Joshua White is renowned for his light show at the Fillmore East (not to be confused with the inanely re-branded The Fillmore New York at Irving Plaza) in the late sixties and early seventies. Employing an arsenal of various trailblazing effects, including the now-iconic “liquid light”, the Joshua Light Show catapulted Fillmore crowds into cosmic depths from which many have yet to return.
In his post-Fillmore life, White has gone on to a career in television direction and mixed-media art. But he continues to keep a few fingers dipped in the liquid light. This Wednesday, The Kitchen offers a rare chance to experience the Joshua Light Show, in collaboration with music and visual art duo Delia Gonzalez and Gavin Russom. In addition to the liquid light, White will lead a team of video artists, including Bec Stupak (Honeygun Labs), to improvise visuals behind a giant rear projection screen.
How does what you’re going to do at The Kitchen differ from your light show at the Fillmore?
The show at the Fillmore was perfect for its time and I don’t wish to recreate it. I’m interested in regenerating some of the visual techniques and forms that I thought were very important when I was doing it back then and that I haven’t had a great deal of opportunity to do in the present. One of those is improvisation. Because of our situation and where we were at the Fillmore, we were able to improvise on a very large, thirty to forty foot canvas behind the musicians as they performed. We had a knowledge of their music but we weren’t following any score, we were just improvising, making something visual using our tools. So improvisation is the key. So what we will do at The Kitchen is the same idea with different musicians and different music. Bec Stupak, my collaborator, and I will improvise. That’s number one.
Number two is adapting new technology. When we did the light show we were forced by the limitations of the technology of the time to develop very high powered projectors and light sources that could punch through a large rear projection screen and be highly visible for the audience, while at the same time allowing for the musicians to be properly lit. Only recently has the technology evolved to the point where there actually are ways you can project that are very powerful and don’t require big equipment. Most of them involve video projection. So this show is a merging of the old heavy duty projection techniques with the modern video projection techniques. VJ work; Bec is a VJ. And we’ve worked together for years developing ideas and techniques and so this will be a chance for us to work together.
How did you get involved with Bill Graham and the Fillmore East?
Well I had been searching around for things. If we accept the premise that "the sixties” sort of began in 1965, I was very young and I wanted to come up with something interesting to do. Something that was visually reflective of everything that was going on in terms of music and fashion and lifestyle. Because I had been trained in theater at Carnegie Tech and film at USC, I had all the skills but I could not find a place where I could make work that was really exciting. But things began to change in the mid sixties and I was able to start doing fashion shows that used lighting and film effects. And I was able to design and build lighting for discothèques – and there’s a big difference between the old discothèques and the 70s ‘discos’ that we all think about. The discothèques were much more refined affairs. So I actually had a business with several other associates…
And just by sheer good luck one of the people working with us happened to have a relationship with the agency that represented Bill Graham. And Bill Graham had been quite successful in San Francisco producing these very interesting shows in a ballroom called the Fillmore. And you went in, everybody paid cash, the band got up and played, the light show performed all over the walls, people walked around in various states and it was very groovy.
And in the summer of ‘67 Bill was asked to transport the whole idea to Toronto for a week. And they wanted to have a Summer of Love San Francisco week in Toronto. Bill agreed to come and bring the Jefferson Airplane and The Grateful Dead and hire a local band. The problem was that the place where they wanted to stage it was a traditional theater. So they went into this theater and the light show wanted to cut off the balcony – which had very valuable seats – and do their traditional light show. And they wanted somebody preferably not from San Francisco to serve as the people in between – in between the reality of the event and the practicality of the theater. And that was me.
So we went and we figured out a way that the light show could perform without tying off the balcony and we provided environmental lighting. And at the last minute I even had to do the stage lighting because the person who was supposed to do it got busted trying to get into Canada carrying drugs. And what happened is that the Dead and the Airplane played for a week and the San Francisco light show performed on a rear projection screen that was our design. And we provided other lights and things that went around the room to give it a ballroom effect. And I sat in the back and called the lights. In those days calling the lights was basically going from red to amber to red-amber and back to red again. There was no real lighting; it was just a glow. But I had to do it for eight performances and watch The Dead and The Airplane play and at the same time stare at the San Francisco light show. And I was just transformed. I said, “I love the music and I need to do these light shows – I need to do that light show specifically.”
And then we got lucky again. We were there in Toronto doing the shows and the Summer of Love was a concept that didn’t have a lot of real life applied to it. So it turned out that the San Francisco light show, which was called Head Lights, were fighting with each other. They hated each other. They were doing the shows but they were fighting and fighting backstage. Literally right in the middle of the run they broke up. They continued to do the work, of course, but half of the light show, a man named Glenn McKay, sort of began to fall in with us. And he came back to New York with us and we built him a new light show because we had the technology. And he in turn showed us the mixing techniques for the oil and the water. And Glenn and I have been friends for 40 years.
And from that point on, from the fall of ‘67, we were the Joshua Light Show and it was just a matter of finding work. And we were happy to let go of all the disco lighting and the fashion shows. Then Bill Graham came to New York and decided to open the Fillmore East and we were, of course, the light show. But Bill didn’t give us our start; we were already doing it and Bill came to town. And he couldn’t have treated us better or paid us better. It was heaven for two years.
You must have had some memorable encounters with some of the characters who passed through there.
I did and I had them in an interesting way because the light show didn’t have to actually connect with the musicians; we could enjoy them. We were performing behind them but we were only 18 feet away. And our prep room was literally next door to the star dressing room at the Fillmore. And none of those layers of security were there. We just hung. So the really nice musicians were great and the ones that were pricks we didn’t talk to. But it made no difference, we were literally in the same place, we were right in each other’s faces.
And it was a time when we did two shows on Friday and two shows on Saturday. Tickets started, by the way, at two dollars, two-fifty. And it was a reserve seat so everyone who came was guaranteed a seat. And because it was a theater they were looking forward, not wandering around. So we felt the light show had to be very disciplined; we couldn’t mess around. We had to really be good. And being good – aside from the visuals – was starting on time, listening to the music, finishing on time. So we got it all; we go to hang with The Who, we got to perform behind them and we have great memories of them but I can’t tell you that we palled around a lot because they were musicians and we were visual artists
Any memories of anyone acting particularly crazy?
Oh sure… Let me see, who acted crazy? There was good crazy, which was The Who. They were wonderful crazy because they were sort of these rough edged guys and they brought their own rough edge guys with them. Anybody with an English accent in those days ruled. They were The Who, they were the best band in the world. But a lot of the musicians by the time they got to the Fillmore, especially the most established ones like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin that had already made a name for themselves were a little bit…what would be the word… they were alcoholics. So there was a lot of bizarre, alcoholic sort of behavior. But Bill Graham was really a great entrepreneur, really the greatest I’ve ever experienced, and he kept everybody in line. So even though there was always some kind of craziness there was never a sense of danger. I don’t remember ever failing to put on a show. I cannot remember a band not ultimately giving four great performances.
You were there the night Bill Graham let the Fillmore be used for a benefit for the Living Theatre. Can you describe what happened that night?
Basically, the Living Theatre was very much of that time. Because it was a difficult time in terms of people really understanding the nature of politics, everybody was trying to find an identity, there were no shades of gray, and you were either with us or against us. And the Living Theatre, which had been around, was in a moment where they had their voice. And their voice was, “We represent power to the people and a complete freedom and no censorship.” Their mantra was literally “I can’t travel without my passport!” That was the kind of thing that moved them.
They were sexy and they did a lot of stuff involving nudity. And they were highly thought of as being the theater of this emerging demi monde subculture. But at the same time Beck and Molina were long-time theater people going back to World War II. They were Brechtian-influenced theater people who were interested in this kind of ‘living newspaper’ confrontational theater. And Bill Graham had no reason not to allow the Fillmore to be used for a benefit. And the Living Theatre did their theater, which was very much about, "Let’s burn down the theater!" Which of course didn’t literally happen but there was this idea: “Let’s liberate this theater because music should be free and music is for the people!”
And Bill Graham, to his eternal credit, stood up to them. He stood on the stage because he was an actor and he was of that world. He understood and he said, “Why does the Fillmore have to be for free? Why don’t you go and do this at the Metropolitan Opera?”
And he stood them down. And they did what they do which is create a kind of improvised noise performance. And the Fillmore crew – there were a lot of us. So we were there to protect our theater. And we never really felt there was any real threat, it was really more intellectual than anything. And eventually at four o’clock in the morning the last person was screaming invectives at Bill and Bill looked around and saw that everybody had gone and Bill just picked him up and threw him out. And that was the end of the liberation of the Fillmore. But what it was, and this is to answer your question, it was a theatrical happening. It was not people sitting around and saying, “How can we liberate the Fillmore?” This was a theatrical happening.
And because all of us at the theater were college educated and of the moment, we didn’t take it as a threat; we didn’t go and reach for shotguns. We were much more sophisticated than that, we understood that this was all about words. And it was funny because they literally brought a mimeograph machine out on stage and people were writing manifestos and distributing them to the audience. And it was based on the rock n’ roll version of what was going on at Columbia or Berkeley. It was: “Let’s occupy the building, let’s take over the dean’s office!”
The problem with that premise was that music and politics didn’t really mix. People wanted their politics, they wanted to fight the man, but they also wanted their music. So in the end there was no real groundswell to actually liberate the Fillmore. There was no people’s movement, there was really nothing there. Because the Fillmore was not this rip-off place: you paid for the ticket and you got an amazing show. And Bill was very good at standing up and being the symbol. And I believe that Bill allowed the theater to be free every Tuesday night, which simply meant that we opened the doors and everybody could pal around. And all it was really was a bunch of drunks beating on cans.
And after a time that passed, it just went away. Because there many more socially interesting things that could be done besides allowing the Living Theatre to name the agenda… So Bill handled that really well. There were never any real threats from anybody, including the police, who he didn’t pay off but treated respectfully. It was actually – for as long as it could be – the last a pocket of calm and a pocket of art that was really a great social revolution. Which in the end, if you remember correctly, elected Richard Nixon. The political events, the Black Panther evenings, just didn’t stick. They may be legendary but they didn’t really affect the theater. What changed everything were the drugs.
In what way?
First of all, people who didn’t use drugs at all, who drank, like the Hells Angels, began to become drug dealers and were subsequently, in the seventies, very much in trouble for that. But the pot-smoking, sort of ‘shared joint sweetness and mellowness’ turned into cocaine. And this was after a few years. But now the bands were coming out fueled with cocaine. And people really didn’t know that cocaine was not this wonder drug. People really thought, “This is great, I have amazing energy!” And they really weren’t aware of the after effects. So I felt a change in the environment, in the atmosphere, not just in the theater as a whole but in the light show, as the drugs switched to this much more deadly form. And that continued well into the ‘70s and it still goes on today. But it went from being this ‘we’re all in this together, hash brownies, let’s put on a show’, to angry. To angry. And angry was not conducive to this thing that I wanted to do.
Reading about the counterculture explosion in those days at the end of the ‘60s, it just seems like another planet to me.
I think that’s actually fair. The thing was the counterculture was something not unlike the other term I heard called ‘The Woodstock Notion’. You know they call it The Woodstock Nation but it’s really a notion. It’s a state of mind. I happen to have been raised in New York City, I went to the Elizabeth Irwin High School, The Little Red Schoolhouse; all my schoolmates in the ‘50s were the children of famous left wingers like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Arthur miller. So I was already raised in that culture, with the idea that all men are equal, all women are equal and the status quo, which was the Eisenhower years, was not good.
So I was fine with that. But I felt no need to burn my draft card. If I put a peace symbol up on the screen at just the right moment, when it pleased the audience – not pandered – then I did my job. My job was to give support. But it was really a very black-and-white time; the counterculture was finding its roots. And as you know from studying history, the icons of the counterculture – Jerry Rubin, Abby Hoffman – turned out to be kind of sleazebags. Even though they may have been interesting in the moment they were no different than the media whores of today. They were just there; they made important statements but they also cared about their press and all of those things.
It was a very confusing time made more complex by the fact that there were no shades of gray. So you were either a member of the counterculture or you were a Narc. And that’s why the poor Vietnam veterans got so screwed over, because it was polarized. They were just soldiers, no different than the guys in Iraq, they were just in an impossible situation but they became symbols of everything that was wrong in our culture. Which now, fortunately, people are trying to make up for. Everything was black-and-white, ‘you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution.’ Well, that’s not necessarily true. There are lots of steps in between.
Fortunately, as a light show we were just too busy pleasing people in a visual sense to be deeply drawn into the politics of the time. There was just no time. But we appreciated it and we certainly did everything we could to support this movement, even though nobody really knew what it was. And we marched on Washington and did all of those things but we were apolitical. And it turned out so were the bands. And the bands that were very political, like MC5 and people like that really lost their fan base or they got confused. The Grateful Dead got very confused.
Bill Graham said in an interview that a lot of people were demanding that the concerts be free and they were calling him a capitalist pig. And he would point out that nobody wants to blame the musicians; the musicians are the ones who need to get paid but nobody dares point the finger at them.
He was wonderfully articulate that way. He would stand up and make a simple clear statement and cut through the bullshit. And that’s why I got to do my light show, because Bill Graham decided that the audience needed to have something to look at besides a bunch of musicians in street clothes tuning up. So he spent the money to have a light show; there was no precedent before that. And after he stopped there weren’t a whole lot of light shows afterwards. He spent over a thousand dollars a week to have this light show and he gave me his undiluted trust to do it, he made no demands, he just trusted me and I honored that trust by delivering an amazingly fine light show that pleased people because it filled in the visual part.
Do you get consulted at all on movies set in that period?
I do from time to time. I’ve learned never to chase after people but to always say yes. But we did so much film consulting and film participating in the ‘60s. We were the designers of the party scene for Midnight Cowboy. It’s actually a turning point where the two characters go from being outsiders to being a pimp and his stud. And it happens at this party, which they wanted to be a Warhol party. And when they went to the Warhol people they found that they were not able to function on that level. But the Joshua Light Show was. So they hired us to basically consult and do the lighting and stage a Warhol party. And since I’d been in New York and we knew all these people this was fine with us. We were happy to have the money; we didn’t care if it wasn’t about us. I’ve consulted and participated in other films like The Rose, which was Bette Midler’s Janis Joplin story.
Did you direct episodes of Seinfeld?
One episode. I have a lot of sitcom directing credits but the one that’s the most prestigious is the Seinfeld episode called The Library, in the earlier part of the series.
The one with Philip Baker Hall?
That’s the one.
I love that episode. That’s one of my favorites.
Thank you very much. It was the first time they were doing a flashback. Larry David, who I’d worked with on the Max Headroom series, called me and asked me to come out and do it. Being a soldier of fortune I hopped on a plane and went to the studio and met everybody and did it. I’m very proud of it. Being a freelance television director there are these high points and low points. That was one of the high points.
That’s a classic. And Max Headroom really fascinated me as a kid. I wish they’d release that on DVD.
I can’t take credit for the Max Headroom series. They made this one film in England that I thought was brilliant. And then the person who controlled the character came to America and made a TV series out of it that was not successful. But in between they did a talk show with Max Headroom. And I did that for Cinemax. And that was great because he was the ultimate talk show host in that he wasn’t there. The guests would be brought in talk-show style and sit down with the host; the problem was that the host was a head on a television set. And the actor Matt Frewer, who was very young, was just amazing. He could just sit in a room and be Max Headroom. He just had the gift. It was an incredible talent.
Can you tell us about your work that will be shown at the Whitney?
The Summer of Love show [at the Whitney] is a very interesting show because it presents, essentially in frames or on pedestals, art objects and things that are typical of the Summer of Love, which was 40 years ago. We did art experiments at the Fillmore from time to time because we were so good – and this sounds immodest – but we were so strong with the music that we could afford to let Kusama come out and do a happening on stage and see what happens. We literally did a light show behind a Kusama happening.
I’m not familiar with that.
She’s a Japanese artist who paints polka dots on things. She’s a contemporary of Yoko Ono but she did a lot of work with light. There’s a video we made that represents the very highest level of liquid light projection that we recreated and shot on film, which I edited together in a series of loops. So it is the most pure light show. It’s exactly what you imagine the light show to be; the oil and water mix. The light show was far more complicated than that but when you look at this you say, “This is it”. I’m told that at the Whitney, the Joshua Light Show is right there when you come out of the elevator on the second floor. And I’m honored.
And we will use those same techniques at the show Wednesday night. I’m bringing those projectors and I’m going to reproduce those techniques; plus we will then mix them with the video. So the whole idea, just to return to where we started, is that it’s a mix of analog and video and we’re going to try and mix them together. What we’ve done very carefully is not rehearse. We are setting it up so we can listen to the music – which we’re familiar with – and then do what we feel. That’s what this moment is for me; that’s very important. And The Kitchen gave us a terrific opportunity because what you don’t see is the 24 hours ahead of time when I can set up. So it’s very important for me to have that prep time and The Kitchen is very generous with that sort of thing.