The band said goodbye to their days as a performing band on Thanksgiving 1976 with The Last Waltz, a mega-concert at Bill Graham’s Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco. Thanks to a guest roster of artists including Eric Clapton, Neil Young and Van Morrison, the show will quickly achieve legendary status, preserved for posterity by Martin Scorcese and his film crew.
Jerry Pompili worked alongside Graham during the glory years, starting as a bailiff at the Fillmore East and moving up to chief of security at the Fillmore. In the 90s, he was vice chairman of Bill Graham Presents.
Pompili recently joined UCR’s Allison Rapp and Matt Wardlaw, as well as Dusty Street, one of radio’s earliest female figures, who was a DJ on KSAN-FM in San Francisco, to share memories of the concert scene. of the region and working with Bill Graham. The full conversation will be posted on our YouTube channel shortly.
Here are some specific memories from The Last Waltz and the band Pompili shared with UCR.
How did you first meet Bill and how did you end up working with him?
I first met Bill with Tony Lech, the guy who ran the Anderson Theater. Bill had arranged a meeting with Tony and made an offer with Tony and he was a total asshole and turned it down. Tony didn’t realize what he was offering. Bill opened the Fillmore East three weeks later [in the Manhattan area] and Tony was literally bankrupt.
Tony was my friend and I stayed with him until the opening night of the Fillmore East in New York in March 68. I discovered that Tony had printed a few thousand counterfeit tickets for the opening of Fillmore East and had distributed them throughout New York. He gave them away, trying to screw the show up and stuff like that.
For me it was crossing the line and I said, “That’s it. I can’t be a part of this or you or anything else. I left and all of Anderson’s old staff were working at the Fillmore. The Technicians, John Morris, Chip Monck, Joshua [White], all these people. All the folks at NYU film school and stuff like that. They were all my friends.
I went there and hung up and finally ended up finding a bailiff job. I was working as a bailiff and wasn’t there very long and they fired the director of the house. They hadn’t hired anyone for a month and had had a great meeting. Kip Cohen wanted to bring someone over from Broadway to be the head of the house. Bill said no.
And Bill didn’t remember me since he met Tony Lech. He said, “No, no, we don’t have to do that. One of the ushers ran the place. He said, “Who? ” and [Graham] said, “I don’t know, this guy!” I was promoted from bailiff, earning five dollars per show, to head of house.
The last Waltz, directed by Martin Scorsese, looks like it could have been shot yesterday. What are the main memories you have of how the idea to make this film came about?
When they started to put it all together, the idea for the film was at the forefront of the set. We had been shooting videos in Winterland for several years at this point. From the start we tried to capture the feeling of what it was like to watch a concert after the fact. I’m the guy who put it all together, this whole system.
Having no idea what we were doing, we did what most people who think they are fucking artists do. We put cameras in people’s asses and shoot from everywhere. You would watch the tapes afterwards and it was as if they weren’t playing. Finally, we did this thing where we built these two things.
We called them “boats” and they were a foot and a half off the ground. They were pointed forward and open at the back and you put a camera in there and the operator stands behind. They were about 20 feet in front of the stage. One 15 feet to the left and one 15 feet to the right. They filmed everything from the audience’s point of view. The cameras were right over the audience’s heads.
You had the screen on top so you hardly needed a director, as one operator could see what the other was shooting just by looking at the screen, so you knew where you were going next. No one had to tell you, even though we had a director. I sent some of these tapes to Scorsese and the band members to get a feel for it. Personally, I think that’s one of the reasons this movie works so well as a gig.
Except for me, not all saggy talking heads work for me. As the time approached for the show I called to try and get my tapes back and people stopped taking my calls and I got a little pissed off. And so, damn it, the night of the gig I pulled out a camera, stuck it in the booth next to the mixer, and took a stream straight off the board. That’s why it sounds so good. Because people weren’t exaggerating the play at the time.
I started recording and people came out backstage and said, “What are you doing? I said, “I’m recording the show.” They said, “You can’t do that” and I said, “I can do whatever I want. I run this place. [Laughs] And if you don’t like it, I can fuck your ass. ”I had this ability to make people fear me, I think.
Anyway, every time someone went out, I would just tell them to fuck off and that’s it. I said, “When I get my tapes back, I’ll send those tapes to you.” What do you mean, okay? Finally, they left me alone and I filmed everything. It’s past four o’clock. It’s almost five and a half, I think. That’s all – it’s the poets in the middle – I filmed everything.
A lot of people like it better than the movie. There’s one thing that’s really, really interesting about this. If you go back and look at it, there’s Van Morrison doing “Caravan”. When I watched that part of the Scorcese movie, it didn’t have the impact it had that night. Van stopped the show that night. That was it. You know, he blew up this fucking place.
Listen to “Caravan” with Van Morrison
What is your favorite global memory of The last Waltz?
It was a great experience, between dinner and dancing. All the decoration of the set, we took everything from the San Francisco opera house. La Traviata, I think the whole thing comes from there [production]. But for me, that was Van’s thing, because God, this guy could be so hot and so cold depending on how he was feeling that day.
I saw him do a show in Winterland where he made them turn off all the lights in the building. Not just stage lighting, but house lighting. He did the whole set in the dark. I saw him do another show in Winterland with his back to the audience the whole set. You know, you would never know that with him.
When planning The last Waltz was coming together, was it just one of those things that just got bigger and bigger?
I did not participate in its implementation. For the most part, the whole group had it set up. Bill took care of the ambiance, the directing and the production of the ensemble. But the gang was involved and [Robbie] Robertson was involved in the whole musical aspect of it. I don’t think we have anything to do with any of this. I think that night was one of the great moments in rock and roll.
There are a lot of these moments. I mean, sometimes a great rock and roll moment and a horrible rock and roll moment happen at the same show. The Sex Pistols of Winterland are one example. I shot the video for the opening song for “God Save the Queen”, which I thought was awesome. Absolutely brilliant. The whole delivery, the whole.
KSAN-FM was doing the show live and there was a little problem with the mix, with the guitarist’s mix. It only happened in the second chorus, but it was perfect and it blows your mind, all that. But after that first song, it’s gone for shit from there. I mean, it was like, forget it.
What kind of experiences have you had seeing the band live before The last Waltz?
I don’t remember having seen them live before. Their first big public show was in Winterland in 1969 – and I wasn’t there. There’s a story about it, how Robbie Robertson was so freaked out about going on stage [that] Bill must have brought in a hypnotist. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen them until Last waltz. But I really liked their music. I was in Big Pink music [and albums like that].
Have you ever seen a show like this in Winterland? Because the range is quite amazing.
Oh yeah, that was unusual. I don’t think we’ve ever done a massive show like this. You know, with so many acts playing, until you got to the Neil Young’s Bridge School stuff and it didn’t start until 1986, because they were eight or nine, until 10 acts sometimes on a show.
As a person who was at The last Waltz gig when it happened, how quickly did it reach the legendary status we know today?
The day it happened. It was legendary from the moment it happened, as far as I’m concerned. The Chronicle of San Francisco, I think, has great stills of it. But that doesn’t show in the movie. They didn’t film any of the dinner stuff or the people dancing and waltzing in front of the orchestra. This stuff was amazing. I mean, it led to the whole vibe
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