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6 Ways to Dig the '60s | The Bill Graham Exhibit at the Skirball
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6 Ways to Dig the '60s | The Bill Graham Exhibit at the Skirball

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Updated: 6 December 2016
The Skirball Cultural Center’s new exhibit, Bill Graham and the Rock and Roll Revolution, is an amazing representation of the 1960s counterculture movement and a moving portrait of the man, an orphan of the Holocaust who turned himself into the most successful and influential music promoter in history, and a dearly loved humanitarian. The exhibit is extensive and includes personal memorabilia, photographs, concert footage, vintage art posters and a psychedelic light show.

Meet a Wide-Awake Kind of Man

Bill Graham spent much his childhood fleeing the forces of Nazi Germany. He had to adapt to more than one new language, family and country by the time he was twelve. As a teen, he toiled as a waiter to the rich and famous in the Catskill Mountains while running an underground poker game, had the guts to speak up for worker’s rights before the employees were unionized, then fought in the Korean War and avoided a court-martial after refusing to go into a lopsided battle that eventually killed his commanding officer.

Although Graham didn’t talk much about his early life, or claim to remember either his mother or father, his experiences informed everything he did. By the time he promoted his first show, a benefit for the San Francisco Mime Troupe in 1965, Bill Graham had already built up a sense of himself, a feeling that he was ‘master of [his] destiny.’

Break Free from Hypocrisy

Shuttling through orphanages and foster homes and developing a keen street sense solidified Graham’s aura of autonomy and authenticity, which went over well with activist performers of the sixties. The Who’s Pete Townshend referred to him as a man ‘free of hypocrisy,’ with an unshakeable support for those fighting for freedom of expression and against the abuse of power. That, coupled with his innovative sense of the theatrical and a sharp brain for business, made it possible for Graham to back an assortment of talented, radical, drug-soaked performers and allow the countercultural rock icons of the ’60s and ’70s to reach a mass audience and effect social change.

Hang Out with Rock Stars

What if you threw a party and Everybody came? Bill Graham produced rock concerts like that. He made the experience of music an immersive one. In their heyday, San Francisco’s Fillmore and Winterland auditoriums hosted acts such as Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan and Buffalo Springfield all on the same night.

He continually asked the performers he knew to recommend up-and-coming artists he’d never heard of, and then put those folks on the bill with more well-known talent. That’s how Santana got launched and how The Doors were brought to San Francisco. He wanted to educate his patrons, so he booked poets and even a Russian dance company. Bill Graham was also the first to expose B.B. King and Chuck Berry to white audiences.

Appreciate Art

Ingest a more than generous dose of bright colors, kaleidoscopic patterns and distorted typography by viewing all the incredible vintage posters on display. Artist Lee Conklin’s 1968 poster advertising Vanilla Fudge and the Steve Miller band has a drawing of two naked bodies. It looks like they are facing each other, but they have no faces. They are only human up to their shoulders, and then they become hands, clasping one another. Some posters are more gruesome, but always compelling. A New Year’s Eve concert poster offers up a painting of an hourglass, with the flopping bodies of hundreds of little humans trickling through.

Tune in to some of the guitars on display, like Jerry Garcia’s ‘Wolf,’ or a chunk of a Fender Stratocaster salvaged from Jimi Hendrix’s collection. The belt Mick Jagger wore at Altamont hangs on one wall, and a handwritten note from Donovan on another, calling Bill Graham ‘by far the friendliest and most considerate promoter I have ever had the pleasure of working with.’ You can also read letters from fans begging for tickets to the last show at the Winterland auditorium: ‘Grateful Dead is not just a rock concert, it’s a state of mind.’

Take a look at the charred relics from the offices of Bill Graham Presents, which was firebombed in 1985 by suspected neo-Nazis. Read the original, typewritten 1967 ‘Summer of Love Proclamation,’ with quotes from Allen Ginsberg and Timothy Leary, who sought ‘to give young pot smokers and young acid heads a sense of their historical meaning.’

Live By a Strong Inner Code

Bill Graham wanted everyone to feel warm and secure, so he took care of all the aspects of production, like running out to get Otis Redding ice cubes, displaying current-event news clippings in the lobby to give shy patrons a chance to get comfortable or placing a basket of free apples at the entrance. Soon, it wasn’t as important as who was playing at the Fillmore as it was that you were at the Fillmore.

Some performers resented that Bill Graham was ‘making bread off the scene,’ but Graham was more than willing to give back to the community. He understood the promise and power of rock and roll, and he lived by a strong inner code that acknowledged both the tremendous power of music and his obligation to use that power as a force for good: ‘It’s that question of what do you know, and then what do you do with it?’

What Bill Graham did with his power was to continually build his relationships and his humanitarian mission, branching out from Bay Area causes to international relief victims in Africa. Graham promoted performances in conjunction with Amnesty International, a concert to benefit the victims of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, and organized a huge concert to welcome Nelson Mandela after his release from a South African jail in 1990. Sadly, Bill Graham’s life was cut short when he was killed in a helicopter crash the following year.

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Absorb the Whole Experience

You’ll start your visit looking at pictures of a little boy in a German orphanage, and you’ll wind up gazing at an enormous butterfly costume suspended from the ceiling. You can hear ‘White Rabbit,’ ‘Respect,’ and many others blast from the light show as you look around. In theater seats behind red velvet curtains, projected swirls of smoke and colored oils let you watch and wonder, listen and let your mind drift. You can even dance if the mood strikes. One thing you can’t do is take pictures. Like the sixties themselves, there is no substitute for being there.

Skirball Cultural Center 2701 N. Sepulveda Blvd. Los Angeles, CA

Hours: Tuesday–Friday, 12:00–5:00 p.m.

Saturday–Sunday, 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m.

Free to All on Thursdays

Open through October 11th, 2015

FURTHER READING:

Bill Graham’s Biography

Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out by Bill Graham and Robert Greenfield

The Making of a Counter Culture by Theodore Roszak