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 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)  

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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I think the eternal light show would be a hoot. I would contribute to its’ maintenance.

    The prevailing thing I keep noticing as you share your research is that so much of the history you are checking out borders on urban legend. Not that I’m surprised at this, actually the contrary. I guess why I find it interesting is that it is a pretty solid statement on human understanding and reminiscence. Even the cold hard facts are pretty subjective at times. Besides, conflicting accounts of how Big Brother got their name or whether Jerry stuck his finger in a dictionary or if Walrus Pemmican really was raised in the Canadian hinterlands before his private detective days are infinitely more interesting stories.

    Kesey’s observation on the nature of the truth holds up pretty well, don’t it?

  2. Finally, this story is getting off the ground! Check into that cheap hotel in Betteravia and go knock on the lady’s door. We’re with you, man. Better bring your .38 though, just in case.

  3. Well, Leo, you are absolutely correct…once again. I am running up against many well-established mythologies that will likely never be sorted out, and maybe shouldn’t be sorted out, such as how Big Brother got its name or whether Jerry really did flip open that old dictionary and have those words leap out of the page. And the various accounts of these happenstances that have been floating around for decades are both interesting and, as you suggest, a solid statement of human understanding and reminicence. But the fact, so to speak, reamins that there are also certain facts that are, well, simply facts. Pure and simple. Big Brother, for instance, did not, as has been oft-claimed, play at the Human Be-In on January 14, 1967. That is a simple fact and an easily verifiable one. Might as well get it right, right?
    Kesey’s statements that “It’s true even it it never happened,” “To hell with facts. We need stories,” and “The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer” are all very clever and facile, but I’m trying to tell the real story of a real person who did real things in real places during a real lifetime. Is such a thing even possible? That remains to be seen, but, you know, I have to try.

  4. Yes, brother, you must. As much as the world loves stories, there seemingly always remains a void in the facts department. As much as I personally enjoy mythology, I love the historical, the Jeopardy answers, the real word… the nut, if you will.

    It seems biography relies on those historicals but uses the apocryphals as well, because the combination of the two does much to round out the personality, make a cubist attempt to show many dimensions at once if you will.

    Ack. I ramble sometimes.

  5. OK, Leo, I have decided to add your silver-tongued, wise-minded self to my large and growing entourage (i.e. posse) as my official spokesperson. The job obviously carries a lot of prestige but, alas, no salary.

    Your primary responsibility will be regularly issuing well-crafted statements of apology for my wacky, occasionally felonious shenanigans, both on and off the keyboard. So congratulations and welcome aboard.

  6. Mr. Greg, you don’t know what you ask of me, but I take up the gauntlet willingly.

    I have no notions of anything as grandiose as spokesperson, though I will speak whenever a proper treat is offered. Prestige is always a draw, and I jump on most willingly. My words are neither silver nor tongued. You need to know up front that I have been accused of being a snake. I ain’t always right, but i’ve never been wrong.

    As far as apology goes, I make none for myself or others, though I will be more than honored to make some up for you. It would seem that I, an honorary member of the team/entourage/posse, have a task afore me and naught behind me for support. What little I had behind got bitten off when I tried to publish my own memoirs some years back. I have since gone to publishing horticultural columns and have found some success in agrarian circles. But I digress.

    Here goes…

    For those who read “The Chet Helms Chronicles” as penned/keyed by Greg Hoffman, all I have to say is that his wacky and felonious shenanigans and most insightful investigative writing is most insightful and felonious. Most of all it is wacky, and that is not something I offer lightly.

    I hope my afore paragraphed utterance of apologia fits the bill as official spokesperson. If not… Mea maxima culpa.

    Brother Greg is the real writer and I am just the hired gun who makes noise on occasion; the useless gong shattering the pensive stillness of the desert night where I live.


  7. Thanks, man. You have passed the audition.

  8. Hi, Greg:

    Bravo for all the work you are doing and have done on the book about Chet. He was a great character and soul for our generation, and you are doing him justice. I know it must be a big huge job. I am so proud to have counted him as a friend and Wes and I think about him often.

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