The Two Underdogs: Sly Stone & The Great Fillmore Whitewash

Chris Stroffolino


We can use the past as shrines of our suffering, as a poeticizing beyond what we think the present (the “actual”) has to offer. But that is true in the sense that any clear present must include as much of the past as it needs to clearly illuminate it.

Amiri Baraka, The Changing Same, 1966

People worldwide have this glassy-eyed memory of Bill Graham as being this wonderful godfather of all that was good about the summer of love and the psychedelic era. But nothing could be further from the truth. He struck me as this obssesive megalomaniac who wanted a monopoly on all live music in the Bay Area. Even a club as small as the Mabuhay or a hall like 330 Grove or 10th Street, it was unacceptable. It should not be allowed to exist.

Jello Biafra

In San Francisco, the spirit that was best in punk began as a semi-organized reaction to what Bill Graham and his minions had done to the San Francisco/Bay Area music scene (in ways that strikingly parallel Mayor Feinstein’s “redevelopment” plans). By the fall of 1979, Steve Tupper and others in the burgeoning punk scene had formed The New Youth Organization & secured The Clash to do a benefit for their non-profit performance space. Bill Graham tired to nix it; claiming The Clash was his band. But, as Ray Farrell says, “the demand was far greater than what could fit into Bill Graham’s show. So a couple of nights later, there was this separate New Youth Organization show. The ticket price was less. The Clash did it. ” [1]

Instead of thanking, or wishing to continue a productive relationship with the new music scene, Graham vowed to destroy the NYO; storming out of the show as Jello Biafra’s clothes got ripped off. Bill Graham was almost the only thing the fractious punk scene could agree about. Many people who became “punks” were disaffected, disenfranchised whites who hated the antiseptic impersonality of arena rock, but dug Lester Bangs’ beautiful defense of the spirit of “Wild Thing” in 1966; whites who would have danced with blacks had their parents not been duped by white flight and moved to the more segregated suburbs.

Bangs, one of the first to prophesy, theorize and champion “punk rock” as both musical style and ethos (debatably even coining the term in 1972), traces the decline of rock and roll from the rise of FM-radio and bands like Cream to the “disco and jazz rock” of 1976. [2] If it weren’t for the fact that Bangs, like most purveyors of ‘punk,’ was at least as hostile to contemporaneous arena rock and light rock, his “Summer of Sam” scorn of “disco and jazz rock,” could be a coded, or unconscious, form of racism as in the parallel “disco sucks” movement sponsored by corporate “classic rock” stations around this time.

Punk, at least for Bangs, was not racist in its inception. The Clash songs about the white man in the otherwise all black Hammersmith Palais struck a chord for many. In fact, many of the white musicians who became ‘punks’ after 1976 were purposely trying to return, in the words of Steven Taylor, “to the most vital resource known to them: African American music...The distancing of rock music from its popular base in the 1970s sparked a renewed return to rock’s marginal roots.” (33) The punks, for the most part, did not return to African American people. Some jumped, but most were pushed. There were forces far bigger than Biafra or Bangs any in the punk or hip hop scenes at work that had already caused a re-segregation of SF music. [3]

To understand more deeply why Bill Graham was tied with Diane Feinstein as “Public Enemy #1” for most purveyors of early SF punk, I need to go back to what San Francisco music was like before Graham got his start: not to the Beat scene of the late 1950s, but that time historically in between the Beats and Hippies: In-betweeners, or as some like to say, mods. [4] This fascinating chapter in the history of San Francisco culture is often erased in accounts of late 1950s Beats and late 1960s hippies; at its center was a young man named Sylvester Stewart.

Although Stewart did not himself directly confront Graham as Jello did 10 years later, in late 1969, Sly Stone was witnessed delivering a diatribe from the stage to a Bay Area audience. “You’re over,” he told the stunned crowd. “You thought you were cool, but your arrogance was your undoing, and San Francisco is now over, officially.” He didn’t explain it,” noted spectator Joel Selvin. “He was just pissed off.” [5] To some, Sly’s pronouncement, uttered only months after his iconic Woodstock triumph, and not long before recording the infectious country-funk of international #1 smash, “Thank You (Falettin Me Be Mice Elf Agen),” may sound ungrateful, or drug-induced, or at the very least uncouth; yet in retrospect it’s not only justified, but an accurate reflection of the rise and fall of the San Francisco rock and roll scene during the decade Sly had worked it, a fall it still hasn’t recovered from 42 years later. So, even if we can’t know the immediate trigger for this particular heat of the moment remark, we can at least attempt to understand why Sly would see San Francisco’s music scene as undone by its own arrogance.

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