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.
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.
(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.)