I did not know Chet Helms very well and I did not know him for very long. Although I had, for nearly 40 years, known who he was, I didn’t meet the man until November 2004 – November 9, 2004, to be precise. At 6:00 p.m. on November 9, 2004, to be even more precise.
Here’s how that happened:
In late August of that year, I received an email from someone named Jeff Curtin, who was a friend of a friend, and who had been given the mistaken information that I was a serious collector of 60’s memorabilia. Jeff said he was working with Chet Helms, selling some of Chet’s stuff on eBay and that he had some pieces that might interest me. I wrote back, saying that although I had held onto a few posters and handbills I’d picked up back in the day, I wasn’t particularly interested in adding to my ‘collection,’ but that I would like to see what he had. Jeff kindly invited me to come the San Jose, California warehouse where Chet’s stuff was stored and we made an appointment to meet.
I drove to San Jose, met Jeff at the warehouse, and spent a few hours checking out Chet’s stash, some of it unique and rare, some of it not. During my conversation with Jeff that evening, I mentioned that I had written a few books and several dozen magazine pieces. He didn’t appear to be particularly impressed by this, but as I was getting ready to leave, Jeff said that Chet was currently interviewing writers to help him write his autobiography and asked if I’d be interested in meeting with him. I said I most definitely was. Then I got in my car and drove home without giving it another thought.
Two months later, Jeff called and said that Chet wanted to meet with me to talk about his book. I couldn’t believe it, but it was true, and on the evening of November 9, 2004, Jeff swung by my place in San Mateo and we headed for San Francisco, where we picked up Jerilyn Lee Brandelius, a longtime Grateful Dead intimate who had, many years earlier, published a book called The Grateful Dead Family Album, and who had lately assumed the position of Chet’s volunteer assistant.
When Jeff, Jerilyn and I arrived at Chet’s small apartment on the corner of Bush and Mason, Chet was waiting for us and ready to motor. We walked down the steep Mason Street hill to the Hotel Rex, a block-and-a-half away on Sutter Street. Jeff and Jerilyn took the lead while Chet and I followed behind, making small talk all the way. Shortly after we had settled ourselves at a small table in the hotel bar, Jeff and Jerilyn announced they were going out to hunt up some grub.
After they had gone, Chet ordered a cup of tea and I ordered a Heineken. Then Chet began to ‘interview’ me. The ‘interview’ consisted of a fascinating, two-hour, Chet Helms monologue, during which he provided me with a sweeping, anecdotal survey of his life – his childhood in California, his adolescence in Texas, his relationships with his family, his relationship with Janis, his relationship with Bill Graham, his philosophy of staging shows, and like that. He didn’t ask me a single question about who I was or what I had written. I just sat there, sipping my Heineken and listening to his stories, thinking all the while, “this is absolutely the most candid person I have ever met.”
All of a sudden, Chet paused, stared at me for a long moment, and said, “So how would you do my book?”
Without thinking, which has long been one of my problems, I replied, “Probably better than anyone else.”
To my enormous relief, Chet laughed and said, “That certainly wasn’t an answer I was expecting.”
“Actually,” I said, “that wasn’t an answer I was expecting either.”
During the next hour or so, we discussed the logistics of writing the book. He mentioned that he had a friend who had a farm in Michigan where we could spend a few weeks taping interviews. At some point, I asked Chet why he had finally decided to write his story and he said, “I want to set the record straight.” I asked him to describe himself in one word and without a second’s hesitation, he said, “Visionary.” I asked him what he felt was the best part of the Sixties and, again without hesitation, he said, “The spirit of collaboration; the feeling that anything and everything was possible if we all worked together.” I asked how he felt about being labeled “The Father of the Summer of Love,” and he said it made him uncomfortable because it gave him too much credit for what was, in truth, a group effort. I asked about how he felt to have acquired a reputation as a “bad businessman” and he displayed a bit of agitation. “I was not a bad businessman,” he said. “I provided a lot of people with employment for more than four years while operating a seriously under-capitalized business. How is that being a ‘bad businessman?'”
Chet went on to say that he planned to do three books: his autobiography, a book on stagecraft (“If anyone knows how to put on a show, it’s me.”), and a book of the Family Dog posters (“for the artists”).
At that point, Jeff and Jerilyn returned to the hotel after their successful grub-hunting expedition. We walked (climbed, actually) back to Chet’s apartment, said our farewells and parted. On the way to the car, Jeff asked me how it went.
“I have no idea,” I said. “All I know is that I got to hear some great stories.”
And so I had.
When I got home that night around 10:30, I spent a few hours writing about my conversation with Chet, convinced beyond any and all doubt that that was the first and last time I would see or hear from him. There was, in my mind, absolutely no chance that Chet would ask me to work with him on his autobiography. None. Zero. Zip. Nada.