Irritable Impresario

I know that at some point Bill Graham will walk down the line of ticket holders and mingle. Bill is always actively involved in the production of shows at Winterland. He’s as much of a fan as we are and his enthusiasm for the performers is as emotional as that of the audience. His volcanic temper is renowned—at previous shows I’ve seen him express both passion and anger when he mixes with his patrons as they patiently wait for the doors to open.

Bill is no angel—very few of us are. At base he’s a businessman, and his hard-nosed attitude often upset artists and their managers. But Bill isn’t only concerned with money and the profits. He wants both the audience and the musicians to have a satisfying musical experience. I’ve never spoken with him, but I’ve watched him interact with others. He’s trustworthy. I decide that if he comes within range I’ll politely ask him to open the doors early.

At about 3 o’clock I see him gradually making his way down the line chatting with folks, shaking hands, and smiling. I’m encouraged by his voluble mood and so I gather my wits. A ticket holder further up from where I’m standing pipes up and complains about the price of tickets and grouses that he wasn’t able to buy as many as he wanted.

Bill’s light humor changes to rage in an instant.

“You gotta be kidding me. I bust my ass to get the Who to play here, go to all the trouble to create a lottery so you don’t have to stand in line for hours to get tickets, and you have the gall to complain about the price?” A profanity laced tongue-lashing follows and metaphorically flays the “privileged young punk,” as Bill refers to him. The tirade goes on for a while until he turns away in frustration and continues walking down the line of cold patrons to where Charles and I are lingering.

I almost hesitate—but I speak out. “Hey, Bill.”

He stops and looks at me as if I’m some sort of irritating insect. “What do you want?”

“I don’t mean to disturb you, but my friend and I were wondering if it might be possible to open the doors earlier than 7. It’s really cold out here and we are all a bit uncomfortable….” but before I can finish, he combusts once more.

“Goddamit! You people are never satisfied. I don’t believe this. What the fuck is wrong with you kids anyway?” He turns around and returns to the front of the line, mumbling to himself.

Charles and I have received the consecration of a Bill Graham temper tantrum.

My own anger surfaces. “What an asshole. All I did was ask for the doors to be opened. I didn’t complain. I was polite.”

“I don’t think your timing was right,” Charles says drily.

“I didn’t think I would have another opportunity! I’m cold, you’re cold, everyone is cold. Was I unreasonable?”

I discharge my resentment in a chain of whining rationalizations. Some of the other folks in line say that Bill’s response isn’t my fault—it’s because of the knucklehead further up in line who complained about the price of the show and the fact that some of his friends were unable to get tickets because of the lottery. Time passes. I calm down and resolve to ignore the unpleasantly cold wind that increases immediately after the confrontation. Whether that breeze is a meteorological coincidence or a metaphorical judgement I can’t determine. In any case I wish I had kept my mouth shut because now I’m both uncomfortable and aggravated.

Charles advises me to relax. “We’re waiting to see the Who. That’s worth some discomfort, right?”

I have to agree. We are standing in line to see one of the most significant rock bands of all time. If I have to suffer a little bit, it’ll be worth it. Charles is spot-on. His stoic attitude is comforting, though he’s shivering also. The hope that I am about to have one of the supreme musical encounters of my life rushes through me like a hot blaze. Bill Graham can pound salt as far as I’m concerned. I let go of my irritation and it drifts down the alley with all the trash and paper that are being strewn about by the San Francisco wind.

A half-hour later someone shouts, “they opened the doors!”

“I guess Bill heard you,” Charles says.

Amazing Journey

My mind is coupled to the versions of “Amazing Journey” that live in my memory from both Tommy and Live at Leeds and the linkage is symbolic of my own road to the present moment—sitting in a wooden chair at Winterland next to one of my best friends. Five years have passed since that evening in the library, days full of lessons, adventures, tragedies, and radiant epiphanies. I have no foreknowledge of where I will travel and how I would make my way through the world from this moment—yet I recognize that there has always been something that escorts me through all my fortunate coincidences, and that I have to continue to trust it.

There is no music of my own in my imagination, only words. I am not a master of those words—not then. Nonetheless music permeates me—it’s booming in Entwistle’s bellowing bass, Townsend’s wailing guitar phrases, Moon’s unrestrained clangor of percussion, and Roger’s emphatic voice as he sings “on the amazing journey together you’ll ride.” Music is the guide. I know it at that moment. I remember it now.

Roger moves back to mid-stage and the power trio that is the core of the band stirs like an animal awakening from hibernation. I’ve been waiting for that moment. Pete steps back to the stack of amps, turns some knobs, and the power of the guitar swells. He windmills, leaps, and strikes the instrument with no mercy. Moon keeps up, bobbing his head up and down with each beat, hammering the drums and walloping the cymbals. Entwistle remains rooted to his spot as his bass foundation embraces the other two instruments like a gravitational force that keeps them from flying out of orbit into deep space.

The clarion call of “Sparks” arrives, momentarily easing the cacophony. Moments later the quiet void is reclaimed by increasing volume—Pete once again lays down a series of power chords, his arms and legs outstretched as the guitar hangs from him like a hefty pendant. He picks it up in both hands, lifts it over his head and shakes it furiously once more as it whines in a maelstrom of feedback. Pete stopped destroying guitars years ago, but for a moment I think he’ll heave the instrument to the floor like a hammer. Instead, the music fades and resolves in a few, final major chords. I hold my breath as those last moments pass. There’s an uproar of cheers, roars, and whistles from the tribe.

The Tommy medley continues with “The Acid Queen,” “Fiddle About,” “I’m Free,” “Tommy’s Holiday Camp,”—and closes in an ardent rendition of “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” I’ve witnessed the peak of the set, and though “Summertime Blues,” “My Generation,” and “Join Together” are as commanding as what has come before—once again I have that saturated sensation, as if I have been physically engulfed with music that’s inundated my body and soul. When the band leaves the stage, the crowd roars—and the balcony shakes. I try to speak a few words to Charles, but there aren’t any—I’m speechless. He looks at me wisely and nods. That is as eloquent as anything I can dig out of my imagination.

Solsbury Hill

The barbershop quartet of “Excuse Me” performs and the set proceeds into “Solsbury Hill.” During the time between the release of the album and that night at Winterland, the song has become more deeply associated with my own experience of letting go of my pipe dreams—especially the two lines in the second verse, “to keep in silence I resigned / my friends would think I was a nut.” In the evenings, sequestered in the silence of the canyon, I sometimes wonder if I am a fool to live out in the middle of nowhere with just my books and music to keep me company.

As the audience claps in time to the bright meter of “Solsbury Hill” I feel as if I am shifting from one way of valuing music to another. The realization is not conscious. Winterland is altering and I’m changing along with it—no longer a Catholic kid wandering around a secure college campus, wearing borrowed jeans, smoking too much pot, and pretending to be a rebel. Ideas and clues are linking together in my head. I’m transcending my former life but including all the facets of what have come before, leaving none of them behind, anticipating where I’ll go next. The change is so subtle that I can only see it in retrospect as I sift through all these memories on this final reel of tape. I don’t work it out when Peter sings “Solsbury Hill.” It’s not a flash of astonishment—not a sudden revelation. I’d walked “right out of the machinery”—another fortunate fluke. Living a contemplative life is what I require at the time. I have to learn what isolation is at its core.

The next song in the set is the Marvin Gaye hit “Ain’t that Peculiar.” Released in 1965, it sold in millions, and was his most popular hit before “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” in 1968. In Peter’s setlist it comes out of nowhere, as does the Kink’s 1964 single “All Day and All of the Night.” He drives home the point that he is no longer the front man of a progressive rock band and that his heart is deeply rooted in R&B.

In the second interlude to “Humdrum” there’s an instant where he pays homage to Genesis. The music soars symphonically atop Tony Levin’s thundering bass. Extended chords from synthesizer and organ emulate the iconic timbre of a mellotron. The interlude has the same authentic character as the coda to “Supper’s Ready,” and the lyric it introduces is like a lesson from a spiritual envoy—“Lost among echoes of things not there / Watching the sound forming shapes in the air.” The resonant bass tones vibrate the building and move up through my feet to my head. When the interlude passes and the song ends in a swirling cascade of arpeggiated notes from Fripp’s guitar, I think that the set has reached its climax, but immediately the quiet is banished by the introductory lead guitar declarations of “Slowburn.”

From that point on it’s all loud and effective expressions of sheer energy. A reprise of “Here Comes the Flood” is a torrent of sound rushing through the air and into our ears. Then a colossal version of “Modern Love” follows without a break or introduction. The set moves at a breakneck pace to a final lingering look at Genesis and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway when “Back in NYC” is performed. For a few moments the pre-solo Peter arrives—“I’ve seen places and traces of home back in New York City.” It’s not the restrained performance of the song that I witnessed two years earlier in Berkeley. This is strident—Peter plays the character of Rael to an extreme.

Prove It All Night

The doors open. We rush across the floor and take our positions ten feet away from the edge of the stage. Paul is not satisfied. He works his way up as people change position. I stay where I am. I can see everything. Roadies flutter across the stage making last minute adjustments—there’s been a lengthy sound check and Bruce has explored every nook and cranny to verify that the audio is flawless. The hall fills with people like water in a plugged sink. I recognize the faces of people I have seen here before—Dead fans, Hot Tuna fans, Humble Pie fans, Bowie fans, Genesis fans, Who fans. They are all glowing. Another meeting of the tribe.

Bruce is punctual because he respects us, and we love him for that. The neon clock above the stage approaches the scheduled start time. I stand and turn in a gradual circle surveying the hall—every seat is filled—people are packed around me.

Clap—clap—cheering—vibrations of feet stomping on the floor. At exactly 9 o’clock Bill comes onstage. “Good evening and thank you all for coming. Would you welcome please, the Chairman of the Board, the Great One…Bruce Springsteen!”—I can hear the capital letters in his announcement. Simultaneous screaming from every member of the audience. Bruce says: “How ya doin? It’s good to be in San Francisco”—the screams and cheers increase in magnitude. “ONE TWO!”—seven beats on the drums—“Badlands” breaks out —“Lights out tonight trouble in the heartland.” The audio is perfectly balanced. The band, the audience, the building start rocking. From the first minute there’s no doubt that this performance is already tethered to legend—“honey I want the heart I want the soul I want control right now!”

It’s a band filled with heroes—not just Bruce. Miami Steve joins the chorus—“poor man wanna be rich, rich man wanna be king, but a king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything.” The line is a statement of reality and a rejection of greed. Bruce’s guitar solo slices through the air like a hot knife—Clarence’s first sax solo rises triumphantly—he’s a hero also—reinforced by four repeated power chords that reveal the inner heart of rock n’roll. A sudden stop—Max’s drums and flowing chords from Roy’s piano sustain a quiet moment—the audience humming the melody that Bruce sings wordlessly—then the cardiac rocking begins again until five exalted guitar notes—chirping with feedback that teases the end of the song.