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.’