Leon Russell in the Dark


In the spring of 1971 Bill Graham announced that he would be closing the Fillmore East. Graham told the press it was all about changes in the concert promotion business and the music industry, but I knew he was just tired of the bullshit. I remembered a bitterly cold Friday night in December of 1968, when a group of tough-looking longhairs calling themselves the Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers were handing out flyers on Second Avenue demanding free shows at the recently opened Fillmore. And there was Graham, inside the venue, furious: “For all I care this community can fucking shrivel up and die if they continue to let themselves be represented by that bunch of cheap-ass chickenshit punks.”

It had been three years of that for the great impresario of live rock music, though things had changed on both sides of the equation: Promoters were shoveling crowds into cavernous spaces like Madison Square Garden, and the audience was no longer a bunch of psychedelic kids — now it was a mob of hungry consumers who screamed “more” as a demand, not a plea.

Or that’s what I said in my obit for the Fillmore East in the Voice. My editors and I wanted the piece to come out before the place closed in June, so I headed over to 6th Street and Second Avenue on a May afternoon and spent a couple of very pleasurable hours talking to Bill. The week after he made his announcement about the closing, there he was on the front page of the Voice, flipping the bird in a photo by Fred McDarrah.

Graham was a tough guy. Grew up in the Bronx, where he landed at age ten after fleeing Germany and the Holocaust. In the Sixties rock scene he was the man everyone hated, a capitalist building a business out of rock ‘n’ roll freedom. He opened the Fillmore East in 1968 as an extension of his empire in San Francisco. It had been built as a Yiddish theater in 1925, but Graham transformed it into the Church of Rock ‘n’ Roll: two triple-bill shows a night, crowds of 2,500, the Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East, Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, countless Dead shows. If the Sixties revolutionaries thought Bill Graham was a capitalist pig, well, they were in for a rude awakening as the Seventies rolled on.

Before it rolled on much further and the Fillmore closed, I asked Bill if I could take in a show, you know, for old times’ sake. “Sure,” he said. “Why don’t you come by this Friday? We’ve got a good show: Leon Russell, Taj Mahal, and Donny Hathaway.”

I was there. Leon Russell was as hot as he would probably ever get — he’d played with everybody as a session guy in L.A.: Aretha, Sinatra, the Stones. But he’d stepped out into the spotlight leading Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen band the year before, and they’d recorded the double album there at the Fillmore East. As for Taj Mahal, he would have been a pleasure to hear anywhere, but especially at the Fillmore, where he could let loose and be himself. I wasn’t that hip to Donny Hathaway, but if Bill said I would dig him, who was I to argue? He was Bill Graham. He would know.

He gave me a couple of house seats — I wasn’t with anyone this time, just by my lonesome reporting on the demise of one of my favorite music haunts, but apparently house seats came in pairs, so I took them and gave one away to somebody with a balcony ticket. I never took my seat anyway, preferring to watch the show from the wings.

I was standing there at the side of the stage, watching the end of Taj’s set, when I felt something poke my left arm.

Now, you’ve got to see things as I saw them in order to understand what I’m going to tell you, which is to say you can’t see anything at all. The Fillmore East was utterly dark. No lights at all in the auditorium. None. And the only light on the stage was a pin spot that caught Taj from roughly his neck up. Enough of the spot bled over to the sides that you could make out the six tubas behind him. That’s right: six tubas. Like I said, at the Fillmore, Taj could be Taj, and on this night, Taj was sitting on a stool playing his guitar with six tubas behind him. I felt something bump my elbow and I looked to my left. I couldn’t see a thing back there behind the curtain that was shielding me from the audience. Then I heard Bill’s voice:

Lucian…that you? he whispered gruffly.

Yeah, Bill, I whispered back.

Here, he whispered. Hold Leon for me.

And he handed me Leon Russell, his arms into my arms, just like that. Leon was either drunk or somebody had given him a line of smack or both, but in any case he was dead to the world in every way but actual death. I mean, racked-out. He couldn’t have weighed more than 120, 130, so it wasn’t a big effort taking him from Bill.

I was standing there in the dark — I could see neither Bill nor Leon, you understand — and I whispered, Bill, what am I supposed to do with him?

Shut up, man. A quiet growl. Taj is finishing his set.

We stood there for a moment as Taj finished his last number and the stage blacked out. The Fillmore didn’t have a curtain to hide the changeover between bands. Instead, there were three performing stages on large metal rollers. When one act’s set was over, they would black out the stage, wheel away the first band, and push the stage with the next into position.

At the Fillmore, if you were second or third on the bill, you didn’t get an encore, so that was it for Taj. His set was over. The crowd erupted in applause, but over that sound I heard Bill: Listen to me, he snarled. When Leon’s stage comes into position, I want you to take him out there and put him on his piano bench, understand?

But Bill…he’s asleep!

Just do what I say, he shot back.

So I stood there holding Leon as his stage was maneuvered into position. I couldn’t see a thing. I heard the voice again, this time more of a gruff stage-whisper, the applause for Taj having died down: You know what to do. Just carry Leon out there and put him on his bench.

But Bill, I can’t see anything, I whined. Leon was getting heavier.

I heard the sound of metal wheels on wood grind to a halt. Silence.

Go! came the order. Watch out and don’t trip over the lip of the stage.

But Bill, I protested…


So I stumbled forth, but I still couldn’t see a thing. Bill was back there offering direction — I never understood the meaning of a stage-whisper until that moment — Step up! Now! To your right! A little to your left! You’re almost there!

I could hear musicians off to my right quietly tuning their instruments, and I saw one or two teeny little red lights on the fronts of amps. But nothing else. Then my knees hit the piano bench, and again came that gruff whisper: Put him on the bench!

I eased Leon out of my arms onto his piano bench. His head fell forward and just missed the keys and instead landed on the edge of the piano’s music stand.

I heard Bill’s instructions: Put his hands on the keys! I tried to put his hands on the keyboard, but his long brown hair was in the way, and his hands kept falling back in his lap.

But Bill! He’s asleep!

Stop worrying, do what I tell you, and get your ass back here! The growl was louder now. He was losing his patience. We’ve got a show to put on!

I struggled with the hair and the flopping head and the loose hands, but finally I got Leon’s fingers in the vicinity of the keyboard with his head resting on the music stand and felt my way back toward the wings. Everything was still blacked out and I nearly fell stepping down from the rolling platform. I heard Bill’s mic stand scrape the floor as he stepped out to announce the next act over the PA:

Ladies and gentlemen…Mr. Leon Russell!

The light-booth guys hit Leon with six giant Super Trouper spots. About fifty zillion lumens rousted him. He began pounding the keys:

She came in through the bathroom window…

With the lights up I could see Bill now grinning at me as he got off the hippest line I ever heard. Ever.