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.”
It had to be.
But where was he?