Chet Helms: Summer’s Child

Today, June 25, 2011,  is the sixth anniversary of Chet’s passing.

Chet Helms was born at 12:48 a.m. on August 2, 1942.

Chet Helms passed away at 12:34 a.m. on June 25, 2005.

Chet Helms was born on a Saturday in summer and Chet Helms passed away on a Saturday in summer. And along the way, Chet Helms became known as “The Father of The Summer of Love.”

“The hearts that love will know never winter’s frost and chill.

Summer’s warmth is in them still.”
                                                                                                                                  – Eben Eugene Rexford

Chet Helms was and always will be summer’s child.

 
Published in: on June 25, 2011 at 5:58 pm  Comments (2)  

Me and Morrison

Actually, there is no me and Morrison, meaning, of course, me and Jim Morrison.

There is only me admiring Morrison’s enormous talent, which I have done since January 6, 1967 when I saw The Doors at the Fillmore Auditorium, the band’s first appearance away from Los Angeles. The Doors were on a bill with Sopwith Camel and The Young Rascals that night and their performance remains one of the most electrifying I have ever seen. The next morning I went to Town & Country Records in San Mateo and bought their eponymous first album, which had been released that same week and which I promptly set about trying to wear out.

Now the reason I am mentioning this is that earlier today when I discovered that the 40th anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death is just a few days away, I remembered the time in the early ’80s I tried to spend a night in his home from 1968-70: Room 32 of the Alta Cienega Motel in West Hollywood.

I knew the Alta Cienega  had been his home because it was mentioned in the first Morrison biography, “No One Here Gets Out Alive,” that was published in 1980. Shortly after I read that book, I had to travel to Los Angeles to further (i.e. establish) my career. On the drive down from the Bay Area, I decided since my three scheduled meetings were in West Hollywood and since I needed a place to stay for two nights, I’d give the Alta Cienega a shot.

It was dark when I pulled my yellow, ’68 VW Beetle into the parking lot of the seedy motel, which was located on the corner of La Cienega Boulevard and Santa Monica Boulevard. The infamous Sunset strip was just up the hill, the infamous Barney’s Beanery was just around the corner and a hopping 7-11 was directly across the street.

When I rang the office bell, a light inside flashed on and a door slid open behind a small, barred window with a wooden ledge. The face of an ancient Asian woman appeared behind the bars. I asked if there were any vacancies and she wordlessly slid a registration form and a pen under the bars and onto the ledge. While filling out the registration card, I asked if there was a chance Room 32 was vacant. She replied, “$24. Cash only.”  I pushed the money under the bars and she  pushed a room key at me and slammed the door shut.

I don’t remember the number of the room in which I stayed that night, but it was on the second floor, it wasn’t #32 and it needed a major makeover to qualify as toxic.

When I was leaving the next morning, my next-door neighbor, a tall, skinny, shirtless, barefoot, long-haired gentleman was smoking a joint while leaning against the wall next to his room’s open door, out of which Dylan’s voice floated. When I shuffled past him, he gestured with his right hand and asked if I wanted to buy a painting.

Leaning against the wall next to him were three or four unframed canvasses, each of which was painted solid black. I glanced into his room and saw at least a dozen other canvasses painted black.  I thanked him, but said I wasn’t in a position to buy art at the moment. Or something.

In the parking lot, I walked past a rusty, hideously dented, blue and white Rambler station wagon that was stuffed with black paintings. I figured it was my former neighbor’s car and that he was a premanent resident at the ol’ Alta Cienega.

When someone passes away, people often say that he or she has gone to a better place.

In Jim Morrison’s case, I firmly believe that is true.

Published in: on June 24, 2011 at 4:57 am  Comments (1)  

The Legend of Chet and Janis – Excerpt I

(Several months ago I wrote in these pages that I was going to periodically post brief excerpts from the Chet Helms biography. This is the first installment.)

On Saturday, January 19, 1963, Janis celebrated her 20th birthday at Threadgill’s. It was also a going-away party because she had decided to leave The Waller Creek Boys and go to San Francisco with Chet.

On Wednesday, January 23, the couple hitched to Fort Worth and presented themselves at 3510 Avenue D on the east side of town, the home of Chet’s mother and stepfather.

That is the moment the enduring legend of Chet and Janis, peppered with a healthy dose of mythology, began.

Ellis Amburn in Pearl: “Chet’s mother was appalled when Janis came stomping into her house in her funky blue jeans, the first three buttons of her blue work shirt undone, and wearing no bra. Says Chet, ‘Janis sat around swearing like a trooper, right in front of my mother.’”

Amburn goes on to recount how when Chet’s mother refused to let the couple spend the night “there were screams and tears.”

Alice Echols in her Scars of Sweet Paradise more or less repeats this story.

But it strains credulity to believe that Janis, who could indeed be loud, course and vulgar with her friends, would behave that badly in the home of a friend’s parents, a home in which she was seeking temporary shelter. She simply hadn’t been raised that way. It also strains credulity that Chet, despite his periodic disagreements with his mother, would allow her to be so disrespected by someone he’d brought into her home.

Almost two decades before Amburn’s book and almost three before Echol’s, a far more sedate version of the incident appeared in Myra Friedman’s Janis biography, Buried Alive. She writes that although Chet’s mother was shocked by Janis’ mannish attire, she was far more distressed that her son was traveling with a person of the opposite sex. Friedman quotes Chet as saying, “It created a crisis in my mother’s religion.”

Chet’s younger brother, John, who was in the house that night, agrees. John was flabbergasted that Chet would show up with a female companion, expecting to be put up for a night or two, aware of his mother’s religious beliefs, not to mention the social mores of the day, but he insists that Janis neither stomped around nor swore in front of his mother.

  “That is 100 percent wrong,” John says. “Make that a thousand percent wrong. When my mother answered the door, Janis was standing next to Chet, strumming her autoharp and softly humming a tune. Janis was very sweet and polite with my mother.”

But neither Janis’ demeanor, nor Chet’s assurances that they were just friends convinced Novella that they should spend the night under her roof. So after dinner, John drove Chet and Janis out to the Fort Worth stockyards on the edge of town and dropped them off to begin the next leg of their journey. When John returned home, his distressed mother told him that having to turn Chet away had broken her heart.

And thus began Phase II of the legend of Chet and Janis.

The story Chet told countless times over the years is that he and Janis hitchhiked from Fort Worth straight through to San Francisco in 50 hours and went directly to North Beach where Janis sang a few songs at the former The Fox and The Hound, which, under new ownership, had recently changed its name to Coffee and Confusion. Despite a strict policy against passing the hat, the club’s crusty owner, Sylvia Fennell, was so impressed by Janis’ performance, she waived that rule, which resulted in a $50-$60 windfall for the newly-arrived Texans.

It’s a terrific story and it’s almost true.

Chet and Janis didn’t travel straight through from Fort Worth to San Francisco; they stopped in Santa Maria, Chet’s birthplace, to visit his favorite aunt, Ruth Helms Vallance, whose husband, Frank, had recently passed away. Ruth was temporarily living in an apartment with her youngest daughter, Goldie, while waiting for a new house to be completed. Her other three daughters were out of the house, but living in the area.

The Helms side of the family was considerably more liberal than the Dearmore side and Aunt Ruth had no qualms about allowing Chet and Janis to bunk at her place. During their brief stay in Santa Maria, Chet and Janis made the short side trip to Betteravia, the company town where Chet had spent his first nine years. They visited the general store where several employees and patrons told them stories about Chester Sr., who was fondly remembered more than a decade after his death. They also went to The Santa Maria Inn, which featured a display of some of the Native American artifacts Chester Sr. had spent his short lifetime collecting.

After spending a night in Santa Maria, Aunt Ruth and Goldie drove Chet and Janis to the Greyhound bus station. Ruth bought the couple bus tickets for the 250-mile jaunt north to San Francisco and lent them $20.

Two weeks later, Aunt Ruth received a card from Janis, thanking her for her generosity and hospitality. A $20 bill was tucked inside the card.

It is true that Janis sang at Coffee and Confusion soon after arriving in San Francisco and it is true that the hat was passed for her that night. Despite that initial success, Chet and Janis soon mostly went their separate ways, not because they had any personal conflicts, but because they had different agendas and separate circles of friends.

Published in: on June 13, 2011 at 7:06 pm  Comments (3)  

Rebel Without a Pause

Ten years ago my favorite contemporary writer, Elmore Leonard, published his “10 Rules of Writing” in a New York Times article.

Rule #1: Never open a book with the weather.

With that in mind, here is the opening line of my in-progress Chet Helms biography:

“One day in 1931 the rains stopped and the winds began.”

Oooops!

I didn’t ignore Mr. Leonard’s weather rule on purpose; I simply wasn’t thinking of his rule or anyone else’s rule when I wote that sentence, which, by the way, I ain’t dropping.

When I mentioned my egregious rule violation to my friend Malinda, she laughed and told me to read the opening line of a book I had published in 1978. I dug up a copy of “A Hallelujah Jamboree: The Sister Mary Mummy Stories,” a collection of allegedly humorous scribblings, and flipped it open.

Chapter 1, line 1:

 “After a solid week of spewing forth violent thunderstorms that were brief in duration but strung together tighter than an expensive strand of pearls, the morning sky finally displayed the sun against a cloudless, blue background.”

Oooops again.

I won’t mention what I’ve done with the other nine rules.

Published in: on June 13, 2011 at 2:22 am  Comments (3)  

FYI

I have been a first-class slacker for the past more than several months in terms of posting stuff to this here blog, and fully two of my three regular readers have noticed this. One thought I might be dead; the other figured I had been abducted by aliens and had taken my Chet Helms biography manuscript with me.  I could, of course, make excuses for my slackerism, but the only one I can think of is, “My dog ate my keyboard.”

Truth is, I have retreated into a sort of self-imposed solitary confinement to focus on writing the story of Chet’s life, after spending almost five years doing primary research.  Which proves, if nothing else, that I’m not all that into instant gratification.

Anyway, the Chet book is going very well and I can almost see the rainbow at the end of the tunnel. I’m seriously considering posting occasional excerpts from the book in this space, so I’m asking all three of you to check in once in a while.

Published in: on January 19, 2011 at 7:43 pm  Comments (3)  

Chet Helms: Summer’s Child

Today, June 25, 2010,  is the fifth anniversary of Chet’s passing.

Chet Helms was born at 12:48 a.m. on August 2, 1942.

Chet Helms passed away at 12:34 a.m. on June 25, 2005.

Chet Helms was born on a Saturday in summer and Chet Helms passed away on a Saturday in summer. And along the way, Chet Helms became known as “The Father of The Summer of Love.”

“The hearts that love will know never winter’s frost and chill.

Summer’s warmth is in them still.”
                                                                                                                                  – Eben Eugene Rexford

Chet Helms was and always will be summer’s child.

Published in: on June 25, 2010 at 5:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

Chet Helms & Charles M. Schulz

Note: The above title is, uh, a bit misleading. OK, make that totally misleading. I don’t know if Chet knew or ever met Mr. Schulz. They didn’t exactly travel in the same circles, but Chet knew so many people in the Bay Area, you never know. (I know, I know, that’s two ‘knows’ and two ‘knews’ in consecutive sentences, not to mention two more ‘knows’ in this parenthetical.  So before this gets even more ridiculous, let’s move on to some other words, shall we?)

If this isn’t about Chet and Mr. Schulz, what is it about? Well, it’s about me and Mr. Schulz. But for anyone patient or bored enough to read what follows, there is a Chet connection (of sorts) at the end.

In the late ’70s I was, for reasons I still don’t understand, invited to participate in a book project with the tennis legend, Billie Jean King, and the equally legendary cartoonist/philosopher, Charles M Schulz. The book would be called “Tennis Love” and Mr. Schulz would contribute 50 original Snoopy illustrations.

For the next year or so, I met regularly with Billie Jean and periodically with Mr. Schulz and we ended up with a manuscript and over four dozen brilliant drawings of Snoopy. (At our first meeting, Mr. Schulz, who was and is one of the nicest people I have ever met, told me to call him by his nickname, “Sparky.”)

One fall morning, an eternity after the manuscript and artwork had been shipped off to Simon & Schuster, I was wandering the aisles of a small bookstore a few blocks from my San Mateo, CA  hovel when the spine of a book on a shelf in the sports section caught my eye.  The title sounded vaguely familiar, probably because it was the title of the book I had worked on for so long.  I snatched the book off the shelf and saw, for the first time, the wonderful front cover – a photograph of Billie Jean clad in her work togs, standing next to Snoopy on one of the grass courts at Forest Hills. I also couldn’t help but notice my name on the cover. I bought the book.

Flash forward about a year. I accompanied Sparky and his lovely wife to a women’s tennis match at the Oakland Coliseum, which is now called something like the WD 40/Burger King/Bud Light/iPlace. During a break in the match, I handed Sparky my copy of the book and asked if he’d autograph it for me.  He said he would, took a pen out of his pocket, opened the book and set to work. Fully three or four minutes later he closed the book, handed it to me and re-pocketed his pen.  As much as I wanted to see what had taken him so long to write, I didn’t look at the inscription until I got home later that night.  When I finally did see it, I was stunned. It was only a few words long: “To Greg with friendship - Sparky.”

 Turns out that what had taken him so much time was the large drawing of a pigeon-pawed Snoopy, swinging a tennis racquet.

 I treasure that book. And I treasure the memories of the conversations I had with Sparky.

 Now here’s the promised payoff: During my research into Chet’s life, two people have told me that Chet was absolutely convinced that Charles M. Schulz smoked a lot of pot, saying that only a pothead could have come up with some of the stuff that flowed from Schulz’s talented pen.

Published in: on May 26, 2010 at 11:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Daughter’s Tribute

Note: In May 2006 I was contacted by a woman named Mindi Anderson who had a Chet Helms’ story she wanted to share with me about her time working at Family Dog Denver almost four decades earlier. Mindi lived in Lodi, CA, and, as luck would have it, I was going to be passing by Lodi later that week. We arranged to meet for lunch at The Lodi Beer Company. We instantly became great and good friends.

A few weeks later, we took a road trip to Paso Robles, CA to visit her father, Seymour.  Mindi and I spent most of the weekend listening to Seymour who, between stories of his childhood in Poland, delved into philosophy, ancient history, literature, religion and a dozen other topics.

We returned to Paso Robles the following New Year’s weekend to celebrate Seymour’s 87th or 88th birthday. Shortly before midnight on New Year’s Eve, Mindi, Seymour and I went to the upstairs bar at the Paso Robles Inn just around the corner from Seymour’s apartment. The place was packed and the live music was blasting. Mindi and I finally found an empty table in the back far corner of the large room and were settling in when we realized we had lost Seymour. As it turned out, we hadn’t lost him at all; he had ditched us. And there he was, out on the dance floor, rocking out with not one, but two – Count ‘em, two! – very attractive, twenty-something young women.

Seymour passed away a couple of weeks ago and his memorial service was held on April 23. What follows is the beautiful eulogy Mindi Anderson wrote and read at the service for her father. It is, I think, well worth reading.

 

THREE SIMPLE SHAPES

THAT WILL FOREVER REMIND ME OF MY FATHER

One is Straight;   One is Square;    One is Round

1)   THE STRAIGHT LINE SHAPE – The straight pin

 There is some interesting history about the little old straight pin. Published in the Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith in 1776 is a description of the art of pin-making: the master craftsman first drew out the wire; then he straightened it; then he cut the wire; then he sharpened it; then he ground the opposite end for the head; then he attached the head; finally he would polish it. What once was an eight-hour ordeal to make just one by hand, soon went missing during the industrial revolution when machines and the assembly line took over and received the glory for a once upon a time art form. It was a time when quality was exchanged for quantity and a major compromise was made with the meaning of our work.

My dad was a tailor. Making, altering and mending garments was his specialty. He viewed it as an artful talent; a gift from God; a calling to contribute his best to society; his ultimate purpose in life. But like the little, forsaken straight pin, the meaning of his work got lost when hundreds of zippers or pockets were sewn into trousers by dollar-a-day laborers in the basement of New York’s garment district.  So as to not allow the value of his work to disappear with supply and demand, he stepped out in faith and opened his own shop. He called it, “Seymour’s Fine Tailoring,” and later changed the name to, “Seymour’s; The Art of Tailoring.  

My father was never about big business. He was, however, about big purpose. There were times when he worked all night on a suit coat, getting it just right.  He never charged by the hour; he charged by the job.  But most times, he got so much meaning out of what he did, that he practically gave his work away.  But then, that was my Dad. I should know; I worked with him at his shop for years after school and even on some Saturdays.  He made me do the same job over and over until it was perfect. After all, it was for his customers and they were always very special people. And because he viewed his customers as special his work ethic was impeccable. No cutting corners in order to make a buck. Time was never money for my father. Time was used to bring quality back into his line of work. And, I picked up pins. They were continuously falling onto the tailor shop floor. They will always remind of the perfectionist, the tailor, who never viewed his work as meaningless labor. Who took the simple out of ordinary and turned it into the extraordinary. Once I remember him pressing a pocket he had just made. He motioned for me to come see what he was doing. So proud he was of his masterpiece. “Look at this,” he would say. “I swear to God I have never made pockets like this before in my life,” even though he did, countless times before. Every time I see simple sewing notions, such as the button, the needle and thread, the thimble, the chalk and the straight pin, I’ll be seeing my Dad.

2)  THE SQUARE SHAPE – The book

 From nursery rhymes to the Bible, to poetry, philosophy, world and US history, to watching him role model the avid reading of every book he could get his hands on — throughout the day and into the night until he fell asleep in a book. Why? Because he felt he never had a proper education so he was determined to educate himself. And when is enough, enough? If you ask him, the answer would be, “Never.” He believed in ever-learning. He had delusions of grandeur about being “The Teacher.” But he was more like “The Rabbi.” And he made us listen to what he learned. And if our eyes were not focused on him, he would become silent until they were.  Many times he repeated the same story, telling it as if it were the first time he ever told it, boring us to tears!  But because of his relentless insistence, I know most every one of his stories by heart. Now, every time I see one of his books, or hear a children’s nursery rhyme, or read a poem, or listen with great feeling to lines from Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Thomas Gray or Longfellow, every time I am moved or stirred by what is in front of me, I’ll be seeing my Dad, tears running down his face, his voice raising to a higher pitch, probably due to some sadness deep in his heart from a long time ago that he saved for moments such as this.

3)  The SQUARE MEAL – Dad and his snack.

 No one was hungry until dad said, “UMMMMMM” and chomped down on a simple little thing like a slice of apple and made it sound like a hot fudge sundae. Then we were all over that apple.

He made us waffles, French toast, French crepes, pancakes and perfectly cooked eggs and he did this for us on most weekend mornings, making us watch, teaching us how to cook it perfectly, telling us the little secrets to his success. He instilled in us healthy eating habits and correct table manners at every meal. Dad believed we should eat everything on our plate. Some nights weren’t so tasty. But we had to sit there until we ate it all. There were nights when it seemed we sat there until 11 PM, in tears.  Thank God my mother had a weakness for stray dogs. And one happened to join our family just in the nick of time. He loved to hang out – guess where? — under our dinner table where my sisters and I gladly let him explore our napkins, which lay on our lap after we daintily wiped our mouths, secretly spitting unwanted food into them. But Dad also allowed us to lick our plates clean when our favorites were served. We could do this right in front of our father without criticism.

It was always clear that he was the defining leader in our home. He ruled the roost with great authority. Yet he had a tender and sensitive side too. He insisted on a kiss from us with every good morning and every good night; and one from my mother with every hello when he got home from work and every good-bye when he left the house. And he didn’t view crying as a weakness. He especially cried when his heart was stirred with emotion while reminiscing about his past. And I will hear him in French folk songs, in the mandolin, the harmonica, the mournful violin, and the piano. Or when I go by car on a long trip, I will hear my father putting the kibosh on boredom with ‘Oh Little Liza, Little Liza Jane,’ ‘I’m a Yankee Doodle Dandy,’ ‘Oh Susanna’ or ‘The Green Grass grew all Around, All Around, And the green grass grew all around. Now there was a tree . . .” And we’d all have fun singing together. From the singing of songs that he loved — among them being, Moon River and the Lord’s Prayer — to the listening of the grand masters of classical music, he saw to it that our attention was always on him. Every time I sit down to eat one of those ‘square meals,’ delicious or not; from food, to lectures, to lessons learned, I’ll be seeing my Dad. 

4)  THE SQUARE ANGLE – The making up the perfect bed.

 The fold of the top sheet at the foot of the bed had to be the square angle-up-tuck-drop-tuck-and-fold method. This was the way it was done in the army. Still to this day, I fold the top sheet this way, especially for company. Bev and Scott Anderson, my former in-laws — who are here this morning — will have the privilege of sleeping in a bed made the way my Father taught me. So every time I fold the square angle at the foot of the bed, I’ll be seeing my Dad.

5)  THE ROUND SHAPE – The moon

The last few days before my Dad passed away, I noticed his face looking vaguely familiar but I couldn’t put my finger on it.  His face had become perfectly round. His eyes were bandaged with two gauze bandages. His mouth slightly opened, like he was blowing out a candle; his countenance, still. And then it hit me: he looked just like the man in the moon; that wise man up there, looking down on the world, providing just the right amount of light to guide us on our way. Every time I look up, my expectation is that the sun is up before I am; that the moon is there in the evening time, long after I go to sleep, that neither of them ever miss a day of work; and that unmistakable, unique expression that is fixed on the man in the moon, this is the face of my father – captured in a snap shot I will carry in the pocket of my heart forever. So every time I see the moon, I’ll be seeing my Dad.

We will all miss him. He instilled in me a deep understanding for things pertaining to culture and tradition and taught me to love, need and respect them in my life. May I be faithful to pass them down with the same reverence to my children: the music and the dancing;  the food and the celebrating; the sitting around visiting, and the telling of stories; the hard job of doing things the right way, and the sheer delight of a job well done; The taking good care of self, while at the same time caring for people; the standing up for what you believe while respecting the beliefs of others; common  sense and a keen sense of awareness and intuition; and that it’s good to be sensitive and OK to cry, whether they be tears of happiness or tears of sorrows.

And so now we cry remembering him. We are sensitive to our own feelings and to each other whose lives he touched, and changed, and made better. We will sit around and visit. We will eat sharp cheddar, apples and grapes, and good French bread, and laugh. We will sing and dance and remember his stories, and how he validated, supported and often times, saved us from the errors of our ways. In this way, he was like God, exposing us when we were wrong and then covering us in his love. 

These are the simple things that shaped my life: the straight line, the simple square and the perfect round. I’ll be seeing my Father in straight pins and other simple things. I’ll be looking at the moon, but I’ll be seeing you, Dad, I’ll be seeing you.

There is a saying that goes like this: “Sing like no one is listening, dance like no one is watching, and live every day as if it were the last day of your life.” My father sang only when people were listening, danced only when people were watching and lived everyday as if it were the first day of the rest of his life.

He was different. He was of the variety that puts the spice into life, and he was the sparkling light in some people’s darkness, mine included.

William Shakespeare wrote – (from As You Like It)

     All the world’s a stage,

 And all the men and women merely players:

 They have their exits and their entrances;

 And one man in his time plays many parts.

To Seymour the performer, who gave the entire world permission to validate him, Seymour the Toastmaster, who gave his audience permission to evaluate him, Seymour, both the ballroom and the folk-dancer, Seymour the opera singer, Seymour, the story-teller, Seymour, the Buddhist, the Baptist, and the Jew, Seymour, the father, grand father, great-grandfather, uncle and friend, and to the greatest tailor who ever lived: may you sew the wings of the angels, mend the silver lining of the clouds, and waltz forever across the sky.

WE WILL NEVER FORGET YOU. YOU DID LEAVE YOUR STAMP DEEP ON OUR HEARTS, WHICH I KNOW WAS YOUR LIFELONG INTENT.

Published in: on April 26, 2010 at 7:33 pm  Comments (5)  

James Gurley

 

December 22, 1939 – December 20, 2009

Rock In Peace

Published in: on April 22, 2010 at 4:44 am  Comments (1)  

Posterus Maximus

 

This is a rather poor photograph of a 12′ x 5′ banner containing high-quality, 5″ x 7″ reproductions of every Family Dog Fillmore, Family Dog Avalon Ballroom and Family Dog Denver poster. 

When I unrolled it on my front lawn, which fronts a moderately busy street, it literally stopped traffic. For over an hour people were pulling over and parking their vehicles to get a closer look.  Probably 20 percent of them knew what they were looking at, but 100 percent absolutely loved it.

Published in: on March 21, 2010 at 8:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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