"The essence of good rock & roll -- it's about confusion on every level."
A Tribute to Bill Graham
May 29, 1996
I can't imagine how the people in Hot Press are feeling right now. From the beginning there were four or five in there who were like a band -- losing Bill, for them, must be like how I'd feel if something happened to Edge or Adam or Larry. He was like a brother to his colleagues and a cousin to us.
I was just totally unprepared when I heard the news in Miami; my immediate instinct was that I didn't want to be on my own. I was really glad to be able to talk to Adam about it, although he too was badly shocked. Adam had been the first to badger Bill into coming to see us. Adam was basically our manager then and he'd figured out how to use the phone as a weapon.
He haunted Bill. Finally Bill came out to Mount Temple and then out to the Northside. The thing is that we didn't know what we were doing; we didn't know what rock 'n' roll was -- and Bill was adamant that we never found out (laughs). He was talking to us about Dadaism and Surrealism and he really picked up on the Lypton Village thing and was very excited about that whole scene. The village name we gave him was "Burgundy" and that had nothing whatsoever to do with his appreciation of wine (laughs). It was more to do with his claret lips. He was a man intoxicated with ideas, above all else.
The whole thing with Bill was "connections" -- he was a sort of junction box of ideas. Whether that was introducing the band to their manager -- making that connection -- or whether it was talking about the connection between Irish and African music. And he'd have a book to back it up. And he'd give you the book and then he'd question you on the book! It was The Bill Graham University we went to.
He'd see surf styles in Edge's guitar playing and then turn him onto Country Joe & the Fish or Arthur Lee's love -- groups we didn't know about. He basically opened his record collection to us - and then became very upset if one wasn't returned (laughs). Gavin was always laughing about the fact that Bill Graham had so much belief in the band that he'd actually lent Bono a record. Because I'm always losing things -- and I did lose a lot of Bill's stuff.
Bill turned me onto Miles Davis -- and that was a connection way ahead of its time for me. It was only later being in America on tour that Miles Davis began to make sense to me. And eventually I met Miles. And Miles got to know our music. And then when Miles was dying, they were actually playing him Unforgettable Fire. Mad connections -- and Bill always seemed to be at the root of them, way ahead of everyone else. Because he wasn't about fad or fashion.
He saw through us from the beginning. I mean we were a little bit naff but we were also a bit good -- and Bill reckoned the naff could be fixed. And that the good could maybe become great.
Edge was telling me about being with Bill at the Dark Space gig in The Project in 1979 and some band came on who were from the U.K. and were the hippest thing that year. And when everybody else was jumping up and down, Bill just turned to Edge and said: "You're much better than them; they're just much cooler."
That was typical Bill. The surface of things is where rock 'n' roll lives, but Bill was always looking under the surface, like a musical anthropologist, like David Attenborough. And then talking with his BBC 4 voice, that tuba of a voice, a whole brass section in your ear at 4 o'clock in the morning, pebble-dashing you with words and ideas. But the thing you didn't expect is that he would remember every detail of these conversations -- and would question you about them. He was like a mentor for us.
I remember one time when Sean O'Hagan and the photographer Bleddyn Butcher from the NME were on the road with us in America. We were all having dinner and Bleddyn found himself beside this erudite, academic musicologist who was talking with great passion and belief and eloquence about the band's music. Afterwards Bleddyn turned around to Regine Moylett (publicist) and said "That Paul McGuinness is a bit of genius, isn't he?" It was fucking Bill he'd been talking to (laughs). He'd thought it was the manager because this man was so committed. He had that faith. With Bill, things were always going to be better. And we were all going places. I can't imagine what it would have been like for the band if Bill hadn't been there from the beginning. So, of course. I loved him for that alone. But there was so much more to Bill.
I mean, he was much more exotic than the band. He was like this wild orchid. I remember on the first tour in America, we were on a stage in this place in Chicago that had tables with about 100 people there. To fit the venue I was wearing a dinner suit and, as I was prone to, decided to leave the stage and walk out among the tables. I was walking and walking and walking -- until, suddenly, I walked straight into Bill. He was just standing there, beaming that great lighthouse smile, and just said, "Ah! Aha! Now you've go it." Just taking the piss out of the whole scene.
I've been talking to a lot of people about Bill since we heard the news, and what has really struck me is how strongly people feel about him, at a very deep level. And I think that's because he was not ordinary. He was otherworldly.
A thing that leaves a really bad taste for me now, is that I hadn't seen Bill in nearly a year. I was always saying to Ali that we should have him over. I didn't just want to bump into him in a club or on a street. I wanted to spend the day with him -- because, really, you'd need to clear a whole day for Bill, I'm not going to be able to do that now, and that really pisses me off.
It's true that I was that first one in the band to approach Bill, but Bono certainly egged me on. At that stage for the band, any kind of educated ear was a source of information. We'd met Steve Averill -- or Steve Rapid as he was known then -- and he understood about international stuff and media manipulation. The other side of the coin was Bill, who understood the culture in an international sense as much as in an Irish sense.
In many ways, Bill wasn't geographically located in Ireland; he lived in the world of music. His references came from all over the place. I think that was very important for us to be aware of. And his encouragement and love for the band very early on was quite remarkable.
I was always happy to see Bill because he always had an insight; he understood things in a way that he wouldn't necessarily reveal to everyone. His remark to us about approaching Paul McGuinness to be our manager was: "This is the only person who could manage you internationally." That was an insight from someone who knew the bigger picture. And as the band developed over the years, Bill was always a sounding board. I'm not sure that he always agreed with where we were going -- we would have the odd run-in with him in print -- but his opinion was always important, his loyalty was always strong and his insights remain with us still.
As a writer, Bill could compete with the very best. One of the things about the Dublin media from the mid to late '70s is that they weren't really writing about Irish music in an international context; it was always very localised. Bill was different; he was always able to take the great reference points, whether it was the blues or the New York Dolls, and condense that into literature in a way that hadn't been done before that. But, really, it's hard for me to stand back from Bill's work; I knew him so well that when I read his stuff I can just see Bill.
How will I remember him? As a giant website. A giant of a man, actually.
Niall Stokes, Hot Press editor:
It will never be the same. It feels to us -- to all of us in Hot Press -- that something has been taken from us by the blackest and most malign forces imaginable. We are left staring into an appalling void. It is as much as those people who came through the war with Bill can do right now simply not to throw themselves in there after him.
He was utterly, utterly unique. It is said of many people, but it is amazingly true of Bill, that there never will be another one like him. We know that he is defiantly, magnificently, terrifyingly irreplaceable.
But we also know that he would have wanted nothing more than the mission to continue, even in his absence. Because, above all, his life and his work had been dedicated to doing anything he could -- in whatever small way or large -- to make the world a better place for those people lucky enough still to be alive in it.
And he had done that, influencing a whole generation of Irish musicians and readers of Hot Press in a way, and to an extent that compares positively with the biggest bands and the most important musicians the country has produced.
For years to come, we will hear his voice in the building. We will hear his laughter on the floor below. And we will hear his deep, dark attractive voice when we pick up the phone -- before someone else speaks.
And we will see his smile. And we will feel his love. And inspired by him, we will do whatever we do in his memory.
Sleep, sleep tonight and may your dreams be realised. We love you.
© Hot Press, 1996. All rights reserved.