Thoughts On The Dead

Musings on the Most Ridiculous Band I Can't Stop Listening To

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Switch On Your Electric Light

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A Thanksgiving Story From Bill Graham

“Fifteen! Fifteen, and that’s my final offer. You’re bleeding me here. You’re cutting into my flesh and sapping me of my blood. Do you understand that? Fifteen. Take it or leave it.”

“And free garlic bread.”

“No garlic bread, no deal! After everything I’ve done for you, after all the pizzas my organization has ordered from you, you gonif? How dare you! Garlic bread or Bill Graham is out!”

“Good! And make sure there are napkins in the bag. You always fuck us on the napkins and we have to wipe our mouths with unsold Klaus Nomi tee-shirts. That was a bad booking, but Bowie asked for a favor. When Bowie asks, you give. Why are you still on the phone and not making my food? Leave me alone, I have an anecdote to tell!


“This was ’76, the spring. Cartermania was about to take hold. We’re still doing shows at Winterland, and I’m there just about to plotz. Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Wishbone Ash, and Styx. It’s just caca. I’d rather be locked in an airplane bathroom with Ron Delsener than listen to another second of it.

“Phone rings. It’s Robbie Robertson. Robbie is one of the great geniuses of rock and roll, I mean that, and I pray I’m never in the same room with the son of a bitch again. He wants to talk. Where are you, I say? Malibu. I get in the convertible and I’m in Malibu by dawn.

“He’s up. What you have to understand is that no one in rock and roll slept during the latter half of the 70’s. Everyone stayed up for three days doing coke, passed out for twenty hours, and did it again. This was not seen as bad for you at the time.

“Robbie’s yakked out of his mind, in his underwear, playing a guitar on the floor of the living room. You can see the Pacific behind him. It was very glamorous until he shot at me. I wrestle the pistol away from him, and he apologized, blaming it on his Native American heritage. He says to me, ‘Bill, The Band’s breaking up.’

“This is shocking to me. The Band was the real thing, man. They were there when Dylan went electric. There was no one like The Band. Everybody else sounded like plastic; they sounded like wood. I always did very well presenting them in my venues. Shocking.

“He then accuses me of being an undercover Mountie trying to extradite him back to Toronto for crimes against the bourgeoisie.

“Robbie, I say, why are you committing crimes against the bourgeoisie?

“The conversation became less reasonable from there. At dusk, he got to the point. The Band would perform one last show at Winterland; I would produce. One thing, he says. There’s always ‘one thing.’ Every conversation I’ve had in this business, same ending: ‘One more thing, Bill.’ Sometimes I wanna tell people right when I start talking to them: Say the one thing first. The thing you’re saving for the end? Lead with that, so I can yell at you quicker. One thing, Bill, he says. We’re broke. No money at all.

“Robbie is holding a rock of cocaine the size of a matzoh ball, and I can see the Pacific Ocean over his shoulder. He’s broke. No money at all. One thing, Bill. The bullshit I gotta put up with. Sol Hurok, the great impresario, he had this office in Midtown. Magnificent. Leather and wood and quiet and nice. The bar cart with the expensive crystal, just so. Nice. His phone doesn’t ring. His secretary’s phone rings, and she puts it through. When people come to see him, they dress their best. It’s all dignified. Me? I gotta drive 400 miles to get lied to by a guitarist in his underwear.

“Robbie, I say. No problem. I got it. We’re gonna do this right.

“I chipped a kreplach-sized chunk of coke off the matzoh ball, got back in the convertible, and went home, where I immediately raised the price of hot dogs by a nickel.

“Everything I do, everything. Clean Winterland up. Sets from the San Francisco Ballet Company. I got a whole concept. We do dinner. It’s Thanksgiving, so we do turkey for everyone. Come in, and the floor is covered with tables. Sit down. There’s a vegetarian option. When everyone’s done eating, we have an orchestra play dance music. Take the tables away when people get up. And now all the tables are gone and it’s a concert. Then, The Band. That night had to be magic.

“I also needed to get enough coke to kill all of Hannibal’s elephants.

“Oh, and now: it’s a movie. Marty Scorsese is going to direct. I’d seen Mean Streets and loved it, just loved it. Marty comes in to Winterland and he’s already talking. The girl that brought him up says he was already yammering when he got out of the car. I can’t understand a word. Maybe he mentioned Cocteau. Kept asking me for Rolling Stones stories, but then he’d keep talking. Did that thing with his hands a lot, the director thing, you know, you make the frame. Runs around the place for two hours, never shuts up, leaves. I later receive a baked ziti in the mail.

“Now the arguments start. Robbie’s making phone calls with my money, so he’s flying in half the world first class. Clapton? Sure. Clapton, you fly him first class. But not the fucking tuba player. Tuba player’s lucky he’s not on a bus. Marty Scorsese is a maniac. He wants to attach a camera crane to the Ceiling. Marty, I tell him, Winterland’s ceiling only stays on out of habit. You can’t suspend things from it or we’ll all die.

“All the stars are coming out. Clapton, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young. We got everyone from The Band’s past, all the people that influenced them. We got Ronnie Hawkins; they used to be his backup band. Van Morrison is semi-retired at the time and living in a castle an hour south of Dublin. I went there personally and lured Van back to the stage with the promise of cocaine and jumpsuits. On that trip, I discovered U2, but that’s a different story.

“Before I left, I told one of the staff at Winterland to get the coke. Had to be good stuff. Guy’s name was Brian, and if it wasn’t written on his underwear, he would forget it. Man walked around in a fog. Best electrician in the city, but he got lost in the bathroom sometimes. So I wrote down what I needed. I figured a quarter-pound would do, but I wrote it 1/4 pound and the dumb fuck bought 14 pounds of coke. I’ve accidentally become the third or fourth largest drug dealer in San Francisco.

“Robbie and Marty Scorsese are now breaking into my house at night to jabber at me about how the lighting needs to be warm. And then to demonstrate warmth, they set my comforter on fire. Everything about this is becoming less and less fun.

“Bob Dylan keeps sending telegrams. He’ll do it. He won’t do it. He’s a Hindu now. He’ll do it, but we’ve got to move the whole show to New Delhi. He caught something in New Delhi. He’s not a Hindu anymore. He won’t do it. He’ll do it. It’s a whole mishegos with the man. Never easy, but it’s Dylan. Always worth it.

“Show day. The fans come in. They’re sharp, man. Some of these people are true hippies, farmers and wackadoos that live in cabins, but they’re dressed to the nines. Everyone’s polite, quiet, nice. I feel like Sol Hurok for a second. Then I see Neil Young sprinting naked around the balcony. My Sol Hurok moment is over.

“My stars are in the back. I took a dressing room and turned it into the Nose Room. There’s little toy noses stuck to the wall and a couple couches and a big glass table. Big bowl full of drinking straws cut in half. I was going for a theme. My staff has tackled Neil Young and they throw him in the Nose Room, which is starting to look like the stateroom scene from that Marx Brothers’ movie, but instead of Margaret Dumont, it’s Ringo Starr.

“Everything’s running smooth. Dr. John comes out and does his voodoo-shmoodoo, and Neil Diamond for some reason, and the crowd is getting off and all the rock stars are happy. I’ve lost $40,000, but already have a plan to bilk it out of the Jefferson Airplane. My secretary comes running up. Apparently, word has gotten out about how much coke is in the building, and numerous criminal organizations are on their way to steal it. Hells Angels, Yakuza, Mafia, Black Panthers: the worst representatives of every ethnicity.

“I hate to leave the music, because I do it all for the music, but I run out of Winterland to head off the gangs. I met each of them on the street, talked to ’em man to man. These guys know who I am. This is my town, too. I got juice here. Talk to all the bosses. Tell ’em, Guys, this is a peaceful happening. It’s a party, it’s a celebration, it’s nothing but good vibes in there. This is rock and roll history, dammit! I look ’em right in their eyes and tell ’em they aren’t getting in. Then I tell ’em that the coke isn’t here, anyway.

“They wanna know where it is.

“I give ’em the address to Robbie Robertson’s beach house in Malibu.

“You know the rest. Dylan wound up playing, everybody boogied, Marty made his movie. I wasn’t in the movie. Robbie was probably mad about his house, but fuck him. The next night, we presented Ted Nugent. Wanna understand show biz? One night it’s The Last Waltz, the next it’s Ted Nugent.

“Go downstairs and see if my food is here. If the kid doesn’t have my garlic bread, send him away.”

American As Maple Syrup

While technically not a band of Americans (except Levon, and Levon wasn’t from America so much as he was from the South), The Band was one of the more American bands that ever took a stage. Nothing better for a Presidents’ Day–and a rainy one, at that–than Garth’s band. (Rock Nerd Fight: Garth Hudson was secretly the leader of The Band. Fight!)

Just a few months before The Boys, The Band at the Academy of Music.

Say A Prayer For The Band

God, please take care of Rick and Levon. They made people very happy when they were here.

Look in on Richard Manuel if You have a moment, God. The world was too much for him, and he had such soft hands. He deserved better than us; he deserved better than himself. Get him to eat: he was always too skinny.

Call Garth back, God. It’s been weeks. Very rude.

And forgive Robbie, and all his trespasses. He is as You made him.

Smooth Like A Rhapsody

Check out Masterpiece from MSG, 9/18/87. Not Bobby killing it, which he always did on the Dylan tune. (Not so much in the blues number. Bobby’s blues number didn’t give you the blues, it made you genuinely sad.) Not even Phil winding and wending his way through the tale of a Grand Snarl through the  Old Country.

No, check out Garcia on the backup vocals. He’s yelpin’ and-a hollerin’, only to shut right up ‘n play this here GI-tar and play it right, boy. Garcia’s singing the high harmony line, almost up where Brent normally is. It’s just at the top of his range: notes you have to make an effort for, and he does, verse after verse. He’s in time with Bobby (kind of) and he’s in tune with Bobby (for a vast majority of the song) and it’s not just exactly perfect, because it’s better than perfect…

It’s human.

P.S. Here’s my favorite thing about When I Paint My Masterpiece: Dylan gave it away.  Other writers have made their reputations–their careers!–on far less, and he gave it to Robbie fucking Robertson. Robbie Robertson’s such a prick that three of his former band members preferred to die rather than spend anymore time on the same planet as him. Only Garth Hudson remains, and he is clearly some sort of immortal wood elemental.

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