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.”
“To talk about the book.”
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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.