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


“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)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I can see how that would be disconcerting from both sides. Having worked a number of years at a newspaper, I know how I felt the first few times words got changed. After a while all I was concerned with was that my name was correct on the byline.

  2. Good point, Leo. In the late ’70s, after having been on the staff of a magazine for a while, I was asked by a small publishing house to write a book. Oblivious to the fact that I had gotten the assignment because the publisher liked my writing style, I promptly ‘elevated’ said style to what I thought was a book-worthy level. I then compounded this mistake by neglecting to abandon my penchant for the liberal (i.e. excessive) use of topical references. Such references work in a publication that has a shelf life of 30 days. In a book, not so much.

    Not long after I had submitted my manuscript, I was called in to meet with the editor. The good news was that he hadn’t changed a single word; the bad news was that he had simply eliminated thousands of them – sentences, paragraphs and even complete pages.

    I’m still amazed that on my way home from that meeting I didn’t stop my car in the middle of the Bay Bridge and jump.

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