Tuesday, October 25, 2011

How Bill Graham Jump-Started
The NeverEnding Tour  

Bill Graham, who died in a helicopter crash 20 years ago this week, was one of rock's great entrepreneurs. His booking and promotion practices transformed the industry. His legendary music showplaces, Winterland and the Fillmores East and West, during their short but storied histories, presented runs of shows rivaled only by the greatest jazz clubs. He was affectionately parodied in the cult favorite film Get Crazy (which also features Lou Reed, in one of his first theatrical roles, as a certain reclusive singer-songwriter known as "Auden").

Graham, of course, had important connections with Bob Dylan. Their first encounter, at a 1965 press conference, is well-documented, and Graham's role as tour organizer (1974, 1984) and promoter (most notably for the 1979 and 1980 Warfield residencies). That he occasionally functioned as an advisor to Dylan is hardly obscure, but his intervention in the early days of the NeverEnding Tour is rarely remarked on and goes unmentioned, so far as I know, in the standard Dylan bios and concert books.

The NET began inauspiciously. Dylan had planned to promote the tour (and his upcoming album) with a performance on the Saturday Night Live season finale, but that was scuttled bu the TV writers' strike. The opening date in Concord featured some energetic work from the band and a lovely 3-song acoustic set, but Dylan's set was surprisingly short, barely stretching beyond the hour mark, and was described in the press as "cursory" despite Neil Young's unannounced appearance. Two days later, the Sacramento concert was nearly a debacle: Perhaps half the seats were sold (more likely only a third), Neil Young failed to show up, and Dylan delivered a short, perfunctory performance. The Sacramento Bee described him as "sleepwalking" and said he "practically spat in the faces of the small but devoted audience."

The next night's performance in Berkeley was a triumph, of course, one of the landmarks in Dylan's career, and a spectacular turnabout from the two desultory shows that preceded it. There's all sorts of speculation about Dylan's return to form, but Bill Graham's almost forgotten intervention likely played a central role.

Graham wasn't at those first two shows, but he heard the negative reports about them. He undoubtedly had his hand in Dylan's upcoming Bay Area appearances, and was concerned about potential weakness in both the ticket sales and the music. He had been disappointed in the Dylan/Grateful Dead shows, saying "I think the lack of attendance [in 1988] can be attributed to the qualitative merits of his recent visits. . . . I'm a big fan, and I'm very concerned about Bob and the merits of his performance. I've had problems with the conviction, the woodenness. . . . But I don't want to be negative about him -- on any given night, he's the best there is."

So Graham confronted Dylan. ""I spoke to him prior to the Greek show (in Berkeley),'' Graham told a reporter a few days later. "I talked to him about conviction and why you walk on stage. It was not an easy conversation. I don't know what it's like to be an entertainer, but I do know that if you buy a ticket, you should be entertained."

Graham was particularly upset over Dylan's refusal to play an encore in Sacramento. "I would have asked him to play more. Artists' feet are touching some other planet sometimes, and they need to be reminded that people love them, that they want another song or two." He remembered an occasion during Dylan's 1984 European tour when he stopped Dylan's departing tour bus and hauled him back onstage for a final song.

"Think of any artist you really enjoy," Graham concluded. "You go to friends and say 'Check this out, when you go you'll see why I love him.' And you go and it's not quite what you remembered. The third, fourth or fifth time, you're not gonna go back. I judge any artist not on how many people came last time, but by how those that came felt when they left."

No doubt the explanation for Dylan's sudden switch from a "sleepwalking" to a galvanizing presence in June 1988 isn't susceptible to an explanation as simplistic as "Bill Graham shook Bob up." But Graham was notoriously, and successfully, demanding with artists. On Dylan's 1974 tour, he managed to up the energy levels, and drive Dylan to connect with his audience, by unilaterally changing the lighting cues. For the legendarily abrasive Graham to acknowledge that the conversation wasn't "easy" signals a very serious concern, and one that even Bob Dylan would have found difficult to put aside.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Bob Dylan's First Art Exhibition: 1971

With all the hubbub over Dylan's paintings and the "Asia Series" at the Gagosian Gallery, it's interesting to take a look back forty years or so (actually, nearly forty years to the day) to the first time Bob Dylan's work made an appearance in an art exhibition, in a show curated by Yoko Ono in, of all places, Syracuse, New York.

In the fall of 1971. in part to commemorate John Lennon's thirty-first birthday, Ono staged her first museum show at the Everson in Syracuse. The Everson Museum, a "bastion of the avant-garde," according to The New York Times and "a famous location for skateboarders" as reported by Wikipedia, hosted her display of "conceptual art" for a three-week run.

The exhibition, titled "This Is Not Here," included more than 80 "works" by Ono, including "Iced Tea," an ice sculpture of the letter T (soon to melt away), "Painting To Let The Evening Light Go Through" (a sheet of clear plastic), and the notorious "Apple" (simply an apple on a pedestal which, inevitably, was eaten during the opening reception, by some accounts at Ono's suggestion). John Lennon contributed a few works, including some edible clothing.

One of Ono's "works," usually known as "Water Gallery," consisted of pieces submitted by 100 invited guest artists, which Ono would, collaboratively, fill with water. Frank Zappa sent a Volkswagen. Peggy Guggenheim, less creatively, sent a vase. Andy Warhol sent a thirty-minute videotape of a water cooler.

Bob Dylan sent a fish tank. But not just any fish tank. This fish tank contained a copy of Nashville Skyline. Just the album, no sleeve or jacket.

The exhibition goes well. Nearly 6000 attend the opening, where Ono sports black velvet hotpants. Dylan reportedly takes in the exhibit during its three-week run. The local press denounces it. It becomes the subject of a PBS TV special. Museum membership grows. Various audio and videotapes made for Lennon are circulating.

Why Nashville Skyline? Was there any other Dylan album, then or later, with fewer references to water (or rain) in its lyrics? Perhaps Bob thought it needed irrigation. Perhaps not.

The things you learn when trying to fill in a few blank spots for a blog post. In a news story I only turned up earlier today, I discovered that someone I knew in college had been an invited guest of Lennon's at the opening (or at least her then-boyfriend was), and had been at his private birthday party later that night. It never came up in our conversations. I'd have remembered that, even after nearly forty years.

Friday, October 07, 2011

50 Years Ago This Week: Dr. Hunter S. Thompson Drops In At Gerdes Folk City

Robert Shelton's review for The New York Times is well-known, of course. There are folks who'll tell you it launched Bob Dylan's career, although the truth is rarely that simple. But Shelton wasn't the only journalist who wrote a review of that booking. 

At the end of the summer of 1961, Hunter Thompson was just beginning his career as a writer. He was facing eviction from his quarters in Big Sur. Somehow he made his way to the east coast, apparently stopping in New York City on his way to Kentucky. And, one Saturday night in the early fall, he found himself in Gerdes Folk City.

What Thompson saw that night stuck in his memory. He wrote about the music in a piece he wrote for Rogue magazine, then an ambitious weak sister to Playboy in the mens' magazine market, edited by the legendary Harlan Ellison. He was so struck by what he saw and heard that he wrote about it again a few weeks later, "on location" in Lexington, in another piece for Rogue about traditional mountain music.

But what the future Raoul Duke couldn't get out of his head was the performance by The Greenbriar Boys.

"Folk City was so dead that even a change of scenery would have been exciting," Thompson wrote. "So I was just about ready to move on when things began happening. What appeared on the tiny bandstand at that moment was one of the strangest sights I’ve ever witnessed in the Village. Three men in farmer’s garb, grinning, tuning their instruments, while a suave MC introduced them as 'the Greenbriar Boys' straight from the Grand Ole Opry."

The Good Doctor was not impressed, to say the least; he thought them "a hideous joke."  "I was dumbfounded, and could hardly believe my ears when the crowd cheered mightily," he continued. "A man next to me grabbed my arm and shouted: 'What the hell’s going on here? I thought this was an Irish bar!'" 

Thompson was annoyed by the band's inauthenticity, calling them "fraudulent farmers." "Here I was, at a 'night spot. in one of the world’s most cultured cities, paying close to a dollar for each beer," Thompson raged, "surrounded by apparently intelligent people who seemed enthralled by each thump and twang of the banjo string–and we were all watching a performance that I could almost certainly see in any roadhouse in rural Kentucky on any given Saturday night. As Pogo once said–back in the days when mossback editors were dropping Walt Kelly like a hot pink potato–'it gives a man paws.'" (Thompson's raging would, of course, become more memorable and more imaginative a few years later.) 

Thompson also noted that the Greenbriar Boys were the first "group of hillbilly singers" to be booked by "a recognized night club" in New York City. As a certain young folksinger noted in those days, the average Village club owner might want folksingers, but would toss you off his stage if you sounded like a hillbilly.

But what did Dr. Thompson think about the Greenbriar Boys' opening act, that young Dylan fellow Shelton had raved about?  It turns out that he didn't bother to even mention him. He never says. Thompson is said to have known Dylan in his Village days, and this would be the most likely time they'd have met, but there's no trace of an actual meeting at this gig.

Thompson wrote the evening up as an item called "New York Bluegrass 1961" and sent it off to Ellison. But while Rogue published two other early Thompson pieces, it rejected this one. It sat unpublished until 1997, when the Good Doctor included it in The Proud Highway: Saga Of A Desperate Southern Gentleman, 1955-1967. You can read it here or at Google Books. A few weeks later, in a Rogue-published piece called "Traveler Hears Mountain Music Where It's Sung," about his fall 1961 trip through Kentucky, Thompson has a few more cranky references to the "Bluegrass banjo champs" of New York City. Like Jerry Garcia, who reportedly walked out on Dylan's 1963 Monterey Folk performance because Dylan's acoustic guitar was amplified, Dr. Thompson was quite the purist in those days.

Now maybe I've taken a few liberties here. Maybe Thompson arrived during the break between Dylan's set and the Greebriar Boys', although he doesn't make it sound that way. Maybe the Greenbriar Boys were rebooked at Gerdes shortly after the gig with Dylan (not so likely if the evening was as dead as Thompson reports). But Thompson's piece pulls a fact or two from Shelton's review, and the Greenbriar Boys were still on his mind in Renfro Valley just a few weeks later. So I think I'm on target here. As missed connections go, this one's near the top.