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