Let Us Digress For a Moment….

It’s Sunday night and I’ve just returned from one of my periodic two-day pilgrimages to some of the local sites of my long ago youth. I started by cruising south on Skyline Boulevard and then west on 84 to the tiny, blink-and-miss-it hamlet of La Honda, my old neighborhood and once the headquarters of Ken Kesey and The Merry Pranksters. Respects having been paid at the former Kesey compound, I reversed direction, backtracked into town and popped into Applejack’s, which looked like it was about to fall over in ’64 and still does, for a cold beer and a bit of rumination.

Thirst quenched and ruminations ruminated, I meandered back the intersection of Skyline and La Honda Road where, in the spring of ’65, I spent a warm, Sunday morning cavorting with several dozen Hell’s Angels who’d gathered in the parking lot of the once-upon-a-time Woodside General Store on their way to Kesey’s place. (Actually, it was the Angels who were cavorting in the parking lot that day; I was mostly trying to make my terrified, 17-year-old self invisible and not tick anyone off.)

Then I switchbacked my way down the hill, stopping, as always, at the spot a few hundred yards above Woodside Road where a college friend of mine was run off the road in January ’65 by a state Forestry Department vehicle (a green Pontiac station wagon) in his two-day-old VW and rolled five-and-a-half times down the hill before coming to rest upside down against a tree. The official car did not stop and my friend was briefly trapped inside the crushed VW, but, except for a grotesquely bloody nose, was unhurt. I was also also briefly trapped inside the car, but was unhurt. I did, however, lose a baseball I’d been holding. I’d been given the ball earlier that day by another school friend named Cindy Simmons, the daughter of famed San Francisco Giants’ announcer, Lon Simmons.

The baseball, alas, was signed by Willie Mays and I was more than a little distressed that I had lost it. Despite several subsequent search expeditions during the next few months, I never found it. But the VW’s shattered windshield is, to this day, lying mostly buried, next to the tree against which we came to rest that day.

Upside down.

In a brand new, yellow VW Beetle that, after it was winched up the hill and righted on the shoulder of the road, stood about waist high. Standing next to that dusty wreckage caused my legs turn to jelly and my head to swirl. It was the closest I’ve ever come to passing out without having ingested any alcohol or chemical substances. Thinking hard about it still causes my legs turn to jelly and my head to swirl. And, standing there gazing down the hill, I did think about it…again.

From the La Honda Road crash site it was an easy jaunt to downtown Palo Alto. I found a parking place and wandered past the former site of The Tangent, a tiny, folk club on University Avenue that featured many of the future, prominent ’60s musicians – Garcia, Jorma, Janis, Pigpen – and, a few blocks away, St. Michael’s Alley, another old folk club that is now an upscale eatery.

It was mid-afternoon and it was very hot when I decided to end the Palo Alto phase of my trip down memory lane. I retrieved my car and drove to a motel on the Menlo Park-Palo Alto border at which I had reserved a moderately-priced room. I checked in, set up my laptop, unpacked a few of my Chet bio files…and hit the road again. I drove north on El Camino Real to the third, and latest location of Kepler’s Bookstore. In ’64, Kepler’s, which played a prominent role in the gestation of The Grateful Dead, was in a ramshackle building a few blocks south of its current home in a sparking chrome-and-glass building. But it’s still Kepler’s and it’s still one of the best bookstores anywhere. It’s got history; it is history.

I topped off, so to speak, my sojourn to Kepler’s by visiting a nearby Round Table Pizza place to order a take-out, pepperoni pie. BFD, right? So what? Who cares? Well, this particular Round Table franchise occupies, as I recall, the former site of a long-defunct pizza joint called Magoo’s, which is where The Grateful Dead, then calling themselves The Warlocks, played their first-ever gig in either April or May 1965. So it was, as usual, part of my memory-lane tour.

But between my visit to Kepler’s and my visit to Round Table, for reasons that are neither important nor interesting, I found myself strolling up Santa Cruz Avenue, the main downtown drag of Menlo Park, slaloming around the sidewalk tables of about a thousand hip outdoor cafes with hip one-word names, many of them, for reasons that are neither important nor interesting, beginning with the letter ‘Z.’

As I was passing an old-fashioned stationer’s store, the outside left corner of my left eye caught a familiar image amongst a display of twirly-racked calendars stationed in one of the storefront windows. A closer look revealed that it was a 2009 calendar called “Rock Roots: Avalon Ballroom Posters, 1966-1968.”

I entered the old-fashioned store and purchased, with modern technology, the calendar, which features reproductions of 12 Avalon posters – one, appropriately enough, for each month of the year -by Mouse, Kelley, Mouse & Kelley, Moscoso and Griffin. (Curiously, Wes Wilson is unrepresented.) After adding $14.00 plus change to my burgeoning Visa tab, I took the calendar outside, settled onto a sidewalk bench and removed the shrink-wrap, injuring myself only slightly. Because the label proclaimed that the calendar included the dates of significant ’60s events, I turned immediately to the month of June.

And there it was. There was the reason for this digression.

To wit:

Faithful (and unfaithful) readers of these meanderings may or may not recall that my last post included a mini-rant about certain, widely-published factual inaccuracies, including the one that Janis debuted with Big Brother at the Avalon on June 10, 1966. Well, the 2009 Avalon Ballroom poster calendar actually got it right, that Janis debuted with the band at the Avalon on June 24, 1966. It was the first time I have ever seen the correct information in print and I was suitably amazed and impressed.

But then…

The June 10 calendar entry reads thusly: “1966: Big Brother and The Holding Company plays its first gig at the Avalon Ballroom.”

Oops. Big Brother didn’t play the Avalon on June 10, 1966, but they had played five weekends at the venue prior to that date.

Anyway, I had a great weekend and got me a very cool calendar.

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Published in: on July 28, 2008 at 4:02 am  Comments (5)  

Moving Right Along…

OK, where were we? Oh, yeah, on September 19, 2005, almost three months after Chet’s passing, John Helms sent me an email approving me as his brother’s biographer.

I had wanted and needed John’s approval because it would provide me with access to the people and material required for the telling of Chet’s story. And now I had it.

So what did I do?

I pretty much froze. I pretty much froze solid. You’ve heard that old saying, “Be careful of what you wish for because you just might get it?” Well, I had gotten my wish, and I had no idea what to do next. Now that the biography project was a reality, I was overwhelmed by its enormity, by how much I didn’t know about the nearly 63 years of Chet Helms’ life. I was familiar with many of the bullet points but bullet points make a resume’, not a biography.

But within a day or two I began to thaw out a bit, and I got to work. Mere hours of Chet’s June 25th demise, a memorial guestbook appeared on the Family Dog web site. Almost immediately, the site began receiving tributes to Chet, from people who knew him and from people who didn’t. Dozens of heartfelt tributes and memories poured in, and then hundreds. I had been visiting the guestbook regularly since it began and had assembled a list of potential contacts – friends, high school and college classmates, former Avalon Ballroom and Denver Dog employees and dozens of others who had shared their Chet stories.

I also began lashing together a detailed Chet Helms’ timeline; scouring Amazon.com for books about San Francisco in the ’60’s, many of which included mentions of Chet and quotes by him; and prowling the Internet, which provided, and continues to provide, a bounty of information, some of it, like some of the published material, factually erroneous.

For example: Every published source I have seen, including the official Janis Joplin web site and the official Big Brother and The Holding Company web site, claims that Janis made her debut with the band at the Avalon Ballroom on June 10, 1966. She didn’t. For one thing, Big Brother didn’t play the Avalon or anywhere else that day. The June 10 Avalon show featured the Grateful Dead and Quicksilver Messenger Service. (The Wes Wilson poster for “The Quick and The Dead” shows that weekend was the first time a skeleton was used on a Dead poster, pre-dating Mouse and Kelley’s “Skeleton & Roses” poster by three months.) For another thing, Janis didn’t meet her future bandmates until June 6, 1966, according to a letter she wrote to her parents that day. The first time Big Brother played the Avalon after hooking up with Janis was June 24, 1966.

For another example: Numerous books and magazine articles list Big Brother among the bands that performed at The Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park on January 14, 1967. Problem is, Big Brother was in Los Angeles on January 14, preparing for a concert at The Shrine Auditorium that night. They did not participate in the Be-In.

For yet another example: It has entered the mythology that Peter and Rodney Albin’s uncle owned the Victorian house at 1090 Page, the house from which Big Brother and The Holding Company emerged in late 1965. Not exactly. The Albin brother’s uncle didn’t own the house; he worked for the company that owned the house.

So are such, uh, mis-statements a big, huge deal? Depends on how you look at it. Or, more precisely, it depends on how I looked at it. And I did look at it as a pretty big deal. I mean, my mindset was, and is, if something is verifiable, why not verify it and get it right? Or at least try to get it right. Right?

At the same time, I fully realized that not everything would be verifiable and that, despite my best efforts, I would get some stuff wrong. But I found a sort of perverse solace in Ken Kesey’s statement: “It’s true even if it didn’t happen.” I also recalled a remark one of George McGovern’s aides made about Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail,” an account of the 1972 presidential campaign. The aide described Thompson’s book as, “the most accurate and least factual” account of the proceedings. Perfect.

By mid-October, I had assembled a large and growing body of research materials, including genealogical and U.S. Census records dating back to the 1850’s for both sides of Chet’s family, a copy of his birth cerificate and records from his high school and University of Texas days. I had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of his FBI files. I had submitted a request for a copy of his Selective Service records. (I received these requested documents before the end of the year.)

So I was now ready to pull the proverbial trigger. To take the proverbial plunge. To become a…biographer.

But first…

Published in: on July 25, 2008 at 3:41 am  Leave a Comment  

And So It Goes…

Five weeks after I first met with John Helms, we got together again, this time for lunch at the latest and least appealing version of the venerable Cliff House in San Francisco, an increasingly up-scale eatery perched at the edge of the Pacific. The new Cliff House was a solid, stark and plain structure that reminded me of a concrete bunker overlooking Omaha Beach in 1945. But inside the building’s unimposing exterior, the view outside was quite imposing. 

I don’t remember what John and I talked about during lunch, but I do remember standing and shivering outside the Cliff House in a stiff, fog-swirling wind afterwards and John asking me if I would be available the following morning to participate in a conference call with him and the estate’s lawyer. I would be and said so.

It was a real, real long phone call…over two hours…and a somewhat disturbing one. John said very little during the three-way call, which soon turned into an interrogation by The Lawyer about my background, my writing credits and so forth. At some point, The Lawyer said he needed to see samples of my work and I got really pissed off, which is not something I do very often. I mean, Chet never asked me a single question about my writing background and now this lawyer needed writing samples? He wasn’t a literary agent or an editor, he was a lawyer. Although I’ve never considered myself to be anything more than a competent, serviceable writer, I was deeply offended by the notion of The Lawyer judging my worth.

I felt as though I had become enmeshed in a Kafka novel. This was real, but it didn’t make any real sense. Not to me.

After more Kafkaesque discussion, I finally agreed to send The Lawyer a copy of an Eddie Money profile I had written for Rolling Stone about 15 years earlier. A day or two later, I dutifully dispatched the material to The Lawyer’s office, tried to put my desire to write Chet’s biography out of my mind and resumed my regular life.

This whole thing had become too weird for me and I was done with it. Finito, man.

That’s what I told myself anyway, but deep in my heart I knew it wasn’t true. I wanted to write Chet’s story: I needed to write Chet’s story.

Then, on September 19, 2005, 10 days after our lunch at the Cliff House, John Helms sent me an email. He said he wanted me to write his brother’s biography and that he was planning to contact several of his cousins and ask them to cooperate with me.  

Problem solved, right?

Published in: on July 11, 2008 at 4:44 am  Comments (2)  

O, Woe is me…Again

OK, let’s continue with our story of Chet Helms’ biography, shall we?

At high noon on August 2, 2005, four days after “Chetfest,” I met Chet’s brother, John Helms, for lunch at ANZU, a restaurant located in the Hotel Nikko in downtown San Francisco. ANZU features something called “EuroJapanese cuisine,” from which I selected a slab of salmon that came with some other stuff, all of it edible.

I had never met John, whom, along with his younger brother, Jim Helms, were co-executors of Chet’s will, but I had heard him speak at Chet’s memorial service at The Columbarium a month earlier. John, like Chet, is a tall, bespectacled, soft-spoken gentleman. John, unlike Chet, sports a full head of hair, worn medium length and no facial hair. And John, unlike Chet, is, uh, more far more guarded than ebullient in conversation. He’s a quiet, self-effacing man.

John has been an independent art and antique dealer in San Francisco for decades. In the 1960’s, he operated a vintage clothing and antique store while assisting Chet at the Avalon Ballroom, mostly by distributing Family Dog posters around town before the shows. He doesn’t hide his devotion to his brother. He doesn’t hide his affection for his brother.

And now this. Now, because his younger brother, Jim, is thousands of miles away in Hawaii, he has to confront the madness and chaos Chet’s passing has engendered. He has to deal with lawyers, with licensing requests and with people coming out of the woodwork saying, “Chet promised me this,” or “Chet wanted me to have that.” One of the first things John said to me was “My cell phone never stops ringing.” He said it with a resigned sigh and a deeply furrowed brow.

I liked John Helms immediately and I also felt a little sorry for him. My initial thought, based on nothing concrete, was that he wasn’t going to have a real good time dealing with what he was going to be dealing with in the foreseeable future.

Dealing with the likes of me, for example.

My mission that day was to convince him to give me his blessing to proceed with Chet’s biography, to “authorize” me as his brother’s biographer. I knew full well that anyone on God’s green earth could try to write a biography of Chet. I also knew that Chet had told several of his friends that we were working together on his autobiography and in my view that legitimized me. The Estate’s – i.e. John’s imprimatur – would provide me with two things: easier access to various sources, including members of Chet’s family, and access to Chet’s personal archives, both of which were vital if I had any hope of producing a meaningful portrait of the man.

During our luncheon conversation, John told me he was aware that Chet had selected me as his collaborator, but he was non-committal about giving me his approval to do the book. I didn’t press the issue – well, maybe just a tiny bit – and I remember driving home from the Hotel Nikko thinking that what I had considered to be a slam dunk hadn’t been a slam dunk at all. It wasn’t exactly a rejection; it just wasn’t… an anything.

Was I disappointed? Oh yeah, I was disappointed all right. You know that episode of Seinfeld when George Costanza summons all of his courage and says to Marlee Matlin, “I love you,” and gets nothing in return? No response. It was like that.

But did I give up? Did I pack it in?

Yes, I did.

I sat on my front porch in San Mateo that afternoon and had a talk with myself, hopefully one that wasn’t audible to the neighbors. It went something like this:

“So what exactly qualifies you to spend the next few years researching and writing the life of another human being?”

“Well…in the late ’80s, when I was a tabloid reporter in L.A.,  I wrote a biography of Angie Dickinson.”

Angie

“Don’t make me laugh. You lashed together a shallow, pathetic ‘clip job’ about that poor woman for a cheap paperback publisher and a quick payday.”

“So?”

“So it wasn’t a real biography.  Doing Chet’s story will require a commitment bordering on obsession, not a week in the Beverly Hills library, lifting material from old magazine interviews.”

“Your point?”

“Let it go. Look, you got to meet and hang out with Chet Helms for a few months and you got to hear some very cool stories. Now it’s time for you to move on. ”

“OK.”

A few days after that conversation with myself, I sat down late one night and wrote a very lengthy email to John Helms, detailing my history with Chet and gently pleading my case to be designated as Chet’s official biographer.

Then I waited for a response.

Oh, yes, I did. I waited for a week, then two, then three, then….

(To be continued. By the way, August 2, 2005, the day I first met with John Helms at the Hotel Nikko, was, or would have been, Chet’s 63rd birthday.)

Published in: on July 3, 2008 at 3:42 am  Comments (4)