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Tony Brooke: California Whirls (I Wish You All Could See)
by Tony Brooke
(Written in 11/91 for The Vid, an independent zine)
The last few weeks have been extremely eventful in the San Francisco Bay area. Even those on the East Coast have heard news of either the Oakland Hills firestorm, the tragic accidental death of rock impresario Bill Graham, or the huge tribute concert which followed. These events have put to the test the notion that Californians are well prepared emotionally to handle disasters. Large scale tragedies such as wildfires, earthquakes and mudslides are regular occurrences on the 'left coast,' but the residents remain undaunted as California whirls. East-coasters often ask what is so different about folks out here, and it's tough to pinpoint; but one facet of the Western psyche could be resolute endurance.
On the morning of Sunday, October 20th, brushfires in the Berkeley Hills raged out of control, sweeping across 1,700 acres of the Claremont neighborhood and parts of East Oakland. Reports put the damage at 1.5 billion dollars, with 25 dead and 2,668 homes lost. Claremont was an affluent area, so many of the homes lost were architectural achievements worth millions each. Thousands of residents evacuated the surrounding areas, including my friend Andy Davis, whose home and person were unharmed but was shocked by the vast destruction. The sky was obscured by smoke for dozens of miles, and even from my vantage point across the Bay in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, the sunlight was tinted an eerie burnt orange-brown. Firefighters were unable to contain or control the immense conflagration until late Sunday night, partly due to the loss of power to crucial water pumps. In the days that followed, some alleged that the city was too slow in ordering aerial support, while insurance agents ordered double scotches, ruing the day of one of the worst wildfires in US history.
But tragedies have a wily way of teaming up on us. Just five days after scarlet fires had made their mark, a Vallejo helicopter crash refocused sympathetic attention on the East Bay. Bill Graham, Melissa Gold, and pilot Steve "Killer" Kahn died Friday, October 25th when their Bell Jet Ranger wedged itself into an electrical tower above a highway. Nasty nighttime rainy weather, a rarity in this drought-stricken region, was to blame for the crash, which cut power to surrounding counties and closed the highway for a day. The accident left American musical culture without one of it's most outspoken advocates; and left Bill Graham Presents, the concert production company, without it's boss/Father, but as has been the case so many times before, the show went up and on. With just two days before a Halloween run of four Grateful Dead shows in Oakland, Deadheads pondered how the band might acknowledge the fire and the loss of the SF music scene's biggest fan.
Standing in front of a sold-out crowd in the Oakland Coliseum, Bill's son David told the tie-died throng that Bill had "loved all you guys" and would have wanted his work continued. Well, David and Bill Graham Presents did just that a week later on November 3rd, staging the biggest tribute concert possible at Golden Gate Park's Polo Fields. Performing at the free show were Santana, a reunited Journey, Los Lobos, a reunited Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young, the Dead (with guests John Fogerty, John Popper and Neil Young), Robin Williams, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Bobby McFerrin, Jackson Browne, Joe Satriani with Randy Jackson, Tracy Chapman, Aaron Neville with Evylyn Cisneros of the SF Ballet, Joan Baez and 300,000 friends, fans and f*ck-ups. (See below for a full setlist.)
Billed as "Laughter, Love and Music," this had to be one of the best concerts I have ever seen (and I've seen quite a few). Despite the immensity of the crowd, there was an eerie lack of bad vibes. Aside from a few minor complaints about damaged turf, garbage and parking problems, all involved were pleasantly surprised by the lack of difficulties, and the press gave the event glowing reviews. Highlights were CSNY, Robin Williams, and John Fogerty performing rare versions of Creedence Clearwater Revival tunes with the world's best back-up band, the Dead.
From the first minutes of the five and a half hour show, the mood was one of celebration of the victims' lives; while some were mourning the tragic loss, most used the day to remember their positive accomplishments. It was downright weird how a crowd so huge could be so respectful and peaceful. Even the standard asshole a few rows back who was yelling "ROCK AND ROLL!!!" at the top of his lungs for the first hour shut up after a while. As it was a free show, there were tons o' folks who ordinarily wouldn't shell out big bucks for a BGP show. This included a good proportion of SF's homeless (many of whom live in the park), weekend warriors from Marin County, broke post-Deadshow-heads, and cheapskate music fans like me. I was worried that these freebie-seekers would be a nuisance, but because of the concert's quick (3-4 day) creation and lack of publicity, the crowd was mostly local. This meant that the crowd was aware first-hand of the important role Bill Graham played in nurturing the musical scene in San Francisco. Yes, he was a businessman, and he rubbed some people the wrong way because of his stubborn insistence on detail. But because of his being so obstinate, concertgoers were always treated to the most entertaining, safest show possible. This concert was a testament to his vision and the hope that it might continue now that he is gone.
What do you picture when you hear this word? East-Coasters might think of the opening of "Three's Company," or "LA Law." Northern California's people and scenery are nothing like that. (The topic of splitting the state into two states has been batted around for years.) I moved here in June of '91, and haven't yet been able to define the typical local character. Perhaps I've been trying too hard to pin it down. It is a product of my upbringing to attempt to categorize, classify, and label everything. We all feel the need to determine how another person, place or thing is similar to our perception of how it could (or should) be. The irony lies in the effort we waste on this insecurity. While writing this article I thought I might finally be able to figure out why people migrate and remain here, even though we might "slide off into the sea" any day. I don't think I can. It's just as well, because if I ever did, there might not be a reason to stay.
Laughter, Love and Music
To celebrate the lives of Bill Graham, Steve Kahn and Melissa Gold
Polo Fields, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
Nov. 3rd, 1991 10:30AM-4:00PM
Dirty Dozen Brass Band
-Parade around the fields
Cheif Orrin Wyanns (?)
-For A Dancer
Joe Satriani and friends (w/Randy Jackson)
-Living in a Blue Dream-->
Aaron Neville and Evelyn Cisneros (of SF Ballet)
Robin Williams- 20min. on Bill in Heaven, etc. *
Mayor Art Agnos introduces…
Journey (reunited w/ Steve Perry)
Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young
-Teach Your Children
Grateful Dead (without Bruce Hornsby)
-Hell in a Bucket
John Fogerty and the Grateful Dead *
-Born on the Bayou
Neil Young and the Grateful Dead
-Touch of Grey
* = highlights