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Bay Area Plays Tribute to Graham : Memorial: About 300,000 gather for free concert at Golden Gate Park honoring the rock promoter who died 10 days ago in a helicopter crash.

November 04, 1991|JONATHAN WEBER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — In an exuberant civic celebration that served as a salve for the disaster-wreaked Bay Area, about 300,000 rock music fans flooded Golden Gate Park on Sunday for a free concert dedicated to the late impresario and local icon, Bill Graham.

Many of the bands that Graham helped catapult from the city's psychedelic music scene to international stardom volunteered to play at the celebration, which invoked a 1960s ethos that in San Francisco has never entirely disappeared.

The Grateful Dead, Santana, Joan Baez and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jackson Browne and John Fogerty all turned out for "Laughter, Love and Music," a tribute to the brass-tacks rock promoter with a social conscience who died at age 60 in a helicopter crash 10 days ago.

"The only place you can do something like this on six days notice is San Francisco," said Gregg Perloff, executive vice president of Bill Graham Presents. "The community has always supported our efforts and you have to give something back to the community."

The 5 1/2-hour concert, held on an unseasonably warm day, seemed to have come at the right time for the Bay Area. Graham's death follows the devastating wildfire that ravaged the Oakland hills last month and the disastrous Loma Prieta earthquake two years ago.

An airplane dropped hundreds of carnations on the crowd, beach balls bounced atop the throngs and the concert-goers--who ranged from tie-dyed flower children to men in Bermuda shorts toting video cameras--appeared more intent on celebrating life than mourning its loss.

"San Francisco needed some good energy," said Eddie Mantani, 41, a waiter who first heard Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young play in his high school gymnasium in 1966. "This shows the Bay Area can still get together."

Grammy-winner Bobby McFerrin opened the event with a scat version of the National Anthem. Comedian Robin Williams led the crowd in a roar of "Yo, Bill," and borrowed from baseball with a round of the wave.

"I wonder if Bill's in heaven organizing a show," Williams mused. "He's up there saying: 'Hey, Elvis, you're on next."

Carlos Santana and Los Lobos jammed together. To close the concert, Joan Baez led an a cappella rendition of "Amazing Grace," calling out the words for a vast sing-a-long. And David Crosby marveled at the size of the crowd pulsating in the park's Polo Fields.

"I haven't seen this field this full since we tried to stop the Vietnam War," Crosby said. The rare appearance of former band member Neil Young with Crosby, Stills and Nash was a highlight of the afternoon.

Graham died when his helicopter went down in heavy fog Oct. 25 as he returned home from a Huey Lewis and the News concert in Concord. Also killed were his companion, Melissa Gold, and his pilot, Steve Kahn.

Federal investigators have said that Kahn, an experienced pilot but not licensed to fly on instruments only, was warned by air traffic controllers not to fly because of inclement weather.

A Holocaust survivor who escaped from Nazi Germany, Graham played hardball in the high-stakes rock world, once squaring off with Russian soldiers after they barricaded the stage during a Fourth of July peace concert in Moscow.

But he was also a man of humanity and something of a local hero, using his considerable prestige--and bankroll--to fund the causes that he believed were important. He kept the Haight-Ashbury Free Medical Clinic from closing, paid for a giant menorah that is lighted each year in San Francisco's Union Square, toured the world promoting the Amnesty International tour and had planned to meet with Oakland officials last week to discuss a benefit concert for victims of the East Bay fire.

Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir called Graham "the most important non-musician in music."

Times staff writer Jesse Katz contributed to this story from Los Angeles.

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