Human Interest: Trip Report: The Magic Fillmore

‘The Sixties’ shows its good nature in classic venue
by Dave Spencer

… I walk in with great reverence, am silent, feeling as if I am in the presence of Jerry Garcia himself.

Greetings to all!

I must say this trip to the west coast has been incredible, especially my trip to San Francisco. Before I indulge in this story I want to give props to my host and friend Gregg Millitello and his way-cool son Michael. Fellas, I had the best two days of living up there. Michael, you da’ man! I want to see you in ten years because you are going to make it happen son, what ever it is you choose, you are a stand up cat!

Gregg, I asked you to show me YOUR town and you could have not done a better job. Thanks man… big time.

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Well for all those that think they are hardcore rock‘n’rollers and think they have seen or know it all… this one’s for you. It’s called the Fillmore West. Bill Graham’s holy grail to rock’n’roll on the West Coast. I have to tell you the impact on me and seeing a big chunk of the country’s history not only musically but socially was incredible.  After an afternoon of beers on the campus of University of California, Berkley—historic to the 60s in its own right and a perfect prelude to what I was going to experience later—I find out that most of the locals want to secede from Cali the state or split the state in half. The “northern folk” despise the “southern folk”… hey didn’t we go thru this in 1861?

Gregg takes me to Wharf and we have a good dinner by the bay. After seeing and doing the touristy crap there, it’s time we go. Now I have heard about the Fillmore, read about the Fillmore, have albums (yeah, kiddies, these one-foot plastic discs they recorded music on) recorded at the Fillmore, but I had no idea the wave of emotion and history and pure awe, that was ready to knock me over.

We head to Japanese Town and park underground. I ask Gregg, where is it man? We just drove by it? Hmmmmmmmmmm, okay so it doesn’t have a big neon sign that jumps out and bites me on the ass. Then a block away I see it… huh, wait, no, that’s a three-story building with a bunch of oriental retailers on the first floor, that can’t be it? Confused we walk to the will-call office and pick up our tickets… hmmmm what seats do we have I am wondering. Well, Gregg being a long time rock’n’roll show attendee and a singer himself, I know he got good seats.

I notice Neil Schon’s tour bus is parked right at the side entrance. Of course he is local and well loved. Parking is a premium in SF. Here the journey begins… no pun intended (Neil was and is the band Journey’s lead guitar player. He earned his chops by playing with Carlos Santana when he was the ripe old age of 16 and played for quite a while with him).

The entrance door opens and I see an ocean of red velvet and brass rails that lead up a set of stairs that are about three feet wide. When you arrive on the second floor (first floor of the Fillmore) you are greeted by a elderly gentleman in tails… who shakes your hand and gives you a warm smile “Welcome to the Fillmore,” then a small nod. Tonight the greeter’s name is Tim. More on Tim in a minute. I couldn’t smile, I couldn’t talk, because in front of me are large framed photographs of some of the historic bands that have played there and partook in the days of free love.

I am now in a part living history museum and part entertainment center. I walk looking at the dark wood walls with photos of Led Zeppelin, the Who, and pass the coat check room and am tempted to peek behind a red velvet curtain. Mind you this place is 1960s chic. Behind the curtain is a floor-level wood bar that is quite long… way sweet, I am in heaven… I get a locally brewed pale ale… and then I see her, there she is, a life-size, black-and-white portrait of the one and only “Pearl” Janice Joplin. Gregg sees me drooling or in a daze or something and he grabs me, saying let’s go to the Poster Room. Poster Room, are you kidding me there is more? Up another flight of stairs with brass rails and beautiful dark wood walls, then lo and behold, a life-size portrait of a guy that may be more related to the Fillmore than Bill Graham himself: Jerry Garcia. Into this room we walk where a show bill for every band that has played the Fillmore is framed and hangs on a wall of history. I walk in with great reverence, am silent, feeling as if I am in the presence of Jerry Garcia himself.

For the next twenty minutes I walk looking at hundreds of show bills of all the bands of the 60s right up to the 2000s. The Allman Bros original show bill from which an awesome live album was produced, the Turtles first gig at the Fillmore, The Dead, Janice, Johnny Cash, The Jefferson Airplane, Pink Floyd even the master Jimmy Hendrix, and on and on, all neatly framed to the same size from eye level to the ceiling 20 feet above me. I am speechless in the room of history… until of course I see another bar at the end of it… yeah! … two for two!

I have such a sense of history because the people that run the day-to-day operations are the kids that back in the 60s made this place sing. Why do they work here now? A sense of ownership, a tribute to Bill Graham? I am sure each one has a personal reason and story to go along with it.  Who cares but they do a great job of keeping living history alive. Everyone has blue jeans and tee-shirts on and hair to the middle of their backs. If you close your eyes and open them you are in 1972. Okay it’s show time!

Back down the red velvet stairs to the main floor, it’s time to rock. Thru another set of red velvet curtains and… WTF… wait a minute… where can our seats be… there are no seats. In the tradition of great ballrooms such as the Grande Ballroom in Detroit… it is truly a dance floor, parquet wood and all “no seats” except a few along the wall perimeter.

Then it hit me… wow I am standing at the focal point, the center of the counter culture that changed the nation if not the world in the 1960s-1970s… and oops I just farted… hey I’m human!  Sorry, got to have some comic relief in here, and yes I really did.

Seriously I feel the sense of history that extends beyond the incredible albums and music recorded here. The beautiful black-light chandeliers glisten above me as the opening band is finishing their set. The room itself is half as long as a hockey rink and about half as wide. But it is sooooooo beautiful… and look a bar right behind me… SOB… I love this place. These are not just bars but the original dark wood that’s been here, like, forever, manned by mid-aged hippies who I can totally relate to.

Ohhhh and the smell of this place is sooooooooo sweet! That has probably been the biggest change at the Fillmore. The smell. What once was Mexican, Columbian Gold, Thai stick—all which was about 5% THC—has now been replaced with the sweetest smelling hooch from Northern Cali, hydroponic smoke that is sweeter than a Cuban cigar and runs about a nice 20-30% THC… mmmmmmmmmmmmm everywhere… I freaking mean everywhere… Did I smoke?  Hell no… I didn’t need to there was a lovely haze in that room that got me freaking hammered… hahahahaha!

Even the security dudes had pony tails, like guardians of the 60s. One came by me and I thought someone is going to get busted. Gregg says hello no… they’re looking for dudes smoking cigarettes……OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO YEAH THEM DAMN CIGARETTE SMOKERS I SAID IN MY MIND… nope not me man, no smoking the tobacco for me… that’s not cool… hey, brother pass that doobie… I  mean that guy over there asked me to ask you if he could hit that doobie. Ahhhhhh shit, none of ya bought that one did ya… hahahahahah!

Neil Schon is awesome, along with him he has his son, and the original Journey percussionist, and some Mexican that looked to be about 65 that played bass like he was playing with himself… this bass player was truly the “master of his own domain”… awesome!  About half way thru the show… and a few pale ales into it… they start to play one of the Sixties’ anthems… whoa… Procol Harum’s “Lighter Shade of Pale.” Between the pale ales and the air I‘m breathing, I think oooh, shit, the ghosts of this palace are going to start coming out of the wall. It’s like a religious experience… seriously, guys… freaky. Everyone stands singing verse and chorus until the end of the song. Okay I need to go for a walk, I think someone put something in the punch… I mean beer… and the Woodstock words of “don’t eat the brown acid are going thru my head… so I go out to the lobby (20 feet away) and start talking to Tim.

Yeah, remember Tim the Greeter? Tim, Dave, Detroit… blah blah… then this other dude grabs me and starts spewing some crap about his buddy, blah blah blah… I’m stoned. Tim looks at me and says yeah, this is my friend John, he is feeling extra special so I am going to keep my eye on my friend. WTF? Pay attention all you pukes that are younger than 50. First off, Tim doesn’t know this cat at all. But in the tradition of the Sixties, if someone is tripping or too effed up, you take care of (i.e. help) him.

If this would have been in Detroit or anywhere else in today’s time, security would have grabbed this cat, beat the living shit out of him and hauled him out of the joint. Not at the Fillmore. Tim could have called the cops, he was security, he could have tossed his ass out, but no: Tolerance, baby! Tim in one calm smile thru his tux and tails and bushy mustache… teaches me about tolerance and care for your fellow man. A Sixties’ thing man… but way cool, this cat just sits there hammered, but not hurting a fly, letting Tim keep his eye on him waiting for him to come down. See no violence needed, no night in jail, just a brother taking care of a brother. And that was what the 60s were partially about.

Then I see this big bucket of red apples. 500 shiny, big, red Delicious apples are in a bucket. I say, Tim, what’s with the apples? “Well, Dave [guy is cool as hell] Bill Graham believes in the concert-goers’ experience, and sometimes the kids get a little light-headed, shall we say, so he offers each of them an apple for their trip home. So we continue the tradition.” Way cool I think, once again brother looking out for brother. Tim has been working at the Fillmore for some 30+ years.

I walk along the wall and look at this 4 by 6 foot picture. The photo is of another place Graham ran, up the street, called the Winter Garden. It’s the place where the largest live album ever recorded was done, “Peter Frampton Comes Alive.” In this picture it is 1976, The Who just finished their last song of the last set of the last gig on their tour. It’s black and white taken 10 feet or so behind Keith Moon and about 25 feet above him. You can see every face in the crowd, everything is lit up… and straight in front of the camera is Pete’s Fender Stratocaster flying thru the air ready to return from orbit. Awesome shot… incredible! The Winter Garden was closed and torn down not much later.

Well, I say goodbye to Tim and go back into the main ballroom just in time for an encore of Neil and his son cutting loose on some Jeff Beck tune that I do not know the name of, but the place is going ape-shit, me included. I think about some kid that stood here 40 years prior like me (wait he was 16 I’m fifty… shit) looking at a Jim Morrison or Abby Hoffman. Wow. We’re five feet from the stage and it’s electric in here. People are stoned, happy and jamming just like the ol days, even the ones I remember… then BAM it’s over…the home town kid Neil Schon hits a home run and that was that.

Four hours of a way cool time. On my way out thru the crowd, Tim yells out my name, “Dave, hey man thanks for coming I hope you come back for another visit from Detroit.” I think to myself who said the 60s were all screwed up. In one night I saw more meaning in the word cool/caring/love then the past twenty years of my life. The mind set, the love, the passive-aggressive and, yes, sometimes violent world of the 60s came channeling thru. It was an experience and history lesson I shall never forget. Yeah, this ain’t Southern Cal, baby….it is its own!

The Fillmore West… while it’s a place it’s also a mind set… a shrine to the music, a temple to the times and a lesson in life for those that pay attention. Again thanks to my man Gregg. I can never say thanks enough. Tell Scott and Jen and all the people I met I said hi and I’ll be back!

Be back, Wednesday, gang,


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