Live at the Fillmore East - Part1

Live at the Fillmore East - Part1
Authored By Johnny Blogger

It was only open for just over three years but for those years it was the place to play, not just on the East Coast but across the whole of America. A legend in its own lifetime, it played host to the great and good at the cutting edge of the new rock n roll.

Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart later said the Fillmore's owner and head honcho Bill Graham "was the midwife at the birth of rock n roll" and Mickey should know better than most, for the Dead played there many times.

A PR Release at the time called the Fillmore "a pleasure dome for the young, the hip and the brave." One thing is for sure, for a while it was the centre of the rock music vortex and as you'll see, the roster of artists who played there reads like a who's who of rock greats.

Personally, I've always been fascinated by the place since I was a kid growing up in the North East of England, primarily because some of my favourite albums were recorded there. Records like Humble Pie's Performance: Rockin' The Fillmore, The Allman Brothers' Live At Fillmore East, Quicksilver Messenger Service's Happy Trails and side two of Mountain's Flowers Of Evil had a massive impact on me. I felt the walls of this place must be infested with some kind of magic to host and witness such awesome music. So I began to collect anything recorded at both Fillmore's East & West and thus began a lifelong fascination with the place.

This history lesson will take us back to where and how it all started, the bands that played, the music that it paid witness to, why Bill Graham became so disillusioned so quickly with his baby and why it came to an end in the summer of 1971.

So pull on your old jeans, add a splash of patchouli and come with me back to the late 60s - this is the bit where the screen goes all wavy. Ah yes, it's 1969 already, feels good, right? What's that you're smoking? Oh wow. Groovy.

The corner of 2nd and 6th in the East Village of New York City is an unprepossessing location. Certainly not where you might imagine the folk lore of rock n roll might be laid down. Since the 1920s, what became The Fillmore was The Village Theater and paid host to touring rep companies. It was also the home to the Yiddish Theater Company in the 20s and 30s.

As the weekly theatre audiences dwindled with the increasing popularity of television, it became Loews Commodore East movie theatre in the 1950s. It was a second run house - a theatre that showed movies already released uptown a few months before. But it didn't do too well and even by then it was a little run-down, so by the early 60s it had started to put live shows on. Lenny Bruce played there late November 1963. Jazz groups would also play - the likes of Dizzy, 'trane and Ornette Coleman.

By now the East Village was home to what would soon become known as counter-culture type people. Writers, artists, poets and street bums had made it their home. The first fully nude male and female shows happened in the East Village and macrobiotic/veggie caf�s began to spring up as the Beat Generation got its groove properly on.

This was the seed bed that Bill Graham found when he came to the East Village looking for a venue as a companion for the San Francisco-based Fillmore West on Market & Van Ness.

However, whereas the Fillmore West was an arena where people could dance and frolic around in true West coast hippy style, the old Village Theater was exactly that: a theatre. It had a proscenium arch and a stage, Corinthian-style columns, ornate murals and a massive gilt chandelier. There was red velvet on the walls. The 2,700 people sat in movie theatre seats and were shown to them by ushers dressed in green and gold football shirts. Its more formal context made the audience focus on the band and the band focus on the audience. Sounds typical now, but back then this was all new.

The place definitely had an air of being elegantly wasted - classy but gritty - which was perfect for the nascent rock culture. Even its 20's Art Deco flavour chimed in with the poster art of the times which drew so heavily on both deco and the earlier art nouveau in its style and expression.

However, Graham was nervous. Though from The Bronx, he was a West coast promoter, more used to putting on the Acid Trips Festivals in The Bay Area's Longshoreman's Hall. This was New York City. This was the big time.

The Village Theater had put a show on featuring Cream which had been a big success and proved there was an audience here for rock. He checked the building out. It needed bringing up to code and a lick or two of paint but it wasn't in bad shape really.

However, there was a major problem. The money.

Bill had been doing well on the West coast but this was going to cost him 400,000 big ones and he didn't have that kind of bread. But it was still a great opportunity. He went to Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan's owlish manager. Albert had dough. Bill offered him a chance to get a piece of the action. For 20 points and 80,000 American green, Grossman and his partner bought in at 40k each.

In his fascinating autobiography, 'Bill Graham Presents' he says he still had no idea where the money for the down-payment came from but somehow he made it and they signed the papers.

Although still relatively inexperienced, Bill Graham was an instinctive and shrewd businessman and promoter and he already had a team behind him from San Francisco. So he drew on those people, especially the likes of Joshua White - whose light show became resident - and the legendary Chip Monck, who was made technical director.

It's worth remembering at this point that rock n roll was still so young that there was simply no infrastructure of venues for bands to play and even when a band was booked into a theatre or town hall, it didn't mean there would a PA or sound system that could cope with loud kick ass rock n roll. When you see David Crosby on the Monterey stage (incidentally also designed by Chip Monck) in D.A. Pennebaker's Monterey Pop Festival movie say "at last: a good sound system" it wasn't without good reason. Bands were always having to tolerate weedy sound and terrible mixes and frequently struggled to make themselves heard.

Bill and his team knew this and set about getting the electrics right at the Fillmore. They tore down some walls behind the stage to get all the wiring in. Bill was mad keen for the place to have the best sound in the country. He didn't want bands bringing their stuff in and piling it on the side of the stage, instead he'd provide the best sound system they had ever plugged into. They could leave their gear outside as they'd not need it.

A guy called Chris Langhart designed the whole system so that speakers could be lowered down for repairs and hoisted back up again. It was state of the art and it worked because when you hear the music recorded there it is crisp and powerful. Between Kip Cohen, the house manager, Chip Monck, Joshua White and a few others, they began to create a proper rock venue, fit for purpose and classy. They fixed up the lobby and repainted throughout.

Later Bill Graham summed up his approach.

"I wanted it to look classy. So that when people came in from off the street, they would rise up to a higher level. Like when someone walks into a spiffy restaurant. Automatically, their backs get straighter. They change to fit the room. That's what I wanted to happen to people in that place."

This was a revolutionary idea: that rock could be accommodated with respect to the art form and the people who wanted to experience it. It put rock on the same footing as all other arts and said, in essence, "this stuff is important so we're going to treat you and it right". At a time when most saw the long haired pot-smoking generation as traitors to the American Dream of the 1950s, this was some much over-due and much appreciated respect.

Finally, on 8th March 1968, they were ready to rock. The first bands were booked. The Flying V-playing blues maestro Albert King would open, then came Tim Buckley. Janis Joplin with Big Brother And The Holding Company headlined. There were to be two shows. A 7.30pm and an 11pm. Would it work? Would anyone show up?

Find out in the next instalment ofLive At The Fillmore East



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