Daze at the Fillmore East…Hanging Out 101

Article by Robert Marcus

Hey now, I’m Rob the Drummer and a child of the turbulent sixties. These were the times of the free speech movement, civil rights marches, and the anti war movement and the music reflected these ever changing times. Folk musicians like Bob Dylan were risking life and limb going into the Deep South to protest segregation. Players of bluegrass and folk such as Jerry Garcia and David Crosby were morphing into playing electric music clearly influenced by the British Invasion of bands like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. These bands were reawakening the sounds of American musicians like Muddy Waters, Little Richard, and Carl Perkins. John Lennon and Paul McCartney were clearly influenced by the two part harmony of the Everly Bros, who evolved from the bluegrass sound of Bill Monroe. Jerry Garcia was checking out Bill Monroe in the early sixties and went on to play in the granddaddy of jam bands The Grateful Dead. Other Dead members brought folk, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, rudimental drums, and electronic music into this wonderful mix.

Now any kid worth his salt was reading “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac, a beat writer of the fifties who had a profound influence on the sixties generation. After reading “On the Road” we all wanted to split to the coast and San Francisco was the place to be.

I became a fan of the San Francisco sound of Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, The Charlatans, Moby Grape, Quicksilver Messenger Service,Carlos Santana Blues Band, It’s A Beautiful Day, Country Joe and the Fish and Big Brother and the Holding Company who had a lead singer named Janis Joplin. Flower children were flocking to San Francisco in droves and Bill Grahams Fillmore was the place to go dance and groove to the best bands rock had to offer.

In New York City, the scene was exploding as well. Fillmore East opened in the East Village, on the lower east side of Manhattan. Next door to Ratners, a kosher deli and the choice of Jewish mobsters in the days of prohibition. Up the block, on Ale Place, McSorleys Old Ale House established in 1854, was hopping! The waiters carried 35 cent mugs eight in each hand to your table.

Fillmore East was my spot and I saw almost every band that passed through. A typical evening might have a jam with Allman Bros Band and The Dead. At the time I took all this great music for granted and just figured that’s the way it should be! Ticket prices were 3, 4, and 5 dollars for the primo seats. When Bill Graham was forced to raise the prices 50 cents a ticket, the people pitched a bitch calling him a capitalist pig among other epitaphs.

These were the days of free love, spare change and power to the people so who needs money? I commuted from Jersey City to the shows, but along with some street people from the Lower East Side like the diggers, we snuck into the shows and I never failed on my mission!

So let’s cut to the chase, now that I filled you all with a bit of background of the times. This will be a course on Fillmore East gate crashing 101, no prerequisites required!

I never went to the early show which went from 8pm to 11. A late show might go on until early in the morning and that’s what was happening especially when the Frisco bands were in town.  I would zip into McSorleys for a few ales and perhaps some onions, hard boiled eggs and some cheese & crackers. The gang of usual suspects would go through the alley, climb up the fire escape stairs, and proceed to bang on an exit door! Some kind liberating soul would push the door open and a mad stampede of music hungry fans would rush into the joint and it was jumping. The bouncers were big and I always wondered if they knew my face but I never got tossed out.

Once inside my sacred ground, the adrenalin would flow like lava out of a volcano. The converted vaudeville movie theater was just so vibrant and exciting and I knew I was in store for some real nice sounds. The crowd was always buzzing and excited. The smell of Patchouli and other various sweet essences were in the air, especially on the steps leading up to the balcony. It was pungent and abundant and The Joshua Light Show or Glenn McKay’s Headlights provided the audience with some psychedelic eye candy.

On one chilly night in 1971, ambling down from McSorelys, I noticed there was a sound truck outside. That meant they were going to record the show and Frank Zappa and His Mothers of Invention were topping the bill. I improvised that night and as the concertgoers were exiting the early show I slipped into the theater and quickly headed to the stage entrance. Nonchalantly walking in like I owned the joint, I was now backstage.

This was a special night. I was strolling around absorbing the scene when I heard a piercing voice from the dressing room that was up a spiral staircase. I walked up and there was Yoko Ono singing. Playing guitars were none other than John Lennon, Taj Mahal and Frank Zappa. I humbly walked in and silently watched them play. I was in a room with some of my favorite artists of all time. I can’t remember how long I was there but I remember going to the side of the stage and watching the gig on the side in the rafters! So Flo and Eddie are singing with Frank and his Mothers, John and Yoko get introduced and the crowd goes electric with excitement. They do a song called Scumbag and Mr. Zappa proceeds to put a burlap sack over Yoko. Now from what I understand perhaps there was a different British slang word for a condom but when John found out what a scumbag was he went ballistic on Frank. I did not see this but as rumor had it they exchanged angry words and the appearance was not included on the LP recorded that weekend. John must have felt like his lady was being disrespected and I might have felt the same way to be perfectly honest.

Well just another night at the office for Rob the Drummer. I went both nights that weekend. In retrospect I would be remiss if I did not express my gratitude for the Fillmore owner Bill Graham affectionately known as Uncle Bobo. He was a class act who ran a tight ship but had a heart of gold as well. He expanded our musical horizons by booking acts like jazz immortals Miles Davis, Rashaan Roland Kirk and off beat groups like The Bonzo Dog Band and an oldies revue called Sha Na Na. The Incredible String Band from Great Britain marched to the beat of a different drummer and I must have seen John Lee Hooker, Spirit, Ten Years After and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown second or third on the bill at least ten times.

On 6-27-71 Uncle Bobo closed the Fillmore and of course he had the show catered for all in attendance who checked out The Beach Boys, Albert King and some other bands that were The J Geils Band, Edgar Winters White Trash, Country Joe and The Allman Bros Band. It was a bittersweet evening to say the least.

Now I must provide a disclaimer about the spiral staircase. I am not sure if it was spiral but you know what they say, if you can’t remember it all, you must have had a good time or is that vice versa?

If you liked this yarn I have plenty of more adventures to share with you. I admire the vibrancy of the current jam band scene. I love the current music and the crowds who have grabbed the baton from the beats and the sixties generation. I have not gone to many shows as of late, but Floyd fest in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains of Va. will be on my itinerary this July.

The music sets you free!

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6 Responses to Daze at the Fillmore East…Hanging Out 101

  1. Sarah1977 on February 8, 2010 at 10:59 AM


    Yes! Please spin some more yarn. I always felt like I was born too late, like I should have been a child of the 60’s. I love hearing about stuff like this. More, please.


  2. Rob the Drummer on February 8, 2010 at 2:07 PM

    I am so glad you like it. Its my initial try at telling my stories but more will be revealed!!!
    Everyone feels like they were born to late. If I had a time machine I would love to check out the roaring twenties, but everyone is right where they are supposed to be!!!

  3. Sarah1977 on February 23, 2010 at 7:26 PM

    The 20’s would be cool :). You’re correct, we’re right where we are supposed to be.

  4. BWS53 on March 1, 2010 at 9:46 PM


    Great story. I, too, cut my rock n’ roll teeth at the Fillmore East. When I started going there I, unfortunately, had to attend many early shows because I was a bit young to stay out all night. I also lived in Jersey (Linden) and could get a train into Penn Station. I would tell my folks I was going to a movie and then hop on the train, cruise down to the East Village and go to the Fillmore and be back home by midnight or so. The first late shows I went to were the Zappa shows and also got to see Lennon and Ono. The collaboration, IMHO, wasn’t a very good performance and certainly not what I had come to expect from Frank Zappa but it was a moment in rock history. Your article brought back many memories, especially of some of the 2nd and 3rd acts on the bills. I can’t remember many of the acts but I just remember being often blown away by them. The Joshua light shows while primative by today’s standard did help set the mood.

    One special show was with Jethro Tull. The crowd just wouldn’t go home. So they opened all the side exit doors to get everyone out but instead people from outside came in. Ian Anderson came back out and sat on the front of the stage with the house lights up and played acoustic guitar and sang a few more tunes. They finally got everyone out and when we got outside it was snowing these big beautiful flakes. A great ending to an even greater evening.

    Regardless of what folks said about Bill Graham I thought he was a pretty good guy. I got to meet him a few times over the years and while he could be a bit gruff he was always fair, always listened to what people said. As I remember the only way to get tickets was to go to the box office and buy them (this was years before Ticketmaster) so my buddy and I would cut school during the day and go to the city and buy tickets. Sometimes Bill would be outside sweeping the sidewalk or just hanging out front and we’d chat for a minute or two. Years later I ran into him at a Grateful Dead show he was promoting in Phoenix, AZ. I told him about chatting outside of the Fillmore decades before and while he didn’t remember me (not that I expected him to), he said he really enjoyed talking with people who just wanted to talk about the music and who were, in Bill’s words, “respectful”.

    I am enjoying the current wave of Jam bands. Umphrey’s Mcgee, moe., and, of course, Phish are some of the bands I have been enjoying lately as well as whatever the former members of the Grateful Dead are doing. These bands seem to bring the spirit of freedom and musical adventure that so defined the music from the 60’s.

    Well anyway, thanks for invoking some many great memories of the Fillmore East.

    Oh and about the spiral staircase. I often sat in the balcony and I don’t really remember a spiral staircase but I do remember a curved staircase but it was a long time ago so who knows?


  5. Rob the Drummer on March 2, 2010 at 10:54 PM

    Thanks for the wonderful feedback. The spiral staircase was backstage leading to the dressing room!! I sat on those balcony steps for a short rest all the time!! Yup Bill was a prince and I miss him and I wish that I could have thanked him but he is alive in my heart. He was a real mensch! Sounds like you could write a few good yarns youself!!

  6. aprilius52 on December 4, 2011 at 7:30 PM

    I remember coming out after an all night Dead show, with snowflakes gently drifting down in the early dawn….seeing a sound check with Janis and Big Brother, (Janis: “every time we test this thing it’s alway’s wrong, I’m going home.”) Getting postcards from Kip Cohen to give out in exchange for access to all the shows, being chased dancing down the aisles by the ushers who were trying desperately to keep people in the seats when Pigpen and Bobby Weir exhorted us to “take your hands outta your pockets and get up and dance”. Joshua light show and all the great cartoons they used to show (One fave was “Sunshine Makers”) Getting egg creams and turtles from Gems Spa and blintzes from Ratners. Seeing Maharishi (or some yogi) with a crying kitten in my bag, Frank Zappa lecturing the audience on music theory…the all night jams, the Allmans and the Dead, scary Grace Slick, and presiding over it all Bill Graham always yelling at somebody. I also remember the secret door, as sometimes I was the one opening it.

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