Chet Helms: Summer’s Child



Today is the third anniversary of Chet’s passing.

He left at 12:34 a.m. on June 25, 2005.

Chet was born in summer and Chet died in summer. And along the way, he became known as “The Father of The Summer of Love.”

“The hearts that love will know never winter’s frost and chill. Summer’s warmth is in them still.”
— Eben Eugene Rexford

Chet was, and always will be, Summer’s Child.

Published in: on June 26, 2008 at 2:52 am  Comments (2)  


On Friday, July 29, 2005,  four days before what would have been his 63rd birthday, a tribute to Chet was held at The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco.

The event was called “Chetfest” and it featured a stellar lineup of musicians, including Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Merl Saunders, David Nelson, Big Brother and The Holding Company, Country Joe McDonald, Paul Kantner, David Freiberg, Pete Sears, and T-Bone Burnett, among others. The MC was Wavy Gravy. There were also 14 posters created for “Chetfest” by such notable poster artists as Stanley Mouse, Alton Kelley, Wes Wilson, David Singer and Lee Conklin. Even the late Rick Griffin contributed. Chris Shaw did the lettering and Chuck Sperry did the color for a piece of Griffin artwork that was authorized by his estate. Everyone who attended “Chetfest” was presented with a pack of the 14 posters upon departing the premises.

Chetfest 2005   Poster by: Alton Kelley

Tickets to “Chetfest,” which was also a benefit to pay off some of Chet’s bills, were priced at $50 and they sold out almost immediately. An on-line “Chetfest” auction of rock ‘ roll memorabilia raised additional funds. 

Nestled in a corner of the ornate, marble-columned, turn-of-the-century Great American Music Hall,  was an elaborate shrine of sorts: a multi-level table upon which was arrayed a collection of framed photos, small statuary and flowers.  The 14 posters hung on the walls adjacent to the table. Two large photo portraits were also prominently displayed in the hall: a 1966 Herb Greene photo of Chet, wearing his preacher-like, black frock coat, and a 1997 Jay Blakesberg shot  of Chet in a floppy, fisherman’s hat.

The crowd was shoulder-to-shoulder, the mood was festive and the music was energetic, loud and good.

Chet, wherever he was, had to be smiling.

And dancing his ass off. 


Published in: on June 12, 2008 at 5:02 am  Comments (2)  

Fare You Well (cont’d)

The Storyteller has gone away and he’s taken his story with him. Never again will we hear his voice.

After Chet died, I forgot all about The Book because there was no longer a book to remember, but I didn’t forget about Chet. My strongest memory was, and still is, of a routine social ritual he performed during our first meeting – thanking a young barmaid for delivering his tea fixings to our table. Chet simply said, “Thank you.” That’s it. “Thank you.” I have no idea why that fleeting, inconsequential moment has had such a profound and lasting affect on me, but it has. Every time I think about it, my heart aches a little.

A small, family and friends memorial for Chet was scheduled for Friday, July 1, 2005 at The Columbarium, his final resting place. Located a few blocks north of Golden Gate Park, The Columbarium is copper-domed, Neo-Classical structure that was built in 1898. The four-story building features six large, stained glass windows, one of which is presumed to have been designed by Louis Tiffany or John LaFarge, a 45-foot high rotunda, and niches for the ashes of 8,500 souls. Many of the cinerary niches have solid copper doors; others are glass-fronted, allowing for displays of personal or symbolic items. The Columbarium houses the remains of numerous prominent San Franciscans, including Harvey Milk.


And now it housed Chester Leo Helms, Jr.

On Friday afternoon, I met up with a few of Chet’s friends at the home of photographer Grant Jacobs and we walked to The Columarium.  A young woman with a clipboard was checking off names as we entered the building. The good, ol’ guest list.  Freddy Clarke, a musician friend of Chet’s was seated in front of a sprawling floral display, playing ethereal tunes on an acoustic guitar and his sweet notes resonated throughout the rotunda. The mood inside was hushed and reverential and it was immediately obvious that there was no dress code. The 150 or so mourners were wearing everything from somber, traditional funeral garb to sleeveless leather vests, jeans and cowboy hats.

I spotted Clara Bellino, whom I’d met at the Hotel Cornell dinner two months earlier, sitting in the middle of the room by herself and we exchanged subdued waves of greeting, but I didn’t recognize or know anyone else, except the people I was with and Jerilyn Brandelius. I overheard someone say that Chet was on the third floor, so that’s where I headed. When I got there, a small crowd of people was standing in front of a glass-fronted niche. Edging closer, I saw that the niche contained the familiar “Hippies Use Side Door” photo of Chet; a Family Dog logo decal; a small black & white photo of Chet and his brothers, John and Jim when they were kids; and an elegant, porcelain Japanese vase.

I returned to the ground floor of the rotunda and listened to a parade of speakers, including John Helms; former Merry Prankster, Julius Karpen, the man who had replaced Chet as manager of Big Brother and the Holding Company after they parted company; and Joli Valenti, Dino Valenti’s son, who read a touching, eulogistic poem he had written for the occasion. 

After the speakers finished, the crowd drifted outside and commenced the mingling that is required by such gatherings. A few joints were lit and began to make the rounds, stories were exchanged and, of course, promises to get together again real soon were made, re-made and then made again.

During the walk back to Grant Jacob’s house, Grant and I fell a bit behind the rest of our party and he said, “I have a great story for Chet’s book.”

Chet’s book?  What Chet’s book?

And that was the moment I realized that although the world would never hear Chet’s story, it needed to hear the story of Chet. That was the moment I realized that I wanted to be the one tell that story. That was the moment I realized I was going to do everything I possibly could to make it happen.

But I didn’t say anything, I just listened to Grant tell his Chet story. And it was one hell of a story. In fact, it is the best Chet story I have heard to this day and, believe me, I have heard dozens of great Chet Helms stories during the past three years. But there’s a problem. Although I absolutely believe Grant’s story – his details are too precise not to believe it –  it turns out that he is just one of the possible three surviving witnesses of the eight people who were present during the event he described to me.  Five of the eight people are deceased and Grant has no idea who the other two people are. The story he told me absolutely demands corraboration before it sees print and I have, thus far, been unable to do that.

But I’m not giving up.

I can say no more.


Published in: on June 6, 2008 at 4:49 am  Comments (4)  

Alton Kelley – An American Artist

On April 21, 2008 I called Luria Castell, who, along with Alton Kelley, Ellen Harmon and Jack Towle, had founded the Family Dog in the fall of 1965, to ask for her help in putting me in touch with her old friend and partner, Kelley. The reason: I wanted to interview Kelley as part of my research for the biography of Chet Helms I am writing. Later that evening, Luria sent me an email with the phone number of a couple who were longtime friends of Kelley’s. “Tell them I told you to call,” she wrote. “I’m sure they can put you in touch with Kelley.”


The next day, I received another email from Luria, saying that she’d just learned that Kelley was going through a particularly rough patch, health-wise and was hospitalized. She gave me a link to a web site that provided regular updates on his condition and a guestbook in which well-wishers could post messages to Kelley and his family. I began checking the site a daily basis, then, as April gave way to May, every two or three days.

Towards the end of May, it appeared that Kelley was progressing nicely and would soon be going home. Figuring a proverbial bullet had been dodged, I became less vigilant.


Which is why it came as such a shock to hear that Alton Kelley had passed away on Sunday, June 1.


Yet another original had departed.


But while Alton Kelley may be gone, what he has left behind will live forever in the hearts and minds of those who knew and loved him and on the bookshelves and walls of many of those who didn’t.


I am one of those who didn’t.


I never met Kelley and I never spoke to him, but he has been a part of my life for most of it. As I write these words, I can glance around this room and see some of his work which has been my constant companion for almost 40 years.


And for that, I thank him.


Finally, I find it interesting that the Edmund Sullivan illustration for the iconic Kelley/Mouse “Skeleton and Roses” poster, which is known as FD-26, came from Quatrain 26 of Edward Fitzgerald’s 19th Century translation of The Rubyiat of Omar Khayyam . Go figure.


Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise

To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.

Published in: on June 3, 2008 at 5:58 am  Comments (1)