Grateful Dead

Blair’s Golden Road Blog - Bill Graham: 20 years Gone

By Blair Jackson

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
mister death?

“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.)

A pensive Bill Graham
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:


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Joined: Jan 13 2010
danc, interesting that you mention Vegas 91

i was at the 91 LV shows. walking around the field, la la. sudenly right there is Bill Graham. I didn't say anything, just kept going, but there he was. very cool moment.

Uncle bobo
uncle bobo
uncle bobo

uncle bobo
uncle bobo

Joined: Sep 11 2007
thanks Bill - that's all it took

Years before I ever made it to my first BGP show (6/14/85), I spoke to Bill as he was leaving a Broadway play with his family. We were moving in a crowd together toward a blast of cold air at the side door. As we stepped through I said "thanks Bill, thanks for the all the great times." He turned and smiled and in his big booming voice said "you're welcome, young man." I was pumped! Years later when I read his autobiography I was happy to learn what courtesy and gratitude and loyalty meant to the man. I saw Bill from the field in Vegas a few months before he died, and his concern for the fans and keeping the scene cool were evident, no change. His day job was to run BGP, and his night job was deadhead #1. He was really good at his work.

shwack's picture
Joined: Apr 12 2008
Bill's Spirit

Hey Man,
Bill Graham certainly had such a fire and spirit in and around him.
My lasting Image of the man was during the June 1990 Shoreline run
(the band's 25 year anniversary). Me and Bill came face to face while he
was strolling up and down the aisles. Handshake and smiles.

I get the chills when I see that scene in Apocalypse Now where Bill plays a bit role as a promoter coming and going by helicopter. I always thought that Coppola
gets the scene right by surrounding Bill's character with pandemonium...

shwack in nh

Meeko's picture
Joined: Jun 5 2007
CSNY-Nassau -Bill Graham

I was at CSNY Nassau Coliseum in August '74, I strode up the aisle with my camera to take some photos. I was looking through the lens, and this guy was suddendly there barking at me...I lowered the camera, and realized it was Bill Graham! I quickly got the hell back to my seat. I remember reading at the time stories of people acting up on line waiting to get in, and Bill grabbing their ticket and ripping it up! He was quite a guy. Nice article Blair, thanks very much.



lamagonzo (not verified)
like gdhead77...

...I had a similar run in with Bill Grahm. He had a good heart with the deadheads.

marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007

one thing about being in the Bay Area is that we kinda got to taking for granted that sense of personal involvement that Bill brought to his shows. That is, until we hit the road on tour. Then we didn't take it for granted so much. But it was sure sweet when you got the full Bill treatment in the strangest of places, e.g. Telluride, especially in the wake of witnessing the full-blown Barry Fey goon scene at Red Rocks. Night and day...

skwimite's picture
Joined: Feb 17 2008
BG intro please

I always thought it was cool when Bill would be at a show and do the intros. It felt special and I think he really cared. At the Warfield in 1980, I saw him standing alone on the mezzanine so I shook his hand and thanked him for putting the Dead in such a nice venue. He said thanks for coming and have a great evening. Sincerely. We did.

gdhead77's picture
Joined: Jul 13 2007
NYE 1983

When I decided to make my first trek out from the east coast to SF for the NYE run I sent in my mail order and received a ticket for every show except new years eve. I wrote a letter to bill at BGP explaining that I had all my travel booked and of course the primary reason was to see the NYE show. I received in the mail back a ticket for the show... no charge... just well wishes. Where else did something like that happen. Gotta love Bill Graham.

For added kharma when my son went to school in NYC his apartment was on 2nd Ave & 6th street which the street sign states is Bill Graham Way (right across the street from the location of the fillmore east).

lamagonzo (not verified)
Bill Grahm+Grteful Dead

= organized fun, breakfast at dawn, volleyball games and...

Joined: Jun 5 2007
Assholes & teardrops

Blues for Allah, North or East; I don't think he cares.
Naked Lunch visitor, not Mom, yet a friend of hers.
Explosive well wishing celebratory crashers, Uncle John or Barney Rebel.
We didn't get much chances to do what we really wanted.
Maybe try a little bit harder, & fly away in an instant.


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