the greatness of it, and I noticed there was a lot of smoke in the air. Now, 1960s and the Fillmore East, there was always quite a bit of smoke, but this was more than usual.

I thought, “well, I’d better go back to the top of the aisle.” And, as I’m walking up the aisle towards the lobby, I see that the lobby is full of firemen. And policemen. And plainclothesmen. And, outside, because you can see right outside to the street because there’s glass doors, are fire trucks. And there’s quite a bit of smoke, and a flickering light.

And as I get to the top of the aisle, some cop burst by me, practically knocking me down, and runs down the aisle to the stage, and jumps on the stage and is looking for a microphone. Well, there is no microphone on the stand, because it’s in Daltrey’s hand, and he’s whipping it around above his head. And The Who are peaking with “Listening to you, I get the music, following you, I get the heat. I get excitement at your feet.”

It’s the end of “Tommy.”

And this guy is fighting with Roger Daltrey for the microphone. He’s a plainclothes cop. And Townshend turns around, sees some guy in a suit, fighting with his lead singer, and without missing a beat, on this tremendous energy, he does a big arm swing, like he did in those days, runs up, and kicks this cop right in the nuts. And, the guy goes down like a stone, and some of The Who’s roadies grab this guy and drag him off the stage. And, the audience rise to their feet. They smell blood. It’s Gladiatorial. It’s like Ancient Rome.

And, everyone’s screaming and the cops and the firemen are coming down the aisle. Bill Graham’s trying to get Pete’s attention, but the band peaks, and without longer than a 3-2-1 countdown, they go into “Summertime Blues.”

Everyone’s thinking, how do we get control of this situation, except The Who, who are singing, “Gonna raise a fuss, gonna raise a holler.” Rock and roll moment.

Bill comes out, runs past Townshend, waves him down, goes past Daltrey and gets the microphone and says, “Everyone calm down, we have a little problem.”

And then he proceeds to do the best thing possible. He LIES to the audience. He says, “we’ve got a fire across the street, and it’s no problem, it’s just some smoke in the air, and we want to open the doors and get the smoke out. Go out, and we’ll bring you back after the smoke is out, and you can come back and see the rest of The Who set.”

Now, that’s a complete lie, because in the front of the Fillmore East, in one corner, was a little bodega, and they had an electrical fire and it was burning.

Which meant that the corner of the theater was on fire.

And what you’ve got is 2,700 kids.

And, Bill says, “and the ushers will show you out.”

Now, these 2,700 baby boomers had something in common: they had all gone to the public school system in the tri-state area. So, there’s [something] that they really drummed into your head from the moment you showed up. The fire drill. And we had hundreds of fire drills. And we all knew what to do in the case of a fire drill, because one of the ushers at that point, with everyone at high energy, said, “It’s a fire drill – everyone grab a buddy. No talking!”

And that crowd came down, and we showed them out, and the theater was empty in like five minutes.

And all that was left, was firemen and smoke.

“Fillmore Burning” was one of the greatest concerts I ever saw.

This story has multiple pages:

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