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.