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.


AndoDoug said...

Fascinating tidbit, merci

jd said...

I enjoyed the article. I have gone to several Dylan shows. Some were really great. But when I began seeing the NET, I thought a couple were really bad. I quit seeing him live. I can see Graham's concern. But I still like Bob.

buddyobush said...

Interesting story. I wonder: what do you think of the current leg of the NET, as Dylan has apparently stopped doing encores entirely?

JoeRay said...

Since Bill died, R & R has lost it's driving force. Yes, there are major performances but no one will replace Bill Graham. The artists knew Bill had their back. They respected him and put out for him. Bill was the best advocate fans had. We will miss Bill forever.

Unknown said...

I met Bill Graham at one of Bob's shows. It was the tour with Tom Petty in 86 and it was at Shoreline Amphitheater. I think it was the first show to open the new venue. I was inside the venue sitting on the lawn near the top having a beer, and I looked around and there was Bill Graham standing there talking with someone about the sound and the sight. I got up and went over and excused myself and said Hello. I asked if he had seen Bob that day and he said he had. We talked for another minute and I let them go back to there discussion. He was very polite.

Major Tom said...

The shows are discussed and reviews and subsequent fallout are discussed at length in "Razor's Edge: Bob Dylan and the Never Ending Tour"... your theory is there discussed in the terms of being "received wisdom" one passage there reads:

"Whatever the problem was, Dylan left after twelve songs and did not
return. The set was only one song shorter than at Concord, but the unan-
nounced, abrupt ending and the psychological effect of the show being
under an hour made it seem far shorter. Encores were expected, at the
very least. Some in the audience no doubt hoped that Dylan ’s departure
signalled only a mid-show break, with the second half still to come.
Their disappointment soon turned to anger and the night ended in acri-
mony that further inflamed the bad feeling toward Dylan in the local
press. A vicious circle was in danger of dragging down the tour that had started so well at Concord.
After the dust had settled on Sacramento, renowned concert promoter Bill Graham is alleged to have informed Dylan that this would not do; that Bob would have to make a greater effort to please his audience
or he’d lose it altogether. The result? Dylan pulled up his socks and delivered a brilliant 17-song, 90+-minute set at Berkeley and went on to complete a glorious tour. This is the received wisdom – yet it just does not sound like Dylan: a naughty schoolboy, who, when rebuked, turns into a star pupil? In addition, Berkeley is often blessed with special shows, and opening concerts are often greatly at variance with what follows on Dylan tours (the first four shows contained about half the
songs played in the whole tour). Whether the alleged warning from Bill Graham changed Bob Dylan’s plans for the tour, or whether Dylan just had an off night at Sacramento – for whatever reason – we will probably never know for sure.
Still, after Berkeley’s 17-song feast (including many songs that were not played in the first two shows, “Rank Strangers To Me” among
them), the set lists/structure settled down to a fairly consistent pattern of 15 or 16 songs per night (though there were a large number of 14s and 17s too), rising on special occasions and peaking with a 21-song set at Upper Darby, Pennsylvania on October 13th, as Dylan warmed up for the concluding dates that had been added at New York’s Radio City Music Hall in response to the rave notices posted as the tour progressed."