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Gearing Up For Crack Down

August 27, 1986|ROBERT HILBURN | Times Pop Music Critic

NEW YORK — Bill Graham, America's premier rock concert producer, vowed after the six-city Amnesty International tour in June that he wasn't going to get involved in any more benefits for a while. Graham, who also produced last year's Live Aid event in Philadelphia, said he felt drained emotionally and was worried that the rock audience had become "aided-out."

But now he's gearing up for another benefit drive, to be called Crack Down. The target: crack, the low-priced, highly purified and rapidly addictive form of cocaine that is gaining popularity among inner-city youths.

Graham--the man behind the landmark Fillmore ballrooms in San Francisco and New York and the organizer of national tours for such major artists as Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones--said he was shocked by the "horrors" of the "epidemic" that is raging through parts of this city, including his old neighborhood in the Bronx.

He held a strategy meeting here last week with various record industry executives and civic officials, including Mayor Edward I. Koch. The goal of the Crack Down benefit: to heighten community awareness of the problem and raise funds for educational and law enforcement campaigns. Graham expects to announce a big-name lineup, date and site (possibly Yankee Stadium) within 10 days. He's also talking with MTV about televising the concert.

"I knew there were drug problems here--just like there are in every major city," said Graham, who lived in the Bronx from age 11 to 21 but whose headquarters are now in San Francisco. "But I never knew how devastating it was until a few weeks ago when I came here for Santana's concert. There were stories in the papers every day, headlines like 'Give Us Back Our City.' Then I started to read about the effects of the drug . . . what it does to your nasal system and your brain system."

At the Santana concert, Graham talked further about the problem with Ruben Blades' manager David Maldonado, who urged him to take a ride through the most troubled parts of the Bronx and other boroughs. The next day Graham and two childhood friends who still live here drove through the old neighborhood.

"It was a twilight zone," Graham said, his voice quivering with emotion as he sat in his office near Central Park. "If you showed me pictures of it, I would have accused you of making it up. I couldn't imagine how bad it was. My friends would point to buildings . . . 'They manufacture crack there . . . they collect money there.' They'd point to whole blocks that are too dangerous even for the police to go into. Then we went into Brooklyn and Queens and Upper Manhattan and saw the same thing."

Working with Maldonado and television reporter Pablo Guzman, Graham began informal talks with musicians, some of whom urged a national "anti-crack" campaign. But Graham rejected the idea. "I wanted to focus on a single community where we could get everyone involved rather than the shotgun effect of trying to reach out all across the country," he explained.

"One of the things that troubled me after Live Aid was that it seemed like something that was here today but gone tomorrow. Everyone had a wonderful time at the concert, but how many of the people at the show or who saw it on television continued to think about the famine? How many could even spell Ethiopia today?

"I want to go to the grass roots and get the merchants involved, the political machine involved, the health department involved--so that no one forgets the next day. I also want to contact every major corporation to get them involved. This isn't just a Bronx problem or a Brooklyn problem. It's a New York problem."

Graham picked up a pipe for smoking crack--a slight variation of the drug paraphernalia easily available for years in head shops around the country. But this one--purchased at a nearby newsstand--had a sticker on one side reading "I New York."

"Somehow that sticker drove home to me the outrage of people making a buck off someone's casket and how complacent we've become," he said.

"I bought this for $17 and asked the man how much it cost him. He said $9. . . . How can he have so little conscience? I showed this pipe to Mayor Koch at the meeting last week and asked him why he even let people sell something like this in his city."

(Police raided more than 200 stores here the day after Graham's strategy meeting and seized more than 39,000 of the crack pipes, but the raid had apparently been planned for several days. At a press conference after the raid, a police commissioner displayed a small pipe with "I New York" written on it. "Can you believe it?" the commissioner said.)

While not blaming rock 'n' roll for encouraging drug use in the past, Graham did say rock musicians, athletes, actors and others who are heroes to young people need to be more aware of their influence.

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