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.