In early December 2004 Chet Helms and I had agreed to begin working on his autobiography in earnest after the first of the year, but we didn’t begin working on his autobiography in earnest after the first of the year.
We didn’t begin working on his autobiography at all.
We got together a couple of times in January 2005, and we talked about working on his autobiography in earnest, but we never actually got around to, you know, working on his autobiography in earnest. The only thing that surpassed our mutually-stated enthusiasm for the project was our complete lack of productivity. I was, of course, aware of this, but I wasn’t particularly concerned about it. There was no rush because we had all the time in the world.
But when February had come and gone and we were several days into March, I began to question whether Chet was really serious about telling his story. It would, after all, be a huge commitment of time and energy, and I wondered if, considering the state of his health, he was up for it.
When we met again at his place in mid-March, I asked him if he was fully committed to doing The Book. He appeared to be startled by my question.
“Of course I am,” he said. “Why would you think I wasn’t?”
Uh, no reason. Just wondering.
“I’ve been thinking about a title,” Chet said.
“I’m thinking about calling it What Now, White Boy?”
He may have been joking because he laughed as he said it, but I wasn’t sure.
“Uh, I don’t know if that’ll fly, Chet. How about Kill Bill?”
I did know that I was joking, but my joke fell flat…with a giant, resounding thud that may have registered 7.1 on the Richter Scale.
Chet’s jovial mood promptly disappeared. “Bill and I may have had our differences over the years,” he said, “but I always respected him, and I’m sure he respected me.”
And thus ended our discussion of potential titles.
Before I left that night we decided to begin working on The Book in earnest and for real a week or so later. We set 5:00 p.m. on March 22, 2005 as the official start time.
I arrived at his apartment at the appointed hour on the appointed day. After we settled into our now-accustomed seats in the living room, I yanked my tape recorder out of my backpack, placed it on the couch on which Chet was sitting, and pushed the ‘record’ button.
We were finally on our way.
“I’m hungry,” Chet said. “Let’s get something to eat before we start. There’s a great Japanese place just up the street”
I sighed, turned off the tape recorder and followed Chet outside into a driving, just-arrived rainstorm for which I was unprepared. Having traveled to his place directly from my day job, I was wearing my work ‘uniform:’ faded Levi’s, white shirt and tie and a navy blue blazer. Chet, meanwhile, was protected from the elements by a heavy wool coat, a scarf and his ubiquitous black bowler. By the time we reached our destination several blocks away on Bush Street, I was soaked, shivering and uncomfortable. Chet appeared to be none of those things.
After we had been seated at a window table, Chet ordered his usual cup of hot tea and honey, I ordered a Sapporo and we began perusing the menu. When our respective beverages were delivered, we were ready to order, and did so.
I watched, fascinated once again, as Chet meticulously prepared his cup of tea. When he finally picked up the tea cup to taste his handiwork, I said, “By the way, I finished your book and you should read it sometime. It’s really good.”
Chet froze and stared at me for a just a beat or two. Then he laughed. He laughed long, he laughed hard and he laughed loud enough to turn the heads of our fellow diners.
“OK, OK,” he said, “I get it.”
When we left the restaurant around 7:00 p.m., the rain had stopped and I was mostly dried out. Once again ensconced in Chet’s apartment, I once again set up my tape recorder.
Now we were finally on our way.
Chet’s phone rang.
There are many situations in life with which I am not entirely comfortable and near the top of the list is sitting in a room with someone who is engaged in an animated phone conversation.
While he was occupied on the phone, Chet began giving me hand signals. Unfortunately, I am, as anyone who has known me for any length of time will gladly attest, a complete illiterate when it comes to non-verbal communication. I just don’t get it. Never have and probably never will.
When I signaled to Chet that I wasn’t getting his signals, his gestures became more emphatic. He seemed to be pointing at something, but what was it? I looked in the direction of his stabbing forefinger and saw a large cardboard box under his desk, just to my right. I pointed to the box and he nodded. I pulled the box toward me.
Chet made new gestures and I lifted the top off of the box. Chet nodded again. I plucked a piece of paper out of the box that was crammed with paper and Chet smiled his approval of my action.
He wanted me to examine the contents of the box. And I began to do so.
The first piece of ephemera I extracted was the original rental agreement for the Avalon Ballroom. Although Chet’s first show at The Avalon (The Blues Project) was in late April 1966, I vaguely remember the inked-in date on that rental agreement as being March 8, 1966. I definitely remember that the rent was $800-per month, plus a portion of the utilities.
I put the rental agreement back into the box and pulled out a copy of the 1968 Look magazine that included an uncaptioned, Irving Penn photo of Chet, surrounded by a half-dozen photogenic hippies. During the next several minutes, I glanced at old letters, old newspaper clippings, old photographs and old music magazines in that box of treasures.
I was still scrounging through the box of jumbled papers when Chet got off the phone.
“Why don’t you take that stuff with you and see if there’s anything in there we can use it the book?” he said.
“No,” I said, envisioning this treasure trove somehow being lost, stolen, incinerated or vaporized while in my possession. “We’ll go through this together, later.”
Because we had all the time in the world.
I had no way of knowing that I wouldn’t see Chet again for more than a month.
And I had no way of knowing that the next time I saw him would be the last time I saw him.