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.