I Finally Get My Answer

After much careful consideration and a meticulous review of the microscopic print that saturates my health insurance policy, which is with a small HMO called Dr. Goodwrench, and which apparently is subject to instant and automatic cancellation should I ever attempt to use it, I have decided to perform a difficult and dangerous maneuver.

What I’m going to do is this: I’m going to take several steps backward, followed immediately by an Olympian leap forward.

According to the medical literature, the last person to attempt this suffered a torn ACL and a permanent loss of the ability to pronounce words that begin with the letter ‘e.’

First, the backward steps. A few weeks ago I posted in this space – well, not in this exact space, but you know what I mean – a piece called Why Me?  in which I wondered why Chet Helms had asked me to help him write his autobiography. I was flabbergasted by his choice. Grateful, but flabbergasted nonetheless.

Several weeks later, I thought I had the answer. I thought the answer was that although I was familiar with the so-called San Francisco Scene in the  ’60s, I hadn’t been an ‘insider’ so I didn’t know anyone personally and could be objective.  Problem was, that answer only made sense if Chet felt or knew that he wouldn’t finish The Book and I never got the slightest sense of either of those things from him.

Now comes the big leap forward. During the first several months after Chet passed away, I began meeting more and more folks who had been part of his world, many of them for decades and several of them for his entire life. It turns out that a number of these people knew who I was because Chet had mentioned me to them.

Anyway, while talking to someone – I can’t remember whom – I said that I had no idea why, with all of the options available to him, Chet chose me to be his collaborator. This person said, “Chet told me he really liked your sense of humor, your outspokenness and your integrity.”

Later, I heard very similar comments from a few others, and there it was: The answer I had been seeking.

I knew I had a decent sense of humor and I certainly knew I tended to be outspoken, usually in pursuit of a laugh. I also knew I had integrity, but how did Chet know?  After all, we had only a single conversation before forming our collaborative partnership. Then I remembered a brief exchange we’d had during that conversation. For some reason I asked Chet if he was going to write a truthful book and he said he was. I said that although I knew absolutely nothing about him other that what I’d read over the years, I suspected that a full and honest account of his life would likely hurt and/or anger some people.  I asked if he’d given that much thought.

“Yes,” he said, “I’ve given it a lot of thought. But if I don’t tell the truth, there’s really no point.” 

Indeed.

I am, because of my nature, seriously tempted to end this by saying something flip and ridiculous such as why Chet selected me doesn’t really matter, but the fact he did select me illustrates the depth of his wisdom.

But I’m not gonna do that.

 

 

 

 

Published in: on May 31, 2008 at 1:10 am  Comments (3)  

A New Regular Feature

Having twice upon a time been a member of the editorial staff of a couple of national publications, I am aware that most magazines contain regular features that are designed to breed reader familiarity while providing mirthful entertainment or useful information, sometimes both. So it occurred to me that perhaps these pages might be enhanced by a such a feature or two.

Toward that end, I would like to introduce our first regular feature: Five Years Ago in The Chet Helms Chronicles – A Glance Back. Once a month I’m going to stuff my sorry carcass into a Level 4 bio-hazard suit and descend deep into the dank, disgusting bowels of The Chet Helms Chronicles Building where our archives are stored. I am then going to select a gem from a half-decade ago and re-post it for your reading and listening pleasure.

Tell me that won’t be fun.

Wait. Hold on a sec. My staff has just informed my that there are no five-year-old archives in the basement because (a) we don’t have a basement, (b) we don’t have a building, (c) the archives we do have are stored on-line, and (d) we have very few archives because The Chronicles is less than a month old.

I probably should have thought about all of those things, or at least one of them, but I didn’t.

Sorry.

And this, my friends, is just one more example of why I have a staff in the first place.

 

 

Published in: on May 30, 2008 at 8:37 pm  Comments (2)  

On First Meeting Chet Helms

When I first began to consider writing and publishing The Chet Helms Chronicles, I consulted with my friend, Christopher Newton, who has, for the past few years, been churning out exquisite pieces about many subjects, but mostly about the pre-invasion Haight Ashbury, in a blog called The Pondering Pig, the link to which is included in The Chronicles. I urge you to check out The Pig if you haven’t already done so. You’ll laugh; you’ll cry; you’ll learn stuff.

Christopher, who is the real deal – a baby beatnik who was born and (mostly) bred in San Francisco and who met and befriended Chet Helms literally minutes after the tall, skinny, Texpatriate stepped off a Greyhound bus from Fort Worth on June 1, 1962, and who is a very nice man and, in my opinion, a very thoughtful, sensitive and wise one besides – encouraged me to give The Chronicles a go and so I have.

A month ago, I stumbled across the following piece, which I had written the night I met Chet Helms for the first time and had completely forgotten about. I sent it to three people, including Christopher, who asked if he could publish it on his blog. I said he could, and , bless his heart, he did.  Gave The Chronicles a nice plug as well.

Since then, the other two people to whom I sent the piece have been agitating for me to include it in The Chronicles, but I have ignored their requests…until now. So, due to popular demand (by two – Count ’em! – two people), here it is:

At 6:00 p.m. on November 9, 2004, Chet Helms closed the door of his small, cluttered, ground floor apartment on the corner of Bush and Mason in San Francisco and stepped out into the damp, bone-chilling air.

He was wearing a pair of thick-soled, black shoes; baggy, wrinkled khakis and a heavy black coat that was buttoned up to his neck, around which was wrapped a bright red scarf. A black bowler was perched atop his head which was ringed by his flowing, white hair and long, white beard. He looked like someone who might have fallen out of the pages of a Dickens novel.

Chet crossed Bush Street and continued down the steep Mason Street hill to Sutter, where he turned left. A half-block later, he entered the Hotel Rex and walked past the reception desk into the spacious, dimly-lighted lobby that doubles as the hotel’s bar in the evening. There were a dozen people, mostly couples, scattered throughout the room, talking quietly. Several of the patrons nodded at Chet and he acknowledged the greetings with a smile and a small wave.

He carefully folded his tall frame into a straight-backed chair at a small, round table near the center of the room and crossed his legs. Once settled, he slowly unbuttoned his coat and removed his scarf, which he draped across his lap.

A few minutes later, a young, Asian barmaid approached the table. Chet ordered a cup of hot tea and honey. His soft, deep voice carried the hint of a Texas accent. His enunciation of each word, of each syllable, was impeccable.

The barmaid soon returned with a delicately-patterned, ceramic tea pot, a matching cup and saucer, a spoon and a small container of honey.

“Thank you,” Chet said, almost inaudibly, but with unmistakable sincerity. He didn’t just say it, he meant it.

He spent the next several minutes meticulously preparing his cup of tea. His movements, from pouring the water to spooning and stirring the honey, were excruciatingly deliberate and almost hypnotically graceful. It was as if he was performing some sort of ancient, sacred ritual that required a precise choreography.

When he finished, he encircled the tea cup with his large right hand, raised it to his lips and took a small, exploratory sip. Satisfied that he had achieved the desired result, he gently placed the cup back onto the saucer, leaned back and laced his fingers together across his ample stomach.

Then he did something he loved to do, something at which he was well-practiced, masterful and indefatigable.

Chet Helms began to talk.

He began to talk about himself.

Published in: on May 28, 2008 at 3:50 am  Comments (2)  

Fare You Well…

In mid-May 2005, Chet and I experienced a communications glitch. He asked if I’d be available one afternoon during the following week to come to his place and meet with a photographer friend of his he had chosen to be The Book’s photo editor. I said all I needed was a day’s notice. He said he’d set it up and let me know when. 

Well, he set it up, alright, and he let me know when, giving me several day’s notice. I meant to write it down, and I probably did write it down…somewhere. 

I missed the meeting. I didn’t show up and I didn’t call to say I wasn’t going to show up because, well, I forgot all about it.

I even didn’t realize I’d missed the meeting until Chet told me I’d missed the meeting.  I apologized profusely, but he shrugged it off, saying it was no big deal. I appreciated being let off the hook and told him so. Then we set Thursday, June 2 at 3:00 p.m. as the day on which and the hour at which would finally begin working on The Book. In earnest.

I arranged to take that day off work and when it rolled around, I spent much of the morning leisurely reading the paper and drinking coffee. Around 12:30, I was sitting at my computer, answering a few emails when my phone rang.

“Hello.”

“Greg, it’s Jeff.”

“Hey, Jeff, what’s up?”

“Chet’s in the hospital.”

“What?”

“He was having a problem and they took him in at 11:00 this morning.”

“How serious is it?”

“I don’t know.”

Chet remained in the hospital for almost two weeks, undergoing tests. He needed a liver transplant, but failed to qualify as a potential candidate. He was released on June 14 and returned home. He wasn’t it great shape.

I had debated about going to visit him during his hospitalization and then after his release, but decided against doing so for a couple of reasons. I had known him for only a short time and our only connection was…The Book. I figured he had other things on his mind. I also figured, correctly, that Chet would have a steady stream of visitors who had known and loved him for a long time.

On Saturday, June 18, Chet called Jeff and asked if he would take him to a function that night. Jeff tried to talk him out of it, saying he should rest and take it easy, but Chet was insistent. He told Jeff he had to make an appearance at the event because it was expected of him and he didn’t want to let anyone down.

Jeff picked up Chet and took him to the function. They didn’t stay long because Chet was more or less running on empty. He was so weak that Jeff had to help him up the stairs of his apartment building.

Tuesday evening, June 21, I received another phone call from Jeff. Chet had suffered a stroke in his apartment just before noon and was back in the hospital. The prognosis, I was told, was grim.

The next day, Wednesday, I got another second-third-or-fourth-hand report on Chet’s condition, saying that his condition was much improved. Of course I wasn’t getting actual medical reports from actual medical professionals, but rather behavioral reports from Chet’s friends. Such as: He ate his entire dinner, including the alleged tapioca, and asked for seconds. Such as: He sang a rousing version of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, complete with a memorable air-guitar solo. Such as: He danced an Irish jig on his commode.

OK, maybe the news wasn’t exactly that encouraging, but it was encouraging, nonetheless. It appeared that Chet was, if not on the mend, at least turning the corner.

The news on Thursday was the most encouraging yet. I didn’t get a report on Friday, but I was convinced it wouldn’t be long before Chet and I would begin working on The Book. In earnest.

I went to bed early that night and set my alarm for 6:00 a.m. because I had my usual 7:30 tee time the next morning at Gleneagles golf course in San Francisco. For the past four years I had been playing Gleneagles in a regular foursome most Saturday mornings. Although the decidedly blue-collar muni course – Levi’s and sweatshirts are the preferred attire of most of the regulars, many of whom are tradesmen of Irish descent – is a real gem and the green fees are very low, and it offers several nice views of the nearby Cow Palace, Gleneagles is seriously underplayed because it is (a) very difficult and it is (b) located adjacent to perhaps the meanest housing project in San Francisco: Sunnydale. Four of the holes are separated from the buildings of the Sunnydale projects by a just few yards and a flimsy, chain link fence. In the early ’90s, several foursomes were robbed at gunpoint on the course.  

Well, to make a long story short, which is something I frequently promise, but rarely deliver, I played 18 holes of golf on Saturday morning, June 25, 2005. As usual, I didn’t play particularly well. Also as usual, my foursome convened in the ancient and funky clubhouse/pro shop/pub for a post-round gargle and our traditional exercise of hurling vicious insults at each other’s golfing ability, or lack thereof. Finally, as usual, I was the first to leave. I went outside, shouldered my golf bag and walked to my car. After I loaded my clubs into the trunk, I unzipped one of the pockets of my bag, took out my cell phone and turned it on.  (At Gleneagles and practically every other golf course, being in possession of a ringing cell phone during play is considered to be very bad form. Practically felonious, in fact.)

I slammed the trunk lid shut and was preparing to unlock and open the door when my now safely-activated cell phone beeped. I stood next to my car, flipped open the phone and punched the voicemail button. It was 12:30 p.m.

The five-hour-old message was from Jeff Curtin. His voice was quivering.

“Chet’s gone,” he said. “He passed away at 12:34 this morning.”

That was it.

There was nothing more to say.

Chet’s…gone.

He’s gone and nothing’s gonna bring him back.

Nothing.

He’s gone.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published in: on May 28, 2008 at 2:08 am  Comments (3)  

My (Last) Dinner With Chet

Full disclosure: While reviewing my recent posts to The Chet Helms Chronicles, and they are all recent because I haven’t been at this game very long, I noticed that I have used a lot of specific dates and a lot of dialogue. The dates are from a timeline I began keeping the night I met Chet for the first time. Consequently, they are accurate. The dialogue, however, is based on notes I made shortly after each of my subsequent meetings with Chet.  Consequently, while the dialogue isn’t always exactly verbatim, it is very close to our actual exchanges. In other words, I ain’t makin’ any of this stuff up.

That having been said, let us proceed…

On April 13, 2005 I received my first email from Chet. He invited me to attend a benefit concert for ‘The Pepperspray 8,’ a group of environmental activists who had been- What else? – Pepper-sprayed by the authorities during a peaceful, forest-defense demonstration in Humboldt County a few years earlier and were involved in a lawsuit as a result.

The event was going to be held at the 12 Galaxies Club on Mission Street in San Francisco on Sunday night, April 17. The entertainment was going to be provided by David Nelson with The Flying Other Brothers and a host of other musicians, including Pete Sears, Barry Sless and Melvin Seals, the longtime keyboardist for The Jerry Garcia Band. Chet and Wavy Gravy (who The New York Times quaintly refers to as Mr. Gravy), were scheduled to host the event.

I replied via email that I would unable to attend because I was leaving for a long-planned trip down the coast on the 16th.

On April 15, Chet sent me the following email:

From: Chester Helms  Sent: Friday, April 15, 2005 12:29 PM
To: Greg Hoffman
Subject:

Greg,

I am going back on the hep C meds Monday night. I am going to be
housesitting a friend’s home in Novato also starting Monday, for the next
month. On your return, this will provide a nice, quiet, serene environment
to do some of the tape sessions on my memoir. I am envious of you going
down the coast and my friend taking off for Bali for a month. Ah,
wanderlust….

Have a great trip and I’ll see you when you get back.

Chet Helms

When I returned from my solitary, coastal excursion I heard from various folks that Chet’s housesitting gig wasn’t quite as serene and bucolic as he had anticipated. I suggested to him that we wait until he returned to San Francisco to plunge into The Book. He agreed.

As the end of April drew near, I was invited to a dinner with Chet and some of his friends. The dinner, which was to be hosted by a New York friend of Chet’s, was scheduled for Saturday night, April 30, at the Jeanne d’Arc restaurant in the Hotel Cornell De France, or, as I like to call it, The Cornell. I immediately checked the hotel’s web site because, well, that’s pretty much what we do these days, isn’t it?. According the site, Sunset Magazine had once described The Cornell as “A charming, French-style hotel,” and that was good enough for me. (Actually, anyplace that serves food in cardboard containers or wrapped in paper is good enough for me.)

The Cornell is on Bush Street, just around the corner from Chet’s apartment and a half-block from the art gallery he had operated for almost a quarter of century. I hitched a ride to The City with Chet’s business partners, Jeff Curtin and Ben Hollin. When we arrived at the restaurant, we were escorted to an alcove with a single, long table, at which sat an extremely attractive young woman, wearing a pink sweater and a pink beret-type hat thing.

 “I’m Clara Bellino,” the young woman said, in a voice tinged with the hint of a French accent. (There was, it turned out, a valid reason for her accent. Clara, you see, had been born and raised in France.)

After Jeff, Ben and I introduced ourselves in unaccented voices, we all sat down and commenced with the chatter such situations demand.

We quickly learned that Clara had been asked by Chet to greet the dinner guests and make them feel comfortable until he arrived from far-away Novato; that she was a singer who had just released a CD called Embarcadero Love, for which Chet had done all the photography and for which ’60’s poster artist, David Singer, had done the cover design and lettering; that she was an actress who had starred in a film called Steal America; that she was one of Chet’s current caregivers; and that she was still falling a bit short on preparing a cup of tea to Chet’s exacting and rigid specifications.

I asked Clara where I could snag a copy of her CD and she said she happened to have a few with her. The problem was that she was asking $14 per and I only had $12 on me. Ben offered to lend me two bucks, I accepted his offer, and Clara signed the CD cover for me. So now I was broke and deeper in debt even before Le Menus had been handed out. But I had a new CD. (Which, by the way, is very, very good.)

Within the next 15 minutes, the rest of our party arrived: Anthony; our host, Lenny; and, finally, Chet and Jerilyn.

“I have to sit next to Greg so we can talk about The Book,” Chet said.

And so we did. Sit next to each other, that is.

 Again.

And, no, we didn’t. Talk about The Book, that is.

Again.

Chet ordered his usual tea and honey and I ordered my usual bottle of beer. But this time it was an authentic, imported French beer. I had never had an authentic, imported French beer and all I can say about that particular authentic, imported French beer is that it came in a very exotic bottle, the kind in which you may feel compelled to insert a candle and display on the mantle.

“Well,” I said to Chet, ” I’m going to order the Salmon Nouvelle  Orléans and hope like hell it’s way more Salmon than Nouvelle Orléans.”

“Salmon sounds good to me ,” Chet said, snapping shut Le Menu.

By the time our soup, accompanied by two bottle of fine French wine, arrived at the table, the alcove we occupied was alive with spirited conversation and a lot of laughter. I stopped laughing when I found myself face-to-face with a bowl of…pumpkin soup. 

Pumpkin.

Soup.

In my world, pumpkins were for pies and jack ‘o lanterns, not soup. Nevertheless, I picked up one of the dozen or so spoons arrayed before me, no doubt the wrong one, and, with considerable trepidation, sampled the orange brew. To my surprise and relief, it was palatable. In fact, it was extremely palatable. But then, I had been sipping an authentic, imported French beer whose primary function, I decided, was to make anything that came afterwards taste really good by comparison.

It wasn’t long before the absurdly efficient wait staff removed our soup bowls and returned with our respective main courses. I was presented with a large plate, in the center of which was a healthy hunk of what I assumed to be Salmon that was covered with a thick, saucy substance I assumed to be the Nouvelle Orléans.

I snatched up one of my 14 or so forks, probably the wrong one, and gently dug in. One tentative bite convinced me that I was about to consume the best salmon dinner I had ever encountered. In fact, it was so good, I abandoned my unfinished bottle of authentic, imported French beer and poured a glass of wine, probably the wrong kind for complementing and enhancing the flavor of a nice Salmon Nouvelle Orléans.

 

“This is delicious,” I said to Chet, indicating my plate with the wrong fork. “What do you think?”

 

He smiled and nodded. “I agree.”

 

For several minutes I retreated from the festivities and focused solely on…The Salmon. I was half-tempted to eat like I often do when I’m alone, which is to say fast, sloppy and with a total disregard for accepted table manners. But I didn’t do that.  I remained, despite my unfortunate penchant for selecting the wrong utensils when confronted with multiple choices, a picture of dining decorum. Well, except perhaps for the ignoring everyone at the table part.

 

I was jerked back into consciousness by the sound of someone saying my name. It was our host, Lenny, who was sitting across from me, nursing a soft drink. He asked me how I liked working with Chet on…The Book. At least I think that’s what he asked. Lenny is a very soft-spoken gentleman and there was a quite a bit of cross-conversing going on around us. You know, when the person on your right is talking to the person on your left while you’re talking to the person to the right of the person on your right. Or something like that.

 

When Lenny and I concluded our conversation, I glanced at Chet who was, in fact, the person on my right and who wasn’t conversing with anyone. He was sitting up very straight in his chair with his hands folded together and resting on the edge of the table, in front of his practically untouched dinner. He was pasty pale and he looked tired. I was taken aback by the abrupt change in his appearance. He had appeared to be neither pale nor tired earlier in the evening.

 

“Are you alright?” I asked.

 

“I’m fine,” Chet said. “I’m just having a little stomach trouble at the moment. I’ll have them wrap this up for me to take home and I’ll eat it later.”

 

“Are you sure you’re OK?”

 

“Yes, I’m fine. Really.”

 

After dessert and coffee (tea for Chet, natch), our party straggled out of the alcove at the Jeanne D’Arc, climbed a flight of stairs and emerged from The Cornell onto Bush Street where we engaged in that well known, torturous social ritual – the group goodbye. That’s when fresh conversations begin and promises to get together again real soon are exchanged and re-exchanged, then exchanged again. It’s almost as if each group-goodbye participant is afraid of being the first to break away from the pack. Much better to stand shivering on a mostly deserted sidewalk in the cold, late night wind for 20 minutes, which is, I believe, the current minimum time required to complete a successful group goodbye.

 

Finally, some brave soul, I forget whom, peeled off with a final wave, and we were done.

 

Phew!

 

I remember standing at the curb, waiting to cross the street in mid-block, and watching Chet’s tall, broad-backed form, topped by a bobbing bowler, slowing walking west on Bush Street, a doggy bag holding his uneaten dinner dangling from his right hand.

 

Yep, that’s what I remember, alright.

 

I remember it because it was the last time I saw Chet Helms.

 

I never saw him again.

 

Not even once.

 

Ever.

 

Damn.

 

 

 

Photo of Clara Bellino: Chet Helms

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published in: on May 24, 2008 at 2:26 am  Comments (3)  

Chet and I Buckle Down…Sort Of

In early December 2004 Chet Helms and I had agreed to begin working on his autobiography in earnest after the first of the year, but we didn’t begin working on his autobiography in earnest after the first of the year.

We didn’t begin working on his autobiography at all.

We got together a couple of times in January 2005, and we talked about working on his autobiography in earnest, but we never actually got around to, you know, working on his autobiography in earnest.  The only thing that surpassed our mutually-stated enthusiasm for the project was our complete lack of productivity. I was, of course, aware of this, but I wasn’t particularly concerned about it. There was no rush because we had all the time in the world.

Right?

But when February had come and gone and we were several days into March, I began to question whether Chet was really serious about telling his story.  It would, after all, be a huge commitment of time and energy, and I wondered if, considering the state of his health, he was up for it.

When we met again at his place in mid-March, I asked him if he was fully committed to doing The Book. He appeared to be startled by my question.

“Of course I am,” he said. “Why would you think I wasn’t?”

Uh, no reason. Just wondering.

“I’ve been thinking about a title,” Chet said.

“Yeah?”

“I’m thinking about calling it What Now, White Boy?

He may have been joking because he laughed as he said it, but I wasn’t sure.

“Uh, I don’t know if that’ll fly, Chet. How about Kill Bill?”

I did know that I was joking, but my joke fell flat…with a giant, resounding thud that may have registered 7.1 on the Richter Scale.

Chet’s jovial mood promptly disappeared. “Bill and I may have had our differences over the years,” he said, “but I always respected him, and I’m sure he respected me.”

And thus ended our discussion of potential titles.

Before I left that night we decided to begin working on The Book in earnest and for real a week or so later. We set 5:00 p.m. on March 22, 2005 as the official start time.  

I arrived at his apartment at the appointed hour on the appointed day. After we settled into our now-accustomed seats in the living room, I yanked my tape recorder out of my backpack, placed it on the couch on which Chet was sitting, and pushed the ‘record’ button. 

We were finally on our way.

Until…

“I’m hungry,” Chet said. “Let’s get something to eat before we start. There’s a great Japanese place just up the street”

I sighed, turned off the tape recorder and followed Chet outside into a driving, just-arrived rainstorm for which I was unprepared. Having traveled to his place directly from my day job, I was wearing my work ‘uniform:’ faded Levi’s, white shirt and tie and a navy blue blazer. Chet, meanwhile, was protected from the elements by a heavy wool coat, a scarf and his ubiquitous black bowler. By the time we reached our destination several blocks away on Bush Street, I was soaked, shivering and uncomfortable. Chet appeared to be none of those things.

After we had been seated at a window table, Chet ordered his usual cup of hot tea and honey, I ordered a Sapporo and we began perusing the menu. When our respective beverages were delivered, we were ready to order, and did so.

I watched, fascinated once again, as Chet meticulously prepared his cup of tea. When he finally picked up the tea cup to taste his handiwork, I said, “By the way, I finished your book and you should read it sometime. It’s really good.”

Chet froze and stared at me for a just a beat or two. Then he laughed. He laughed long, he laughed hard and he laughed loud enough to turn the heads of our fellow diners. 

“OK, OK,” he said, “I get it.”

When we left the restaurant around 7:00 p.m., the rain had stopped and I was mostly dried out. Once again ensconced in Chet’s apartment, I once again set up my tape recorder.

Now we were finally on our way.

Until…

Chet’s phone rang. 

There are many situations in life with which I am not entirely comfortable and near the top of the list is sitting in a room with someone who is engaged in an animated phone conversation. 

While he was occupied on the phone, Chet began giving me hand signals. Unfortunately, I am, as anyone who has known me for any length of time will gladly attest, a complete illiterate when it comes to non-verbal communication. I just don’t get it. Never have and probably never will.

When I signaled to Chet that I wasn’t getting his signals, his gestures became more emphatic.  He seemed to be pointing at something, but what was it? I looked in the direction of his stabbing forefinger and saw a large cardboard box under his desk, just to my right. I pointed to the box and he nodded. I pulled the box toward me.

Chet made new gestures and I lifted the top off of the box. Chet nodded again. I plucked a piece of paper out of the box that was crammed with paper and Chet smiled his approval of my action.

He wanted me to examine the contents of the box. And I began to do so.

The first piece of ephemera I extracted was the original rental agreement for the Avalon Ballroom. Although Chet’s first show at The Avalon (The Blues Project) was in late April 1966, I vaguely remember the inked-in date on that rental agreement as being March 8, 1966. I definitely remember that the rent was $800-per month, plus a portion of the utilities.

I put the rental agreement back into the box and pulled out a copy of the 1968 Look magazine that included an uncaptioned, Irving Penn photo of Chet, surrounded by a half-dozen photogenic hippies. During the next several minutes, I glanced at old letters, old newspaper clippings, old photographs and old music magazines in that box of treasures.

I was still scrounging through the box of jumbled papers when Chet got off the phone.

“Why don’t you take that stuff with you and see if there’s anything in there we can use it the book?” he said.

“No,” I said, envisioning this treasure trove somehow being lost, stolen, incinerated or vaporized while in my possession. “We’ll go through this together, later.”

Because we had all the time in the world.

Right?

I had no way of knowing that I wouldn’t see Chet again for more than a month.

And I had no way of knowing that the next time I saw him would be the last time I saw him.

Forever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published in: on May 21, 2008 at 9:25 pm  Comments (3)  

My Dinner With Chet

The story so far: In August 2004 a friend of a friend asked me if I’d be interested in working with Chet Helms on his autobiography. I said “yes” and didn’t give it another thought. In early November 2004 I was, to my enormous surprise, invited to meet with Chet to be interviewed as his potential collaborator. I again said “yes,” met the man and afterwards drove home, convinced I had less than zero chance of being selected. In late November 2004, again to my enormous surprise, I was summoned to Chet’s apartment to work out a book deal.  A week later we met again to discuss a strategy for producing the book, after which I drove home, utterly convinced that our collaboration, despite Chet’s assurance to the contrary, was doomed to fail.

The next time I saw Chet was two weeks later, on Wednesday, December 22, 2004. The occasion was a holiday dinner at Greens, an upscale vegetarian eatery nestled deep in the bowels of the Fort Mason complex, perched alongside San Francisco Bay. 

Eight people, including Jeff Curtin, who had first introduced me to Chet; Jeff’s business partner, Ben Hollin; Jerilyn Lee Brandelius (The Grateful Dead Family Album) and photographer, Grant Jacobs, who had taken numerous iconic photos (Garcia, Pigpen, Weir, Jim Morrison, George Harrison, Bill Graham with Janis) in the ’60s, attended the dinner.

While the eight of us were hanging out in the reception area, waiting to be shown to a table, the bowler-crowned Chet, who looked like an escapee from the pages of Bleak House or David Copperfield, said to no one in particular, “I need to sit next to Greg so we can talk about The Book.”

And so we did. Sit next to each other, that is.

But no, we didn’t. Talk about The Book, that is.

I don’t remember what we did talk about, if anything, but I do know it wasn’t about…The Book. 

The group’s table talk that night was more subdued than raucous. Stories of the old days weren’t flying back and forth. 

“Remember that night at The Avalon in September ’66 when so-and-so did such-and-such?”  Well, that just wasn’t happening.

Chet was perhaps the most subdued of all. I barely knew the guy, but that night I saw a much different Chet from the one I barely knew. 

I saw a Chet, who, despite having more stories than Ocean Beach has grains of sand and who loved to tell them, was content to sit amongst a group of people, some of whom he’d known for nearly four decades and some of whom he’d known for only a few years, months or weeks, sipping his tea and quietly listening, a serene smile plastered on his face, and saying very little.

Chet wasn’t exactly aloof or detached that night, but he was…uh, something.

It was a little eerie, man.

 

PHOTO: Darryl Kastl

 

Published in: on May 18, 2008 at 6:47 pm  Comments (5)  

Why Me?

A note of caution: The following is almost exclusively about me, not Chet, so proceed at your own risk. I am not responsible for any lost or stolen personal property.

 

Having concluded that my impending collaboration with Chet Helms to produce an account of his life was, because of his recently-stated quest to achieve literary perfection, destined to be a full-blown disaster, I forced myself to think about something else for a while.

 

What I came up to think about with was this: Why did Chet choose me as the person with whom he wanted to work on his autobiography?

 

Answer: Not only didn’t I have a clue, I didn’t have a clue of a clue.

 

Oh, sure, I could have simply asked him, and he no doubt would have told me, but that would have been way too easy. I preferred to ruminate and postulate about it.

 

It certainly wasn’t because Chet knew much, if anything, about me, other than perhaps my name and the fact that I was able to find my way to his apartment unassisted. I’m fairly sure he knew I had written a few books and several dozens of magazine articles. He may have even known that I had written one-liners for the comedienne, Phyllis Diller, for a few years during the late ‘60s. I’m also fairly sure that he didn’t know I was working as a Senior Accountant for a medical management company in Foster City, CA, a shiny, scrubbed, sterile suburban community that I like to think of as a ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood on steroids.’ And I’m absolutely sure he didn’t know I had been divorced twice, had two grandchildren, one moving violation and had attended over a hundred Grateful Dead shows.

 

During our first meeting a month earlier, I was uncharacteristically astute enough to try to let Chet know that, although I was never an ‘insider’ during the San Francisco ‘60s, I was, in fact, around at the time and had, beginning in the late summer of ’64, developed an  avid and continuing interest in the various goings-on in the Bay Area. Two months after I graduated from high school in Denver in June of that year, I moved into a rambling, rustic cabin down the road from Ken Kesey’s La Honda headquarters deep in the Santa Cruz Mountains, high above Stanford University.

 

I was a scared, scrawny, 17-year-old, sporting Buddy Holly glasses, a fresh crew cut and a complete and utter lack of sophistication. All I knew about California was that it wasn’t Colorado and that it was the stomping ground of the Hell’s Angels, whom my mom had specifically warned me to avoid, and The Beach Boys. (I never had the nerve to tell mom that the Angels periodically rolled into La Honda, sometimes in large numbers, and that I had enjoyed a friendly encounter or two with a few of them.)

 

I was immediately fascinated by Kesey’s scene – The Pranksters; the infamous, painted bus; the hill behind his house that was wired with speakers; and the local rumors of, uh, the stuff that went on out there on Highway 84 – but I wasn’t fascinated enough to do anything beyond paying attention…from a safe distance.

 

Within a few weeks of my arrival in California, I fell in with a group of ‘flatlanders,’ most of whom were recent graduates of Woodside High School, and they introduced me to a Menlo Park bookstore/musicians’ hangout called Kepler’s; a pair of Palo Alto folk music clubs, The Tangent and St. Michael’s Alley; and a particularly pungent herb. One of my running buddies during this time was the effervescent Teda Bracci, who later became the drummer for The Freudian Slips, one of the first, if not the first, all-girl bands. The Slips played a number of gigs at The Ark in Sausalito and even got their picture in Life magazine. After the band broke up, Teda snagged the second lead in the LA production of Hair and once starred in a movie called CC and Company with Ann-Margaret and – Are you sitting down? – Joe Namath. (You can look it up.)

 

But I digress, which is something that regular readers of this space, should there be any, might as well get used to.

 

So let’s flash forward to my first meeting with Chet on November 9, 2004.

 

Several times during the course of my ‘interview’ that night, I managed to drop in relevant references – La Honda, 1090 Page Street, Luria and Ellen, Longshoreman’s Hall, etc. –  that were intended to let Chet know that I was familiar with many of the major players and events from back in the day.

 

Now let’s flash backward to the title of this piece: “Why Me?”

 

All of a sudden I had the answer to that question, or thought I did, anyway.

 

I realized that my lame and misguided strategy of attempting to convince Chet that I was some sort of minor league scholar of the Sixties probably had no influence on his decision, but that my proclamation that I was never an ‘insider’ probably did because it meant that I had no friendships to protect nor axes to grind. It meant that I could be relentlessly objective in telling his story.

 

But, wait.

 

I wasn’t the one who would be telling his story, he was. So my relationships or lack thereof would have absolutely no bearing on our project.

 

So I didn’t have the answer, after all.

 

Oh, well.

 

(Many months later, I finally did get the answer I had been seeking and it knocked my socks off. I’ll share it with you soon.)  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published in: on May 16, 2008 at 5:10 am  Comments (6)  

Chet Freaks Me Out

A week after Chet and I had finally hammered out a mutually acceptable agreement after our intensive, gut-wrenching, 90-second ‘negotiating session,’ I was summoned to his apartment for another meeting. Our goal: to establish a strategy for producing his autobiography.

I was, as is my usual custom, completely unprepared, which meant that I was, as is also my usual custom, forced to wing it. And so I did. 

“So how do you suggest we do this?” Chet said.

“Well,” I said, “I’m thinking that we establish a regular meeting time every week – say, 4:00 to 6:00 every Monday – and you tell your story in chronological order. Then I’ll take the tapes home, transcribe them and put the material into rough manuscript form. The following Monday, I’ll bring you the manuscript pages to review and correct and we’ll do another taping. The Monday after that, I’ll bring the new pages and you’ll give me the old pages with your comments and corrections. That way, I won’t end up with huge pile of tapes to transcribe and you won’t end up with a huge pile of pages to review.”

Chet considered this proposal for several minutes. “That sounds like a good way to go,” he said. “Let’s do it.”

“OK. But it’s important that we stick to a strict schedule. Are you up for that?”

“Absolutely. I have a friend who lives out near the beach and I’m sure she’ll let us use her house to do the interviews. I’ll call her tomorrow.”

This news gladdened my heart, because Chet’s downtown neighborhood had little-to-no-street parking and the small, parking lot a half-block from his place charged a typically San Franciscan, meaning astronomical, hourly fee. I envisioned myself filing for bankruptcy before we got to his elementary school years.

Because the holiday season would soon be upon us and Chet said he might be doing some traveling in late December, we decided to begin working on the book in earnest after the first of the year.

Then he said something that struck terror into my heart.

“You know,” he drawled, staring at me with eyes magnified by the thick lenses of his glasses, “years ago a music magazine asked me to write an 800-word article.”

“And?”

“And I sweated over it for three or four weeks until I had it exactly the way I wanted it. It was perfect.”

“OK.”

“But when I read the published version, they had changed several words. I couldn’t believe it. That really pissed me off. Still does”

Hunkered in my usual seat across from Chet’s usual seat, I instantly lost control of the few bodily functions over which I still enjoyed at least some control. I even lost the ability to breathe, at least momentarily. Chet Helms, the man with whom I had an agreement to help write his autobiography, his very, very long autobiography that would be crammed with stories consuming thousands and thousands of words, was still upset because some editor had changed a few of his meticulously-crafted words a hundred years ago.

This, my friends, was not a good sign.

Actually, this was a very bad sign.

When I finally resumed breathing and was once again able to form actual words rather than incoherent sounds, I told Chet that at least we’ll know very early on in our collaboration if it was going to work. He laughed and assured me that the autobiography was totally different and that he was certain there wouldn’t be a problem.

I didn’t share his optimism and I told him so.

“Don’t worry about it,” Chet said. “It’ll be fine.” 

Well, I did worry about it and during my drive home to San Mateo that night, I managed to convince myself that my participation in the project was doomed before it had barely begun.

Bummer, man.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published in: on May 14, 2008 at 5:46 am  Comments (2)  

Negotiating With Chet Helms

On Tuesday night, November 30, 2004, exactly three weeks after my first meeting with Chet Helms, my phone rang. Since I rarely received real calls, my first thought was ‘telemarketer.’ My second thought was also ‘telemarketer.’ And so was my third. I hit the ‘mute’ button on my TV remote and let the answering machine speak for me. I listened to my preternaturally nasally, recorded voice lying to the caller that I wasn’t home at the moment and making a possibly insincere promise to call back as soon as possible. Then I heard a familiar voice say, “This is Chet Helms and I was wondering if…”

I sprained several vital body parts while lunging to snatch the receiver out of its cradle.

“Hey, Chet, what’s up?”

“I was wondering if you might be able to come up to my place tomorrow night.”

“Sure. Why?”

“To talk about the book.”

Whaaaaa?

Twenty-four hours later, I found myself sitting in Chet’s living room, which was occupied by stacks of cardboard boxes; an over-stuffed chair; a couch; a small table, upon which resided a computer and a bulging Rolodex; and a large desk with a glass top, under which was aligned an array of backstage passes to various events. Several of Chet’s colorful neckties, along with a pair of white Panama hats, were hanging on a nearby door. The only poster in evidence was Jim Phillips’ gorgeous, framed, 1994 Maritime Hall “Tribute to Chet Helms” piece, which was festooned with the performers’ signatures. It was hanging in the tiny hallway between Chet’s tiny kitchen and his tiny bathroom.

With Chet hunkered at the end of the couch next to his phone, computer and Rolodex, and me hunkered in the over-stuffed chair across from him, our negotiations began.

“I’ve done some research,” Chet said, “and in a deal like this, you should get anywhere from zero percent to 50%.”

“Well,” I said, “zero percent is way too low and 50% is way too high.”

“I agree,” Chet said. “What do you say to 15%?”

Although I was hoping for at least 25%, I said, “Fine. On two conditions.”

“Which are?”

“First, I don’t want my name on the cover of the book.”

Chet looked surprised. “Why not?”

“Because I’m not going to write it. You are.”

“But you’re going to be doing a lot of work and you should be rewarded for that.”

“And I will be. 15%.”

“We’ll talk about that later,” Chet said. “What’s your second condition?”

“After our interview sessions are transcribed, you assume sole possession of the tapes.”

“No,” Chet said. “We’re going to dupe the tapes and each keep a copy.”

“We’ll talk about that later,” I said.

And with that, our negotiations ended. We spent the next hour or so talking about the format of the book. Chet said he was going to begin each chapter with an aphorism and that the first one was going to be the old Groucho Marx line, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” (During the next few months he repeated this at least five or six times and the line will be in his biography.)

Aware of the fact that Chet could use some cash, I suggested that our first step should be to lash together a proposal for the book and snag an advance from a publisher.

“No way,” Chet said. “We are absolutely not going to do that.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t want to lose control of the book.”

I told Chet that making a publishing deal would not diminish his control of the project, but he wasn’t buying it. He was dug into his position, fully and completely, and, after a mildly-heated and lengthy discussion, I folded like a napkin. There would be no proposal, no advance.

Finally, it was time for me to leave. Chet escorted me to his front door and shook my hand.

“So we’re agreed that you’re getting 30% , a co-author credit, and co-ownership of the interview tapes,” he said. “Right?”

Uh, sure, Chet.

Whatever you say.

 

 

 

 

Published in: on May 10, 2008 at 1:17 am  Comments (4)