Searching for Huey M.

When I started “The Chet Helms Chronicles” almost four months ago, I introduced it by saying I wanted to share some of the weird, wonderful and even miraculous things that have occurred during my research which began nearly three years ago.

Here, then, is an example of an incident that may be accurately described as weird, wonderful and even miraculous: On October 23, 2005, exactly one week before The Chet Helms Tribal Stomp, I spoke on the phone with a delightful young lady named JoAnn P. who had who met and befriended Chet at the University of Texas in September 1960 when they both landed in an advanced English class, based on pre-admission essays they had written.

She told me several stories, including one in which she introduced Chet to John Silber, a controversial professor of Philosophy who went on to become, in order, the controversial Chairman of UT’s Philosophy Department in 1962; the contoversial Dean of UT’s College of Arts and Sciences in 1967; the highly controversial President of Boston College in 1971, where he survived an attempt by the faculty to remove him from the position five year later; and the highly controversial Chancellor of that same school in 1996. Somewhere in the midst of all this, Silber took a leave of absence to run for the governorship of Massachusetts, a run that ultimately failed.

The uncontroversial, philosophy-loving, 18-year-old Chet Helms obviously impressed the controversial Philosophy professor because he came away from their meeting with the guarantee of receiving a prestigious, stipend-bearing, student award on the condition that his grades improve. Well, they sort of didn’t, indicating that Chet might not have been all that interested in collecting a prestigious, stipend-bearing, student award.

Toward the end of our conversation JoAnn said, “You really should talk to a guy named Huey M. He was one of the very few black students at UT in those days and he and Chet were, as I recall, best friends.”

I thanked JoAnn for her time and all the great stuff she had given me and immediately commenced a quick and dirty, on-line search for Huey M. No luck, mostly because his last name had a half-dozen or so spelling variations. So I put my pursuit of Huey M. on the back burner and moved on.

Two months later, in November 2005, I read a fairly recent blog entry that had been written by another UT friend of Chet’s. The entry mentioned that 15 or so years earlier, he’d heard that Huey M. was a physician practicing in California. The entry more or less expressed the writer’s astonishment at hearing this news.

So I renewed my dormant search for Huey by asking a physician friend if he would log onto the California Medical Association web site to see if Huey M. was a registered member. For over an hour we sat at my friend’s computer, plugging in spelling variation after spelling variation. Again no luck.

During the next 13 months I conducted sporadic searches for Huey, exploring every angle I could think of, always to no avail.

Then, on a cold January night in 2007, I drove to The Jewish Community Center in San Francisco to attend a panel discussion about The Summer of Love and the approaching 40th anniversary of that alleged event. The panel, which included Big Brother and The Holding Company drummer, Dave Getz, was moderated by the longtime San Francisco Chronicle music writer and author of several books, including The Summer of Love, Joel Selvin. The session was attended by more than 500 people, including a female 16-year-old high school student from Iowa who had convinced her mother to bring her to San Francisco for this event because she was researching that period for a term paper. (I had met them and learned their story while waiting for the elevator lift us out of the depths of the parking garage.)

When the panel discussion ended, I asked the young girl, who was stuffing the copious notes she had taken into her backpack, if the trip – so to speak – had been worth it. She enthusiastically said it had been.

I then made my way to the area in front of the stage where a large, milling crowd had gathered around the panelists. I hovered on the outskirts, scouting for an opening that would enable me to slip through the mob and approach Joel Selvin. I finally spotted one and dashed through it. When I got close enough, I thrust a business card at the guy and introduced myself as the biographer of Chet Helms. Mr. Selvin took my card and put his hand on my shoulder.

“Anything you need,” he said. “It’s yours.”

I was, not for the first time since I started this gig, stunned. That’s because I knew full well that over the years Chet and Joel had had a few, uh, issues.

“I have the transcripts of about 20 hours of interviews I did with Chet about 17 or 18 years ago,” Selvin said. Then he laughed. “I needed to talk to Chet for the book I was writing, but he refused to speak to me because he was apparently offended by something I had written about him in 1978. I had no idea what it was. So I sat down and wrote him a long letter, apologizing for whatever transgression I had committed, and asked him to reconsider. He finally said he would agree to be interviewed, but only if he could tell his entire life story. I told him I only needed him to talk about the music years, but he was adamant. It was his life story or nothing. So during a number of sessions over a period of several weeks, Chet sat at my kitchen table, telling his life story. You can have the transcripts if you want them.”

If I want them? Are you kidding me?

Uh, no thanks, Joel. As Chet’s biographer the last thing in the world I want is his story in his words.

So now I knew what it must have felt like to hit The Mother Lode, except without the money part.

A week or so later, I went to Joel Selvin’s memorabilia-festooned house and he led me to a bank of file cabinets in the garage, adjacent to his LP-and-CD-crammed home office. He yanked open a drawer and extracted a manila folder holding a thick sheaf of papers. A quick glance at the papers indicated that the Chet interviews were conducted between late 1991 and early 1992. I was still glancing at this treasure trove when Joel handed me another, less thick, manila folder.

“These are clippings from the Denver newspapers about Denver Dog,” he said.

I thanked him as profusely as I was able, but it didn’t seem to be near enough. I said I would make copies of the files the following day and return the originals to him the following evening.

“Don’t bother bringing them back,” Joel said, “just drop them in the mail after they’re copied.”

As I was leaving with my precious cargo of information, Joel said, “I’ll call The Chronicle’s librarian tomorrow and have her copy all of our Chet clippings for you.”

And he did call the librarian. And he did mail the duly pulled and copied Chron clippings to me. And I will never be able to replay the kindness and generosity of Joel Selvin. But I will never forget them.

Later that night, I was maniacally poring over the interview transcripts, which answered dozens of questions for me, when I ran across a brief section in which Chet mentioned “a close college friend who had a tremendous influence on me and my life. He was a black kid who taught me about jazz, the blues and poetry.”

Huey M.

It had to be.

But where was he?

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Published in: on August 27, 2008 at 4:26 am  Comments (3)  

A Chet Helms Tribal Stomp

The San Francisco mayor’s office had proclaimed Sunday, October 30, 2005 as “Chet Helms Day.” Coincidentally, or perhaps not, a free, day-long concert featuring dozens of musicians, many of whom made their initial, respective marks in the ’60s, was scheduled to be held at Speedway Meadow in Golden Gate Park on that very same Sunday, October 30, 2005. The event was called “A Chet Helms Tribal Stomp.”

At 6:30 a.m. on “Chet Helms Day” I exited my Peninsula hovel, fired up my personal transportation device and aimed it north. The previous day, which shall henceforth be known as “Chet Helms Day Eve,” had been unseasonably overcast, chilly, windy and periodically drizzly, but “Chet Helms Day” had dawned, as some days are wont to do, sparklingly clear and calm, a postcard of perfection, weather-wise. There wasn’t a cloud in the blue sky, or a breath of wind in the air as I cruised past the deserted Ocean Beach and made a right turn onto Fulton Street.

The “Tribal Stomp” festivities were scheduled to start at 9:00, but I wanted to arrive way early for a couple of reasons: 1) To snag a reasonably close parking place and, 2) To scope out the scene. I also had to pick up my allegedley pre-arranged credentials that would allow me access to the backstage area where, rumor had it, there would be free food and, more importantly, free beer. (I figured that successfully completing this simple task would be nightmare. It was.)

Backstage was also where many of the potential sources for my research into Chet’s life would be hanging out. A few weeks earlier, my friend, Jerilyn Lee Brandelius, who, as a former Grateful Dead family member and author of “The Grateful Dead Family Album,” had encouraged (i.e.ordered) me to have business cards with my contact info printed and I had done so.

So, armed with several hundred business cards, I parked my personal transportation device adjacent to the Speedway Meadow entrance and took a short hike. The meadow was ringed with vendor tents, offering food and various goods, such as T-shirts, jewelry and posters commemorating the event. Several hundred early arrivals were milling around in front of a large stage that was backdropped by a huge Family Dog logo banner, the centerpiece portrait of which had been modified to resemble Chet. Above the stage, another banner was imprinted with the legend “A Chet Helms Tribal Stomp,” bracketed by a pair of peace signs.

Although crowd estimations have never been my strong suit, or, for that matter, any of my suits at all, I estimated the number of people in the large backstage area at around a million or so. The mood was joyous; a community reunion. Everywhere one looked one saw people hugging, handshaking or slapping backs. Shouts of glee were the order of the day as re-connections were made, here, there and everywhere. It was…glorious.

Very quickly my day devolved into one of swirled, mixed images and memories. I remember Jerilyn dragging me around and introducing me to people to whom I presented a business card. I remember standing in front of the stage listening to Big Brother guitarist, James Gurley, snarling out a few protest songs while accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. I remember The Rowan Brothers energizing the rapidly growing crowd with their rousing rendition of “Wake Up, Little Suzie.” I remember seeing The (Amazing) Charlatans perform live for the first time. (My first time; not theirs.) I remember watching Canned Heat bring down the house, or, more precisely, bring down the park, with their brief, but thunderous and energetic set. And I remember that the event proceeded with unhippie-like precision from start to finish. It was, as someone once said, all good.

But there are two memories from that day that are indelibly etched into my mind wherever memories are etched and they will likely be etched there, wherever that is, forever.

The first occured fairly early on, let’s say around 10:00 a.m. I had wandered out into the audience and was standing next to the trail that runs along the southern edge of Speedway Meadow when I saw a scowling, 30-something, Spandex-clad couple, each heavily laden with various electronic devices – Blackberries, cell phones, iPods and wide-screen HD TV’s – trying to maneuver their shiny, $3,000 mountain bikes through the crowd of happily twirling hippies. They did not appear to be particularly thrilled that their Sunday morning jaunt through the park had been disrupted by a throng of writhing tie-dye. In fact, they appeared to be royally pissed.

Now flash forward a few hours. I returned to the same spot to catch another set by another band, and couldn’t help but notice that the same Spandexed couple, their bikes, glossy helmets and electronics lying on the ground next to them, were sweating, smiling and…dancing their asses off.

My second indelible memory happened around noon. After watching Ramblin’ Jack Elliot and blues guitarist Roy Rogers play their set, I ambled backstage and ran into Jerilyn. A few moments later, Mr. Elliot and Mr. Rogers, wandered past us. Mr. Elliot stopped to say ‘hello’ to Jerilyn, who promptly introduced me as Chet’s biographer and told me to give him a business card, which I did. Ramblin’ Jack glanced at my card and said, “You know, people have been after me for a while to write a book of my own.” And that’s when I did what I tend to do best, namely make a completely inappropriate remark.

“Why,” I said, to the former running buddy of Woody Guthrie, “what have you done?”

Ramblin’ Jack, to my enormous relief, laughed at my inappropriate remark.

We were talking about book-writing stuff when we were interrupted by a young guy, a clean cut, early ’20s type, carrying a new guitar that was festooned with signatures, presumably of other Tribal Stomp performers.

“Excuse me, sir,” the kid said to Jack, “but would you please sign my guitar?”

“Sure,” Jack said, unshouldering his own soft-cased instrument and handing it to me. He took the kid’s Sharpie and started signing…’Rambin’ Jack E…’

That’s when the kid said the single most idiotic thing I have ever heard, including each and every one of President George Bush’s public pronouncements, or, as is often the case, his public mispronouncements.

He said, “Excuse me, sir, but I have no idea who you are.”

Rambin’ Jack paused, glanced up at the kid, smiled broadly and said, “That’s OK, son.”

So somewhere there’s a guitar bearing the huge, flowing signature of ‘Ramblin’ Jack Etchinghamhausen.’

Perfect.

Published in: on August 20, 2008 at 3:39 am  Comments (3)  

Chet Moves On Up

On October 5, 2005, I conducted my first official interview for the biography of Chet Helms.

The interviewee was John Helms; the site of the interview was a bench in a tiny park adjacent to The Fog City Diner, a San Francisco eatery to which Jeff Curtin and I had just taken John to lunch to celebrate his birthday.

For 45 minutes, John spoke about his and Chet’s early childhood in Betteravia, CA, a Union Sugar company town near Santa Maria. The interview was twice interrupted by sudden and preternaturally thunderous, low-level flyovers courtesy of the Navy’s Blue Angels aerial acrobatic team that was in town for a couple of Fleet Week shows that weekend. For a split second John and I thought the first flyover was an earthquake. The Big One.

Before I sat down with John Helms that day I had spent the better part of a month immersed in my collection of books about the so-called San Francisco Scene, beginning with my yellowed-with-age, paperback copy of Ralph J. Gleason’s The Jefferson Airplane and The San Francisco Sound, which was published in 1969. Since I had embarked on a self-imposed, crash refresher course, I read with heightened attention to detail and I made notes. Lots of notes. I also began bombarding Amazon.com with orders for books I had never read. I learned a lot. Boy, did I ever. For instance, I learned that there are at least three detailed accounts of how Big Brother and The Holding Company got its name. Hmmmm. Which of the three versions was true? Were any of them true?

Well, that and dozens of other questions would just have to wait. I had decided the most logical approach to researching Chet’s life was to begin where his life had begun, at the beginning. Towards that end, I called one of Chet’s cousins in Santa Maria. (John Helms had already contacted this cousin, asked her to talk to me and had given me her number.) Turns out that there are four female Helms cousins living in the Santa Maria area, daughters all of Chet’s favorite aunt, Ruth, his father’s sister.

The cousin to whom I spoke in mid-October happens to be the primary Helms family genealogist and has family records and family photos going back, well, a very long time. And she was more than willing to share this information with me. I told her I would like to travel to Santa Maria and spend some time looking over the material she had gathered and she graciously invited me to come on down. We made plans for me to visit in a few weeks.

On October 17, 2005, I joined a dozen folks at The Columbarium to witness Chet’s re-location from his original digs to a larger, more palatial space. Apparently, so many people were visiting Chet, The Columbarium’s managers had offered a steep discount on the cost of more suitable lodgings.

I remember standing in front of Chet’s new, two-story, glass-fronted niche with John Helms and Jerilyn Brandelius and suggesting that some sort of light show be added to the display. John said that idea had been discussed earlier and that someone had located an unobtrusive string of tiny, blinking, battery-operated lights that would do the job nicely. But there was a problem. The battery powering the light string only lasted for about a year before it had to be changed, and the cost of changing the battery was prohibitive because The Columbarium charges a very hefty fee to unlock and open a niche. Too bad. A perpetual light show would have added the perfect, over-the-top touch.

Our small group gradually drifted outside and gathered in a courtyard, reluctant to leave. The day was cloudless, windless and warm, which is more typical than not for October in San Francisco. Most of us hung around and hung out for over an hour. John Helms told me more stories about Chet’s childhood and when I mentioned that I was going to Santa Maria to visit his cousins, Jerilyn chimed in, saying that the cousins were genetic freaks who looked decades younger than their ages, which ranged from early 60’s to early 70’s. Someone else, I forget whom, enthusiastically backed up Jerilyn’s assessment.

But before I headed south to visit these genetic freaks, there was another event looming on the near horizon: A Chet Helms Tribal Stomp.

Published in: on August 6, 2008 at 8:38 pm  Comments (8)  

Three Words

Last night at 9:15 I received a phone call from Chet Helms’ brother, John, and we talked for over an hour-and-a-half. Although a few weeks earlier I had spent a long evening with John and James MacLeod, Chet’s documentarian, at MacLeod’s house, last night was the first time in almost a year that we had really, you know, talked. Our conversation was wide-ranging and, as usual, pleasant and productive. In other words, John provided me with several new and valuable insights about his brother at various points of his life.

But it was something John said shortly before we hung up that stunned and startled me, big time. He casually mentioned that not long after Chet passed away, he was going through some stuff in Chet’s apartment when he found a piece of paper on which Chet had written three words.

These are the three words: “Greg Hoffman – biographer.”

And here is why I was stunned and startled by this revelation: Although the note was undated and there is no way of telling when it was written, it appears to indicate that Chet either felt or knew that he was not going to write his own story.

During the months Chet and I worked on his autobiography, or, more precisely, talked about working on his autobiography, which he always referred to as “my memoir,” I was his collaborator, not his biographer. I knew that and Chet certainly knew that. Case closed.

I asked John if he had kept the note and he said he had but he didn’t know exactly where it was because he had recently moved into a new place and had not yet unboxed everything.

I cannot tell you how much I wanted to have that note, but I’m gonna try. I wanted it real bad and I said so.

John told me he’d look for the note and when he found it, he’d give it to me.

How cool is that?

Addendum: James MacLeod, the documentarian mentioned at the outset of this post, has produced a wonderful 16-minute film called “Chet Helms: The Big Brother of the Summer of Love,” which features amazing archival footage interspersed with comments from a Chet interview that was filmed at his art gallery. The short film was enthusiastically received at last year’s Santa Cruz Film Festival. James is currently working to expand the film into a full-length documentary.

Published in: on August 5, 2008 at 8:09 pm  Comments (2)  

Happy Birthday, Chester!

Today, August 1, 2008, is the 66th birthday of Jerry Garcia, or would have been.

Tomorrow, August 2, 2008 is the 66th birthday of Chester Leo Helms, Jr., or would have been.

But they both made early departures, Garcia at age 53 and Chet at age 62. Both were well-scarred and well-seasoned, and, because of the lives they had lived, both deaths were a bit shocking, but not especially surprising, precisely because both were well-scarred and well-seasoned. Both were pioneering veterans who helped define a place and a time. And both were originals, true to their time and their place. But, most of all, both were true to themselves.

In the August 21, 1995 issue of Time magazine, writer Richard Corliss ended his lengthy obituary/eulogy of Garcia by saying: “…[Garcia] died —long after he might have, long before he should have.”

Exactly right.

And, you know, ditto for Chet.

Too soon. Way too soon.

Who knows what might have been?

Published in: on August 1, 2008 at 3:37 am  Leave a Comment