Can you say Wolfgang Wolodia Grajonca? Neither could anyone else in the Bronx, so the Berlin-born Holocaust refugee changed his name to William, or Bill — as in, “Bill Graham Presents” the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane and Live Aid.
Graham’s storied career as San Francisco’s premier rock concert promoter is the subject of an exhibition opening March 17 at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. “Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution” follows on the heels of last year’s exhibit of Grahamabilia at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles — itself an outgrowth of the more intimate original hosted by the Jazz Heritage Center in 2011 — but shines the spotlight more directly on the Bay Area during the turbulent decades of Graham’s life from the mid-1960s to his death in 1991.
The exhibition features more than 200 artifacts, including family photos that give insight into the personal life of the man known primarily through media coverage. Pieces of rock ’n’ roll history (a single shard of Jimi Hendrix’s Fender Stratocaster) and fragments of local lore (the original apple barrel from the Fillmore Auditorium) share space with more intimate items, such as mementos from his military service during the Korean War, for which he was awarded a Purple Heart, and his work as emergency cobbler on the 1981 Rolling Stones tour, when he duct-taped Keith Richards’ broken boots back together.
The exhibit also showcases iconic countercultural graphic design and typography: the creation of fonts that mimicked the psychedelic experience; the innovative poster art of Wes Wilson, David Singer and Greg Irons; and candid photography by photographers Baron Wolman, Jim Marshall and Ken Regan.
There’s a lot that is not on display, notably material that was destroyed in the firebombing of his offices in 1985. The attack came after Graham protested President Ronald Reagan’s visit to a military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, where members of the Waffen-SS were buried. The exhibit displays charred relics of this unsolved crime, testament to Graham’s willingness to stand up publicly for his Jewish heritage.
The loss of his personal effects and archives in that attack — 15 rooms of gold records, rare posters and concert collectibles — was one of many traumas in Graham’s tumultuous life, says Robert Greenfield, co-author of “Bill Graham Presents: My Life Inside Rock and Out.” (Greenfield will revisit the Bitburg controversy in a related event at the CJM on March 18.)
Born to Russian Jewish parents in Berlin in 1931, Graham and his sister, Tolla, were sent to France on a Kindertransport before the war broke out. According to Graham’s autobiography, Tolla came down with pneumonia and stayed behind in a hospital to recover, while Graham and the other children walked from Lyon to Marseilles. The young boy finally boarded a boat in Lisbon, arriving in New York with only his yarmulke, prayerbook and some family pictures; he never saw his sister again. His mother also died in the Holocaust, on her way to Auschwitz.
Though not quite the synagogue-going type, Graham had a strong Jewish identity.
Bonnie Simmons, executive director of the Bill Graham Memorial Foundation, met Graham in 1968 when she worked as the radio host on KSAN. She recalls their on-air banter fondly, with Graham professing his love for the Latin dance music of his early days in New York and the Catskills. Conversation flowed more freely with a spread of “chopped liver and either a bologna or pastrami sandwich on rye” from the old David’s Deli on Geary Street, Simmons related.
In 1975, Graham helped organize the first public Hanukkah menorah lighting in San Francisco’s Union Square, a Chabad-led project he championed and sponsored until his death in a helicopter crash near Vallejo. The annual event still bears his name. Graham is buried in Eternal Home Cemetery in Colma, where his tombstone has become a pilgrimage destination.
The Bill Graham on display at the CJM shows his warts as well as his achievements. For all those who idolized him, there were others who resented what they considered his controlling nature — like the clipboard he constantly carried marking him as “the Man,” Simmons recalled, a symbol of authority that clashed with the free-spirited ethos of the rock ’n’ roll movement.
In the end, Graham is fittingly remembered in the new exhibit as the man who birthed the benefit concert, who tried to harness the power of music to do good in the world.
“I see [his life] as a particular Jewish story,” says CJM executive director Lori Starr. “But also a very universal story about emigration, finding refuge and reinventing yourself.”
“Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution,” March 17-July 5 at Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. www.thecjm.org