Chet Helms spent Friday night in dialogue with the people.
In fact, Chet Helms has spent most Friday nights for the past three years talking for hours with the people, but usually not on the street. This Friday was different from all other nights because, for most of it, there were more people outside his Playland dance hall than inside.
The big attraction (and obstacle) was 50 pickets from the Light Artist's Guild who sometimes blocked the doorway. They handed out a leaflet which Helms claimed, bitterly, was full of lies; chanted; and harassed those who were undecided about spending $3 to see whether the Grateful Dead would or wouldn't appear.
The Dead (minus Jerry Garcia) and Albert Collins did appear, along with the Ballet Afro-Haiti, but fewer than 700 paid to see them.
Outside, Helms rapped with everyone who wanted to talk to him. "I spent five years on the streets, came out of a meth thing, and went into music with the Family Dog because I wanted to change America. What I'm seeing here on the street tonight is the worst thing that I've seen since I began..."
Helms grabbed a sign from a picket, which read, "The name of the game is Glare." "Look at this, it makes me sick, demeaning another man's work. Glare did the lights tonight because they wanted to, no one forced them..."
The dialogue went on and on.
"You talk like a 1930's businessman, anything to keep the store open, as long as it's the workers who pay."
"It's you who put the thing in 1930's terms, talking about exploitation and bread when the name of the game here is to draw. My books are open. We're $20,000 into operating this hall, I still owe $50,000 from the Avalon, and our current debt here is $7,000. I was counting on the Dead to pull us out - we'd have 1500 inside and 2000 waiting to get in on a normal Friday. I haven't been paid in four weeks myself."
"Why aren't we getting enough to live on - where's the money going?" light show members repeatedly asked Helms.
"The name of the game is draw, man, and as soon as you can show me in any way how that can be changed..."
"The name of the game should be share!"
"Sure it should, but it isn't, and how are you helping to share anything by economically destroying this dance hall? I don't want light shows, I want friends. I want an example of behavior for a million kids all over America. I have enough theater in me to do any kind of environment I want without your light shows, but what we really pay for outside ourselves is the music. What's starving us is Big Jefferson Airplane, Big Grateful Dead, they draw and they get the bread they ask for..."
"But light shows are art, man, just because people don't scream for more that doesn't mean they don't dig it. You make every light show here project on a big screen and then you pay $110 to rent the screen and only $50 to the light show!"
"That's the same lie you guys tell on your leaflet. The group tonight, Glare, dropped out of the Light Artist's Guild and then offered to work for nothing, but they're getting $300 for the weekend. $50 is all I have to pay for an auditioning group, but I'm paying $300, and I usually pay more on a weekend, a lot of bread for something we could do without, particularly when we're hurting financially. And then you say you made repeated efforts to negotiate or something like that, but no one even called me after our first meeting except a few people who said they didn't speak for the negotiators - that's better than Graham got, anyway, no one called him at all, he just got a letter announcing the demands and a strike for next Tuesday!"
There are, obviously, two very different issues at stake in the light artist's strike, both of which have important roots in the growth of San Francisco hip culture.
First, who needs light shows - are they any good, and can they develop as an art form alongside the runaway commercialism of the rock industry?
And second, are the economics of running rock concerts insane merely because a lot of weak people (and some manipulative, strong ones) have gotten on the merry-go-round of sales capitalism? Or do public concert performances no longer represent anything relevant to the hip community and therefore those who still attend them are paying for a Broadway-type operation?
Tom Wolfe, writing about the infant era of head culture, described what light shows once were, and what they want to be now: "For months Kesey had been trying to work out...the fantasy...of the Dome. This was going to be a great geodesic dome on top of a cylindrical shaft. It would look like a great mushroom. Many levels. People would climb a stairway up the cylinder...and the dome would have a great foam rubber floor they could lie down on. Sunk down in the foam rubber, below floor level, would be movie projectors, video-tape projectors, light projectors. All over the place, up in the dome, everywhere, would be speakers, microphones, tape machines, live, replay, variable lag. People could take LSD or speed or smoke grass and lie back and experience what they would, enclosed and submerged in a planet of lights and sounds such as the universe never knew. Lights, movies, video tapes of themselves, flashing and swirling over them come from the beams of searchlights from the floor from between their bodies. The sounds rolling around in the globe like a typhoon. Movies and tapes of the past, tapes and video tapes, broadcasts and pictures of the present, tapes and humanoid sounds of the future - but all brought together now - here and now - Kairos - into the dilated cerebral cortex..."
Such a trip can end several ways.
It can become the plasticized nightmare of a New York psychoanalytic chamber where too many fucked up people with too much money take off their clothes, pay and leave.
Or it can really work, with the cooperation of people who have environmental vision, a genius for what creates unity and what is human rather than humanoid, "submerged in a planet of lights and sounds such as the universe never knew" but related to the universe, protected and expanded in a drug culture neither selfish nor ignorant.
Or it can become a symbolic appendage of the strongest force within the impetus for that new environment - in this case, the music, which has become portable, cheap, and expert.
What has happened to light shows in San Francisco artistically is what has happened to concerts in San Francisco. People once had a choice of three or four or five ballrooms, at less than half the price of records. There was grass and acid, smiles from strangers, communal streets nearby where one could live, dancing at the dances, and the newness, high or straight, of light and form - whirls, strobes, black light, strange movies.
Check out the Fillmore West one of these nights for nice highs, smiles, a walk home, a place to dance - and see if the light, still pretty and sometimes even inspired, makes up for what's not there.
Bill Graham, despite his repulsive image of Hollywood hucksterism - "concern" for "artists" born of an inability to relate to their art; impatience with public behavior; paternalism; inaccessibility; irascibility - is not the villain of the scene. He's in the grinder with the rest. Although more obviously capable of supporting a $600 per weekend light show than Helms, still not out of the financial woods. He can't really turn a profit at the Carousel most of the time, because of the same big, evil bands.
But the big, evil bands aren't so evil, either. The Dead are reportedly at least $50,000 in debt; other name groups show reliable figures of great financial losses. Equipment, lawyers, friends, travel, houses, toys...it all goes, even for bands pulling $10,000 a weekend.
"The name of the game is draw," as Helms said over and over last Friday. Until a hundred thousand people make a habit of visiting Playland Family Dog, Helms can't risk leaving the star band system for competent, lesser-known groups. Nothing is structured that way: rents, insurance, payroll, investment returns, everything is geared to make the money make money, and the people, unless they hang on to money's ride, scramble forever.
This, then, is really why the light shows are up against it. Unfortunately, their demands seem too money-oriented and their tactics were poor - not contacting Graham except too late and by letter, and fucking up Helms when he's in bad trouble. With these things and their sloppy Guild structure, the light people seem to be combining the worst traits of bread-and-butter unionism and rebel culture indignation.
If there were positive aspects to the demands, some sense of what light show art might become, some relevance to the community, the light show strike might be supported as the first opening in the cancerous culture boil which the rock music scene has become. Instead, it looks like it will be just another brief gleam on the hip horizon, suitable for cute pictures in the Chronicle.
(by Lawrence Bensky, from Dock of the Bay, 5 August 1969)
* * *
OUT ON THE EDGE [excerpt]
"We're out on the edge...hangin on, tryin to live, but tryin to live just a little bit better."
- Chet Helms
It was like, you know, the whole wild, free feelin that was the spirit of America drifting ever west, to the farthest edge of the frontier, till the frontier was no more and we were just hangin on to the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
And there we were, in a coney island dance hall, all these hairy freaks who had come together in a community crisis, to see if we, and our common vision, could hold together: Chet Helms and the Family Dog, Jerry Abrams and the Light Artists Guild, Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, the Messiah and his World Crusade, Teddy Bear and his Thirteenth Tribe, Ron Poulte of the Wild West Show, Mike Bloomfield, the Good Times, the Berkeley Tribe, and Bill Graham even.
[ . . . ]
It's Friday night down in Playland, but there's only 300 people inside the Family Dog, hoping to hear the Grateful Dead, who are late as usual. On the street outside the Light Artists Guild has set up a psychedelic picket line, with light show, conga drums, coffee and food.
"If the Dead crosses the line," declares Jerry Abrams at the stage door, "as far as I'm concerned the rock trip in this city is down the drain. We would never cross a musician's line."
The San Francisco light shows, 67 of them, all the major shows except the Brotherhood of Lights (which has a corner on the Fillmore - and intends to keep it) have come together to work for the development of their art form, and their economic survival.
The Guild voted to strike the two San Francisco ballrooms in order to gain recognition for the Guild, equal billing with the bands, and a minimum pay scale.
Chet is out on the street too, maintaining that "I want to deal only with individuals. I don't think I could ever reach an agreement with an organization. I would give my right teeth, man, never to have to deal with another agent or middleman." And here, the lanky, gently-bopping Helms, who looks like he stole his long silky blond hair from the head of the baby jesus, straightens his shoulders and flips into a crisp baritone, mimicking a businessman: "Now please look here, Mr. Helms, it's like this..."
If Jerry Abrams is anything, he ain't a businessman. He ain't the world's greatest organizer either. By throwing a picket line around the Family Dog, the Guild made a serious mistake. The Dog has been losing $4000 a week since it opened on the Great Highway June 13. The Guild's asking for a minimum of $300 a week. Chet has been paying $400 a week on the average.
"I could use some money too," Helms relates. "I haven't been paid in 4 weeks. I still have a $50,000 personal liability from the Avalon. Very simply, we put the place together with 6 grand, and we've been given another 12 grand by our investors. I was counting on this weekend with the Grateful Dead to get a paycheck." If the Dead ever turns a profit, Helms will get 30% to feed his Family.
Inside the ballroom Friday night, Glare light show from Palo Alto is shedding light on the situation for 300 bills, but was turning the money back to Helms.
Why didn't Glare join the Guild, or at least honor the picket line?"It's kind of insane," Richard of Glare says. "Chet Helms doesn't have any money. We want to help save the Family Dog. The Guild is a good idea, but if the Family Dog falls down, so does everybody else."
On the dance floor below, the feeling was summed up by one chick who comments: "We got to stand together, brother, it's as simple as that. I came to hear the Grateful Dead - if they didn't play then I wouldn't cross the line."
When the Dead finally arrived, we all trucked out to their Metro van, 50 yards from the pounding surf, lit the peace pipe, and began to rap. It became clear that all of us are "out on the edge, hangin on, trying to live."
Even the Dead are $50,000 in debt. "The way I experienced this strike," Helms explained a few days later, "was like a run on the bank. It feels like a precursor, you know, of what's going to happen around the country. They're looking at us to see not only what we can do about us, but what they can learn from us.
"We started out with the forms that were given, business forms, union forms, but for 3 years the whole fuckin world has been looking at us for new solutions."
"If we work together collectively," Jerry Garcia of the Dead offered, "we can all extend our forms. Right now the bands get more money than anybody else, and that's not righteous."
"At one time," said Helms, "people would come to the Fillmore just because it was happening. They didn't know exactly what it was, but knew it was exciting. Then the record companies came in, put $50,000 on it, sealed it, packaged it, and said here is what it is.
"I think essentially people don't come to see this band or this light show - people come to have a good time. Billing is the linear structure we have to leave behind. I mean the draw game, man, where this group is best, this group next best, and so on, you dig?
"I think, though, that light shows, you know, in their relative importance to the whole thing have come down over the past few years, you dig? It isn't necessary to say any more, lights by - "
The Dead did not play Friday. But a temporary settlement was reached Saturday afternoon, so that the Family Dog could be open that night.
Saturday night on the Great Highway [August 2] was one of the best gigs since opening night [June 13], when the Airplane played. With the strike over, the Dead, Albert Collins and the far-out Afro-Haitian Ballet played to a full house. The scene there gave off comfortable vibes.
Bill Graham, at the meeting the following Tuesday, would rail on about his "rights" as a businessman, and his right to run the Fillmore exactly according to his whims, as the individual with the bread. "Why do we have light shows?" Graham would ask. "Why do we have apples in the cafeteria? Because I like them. The man with the dollars, and not the man with the art form, has the negotiating point."
All well and legal. Yes, Bill Graham, the Fillmore is your personal trip, and [the] fact that it may be our trip too don't bother you. Maybe that's why I never go there, because I always feel the heavy presence of somebody's personal money trip.
But at the Family Dog Saturday night, I felt as free and comfortable as I would in a friend's home. "We're all locked into games - the Family Dog, the Grateful Dead," as Chet Helms said. "When are we something happening [sic], but it doesn't have to be called the Family Dog - it can be The Common or whatever."
[ . . . ]
(by Art Johnson, from the Berkeley Tribe, 8 August 1969)
The great rip-off is now in the open. Heavy vibes, heavy
actions, set the tone for this past week.
Last Tuesday Jerry Abrams of the Light Artists’ Guild
announced a strike against the Family Dog and the Fillmore West. On Friday
night the pickets appeared in front of the Dog with conga drums, signs,
projectors, strobes, people, and much excitement.
The scene was absurdly festive to begin with. Dog staffers
passed out carnations; Michael Christopher served a tray of macrobiotic bread
to projectionists working from the roof of a van. Power for the light show was
supplied partly by a generator, partly by an extension cord from the Dog.
Earlier that day, Chet Helms had cast the I Ching to learn
the outcome of the strike. The answer was Peace moving into Taming Power of the
Great, two very favorable hexagrams. The moving line, however, was critical: “The
wall falls back into the moat. Use no army now. Make your commands known within
your own town. Perseverance brings humiliation.” The judgement turned out to be
sound advice for both sides.
The reading of the I Ching convinced Chet not to resist.
They would just have to wait out the evening. The hour of doom was at hand, in
the words of the I Ching. Or, “It’s fate,” as Michael Christopher put it.
The strike (boycott, really) was successful from the start.
By 9:30 there were still only 200 people in the Dog…14 people and 2 cops on the
patio. Top attendance at any time never exceeded 500, on a night that should
have drawn 1500 or more. Finally Chet appeared outside to plead with the
picketers. If the Guild was trying to close the Dog, they had nearly succeeded.
The present ballroom concept – Bill Graham’s game called
draw – has ruined the San Francisco scene. Chet’s version of the situation is
called Concentration Camp. We’re all inside: people who run the Dog, light
artists, musicians, audiences, all dependent on one bag of potatoes that comes
in once a week. Somehow we must distribute a few potatoes to as many people as
possible without letting anyone starve.
Rumors and declarations abounded. The Grateful Dead would
not show up…their equipment was set up and they were on their way…everyone
would play except Jerry Garcia…Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart were gigging at the
Bear’s Lair in Berkeley and would arrive late.
At 11:20 Rock Scully arrived and offered to mediate the
dispute. Rock began a heavy rap with Chet and some Guild members. Ideas for
restructuring the concept of the game were batted around. How do you beat a
scene predicated on the idea that the bigger the name of the band, the bigger
the draw? How do you cope with what has become a sardine-can environment? How
can you bring back the fun?
By 11:30 the crowd inside was still under 500. The Dead were
scheduled to go on at midnight. Chet: “What are we going to do?” Rock: “Let’s
have a fucking good time!”
Jerry Abrams to Bill Kreutzmann, outside: “I talked to Jerry
Garcia, and he told me he wouldn’t cross our picket line. And you told me that if
Jerry doesn’t play, you won’t either.” Bill Kreutzmann: “I’d rather play music
than argue with out. [sic] I like to
The Dead – minus Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart – went on at
midnight. Jerry Abrams complained bitterly, “That’s bullshit. Those are our
brothers. They should have played outside, we have a generator out here. We
offered them the use of our generator and electricity and they refused to do
it. We feel that our brothers have betrayed us.”
At 12:30 Jerry and Mickey arrived from Berkeley, and a heavy
confrontation shaped up in front of the stage entrance. There currently is a
rumor going around that Jerry Abrams physically prevented Garcia from entering,
that’s not true. According to Bluto (that’s the name lettered on the T-shirt
Garcia wore Saturday), Abrams only stood in front of him. Bluto: “You guys are
saying we can’t play.” Abrams: “We’re saying we wish you wouldn’t play.” Bluto:
“Why are you doing this, man? Chester don’t have no fuckin’ money.”
The Dead stopped their set and joined the scene outside. A
heated argument erupted between Jerry Abrams, John McIntyre, and Phil Lesh.
Some pickets and members of the negotiating committee tried to move Abrams away
from the door so that Bluto could make an end run any time.
Dog staffers showed up and the argument went on for nearly
half an hour. Garcia: “Let’s talk inside. Let’s get Chet and talk.” Abrams: “We
vowed not to go inside. Let’s talk right here.” Mickey Hart: “Let’s go up on
stage and say what we have to say.”
Around 1 the crisis session moved into the Dead’s silver
metro truck, where Bluto passed around some superweed as a peace token. Twenty
representatives of the Dog, the Dead, and the Guild got totally ripped. In the dope-rap
that followed, people got into a group mind-thing and discovered they all
shared the same problems. Chet owes $50,000 in personal debts left over from
the Avalon, and the relocated Dog is already seven grand in the hole. The Dead
owe $60,000, probably from recording and equipment expenses. There are over
sixty light shows and only two major outlets…and one of them is sewed up. Where
do we go from here?
Jerry Garcia: “I’m speaking first and last as a contracted
union musician. Also we’ve got a big family and we’re broke. Next, Chet is a
good friend who is also broke, and I know the artists in the Guild are also
broke. What I’m thinking about, just for tonight, is that there are a bunch of
people inside whom I feel responsible for too. We’ve got to decide something
here and let them know about it.”
Chet: “We’re not unresponsive to light shows, and in fact we’re
responsible for putting them where they are.” Chet rapped some more about
concentration camps and potatoes, and finally proposed a settlement: a sliding
pay-scale, some kind of recognition of the Guild as a family, and equal billing
IN THE TRUCK
The Guild hassled over Chet’s proposal for a while. As
closing time approached, the pressure increased. At 1:23 AM one of the
equipment men let loose a cherry bomb under the truck. BLAM! “Jackson wants his
truck back!” “Let’s go INSIDE.” “But we haven’t got down to the issues yet.”
Bluto and Mickey never did make it inside that night. The
light show people caucused near the beach. Inside the Dog, a few of the Dead
jammed with two flutists from the audience and a conga drummer off the beach.
Fewer than 100 people heard them. It just wasn’t the Dead.
Finally a negotiating session was called for Saturday at 1
PM for bands, light shows, all interested members of the community.
The common, as Chet suggested calling [it], convened
Saturday, after a Guild meeting that morning to discuss Chet’s offer. It got
off the ground around 2:30 with Chet and Rock laying down the rap. The Dog is
dying. Because of the strike there’s not enough bread to pay the Dead their
$5,000 guarantee for the weekend. Chet had invited his investors to what he’d
hoped would be a packed house, but the strike blew all that.
Chander Locklin [Laughlin]
(formerly Travis T. Hip) spoke in favor of the Guild as a national entity
because of the need to get one up on promoters elsewhere in the country, not on
Bill Graham and Chet Helms. Messiah Allan deplored the commercial interests
displayed by the strikers, and preached his vision of a world commune. Nick
Gravenites suggested that if the light shows wanted a percentage, they should be
willing to accept a percentage of Chet’s debts.
Jerry Abrams: We’ve come to realize that we’re all in the
same bag and we’re all broke. Chet: The light shows have gotten the short end
of the stick as far as pay and billing goes, but the blame belongs to everyone
in the community. The issue is still that slogan of Graham’s; The Name of the
Game is Draw. Mike Bloomfield: Does the Guild feel that musicians are getting
too much bread? Because they’re not, the industry cops it all.
An interim agreement was finally reached shortly after 5 PM.
Abrams: “Let’s work on a settlement. I promise you we won’t strike tonight.”
Rock Scully: “Hare Krishna!” The final handshake came at 6:30, and Chet and
The main point of contention still to be settled was whether
the Guild had the right to set minimums for any light shows, even for shows not
in the Guild. Chet absolutely refused to concede that point, and the
negotiations were continued to next week.
The entire community was invited back to the Dog Tuesday for
what was hoped would be the last negotiating session. Chet opened the meeting
by casting (Union) moving into Work On What Has Been Spoiled (Decay). The book
laid it right down; it was all there. “…Water flows to unite with water… So too
should human society hold together through a community of interests that allows
each individual to feel himself a member of the whole.” Also, “Decisiveness and
energy must take the place of inertia and indifference…in order that the ending
may be followed by a new beginning.”
There were several moving lines, one perhaps a reference to
Bill Graham, who was present. “We are often among people who do not belong to
our own sphere…”
Chet finished reading from the I Ching and started his rap
once more on potatoes. He was not the only one to repeat himself that
afternoon. Bill interrupted: Chet is not being realistic. Chet runs a groovy
trip, but it’s not businesslike. The only way that Chet can survive is with a
state or government subsidy.
Chet: Why not a community subsidy?
Bill: I will never share my profit with anyone in the community.
Go out and pay your own dues. If you want to support your art, get a gig on the
side. As long as I control the show, no one will ever tell me how to run it or
what to do with my money. I have a house in Pacific Heights and an $8,000
Mercedes-Benz, and it’s mine, I Earned it.
Graham was intransigent on the subject of pay and billing
for the Guild, because he feels that light shows are not a draw (i.e.
money-making) factor. “When I choose to support you on the basis of artistic
merit alone, it is my choice alone. I decide whether I want apples or flowers
or posters or light shows each week. I sign the checks.”
As for recognition of the Guild, Graham insisted that he
could not recognize an organization for which he had no respect whatsoever. And
he had no respect for the Guild because the Guild had no respect for him. As
evidence of their disrespect, Graham mentioned received a tactless letter
stating what the Guild minimums would be at the Fillmore, before he had even
been contacted by anyone from the negotiating committee. Abrams admitted that
some of the Guild tactics had been impolitic, but that the shows had been
trying to talk to Bill for two and a half years and had gotten nowhere.
Graham and some members of the community got into a personal
trip and started a mutual exchange of anger and frustration. Each side
displayed a fundamental inability to accept the other’s trip. “You will never
step on me, you will never disrespect me, because you haven’t got the balls.”
Graham invited anyone to do as well as he had, simply by opening across the
street and out-drawing him. But then, “You have neither the guts nor the
ability to change the world.”
Graham – obviously tired and overwrought – suddenly announced
in an emotion-charged voice that he would not relocate the Fillmore West in San
Francisco when the Carousel Ballroom closes on December 31. “I’ve taken this
shit from you for four years, and I’m not going to take any more. I’m through
with this town.”
From the moment of this statement on, it was obvious that
the strike was dead. As long as the Fillmore remained open, Graham would never
give in to any of the strikers’ demands. One thing about Bill Graham is that he
is always up front about what is on his mind. Perhaps some who heard his “retirement
speech” refused to take it at face value. Perhaps they considered it only a
gesture for sympathy. For whatever reason, people refused to stop sniping at
Graham long after it became clear that he and the rest of the Common had
nothing in common.
Steve Gasking, who conducts his mystic/religious
lecture/classes Monday nights at the Dog, hammered home the final attack. “You
can’t ask for both our money and our love. You’ve got our money, so you can’t
have our love. You are a good manager, a good promoter, but still you’ve fucked
over many heads with your emotional trips.”
Graham’s response was, “I
APOLOGIZE, MOTHERFUCKER, THAT I’M A HUMAN BEING. I fucking apologize.
Emotional, you’re fucking right. FUCK YOU. You stupid prick. Do you know what emotions
are? Stand up and have emotions! Get up and work, get up and sing, get up and
act. You think I’m an actor? You’re full of shit, man, I have more fucking
emotions and balls than you’ll ever see. You want to challenge me in any way
about emotions? You slimy little man…YOU SLIMY…LITTLE…MAN. FUCK YOU. FUCK YOU.
Don’t get peaceful with me. Don’t you TOUCH me.”
It was all over after Graham split. Jerry Abrams got up and
delivered the consensus opinion: “I think the strike is off.” Yet despite (or
because of) Bill Graham’s walkout, those who remained felt a tentative stirring
of optimism, a sense of regeneration of communal spirit.
A new community settlement of Guild’s strike against the Dog
will be worked out on Thursday. The Dog may die, but the Family lives. We’re
all in it together. Nobody won the strike, because we’re all losers. Our
victory becomes real only if we can prove that Bill Graham was wrong, that we
can survive together as a community. Let’s get it on.
As has been his manner for more than three years, Bill Graham was a
lonely and angry figure August 4th when he announced that he was
finished with San Francisco as a dance/concert operator, effective
December 31st, when new owners take over the Fillmore West building.
Graham made his surprise announcement — he'd been reported looking
for a new location for his operation — in front of more than 100
artists, musicians, and other persons gathered at the Family Dog to
discuss the then-still-flickering light-show strike.
The announcement, made haltingly through a voiced choked and shaken
by emotion, followed a lengthy, acrimonious lecture in which the
pugilistic ballroom master hammered out a theme of "the reality of being
a businessman," the rights of an individual. Time and time again he
insisted: "I will never have anyone tell me to what level I support an
art, what I must pay a light show." But Graham, long-ago
ostracized from the hip community as a profiteer and the target of as
much abuse as respect, had much more wrath to vent.
"This town has never stopped rapping an honest businessman for four
fucking years," he said, brooding. "I leave here very sad ... I may be
copping out, but your attitudes have driven me to my decision."
But Graham really blew his gnarled top only after Steve Gaskin, a
resident communications lecturer at the Family Dog, stood up and told
him: "When you started, you had to make a choice between love and money.
You've got our money, so you can't have our love ... You've used
dramatics today to fuck over a lot of heads with your emotional trips."
Graham's reply (as tape-recorded by the Good Times
newspaper): "I APOLOGIZE, MOTHER FUCKER, THAT I'M A HUMAN BEING. I
fucking apologize. Emotional — you're fucking right. Fuck you, you
stupid prick! Do you know what emotions are? Stand up and have emotions.
Get up and work. Get up and sing. Get up and act. You think I'm an
actor? You're full of shit, man, I have more fucking balls than you'll
ever see. You want to challenge me in any way about emotions? You slimy
little man ... YOU SLIMY ... LITTLE ... MAN. (To the crowd): Fuck you.
FUCK YOU! (To a musician trying to calm him) Don't get peaceful with me.
Don't you TOUCH me!"
With those words, Graham barreled out of the room, followed by a paled Time magazine writer working on a profile of the man. Contacted last week, a still-petulant Graham at first refused to talk with Rolling Stone,
citing the publication as "one of the other reasons I'm getting out."
But he went on to confirm his abandonment of ballroom operations here.
He is expected to maintain Fillmore East in New York, his Millard
agency, the still-fledging Fillmore record label, and his residence in
"We're not good, we're not bad," he said, "but I think this city will know what it's lost by the first week of 1970."
Before his violent walkout at the Family Dog the focus of discussion
(that word used loosely) had been the light show strike, called by the
500-member Light Artists Guild to force Graham and Chet Helms to raise
wages. A picket line had been set up Friday, August 1st, at the
beachsite Dog house, and another was planned for the uptown Fillmore
West the following Tuesday — the day of Graham's explosion.
Chet Helms had reacted to the strike line with predictably open
gestures of brotherhood — provision of electricity for a coffee
percolator and for a Guild light show projected on the Dog's outside
wall; flowers for the pickets, and an invitation to negotiate. The lines
were down by late Friday night, and light heads agreed to meet with
Chet, on his terms: a "common" gathering including not only light
artists, but the community as well. That's why Graham, along with Jerry
Garcia of Grateful Dead, David and Linda LaFlamme of It's a Beautiful
Day, and numerous other scene-makers were at the convocation.
Helms, the mystic/Texan who has tried, in the past two months, to
move his operation away from the big–name band and dance/concert hall
concept towards a free-form environmental theater, opened the meeting by
casting the I Ching. The hexagrams spelled out the need for unity. The
judgment: "Holding together brings good fortune. What is required is
that we all unite ... around a central figure." Graham, seated with
head hunched over, looked bored.
Then Helms, always considered the
altruistic figurehead of the San Francisco music scene where Graham was
the I-came, I-saw, I-conquered figure, laid the basic question across:
"How is the community going to relate to (1) Mr. Bill Graham and to (2)
Chet Helms?" For himself, he proposed recognition of the fact that the
Dog had been losing money since its Avalon Ballroom days. "Money is
tight in America, and we get the feeling we're disconnected from that
scene," he said. "We're not. We're at the bottom of the totem pole and
we're feeling the run on the bank first."
Helms proposed the need for "some new models" for "distributing the
few potatoes available" — perhaps a percentage-rate for all artists —
musicians as well as light shows — at the Family Dog. But he wasn't
speaking for Bill Graham. Graham made that obvious.
First, he smilingly brushed off Helms as "not a realistic person in
terms of business." That set his theme. "You cannot tell the world,
'Look at what we're doing, it's right, you must come here.' You can only
suggest. Chet runs this place on a dream, a nice one, but he's having
financial problems because although he understands the problems of the
business, he has refused to meet them."
Then he turned to challenge the rest of the meeting. "You do not tell
me what to do. If you don't like the way I conduct my business, why the
fuck don't you get off your asses and do it? Where the fuck does the
artist come to say 'you the businessman must support us' when I
personally think the light shows are not producing an income for me?
The only way you can do this is to kill me and step over me."
Graham indirectly explained his choleric tone when he dove into a
self-defensive spiel about his honesty and about the dues he paid before
hitting onto the ballroom idea in late fall of 1965.
Finally nearing the nitty-gritty of his expostulation, he faced
long-time archenemy and Light Artists Guild member Jerry Abrams,
stating: "I'll challenge the Light Guild to tell me if their approach to
the strike was the ethical approach." The Guild, before contacting
either Helms or Graham personally, sent a blunt notice of new light show
rates, signed "Ma." Then Graham got wind of a picket line being planned
for the Fillmore — still before any personal contact with the Guild —
and from that point on, Graham "lost respect" and any communications
with the Guild – all of this aside from his insistence on the right to
negotiate prices for acts on an individual basis. His "I'm through with this town"
statement came after a bitter, heated exchange with Abrams — Abrams
defending the Guild's approaching of various bands to gauge potential
strike support and apologizing for the "tactless" letter; Abrams
slamming Graham for "refusing negotiations over the last three years;"
Graham insisting on the "reality" of the Guild's obvious disrespect for
him and his operation. Graham made it painfully clear that now he would
never hire a Guild show at any rate. And Helms hardly had enough money
to buy a bag of potatoes each week.
Helms pushed in the final pin. "Friday night finished the Family Dog
as a business," he said. (On Friday, standing outside his building
looking glumly at the pickets, he had stated his theory about the few
potatoes around to be distributed. "And if we can't get together and
decide who eats, I don't see where we've arrived at in three years."
Now, he said, Family Dog would give up the struggle to cover its $50,000
of debts. The new commitment, he says, is "to extend the form
artistically," with a new mode of business and finances.)
"The dream burst Friday," he continued to the assembly. "I have a
proposal to make at our next meeting Thursday. But if there's a picket
line at the Fillmore West tonight, I won't bother to come up with a
proposal, and Family Dog won't operate this weekend."
Within minutes, one Guild member, from the Garden of Delights,
withdrew his support for the strike. Finally a beleaguered Abrams,
trying to hide defeat behind various voices hailing "a new community"
rising out of the shambles, then unofficially drew a curtain over strike
plans. The reasons: Helms' statement and Bill's stubbornness. "We are we
and he is he," Abrams understated.
The actual strike lasted only about
four hours, and all three booked acts — Albert Collins, Afro-Haiti
Dancers, and Grateful Dead — honored their contracts with Helms. Only
Jerry Garcia and Mickey Hart of the Dead — reportedly physically
detained at the door by Abrams — didn't cross the line. Inside, a small
crowd saw lights worked by a Peninsula group called Glare, a strike–supporting Guild member until "we were turned off by the attitude at a
strike meeting — we were falling back into the Establishment trip."
Glare offered to do the work this weekend for free, after seeing Helms'
profitless loss statements, and spokesman John Darcy further stated:
"This is the only new art form left in this City. Graham has prostituted
it, but Chet's doing all he can for it."
It was a matter of relating with (1) Bill Graham and (2) Chet Helms.
(by Ben Fong-Torres, from Rolling Stone, 6 September 1969)