Bill Graham's Fillmore East
Attending a moving picture show was at one time a grand event, when the theaters themselves were virtually palaces; a few cents would purchase a couple of hours out of the blistering heat of the New York City summer, sitting in plush seats surrounded by the finest decor, and craftsmanship the likes of which only a Rockefeller could afford. When these venues became too small for the growing movie audiences, they were abandoned for more simply appointed, but much larger theaters. One such palace style theater was the Village Theater on Second Avenue and Sixth Street, in New Yorks East Village.
In 1967, New York City's WOR-FM was the vanguard of alternative music. Their two most prominent deejays, Rosko (Mercer) and Murray the K (Kaufman) break with all the conventional formats of the time, helping to pioneer the intriguing freeform FM format, playing such heretofore unknown artists as Jimi Hendrix and The Doors.
The station throws a first anniversary bash at The Village Theater. Popular journalist and deejay Rosko entertains the audience with his humor during set changes. (Two years later, he will be one of the panelists discussing the Doors' music on the PBS Critique show, hosted by Richard Goldstein of The Village Voice.)
Scheduled between other popular groups of the period, the Doors become the highlight of both shows when they explode into two dynamic and forceful performances which literally shake the theater with their intimidating volume. Particularly captivating is their commanding execution of the Alabama Song, which captures the essence of Brecht & Weill's The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.
This is the first of two Doors' appearances at The Village Theater, the other being on September 9.
Also performing at the WOR Anniversary bash were Janis Ian, The Blues Project, The Chambers Brothers, Richie Havens and Jeremy & the Satyrs. Emcees included Rosko, Scott Muni, (formerly of WABC-AM, soon to be premiere deejay at WNEW-FM) Johnny Michaels, Jim Lounsbury and Murray the K.
Not long after the Doors played The Village Theater the second time on September 9th, the lower east side venue was closed. Sometime later, it was purchased by Bill Graham Presents, and re-opened as the Fillmore East on March 8, 1968, featuring Big Brother and The Holding Company. The Doors would play the Fillmore East later that month.
The Fillmore East was the premier concert venue on the east coast for sometime afterward, inspiring the creation of other such venues in abandoned palace style theaters, such as Passaic New Jerseys Capitol Theater, which was still operating a few years ago, and may still be in operation today. The Fillmore East hosted most of the prominent and up-and-coming acts of the time, from the Doors, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin to Blues and avant-garde acts as well. The in-residence Joshua Light show offered state-of-the-art visual effects to accompany the history-making music which was performed there. A Fillmore experience was unique, and not soon forgotten.
The Joshua Light Show
On May 6, 1971, the following letter from Bill Graham appeared on page 45 of the The Village Voice:
April 29, 1971
Ever since the creation of the Fillmores, it was my sole intention to do nothing more, or less, than present the finest contemporary artists in this country, on the best stages and in the most pleasant halls.
The scene has changed and, in the long run, we are all to one degree or another at fault. All that I know is that what exists now is not what we started with, and what I see around me now does not seem to be a logical, creative extension of that beginning. Therefore, I am taking this opportunity to announce the closing of the Fillmores, and my eventual withdrawal from producing concerts.
The process will commence with the formal closing of Fillmore East on Sunday, June 27, 1971.
My reasons are as follows:
1) The unreasonable and totally destructive inflation of the live concert scene. Two years ago I warned that the Woodstock Festival syndrome would be the beginning of the end. I am sorry to say that I was right. In 1965 when we began the original Fillmore Auditorium, I associated with and employed "musicians." Now, more often than not, it's with "officers and stockholders" in large corporations - only they happen to have long hair and play guitars. I acknowledge their success, but condemn what that success has done to some of them. I continue to deplore the exploitation of the gigantic-hall concerts, many of them with high-priced tickets. The sole incentive of too many has simply become money. The conditions for such performances, besides lacking intimacy, are professionally impossible according to my standards.
2) I had always hoped to be able to present artists whose musical worth I felt was important: artists whose music was valid, whether commercially popular or not. There are more quality artists today; but many of those that do exist do not appear in public regularly. Therefore, in order to stay in business, I would be forced to present acts whose musicality fell below my personal expectations and demands. I could do this, and in having to book fifty-two weeks a year it becomes tempting because it is so much easier to do. Thousands might even come to these concerts, but I personally would prefer not to present them. For who would gain?
3) With all due respect for the role they play in securing work for the artists, the agents have created a new rock game called "packaging"; which means simply that if the Fillmore wants a major headliner, then we are often forced to take the second and/or third act that the agent or manager insists upon, whether or not we would take pride in presenting them, and whether or not such an act even belongs on that particular show. To do so would be to relinquish the essential responsibility of being a producer, and this I will not do.
4) In the early days of both Fillmore East and West, the level of audience seemed much higher in terms of musical sophistication. Now there are too many screams for "More" with total disregard for whether or not there was any musical quality.
5) The time and energy that is required for me to maintain a level of proficiency in my own work has grown so great that I have simply deprived myself of a private life. At this point I feel that I can no longer refuse myself the time, the leisure, and the privacy to which any man is rightfully entitled.
6) For six years, I have endured the abuse of many members of the public, and press (in most instances people who did not know me personally). The role of "anti-christ of the underground" has obviously never appealed to me. And when I asked for people to either judge me on some factual personal knowledge, or at least base their opinion on that which I produced and gave to the public, I was rarely answered.
7) Rock has been good to me in many ways, but the final and simple fact is that I am tired. The only reason to keep the Fillmore in operation at this point would be to make money. And though few have ever chosen to believe me on this point, money has never been my prime motivation; and now that it would become the only possible motivation to continue, I pass.
My personal future will begin with a long-needed rest. What will follow, I do not know. The several hundred good people who work at the Fillmore, maniacally dedicated to our standards, will, no doubt, go on to other creative things on their own. Fillmore West, as you may know, has been allocated for demolition for a long time now. It will neither relocate nor be reopened.
The "Fillmore" will become a thing of the past. I will remember with deep emotion and fondness the great and joyous moments of that past. I sincerely thank the artists and business associates who contributed to our success. But, I warn the public to watch carefully for what the future will bring.
The rock scene in this country was created by a need felt by the people, expressed by the musicians, and, I hope, aided to some degree by the efforts of the Fillmores. But whatever has become of that scene, wherever it turned into the music industry of festivals, 20,000-seat halls, miserable production quality, and second-rate promoters - however it went wrong - please, each of you, stop and think whether or not you allowed it, whether or not you supported it regardless of how little you received in return.
I am not pleased with this "music industry." I am disappointed with many of the musicians working in it, and I am shocked at the nature of the millions of people who support that "industry" without asking why. I am not assured that the situation will improve in the future.
But beyond all these viewpoints, I truly wish to express my overwhelming appreciation to the people, who, over the years, gave their time and devoted energy to working at the Fillmores. To them, and to many, many musicians who grew in stature without ever copping out, and to those admirable patrons who both refused to support marathon rip-offs and who even took the time to helpfully criticize me for the errors I made - to all of you, my fondest thanks and farewell.
When Bill Graham closed down his small venues in 1971, the building remained vacant for a time and then reopened as the Saint nightclub.
Several years later it was closed again for a number of years, then was gutted and completely remodeled to become the lower east side's funky downtown answer to Studio 54. Rumor has it that the building is now used to house an indoor flea market.
It is hard to believe that such an important venue in the history of rock music is now a place where you can buy a knickknack for your wooden wine shelf or bookcase. Indoor flea markets are fine and a good place to find an affordable chair or wine rack, but it would be wonderful if the building could be used as a tribute museum for the music of the late 60s instead.
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