My Dinner With Chet

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


Published in: on May 18, 2008 at 6:47 pm  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Could it be he just wasn’t feeling well that night? I know he suffered from the ravages of hepatitis for a long time before he finally checked out. Just a thought.

  2. PS: I love your description of Chet – an escapee from David Copperfield – he has to be Mr. Micawber.

  3. It’s possible Chet didn’t feel well that night but if he didn’t, his appetite was quite unaffected and he appeared to be enjoying himself. He just wasn’t saying much. At one point during dinner I asked him if he was OK and he said he was fine, which, of course, he would have said whether he was feeling OK or not.

    I observed this same demeanor on two subsequent occasions in which Chet was with a group, although during each of our one-on-one encounters, he was very talkative, insightful and entertaining.

    The sample size of my personal experience with Chet is insufficient to enable me to make any solid conclusions in this behavioral area. All I know is that it was a bit odd to me the first time I saw the quiet Chet.

  4. That’s typical introvert behavior, except if Chet was an secret introvert in his youth, he hid it darned well. I remember him as being gregarious, fun to be around, fully enjoying people.

  5. I got a link here from Leo and then too from Ponder Pig. Spent many a stone groove night at Family Dog shows at the Avalon. Left SF in the mid -’70’s and missed it until recently. Chet was the best man. I didn’t know him like you guys do but he was always a presence in the town and am sure his spirit still is. I always thought him to being outgoing and friendly the few times we were close enough to talk. I loved the guy because he was for the folks and not just making money. I guess I wish he would’ve made more because he deserved more, but he was alway happy, or so I thought.

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