As I write this on the morning of October 25, it is 20 years to the day that Bill Graham was killed in a helicopter crash, along with his girlfriend Melissa Gold and pilot Steve “Killer” Kahn. On that stormy night in 1991, they were returning to Bill’s home in Marin County from a Huey Lewis & the News concert at the Concord Pavilion in the East Bay. Bill had wanted to drop by and congratulate Huey and his band for selling out two concerts; a typical Bill Graham gesture. Backstage before the band went on, Bill and Huey and various members of the crew talked about the perilous flying conditions and swapped stories about their own scary flights through the years. Still, when Bill, Steve and Melissa boarded the Bell Ranger copter just as Huey and company hit the stage, no one would have guessed that they would never reach the Sausalito heliport that was their destination—that high winds, driving rain and darkness would cause their helicopter to veer into the top of a 225-foot utility company transmission tower. With more than 100,000 volts coursing through the tower, the front of the helicopter exploded on impact, and all three occupants were hurled to the ground, killed instantly. Back at the Concord Pavilion, there was a power surge that shut off part of the lighting rig for a song and a half and also reduced the volume on the P.A. Other homes and businesses in the area were also temporarily affected.
Reports of the helicopter crash made the 11 p.m. local newscasts, but at that point no one knew who the passengers were. Overnight and into the next morning, however, the shocking truth was revealed. Bill Graham—one of those larger than life figures who seemed like he just might be immortal—was dead. It was a huge news story both locally and nationally, with musicians from every era of his career rhapsodizing about what a complex but basically good-hearted guy he was, and what he had done for the music business through the years.
The Grateful Dead were scheduled to start a four-concert series at the Oakland Coliseum less than 48 hours after Graham’s death, and briefly considered canceling, but then decided to honor his spirit by soldiering on. An hour before they went onstage the first night, Jerry, Bob and Mickey spoke at a press conference in a room in the bowels of the Coliseum and reflected fondly on their long relationship. “He’s a large part of us,” Garcia said. “We’re carrying along some piece of him into the world and the future as we go along. So there’s a certain part of his energy that’s part of us; it’s integral. And we’re pretty determined to hang in there and cover for him.”
A little while later, the band took the stage, which was decorated on each side by giant funeral wreaths adorned with silver lightning bolts. The mood in the crowd had been, not surprisingly, somewhat somber and distracted, but all that changed when the band opened the show by kicking into a rousing version of one of Bill’s favorite Dead songs, “Sugar Magnolia.” During the second set, Carlos Santana and Quicksilver guitarist Gary Duncan joined the Dead for a few numbers and jams, “and for a few minutes there, with four guitars blazing away,” I wrote in The Golden Road, “it felt like the Fillmore in the late ’60s, and you just know that Bill was smiling on that magic carpet ride up to heaven.
“Bill came to mind many other times during the next three shows, sometimes in predictable spots — for me ‘Stella Blue’ is the existential Grateful Dead song about love and loss—and sometimes when I least expected it: ‘Sweet William he is dead, pretty Peggy-O.’ [To this day I think of Bill every time I hear that line.]
“The last show [on Halloween] was shaping up as just a good, normal Dead concert when, in the middle of ‘Spoonful,’ Gary Duncan returned and added some stinging blues licks to the brew. The jam wound down and from the ashes came ‘Dark Star,’ with Duncan adding some very appropriate and knowing contrapuntal lines to the song. Then, as the jam started building after the first verse, Ken Kesey, dressed in a black suit and wearing a black-plumed hat—almost like something you’d see on a Victorian undertaker—strode out onto the stage” and began rapping about Bill Graham and the Dead in a booming, urgent voice, concluding his brief, scattered remarks with what he called this “simple poem” by e.e. cummings:
buffalo bill is defunct
jesus he was a handsome man
he used to ride on a white horse
and shoot clay pigeons
one two three four five
just like that
and what I want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy now
“And then Kesey departed, leaving the band at an intense crescendo that continued for another minute before it metamorphosed to a place where the drummers could say their piece. Though it’s not much more than 10 minutes long, this ‘Dark Star’ may have been the most riveting single piece of music I saw all last year; sort of an Acid Test in miniature. And Kesey’s rage at Bill Graham’s death expressed so much that we all felt.”
(You can check out the “Dark Star” — and the whole show — here.)
By daybreak the following Sunday, Nov. 3, people were already streaming toward the Polo Fields in Golden Gate Park for a special free concert put together by Bill Graham Presents dubbed “Laughter, Love and Music: To Celebrate the Lives of Bill, Steve and Melissa.” Though none of the performers was announced in advance, the rumor mill had been on overload all week with all the names you might expect (Grateful Dead, Santana) or wish for (Dylan, Stones, etc.). By the time New Orleans’ Rebirth Brass Band had circled the field on a flatbed truck to open the festivities, a couple of hundred thousand people were on hand; in all more than 300,000 made it to the park on a beautiful, balmy fall day. Ironically, it was the largest show BGP had ever put on in the Bay Area. It was quite a parade of stars, too: Jackson Browne, Joe Satriani, Aaron Neville, Santana, Cesar Rosas and David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, Journey, Robin Williams, Bobby McFerrin, Tracy Chapman, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (re-formed for the occasion) and, of course, the Dead—joined by John Fogerty for a few Creedence songs—whose set concluded with “Sunshine Daydream” (“finishing” the “Sugar Magnolia” started at the first Oakland Coliseum show a week earlier). Two encores followed—a deeply affecting version of “Forever Young” with Neil Young fronting the group, and then a bittersweet “Touch of Grey.” The actual finale of the afternoon featured many of the artists who had performed—and also Joan Baez and Kris Kristofferson—singing a heartfelt “Amazing Grace.” All in all, a memorable tribute, and exactly the kind of show Bill would have loved. (Check out video of Neil and the Dead’s “Forever Young” here. And you can stream audio of the entire show from Wolfgang’s Vault here.)
at a Dead show at Compton Terrace
in Arizona, December 1990.
Photo: Jeff Bryant and Lori Dammann© 2011
Every good and bad story you ever heard about Bill Graham is probably true. Rarely has there been such a polarizing figure in the music business. He was loud and brash and full of bluster, but he also had a heart much bigger than his considerable ego. He crushed his competitors and threw tantrums, but no one put on more benefit concerts for worthy causes than Bill. No one did more to advance the state-of-the-art in concert production. And as anyone who was following the Grateful Dead in the ’80s can attest, no one lavished more attention on the band and us fans than Bill and his troops: We have BGP to thank for magical days at the Greek, Frost, Ventura, Cal Expo, Telluride, Laguna Seca, and so many other cool places. He loved the Grateful Dead and Dead Heads—even though they and we drove him crazy from time to time. Sorry about that, Uncle Bobo!
I often wonder what would have become of Graham and his company had he lived. Would he have sold out—as a group of his former employees did—to SFX, which begat Clear Channel and then Live Nation? (Attack of the soulless music biz giants!) Would he have franchised the Fillmore name in places like Detroit and Denver and Miami? Or might he have retained his independence in the face of the music industry’s obscene merger-mania and kept BGP a prosperous, locally oriented entity? There are glimmers of his spirit in the remnants of the Live Nation-controlled BGP, and their Fillmore is still the hippest venue in San Francisco. The Bay Area concert production company Another Planet Entertainment, run by a couple of Bill’s former lieutenants, seems to be fighting the righteous fight for both quality and coolness in his absence. Besides controlling the awesome Fox Theater in Oakland and the Independent club in San Francisco, APE has also produced the successful Outside Lands and the smaller Treasure Island music festivals, both great events.
Bill would be 80 today. It’s difficult to imagine him diminished by time and age. Perhaps he would have mellowed around the edges at least, content with the career he’d carved out, happy to be able to spend more time with his friends and family. But retired? I can’t see it. There would always be another project to oversee, another cause that needed him. I’m betting he wouldn’t have been able to stay away.
We were lucky to have had him in our lives. Though I did not know him well, I was fortunate to be able to interview him several times—what a great storyteller! The world would be a better place if he’d stuck around longer.
(For lots more about Bill, go to the website of the fine charitable organization that bears his name: the Bill Graham Foundation. I’d also recommend everyone read Robert Greenfield’s fantastic oral biography of Bill (assembled with Bill’s cooperation), Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out. It’s an amazing tale! Finally, I would urge anyone with 20 minutes to spare to watch an award-winning short film called Helicopter, made by Ari Gold, son of Melissa Gold, who was killed in the crash with Bill. It’s an unusual and very moving film. You can find it here: http://arigoldfilms.com/index.php?page=helicopter.)