New-York Historical’s exhibition Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution takes a deep dive into the life and times of one of the most influential concert promoters in rock history and the man behind such acts as the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, and Santana. A Holocaust survivor and former child refugee, Bill Graham ran two essential concert halls during the late 1960s—the Fillmore West in San Francisco and the Fillmore East in New York— and became a central figure in one of the most thrilling periods in American music.
If Graham’s Fillmore East on the Lower East Side was known for its music, it was also famous for another reason: It’s distinctive, psychedelic liquid light show that entertained audiences both before and during multi-set concerts. The Joshua Light Show, as it was called, was run by Joshua White, then an ambitious young man with a background in stagecraft tech, who first met Graham in Toronto and later joined him at the Fillmore East, where he added some theatrical panache to the ragged concert scene. White—who went on to have a long career as a television director, broadcaster, and multimedia artist—created a liquid light show for the original presentation of the Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles. A projection of this show greets visitors at the entrance to New-York Historical’s version of the exhibition. He spoke to us earlier in the year about his history with Graham and what it was like to light up the ’60s sound.
Thank you for talking to us! How did you first get connected with Bill Graham?
In 1967, he’d been hired by the O’Keefe Centre, which was new then in Toronto, to bring the San Francisco scene to this formal theater for a week in August: the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, a local act, and a light show. And I got involved because he needed help with the lighting. Really, I was a problem solver. Bill was used to a kind of San Francisco style, where “yes” didn’t always mean yes. He was tired of people asking “why?” as opposed to saying “yes, not a problem.”
In the course of the Toronto concerts, I directed the call of the lights, telling the person up in the control board what we wanted. And what happened was I got hooked on the music—the Airplane were magnificent and the Dead were getting very good. I saw the audience go nuts, and I saw the light show on the 15-foot by 20-foot rear projection screen. While they were good, I thought I could do better. And I decided that in August of 1967, light shows were my future.
Can you explain to us how liquid light shows work?
At the time there were these things called overhead projectors—it was a projector a teacher could write on. Now they’ve been replaced by video camera projectors. An overhead projector presented a very lovely, large, horizontal surface. So if you put something on top of it, such as, say a clock face that you’d stolen from some wall clock, and you put oil in it and you color the oil and you put water in it and color the water, you can slosh it around. The one thing that always works for you: Oil and water don’t mix, no matter what you do. Then you take another plate that’s clean and you put it on top and you squish down and you lift up. The oil and water sloshes around and make beautiful bubbles that dance. And it pleases people to look at, but it’s always going to go back to oil and water. So you learn how to control that.
Were you often able to judge how the show was going by the audience reactions?
Definitely. We discovered that the light show screen was like a giant olio. An olio was an old vaudeville thing: a curtain between acts that have advertisements on it. We could use the screen to entertain the audience with just slides. And it didn’t take much! I put up a slide that said “No smoking” and then the word “anything” appeared, and they would crack up. That’s how we knew that they were paying attention. Remember, the sound systems were very primitive. And so before a band came on, it was endless tuning and technical people banging on microphones, bang, bang, bang, test one, test two, test three. So we’d put up a slide with three colors on it, testing red, blue, green, red, blue, green. It was funny, and the audience came to trust the screen as being one of them.
By the time we joined Bill at the Fillmore East in 1968, we had the technology to show a 10-minute cartoon, which we did between the second and the star act. It wasn’t just any cartoon—it would be a Bugs Bunny or a Road Runner cartoon. Now to watch a Road Runner cartoon when you’re stoned is just about a transcendent experience. It isn’t just funny—it hurts it’s so funny.
How would a typical night at the Fillmore East go?
What would happen is you’d come into the theater and there was a big sign up on the screen that said “Welcome to Fillmore East.” And there’d be a little bit of light show moving around. Then the lights would eventually dim, and the first band would take the stage in the dark. And Bill Graham would come out and say, “Ladies and gentlemen…” and something clever. You know, “Everybody doesn’t like something, but nobody doesn’t like Albert King!” When Albert started to play, we started playing with the liquid light show. And when he stopped playing, we stopped—we didn’t go black, we just stopped. Then when he started again, we started again. And when he was done, the screen would go up only halfway, just enough for people to get on the stage. And we would entertain on the screen. Eventually, I developed timing. I’m not a musician, but when I’m in that mode, there’s something about the synesthesia—the light and the sound—I can just think, “Oh, they’re going to reach the end of this riff and go somewhere else.” Eventually bands would start to come back to the Fillmore, and we’d know what to expect.
Of course, the liquid light show was only part of what we did. I remember in particular one amazing night: When the Jefferson Airplane played, Bill always wanted us to do something spectacular. One year, we built a wireframe airplane that literally took off onstage from behind the amplifiers, went out over the audience and when it got to the balcony, split in half and kept going. And this was all done by hand! I knew that the Fillmore East, like most theaters at the time in New York, ran on DC or direct current. Alternating current or AC had pretty much taken over, but older institutions like the subway and Broadway theaters—they were run on DC. Now we were fortunate: The Fillmore had plenty of AC, but there was also a lot of DC, which wasn’t being used. And I realized that those old arc lights—the biggest and brightest—they ran on DC, and we could get them for nothing. So we rented two of these motion picture arc lights, put them behind the screen. In the audience, you heard in the darkness an overwhelming roar of a jet plane taking off. And these two lights were turned on facing the screen and brought together. The audiences were literally gasping.
When the lights were snapped off, Bill would say, “Ladies and gentleman…Jefferson Airplane!” They were supposed to play. Well, the first show, they tuned, tuned, tuned. Bill straightened them out. The second show, they played on cue, and it was amazing.
I got the impression from reading Graham’s memoir Bill Graham Presents that contrary to what people think, the Woodstock Festival in 1969 was actually the end of a particular era in music rather than the beginning. (Bill Graham would close the Fillmore East shortly afterwards in 1971.) Can you explain?
The music was—suddenly—viable and commercial. I’d been sitting with Bill on the stage at Woodstock, and we both didn’t talk about it, but we could see it: 400,000 people are going to show up to this mess and then go nuts when these bands play with not the best lighting and with limited microphones. But people didn’t care. They wanted to be together. They were interested in being with each other as much as they were in the bands. A year later, the documentary Woodstock comes out and—even though it shows you all of the nitty gritty, in the mud—it also romanticizes the event because it takes something where they could easily have spent two hours between bands, just trying to fix their instruments and condenses it and shows it beautifully. But I had moved on by then.
My music tastes kind of didn’t grow after that—I went back more into blues and big bands. But as I watched everything that’s happened in rock technology, more than 50 years later, I can’t look at anything without realizing that it came from something we did at the Fillmore—lighting, intercom systems, video projections—just everything. I was very lucky to have been at this one moment that lasted just about two years, where everything was possible.
Watch a performance of the Joshua Light Show from 2012:
Bill Graham and the Rock & Roll Revolution is organized and circulated by the Skirball Cultural Center, Los Angeles, in association with the Bill Graham Memorial Foundation, and made possible by the support of Alex Graham, David Graham, and Danny Scher. New-York Historical is grateful for the cooperation of the National Museum of American Jewish History.
By Kerrie Mitchell, content editor