Having a rock music exhibition in a Holocaust museum does not seem like the most natural fit.
But “Bill Graham and the Rock and Roll Revolution,” newly opened at the Illinois Holocaust Museum, is not your standard museum rock show.
Graham, the flamboyant concert promoter who arose with the seminal music scene in San Francisco in the late 1960s, was basically the Zelig of what we now think of as classic rock. From the Grateful Dead to the Who to the Rolling Stones, you can pretty much bet that Graham worked closely with them, and that a guitar from them, or a letter to Graham, or a live CD they recorded at one of Graham’s venues, is in this show.
Pretty much everybody who followed rock music in his lifetime knew of Graham: He was the small-print guy atop the posters proclaiming “Bill Graham Presents.” He ran the legendary Fillmore and Fillmore East. And he took on tough-guy film roles in “The Cotton Club” and others.
The actor Peter Coyote, a member of the radical San Francisco Mime Troupe with which Graham found his calling as an event promoter, called him “a cross between Al Capone and Mother Teresa.”
In Don McLean’s classic song “American Pie,” Graham was “the man there” who “said the music wouldn’t play.”
But what few knew was that Graham was a Holocaust survivor. And it’s that story told at the exhibition’s outset, of a Jewish German boy put into the care of others for his own safety by the mother he would never see again, that elevates this exhibition even beyond the extraordinary collection of rock artifacts. This is the story of a malnourished 10-year-old who came here in 1941 as Wolfgang Grajonca and who left life in 1991 — in a tragic but very rock ‘n’ roll death — seated astride the popular culture of his adopted country.
Out on Navy Pier through the end of July, “The Rolling Stones: Exhibitionism” gives a taste of life in a megaband: charming at the outset, a little bloated and impersonal by the end (although still well worth seeing). In the basement gallery of the Skokie museum, the much more modestly scaled “Bill Graham” delivers a giant rock story with a human touch throughout, and — special rock bonus — it has more cowbell.
As a kid Graham was one of the One Thousand Children, the mostly Jewish European children who made it to North America, leaving behind parents who, by and large, were killed in the Holocaust. As an adult, he would become the promoter behind many of the 1980s surfeit of all-star benefit concerts.
“It’s like the right time found the right guy, and vice versa,” said David Graham, 48, the promoter’s elder son, who was, with younger brother Alex, in Skokie over the weekend for the opening.
A big part of the reason the exhibition connects with viewers is the memorabilia from the sons. Yes, it’s cool to see the guitar Pete Townshend used to play “Tommy” at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York (presented by Graham) and the suit Peter Frampton wore for “Frampton Comes Alive,” courtesy of the Hard Rock people.
But the items throughout this show that really make you take notice — the photo of Bill, looking very straight, standing before a crowd with a mime troupe member in blackface; the Fillmore West basketball jersey with the team logo of Graham giving the finger; the cowbell Graham played with Santana at Woodstock — almost all say, “Collection of David and Alex Graham.”
So too does one of the greatest items in a show filled with them: In 1967, a key San Francisco band made a poster that featured Graham’s face. Atop that image, it said, “Jefferson Airplane Presents,” a poke at the ubiquity, already, of Graham’s name.
Another reason the exhibition works is its humble roots. The precursor to it was first mounted in 2011 in a San Francisco lobby near the Fillmore by the Bill Graham Memorial Foundation as “sort of a love letter to Bill,” said Bonnie Simmons, a longtime friend and employee who is now the foundation’s executive director.
It was popular in San Francisco, but it was a modest show. The director of Los Angeles’ Skirball Cultural Center, a Jewish museum, flew up to see it in the days before it closed. He recognized the resonance of the story, and the Skirball organized “Bill Graham and the Rock and Roll Revolution.”
The Illinois Holocaust Museum is its fourth stop, and it heads next to Cleveland, to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, organizers said.
Show segments cover Graham’s early life, coming to America, and his rise in the San Francisco scene. There are also segments on each of the key acts he worked with, including Santana, the Dead, the Who, the Airplane, the Allman Brothers Band, the Stones.
Did Bill Graham put on The Last Waltz, the legendary all-star final concert of The Band? Of course he did. And did he clash with Martin Scorcese, who was filming the evening? You know it.
The exhibit could have used some more concrete examples of Graham’s temper, referred to throughout but not really detailed. And the years between New York City and San Francisco are a haze: He “drifted out” there, I believe is the phrase used.
But there’s so very much in this relatively small space that it’s also hard to imagine fitting more in. I visited expecting to spend maybe 90 minutes. I was there almost twice that long, and it would have been longer if I had spent more time with the readily available music.
It is tempting to end on the Townshend quote that opens the show: “Bill Graham howled. He talked. He shouted. He harangued. He laughed. He threatened. He barked … . (He drew) us into his evolving world or rock show-business revolution, with the authority of a leading Boy Scout: bossy and generous at once.”
It is tempting, too, to end on Graham’s own ending. He died in 1991, on a helicopter flight through a storm, heading back home to San Francisco from a nearby concert. “The helicopter struck the top of a utility tower carrying 115,000 volts of power,” the wall card says. “Onstage at the Huey Lewis and the News show, a momentary surge in power caused the sound system to drop in volume and the lights on one side of the stage to go out.”
But perhaps most fitting for this show is to note the 1985 firebombing of Graham’s San Francisco office, which followed the ad he took out requesting that President Ronald Reagan not attend a military cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, out of respect for those affected by the Holocaust.
A couple of weeks later Graham was in France, where he had met with Bob Geldof about staging the Live Aid concert, and was told by an operator, “Bill Graham burned down last night.” Lost in the blaze were a large proportion of the artifacts Graham had saved from his connections with the developing days of the rock concert business.
Looking through “Bill Graham and the Rock and Roll Revolution,” it’s hard to imagine what might be missing. But it’s also tantalizing to think about.
When: Through Nov. 12
Where: Illinois Holocaust Museum, 9603 Woods Drive, Skokie
Tickets: $5 over $12 general admission; 847-967-4800 or www.ilholocaustmuseum.org/billgraham
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