BY TEQUILA MINSKY | I went to my first rock concert there. I was 11 years old,” said Neva Wartel, on hearing that a historic marker would be placed at the site of the Fillmore East. “I saw Jimi Hendrix, whose Band of Gypsies album was recorded live that night.”
Neva is now an ethnomusicologist and DJ.
Wartell was not the only one with fond memories of the short but very sweet life of the East Village rock venue, on Second Ave. near E. Sixth St., created by rock promoter Bill Graham, for whom the street is co-named. The Fillmore East was the sibling to his Fillmore West in San Francisco.
On a dreary drizzly autumn afternoon, denizens of the East Village and rock fans, most of them graying, joined the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation’s Andrew Berman to unveil a historical plaque at the site. The location’s ground floor now is an Apple Bank, which, along with Two Boots Pizza, co-sponsored the event.
Berman recounted some history of the building. In the 1920s it was a Yiddish theater — one of many on the avenue; then, it became the Loew’s Commodore movie house; and then the Village Theater.
From March 1968 through June 1971, the Fillmore East rocked the spot. It was followed in the ’80s by The Saint, a gay nightclub.
“It was so powerful in its brief life, presenting defining and iconic music,” Berman said. “This was a cultural institution for the Lower East Side, New York and the world.”
Among the many musical acts that performed there were The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Frank Zappa, the Chambers Brothers, Janis Joplin and John Lennon and Yoko Ono.
A slew of hands flew up when Berman asked the crowd, “How many of you came here?”
“I came here all the time and had a friend who was a friend of the ticket-taker. I never, ever paid,” said Bonnie Rosenstock, a longtime East Villager. She ticked off Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Jethro Tull and Blood, Sweat and Tears as some of the acts she saw there.
“I was there listening to The Who when an actual fire broke out,” Villager Jim Fouratt remembered. “The Who continued to play as they evacuated the auditorium row by row, starting from the back. This was all by design from the Fire Department and The Who, to prevent panic.”
Connie Martin, Apple Bank’s marketing director, saw the Allman Brothers, Joe Cocker and Iron Butterfly at the Fillmore East.
Joshua White of the Joshua Light Show was among the speakers at the Oct. 29 ceremony. His “liquid lightshows” — psychedelic colors projected on the walls — was a lighting backdrop for many of the acts.
“The light show was as important as the music,” Berman said.
Lee Erdman showed up at the event wearing an original T-shirt from the era. Its back read “1970” and the front, “Happy Fillmore New Year.” Back then, he had been an N.Y.U. student and was a special projects stagehand.
“The light show was the background to every show,” he said.
Lenny Kaye, guitarist of the Patti Smith Group wrapped up the street-side honors singing “Uncle John’s Band” by The Grateful Dead, with lyrics slightly modified for the occasion. Fiddler Leon Hartman, son of Two Boots’ Phil Hartman, accompanied him.