Chet Helms: Hall of Fameward Bound?

“Leaders in the music industry joined together in 1983 to establish the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation. One of the Foundation’s many functions is to recognize the contributions of those who have had a significant impact on the evolution, development and perpetuation of rock and roll by inducting them into the Hall of Fame.” (From the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame web site)

The nine nominees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Class of 2009, were announced today. They are: Jeff Beck (previously inducted as a member of The Yardbirds), Wanda Jackson, Little Anthony and The Imperials, War, Bobby Womack, Run D.M.C., The Stooges, Metallica, and Chic. Five of the nominees will be inducted in Cleveland next April.

Chester Leo Helms Jr., whose credentials certainly meet the above-stated requirements, was, once again, unmentioned as a potential ‘non-performer’ inductee.

More than a few folks are asking, “Why?”

After all, nearly three dozen non-performing music biz contributors have been inducted into The Hall of Fame: record company execs, songwriters, disc jockeys, producers and at least one concert promoter, Bill Graham, who was enshrined in The Hall in 1992, less than a year after his untimely death in a helicopter crash in October 1991.

And rightfully so.

Although it matters not one bit, I fully realize that Bill Graham was not always, uh, warm and fuzzy, and that a lot of people had ugly run-ins with him over the years. But he treated me exceptionally well, or at least his organization did. I only met him once, in his office on Howard Street, in 1978. Rolling Stone had assigned me to write a feature story on Eddie Money, who was being managed by Graham at the time. Just before I was introduced to Graham by a member of his staff, I witnessed, up close and personal, a purple-faced. obscenity-laced, threat-filled, truly frightening Bill Graham tirade that ended with him slamming down the phone after having suggested to the person on the other end that he or she perform a rather difficult anatomical maneuver. He then turned to greet me, calmly and with a broad smile. Graham was, I decided at that moment, a magnificent actor.

Prior to that, I had done a pair of free-lance projects for Bill Graham Presents and Winterland Productions. The first project was writing and photographing an eight-page program for a Graham-produced, Dave Mason tour. (I took the photographs during a band rehearsal at Winterland one Sunday afternoon.)

A few days after I turned in my copy and photos for the Mason program, I received an envelope from Bill Graham Presents. Inside was a much-needed, very generous check, two primo tickets to an upcoming Elton John show at The Oakland Coliseum, and a letter of thanks that was signed by Bill.

Several months later, I got a call from one of Graham’s people at Winterland Productions, asking if I would be interested in writing the copy for a t-shirt catalog they were producing. (Graham had recently opened a retail rock t-shirt store called ‘333 Columbus,’ which, coincidentally was the address of the shop, and he was looking to expand into mail-order.) I said I was interested and trucked up to Winterland where I was escorted to a suite of funky offices in the basement. I was sitting at a dented, metal desk, looking over the goods I was going to write about, when someone mentioned that the crew filming “The Grateful Dead Movie” was in the hallway, shooting Dead posters for the film. I stepped out into the hallway, and watched the crew for a while, mentioning to one of Graham’s employees that I was a Deadhead. Not long after I returned to my temporary work station, the employee approached me, carrying a cardboard box. He put it on the floor, said, “Take what you want,” and left.

Inside the box were hundreds of tickets to old Fillmore shows, rubber-banded tickets that were reproductions of the posters and handbills for the shows. I spent the next 15 minutes or so extracting Grateful Dead tickets from the box and piling then on the desk. I ended up with 18 tickets before I was overwhelmed by guilt and shut down my mad scavenging.

I don’t think the t-shirt catalog was ever produced – at least, I never saw a copy – but I soon received another envelope, containing another check, and another letter, this one notifying me that I and a guest had been added to the Winterland guest list for future Dead shows and instructing me to pick up my tickets at Will Call. (I went to Will Call the next time The Dead played Winterland and, sure enough, I was handed a pair of General Admission tickets, but after that, I paid full freight for the shows. Again, the guilt. Damn nuns.)

All that having been said, Bill Graham is in the HOF and Chet Helms ain’t.

Bill Graham’s bio on the HOF web site mentions that he “booked such mainstays of the psychedelic era as The Jefferson Airplane and Big Brother and The Holding Company…”

True enough.

But Chet Helms, essentially founded, named and managed Big Brother and then put them together with Janis. He also booked them at the Avalon, Denver Dog and Family Dog at The Beach for 51 shows. Big Brother played fewer than a dozen shows for Graham.

That alone, my friends, qualifies as a “significant impact on the evolution, development and perpetuation of rock and roll.”

Published in: on September 25, 2008 at 3:08 am  Comments (4)  

Chet Helms – Ages and Stages

Published in: on September 18, 2008 at 4:52 pm  Comments (1)  

Road Trip – Part I

Are we there yet?

On the startlingly unseasonably, balmy, Tuesday evening of November 15, 2005 I headed up to the Cafe du Nord on Market Street in San Francisco to attend a release party for Clara Bellino’s recently-released CD, “Embarcadero Love.” I had first met Clara the previous April at a dinner with Chet and several of his friends. (Chet had done all the photography for her CD.) I had run into Clara a few times since then – at Chet’s Columbarium memorial, at the “Chetfest” show, at the Columbarium when Chet was re-located to more spacious quarters and, most recently, at the “Chet Helms Tribal Stomp” memorial concert in Golden Gate Park two weeks earlier. Clara and I had spent much of that day hanging out together and later that night, I sent her an email, telling her I was driving to Santa Maria, CA on November 19 to meet Chet’s cousins. I asked if she wanted to go with me. She wrote back, saying she did.

After listening to Clara’s opening act at the Cafe du Nord, I went outside and loitered on the sidewalk in the warm, still air, listening to the murky, unintelligible sound emanating from a concert in progress at the San Francisco Giant’s stadium, Pac Bell Park, two-and-a-half miles to the east. The stadium show that night featured an up-and-coming British band called The Rolling Stones.

I was in mid-loiter when Jerilyn Brandelius materialized. She was accompanied by a diminutive, balding, bespectacled older gentleman sporting a wispy, grey beard and a small ponytail. He was wearing wrinkled khakis, a dark shirt and a shapeless, tweed sports coat, the lapel of which was decorated with a large button bearing a photograph of a smiling, hatless, glasses-less Chet Helms.

“This is Julius Karpen,” Jerilyn announced before promptly de-materializing.

I was familiar with the name. Julius Karpen had taken over Big Brother and The Holding Company after Chet and the band ended their managerial relationship in early 1967 because of his increasingly time-consuming involvement with The Family Dog and The Avalon Ballroom. Julius Karpen was the guy who had initially refused to sign a release allowing Big Brother’s first performance at The Monterey Pop Festival to be filmed, sensing a rip-off, before he was over-ruled and the promoters gave the band another slot, which was filmed. He was the guy who was later replaced, somewhat abruptly and unceremoniously, by the reigning king of artist managers, Albert Grossman. (Bob Dylan; Joan Baez; Peter, Paul and Mary; Paul Butterfield Blues Band; Phil Ochs; The Band; Richie Havens etc.)

“I’ve been looking for you,” Julius said. “I want to talk to you about Chet’s book.”

And so we did. It quickly became apparent that Julius, a veteran of Kesey’s Pranksters, was a no-nonsense guy, but not relentlessly so. I immediately and enormously liked him. The question most people asked me was: “How long is it going to take you to write the book?” But Julius didn’t ask me that, probably because he was fully aware I didn’t know the answer. He asked me things like, “How are you approaching the book?” And, “Who are you talking to?”

Based on his questions, I suspected that Julius might be a former journalist, and, as it turned out, I was right.

We talked for 15 minutes of so, then went inside to watch Clara’s performance, standing together near the back of the small room. At some point, mid-show, I said, “Clara’s very good.” Julius, a man who’d driven Janis and Big Brother to dozens of gigs he’d booked for them back in ’67, a man who still becomes noticeably emotional when he talks about Janis and the boys, agreed with me.

After Clara’s show, Julius and I went back outside and talked for another 45 minutes, finally parting after we agreed to talk again in the near future. Julius headed to his nearby home and I returned to the club to find Clara and confirm our travel plans to Santa Maria.

Said plans having been duly confirmed, I went home and booked separate rooms at a Quality Inn in Santa Maria. Over the next few days, I filled the tank of my personal transportation device with petrol, and packed some toiletries. We were going to hit the road at 8:00 a.m. Saturday morning and roll south on 101 almost 300 miles, observing the posted speed limit all the way.

Well, maybe except for the stretch between Soledad and King City.

Published in: on September 16, 2008 at 4:18 am  Comments (2)  

Two Words…

…Roy Orbison.

Published in: on September 14, 2008 at 6:19 am  Comments (7)  

Searching for Emily H.

This will probably sound like a made up story but I swear that every word is true.

As previously mentioned, shortly after Chet Helms died on June 25, 2005, a memorial guestbook was added to the familydog.com web site. Also as previously mentioned, said guestbook was soon cyber-bulging with tributes to Chet.

One of the early tribute-leavers was a woman named Emily H., who wrote of long ago summer evenings that she and Chester – Chet always was, and probably will forever be, Chester to his high school classmates – spent conversing on her front porch, amid the swirling june bugs and fireflies. She described herself and Chester as “geeks.”

I sent Emily H. an email in October 2005, asking if she’d be willing to talk to me about her friend, Chester, providing me with insights about his high school self.

The email promptly bounced back as “undeliverable.” The intended recipient, I was informed, was unknown.

A few weeks later I was talking to John Helms and I asked if he remembered Emily H. He said he did and that she and Chet, er, Chester, had been very close friends.

I searched for Emily H., but her name was a relatively common one and I came up empty. I was pretty sure she wasn’t the Emily H. who was a member of the Garfield High School girls’ softball team in 2006 or the Emily H. who passed away in Colorado at the age of 105 or any of the numerous other Emily H.’s who’d popped up.

Then one Saturday morning in May 2007, shortly after I logged into eBay to conduct one of my periodic surveys of Chet Helms’ items being offered for auction, I had some sort of bizarre, time warp, out-of-body experience. All of a sudden I found my on-line self staring at an eBay forum or discussion group about vintage clothing. To this day, I have absolutely no idea how I got there, but there I was.

I mean, c’mon. Vintage clothing?  As typo-prone as I am, it’s a real stretch to imagine typing ‘Chet Helms’ and being delivered to vintage clothing.

I was staring in stunned disbelief when something caught my eye and jogged my memory. On my screen were snippets of an exchange concerning an “authentic, San Francisco hippie dress,” that was up for auction. But that’s not what caught my eye and jogged my memory. This is what caught my eye and jogged my memory: the email address of one of the forum participants – xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx@gmail.com. (That, of course, is not the actual email address; I have cleverly disguised it.)

I immediately checked the list of book sources I had been compiling for almost 18 months and there it was: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx@aol.com.

Emily H.

It had to be her. The quirky email handle was the same. Only the domain was different.

I returned to the eBay forum and attempted to send an email to xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx@gmail.com.

No go. It seems I had to register as a forum participant before I would be allowed to communicate with other participants. So I registered and fired off an email, asking if she was Emily H. from Poly High in Fort Worth, Texas.

Thirty minutes later, I got an answer.

She was, indeed, the Emily H. I had been seeking. She was currently living in a large Midwestern city, selling vintage clothing on eBay and designing and handcrafting exquisite, beaded earrings. After graduating from Poly with Chester in 1960, she had gone to Baylor to study music; spent time in Berkeley, working on a PhD; traveled extensively; gotten married; had children and been divorced. You know, lived a life.

During the next few weeks, Emily H. and I had several phone conversations, during which she provided me with a wealth of Chester material and gave me contact information for several other former Poly students with whom she and Chester had hung out, including her high school boyfriend, who was living in Mexico. (Chester and Emily H. were very close, but strictly platonic friends.)

As time passed, Emily H. and I became good friends, and we still call each other regularly, just to chat.

Just a few weeks ago, Emily H. sent me a scan of the lengthy inscription Chester wrote in her yearbook, an inscription in which he said “I will always remember you as one of the most true blue friends I have ever had,” and “I have certainly enjoyed the lessons in non-comformity and am turning into a regular cynic.”

In my opinion, Emily H. is a real peach, and not just because she laughs at all of my lame jokes.

But it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Published in: on September 11, 2008 at 5:02 am  Comments (1)  

Searching for Huey M. – Part II

In our last episode, meaning in my last episode, we were trying to locate, meaning I was trying to locate, the elusive and apparently Google-proof, Huey M., a gentleman described by several sources, including Chet Helms himself, as a close college friend of Chet’s. Rumor had it that Huey M. was, or had been, a physician practicing somewhere in California.

A week or two after Joel Selvin gave me the Chet interview transcripts, I had a sudden flash of inspiration. I rushed to the nearest computer, which, luckily, happened to me mine, and punched up an on-line, genealogical tool called the Social Security Death Index. If Huey M. was no longer with us, chances were somewhere between zero and one hundred per cent that the Index would tell me he was no longer with us. For over an hour I typed the now familiar variations of my prey’s name, along with a couple of ridiculously creative new ones, into the ‘search’ field but came up with the usual nothing.

Although I really wanted to find and talk to this guy, the chances of my ever doing so appeared to be on the far side of remote. Huey M. was, it seemed, vapor. I once again shelved my search.

Then…

Eight months later, on Tuesday, September 18, 2007, I received an email, the first line of which was:

Greg: There are some aspects Chet’s life which should be revealed to the world.

The email continued for several more lines and ended with a phone number and an invitation to call and talk about Chet. I didn’t recognize the area code.

It was signed “Leon M., MD.

And his last name was one of the variations of Huey M’s last name.

I sat back in my chair and stared at that email for a long time. Could it be that Leon M. was Huey M?

Finally, I called the provided phone number and a male voice answered.

“Hello.”

“Huey M.?”

“Well I used to be Huey, but I legally changed it to Leon 20 or 25 years ago.”

Holy s***!

The guy had changed his name. I had never considered that possibility because, well, who in their right mind would have considered it?

Huey M., er, Leon M. and I spoke for about two hours that night. He told me that he was a radiation oncologist at a cancer clinic in the Midwest and that he had just learned two days earlier that his old friend, Chet Helms, had passed away. Then he told me the incredible story of how he had learned about Chet’s demise.

He said that he had awakened Sunday morning with an inexplicable compulsion to contact a University of Texas friend of his he hadn’t spoken to or even thought about much for over 40 years. He tried to ignore this compulsion, but couldn’t, so he gave in, fired up his PC and very quickly found someone with the same name of the person for whom he was looking. A bit more searching provided him with a phone number and he called it. The person who answered was, in fact, his old friend JoAnn P., the very same JoAnn P. I had interviewed almost two years earlier, the very same JoAnn P. who had first told me about Huey M.

During their reunion conversation that Sunday afternoon, JoAnn P. told Leon, a.k.a. Huey, that Chet had died in 2005 and that this guy in California was writing Chet’s biography. She urged Leon to get in touch with me, and gave him my email address. Two days later, he used it.

I had spent almost two years trying to find Huey M. with no success, and he had found me in about two minutes.

No matter. All that mattered was that one of us had found the other one.

After Leon M. told me about his conversation with JoAnn P. he began talking about what it was like to have been a young, black student at the University of Texas in the fall of 1960 – one of fewer than 200 black students out of a population of 20,000. At first, his tone was matter-of-fact, almost reportorial, but as he went on it became increasingly emotional. I detected no bitterness or anger in his voice when he spoke of how when he’d take a seat in a classroom, all the white students in the vicinity would get up and move as far away from him as possible, I only detected a kind of sadness and bewilderment.

Having effectively set the scene, Leon M. launched into a long, eloquent and powerful story about the first time he met Chet Helms when they were both just a few months out of high school and just a few months into college. And that story is, in my mind, the centerpiece of Chet’s story, illustrating, if you will, the very foundation of his character.

Which is not to say, or even imply, that Chet Helms was a living saint. He wasn’t. He, like the rest of us, had his share of human foibles and he, like the rest us, made his share of human mistakes. But on the October night in 1960 that he first met Huey/Leon, he displayed a degree of acceptance, compassion and courage to which most of us can only aspire. And it wouldn’t be the last time.

The night after our first conversation, Leon M. called me. He was chuckling, almost giddy, when I picked up.

“My wife’s threatening to divorce me,” he said. “I kept her up until after 1:00 a.m. last night, telling her stories about the old days, stories I hadn’t thought about for years, a lot of them about Chet. She finally said that if I didn’t let her get some sleep, she was going to leave me.”

Leon M. and I spoke on the phone once or twice more during the next few days and a week later, he left me a lengthy, two-part, voicemail – another remembered story. I shot him a quick email, saying I had received and transcribed his voicemail and asked him to get in touch any time. Then I began contacting and interviewing other sources, the number of which was approaching 175.

In early 2008, I needed Leon M. to corroborate some information I had been given, so I sent him an email. When I hadn’t heard back from him after a week, I called him. The phone rang, but no one answered and there was no answering machine. I tried to call a few more times. No answer. Then I checked the web site of the clinic at which he’d been working the previous September. His photo and bio, which had previously been prominently displayed, were gone and his name was not included in the on-line roster of the clinic’s physicians.

Leon M., it seems, has once again become vapor.

Published in: on September 3, 2008 at 4:31 pm  Comments (3)  

A Slight Detour

Who are these guys?

And what are they doing in “The Chet Helms Chronicles”?

The answer to the former question should be obvious; the answer to the latter, not so much.

So let me clear things up…

At 1:30 on Saturday afternoon, August 30, 2008, I settled myself at one of the small, patio tables adjacent to the lawn of the Seven Seas Inn, a funky, turn-of-the-half-century, South Lake Tahoe motel located in the shadow of the monolithic Harvey’s Casino. The weather was perfect – high 70’s and not a breath of wind disturbing the branches of the towering pines. The cloudless sky was as clear and blindingly blue as the shimmering, glassy surface of Lake Tahoe, a few blocks to the west.

I had with me that morning’s edition of The San Francisco Chronicle and a freshly-opened bottle of Anchor Steam beer. I was completely alone; not a living soul in sight. It, as the old commercial once said, doesn’t get any better than this.

I had just extracted the sports section from the relentlessly thinning Chronicle and taken my first, satisfying sip of Anchor Steam when the lawn sprinklers began gurgling, spitting and, a moment later, showering me with water.

I jumped up, grabbed the paper, the beer and a chair and moved to the parking lot, well out of spray’s way. But it was still all good.

Until…the quiet, still air was abruptly and without warning filled with a thunderous sound that I not only heard, but felt. I was convinced that my vital organs were being radically rearranged by the cacophony that seemed to envelope me. It took me several seconds to realize that I was listening to live music, nearby live music – soaring guitar lines; throbbing, rumbling bass and end-of-the-world, pounding drums.

Two words: Heavy Metal.

Never been my cup o’ tea, but it wasn’t bad. In fact, it was pretty good. I had no idea who was playing, but I was digging it, man. Then, as abruptly as it had begun, the music stopped dead. A full minute later it started again. This pattern was repeated for the next hour or so. Two minutes of frantic, adrenalin-pumping, organ-altering music followed the sudden sound of silence.

Later that afternoon I discovered I had been listening to a KISS sound check. The band, which had been founded 35 years earlier and included two of the four original members – Chaim Witz, a.k.a. Gene Simmons, and Paul Stanley – was scheduled to play a concert later that night at Harvey’s outdoor theater, a theater that was only a few hundred yards from my temporary abode.

The tickets were $59.50 and $89.50 and although the event was sold out, my ticketless self heard every note of the lengthy show from my vantage point at the Seven Seas Inn. I could see the lights above the stage, but not the performers.

So here’s my thumbnail review: KISS loves to punctuate their shows with really loud explosions…a lot of really loud explosions. I mean, literally dozens of really loud explosions. They might want to consider calling their next series of shows “The Incoming Tour.”

As to the music: 15 minutes of KISS was, for me, exciting and even a bit thrilling, in a visceral sense. Two hours of KISS, however, was, for me, sheer, mind-numbing tedium.

But here’s the thing: When I was in my early 20’s, there was this thing called “The Generation Gap” and we were advised “don’t trust anyone over 30.” Most of the musicians and bands I listened to and admired, and still listen to and still admire, were and are more or less my contemporaries. (Of course there were a few notable exceptions – folks like Howlin’ Wolf, Albert King, Miles Davis, Muddy Waters, Willie Nelson.)

KISS, the original members of which are now pushing 60 and are still painting their faces and are still donning those Tranformer-like costumes and are still out there crankin’ it up, appear to appeal -based on my unscientific, single, pre-concert observation – to an audience that is significantly and perhaps mostly made up of Twenty-Somethings.

And I say, good for them.

Published in: on September 1, 2008 at 10:09 pm  Leave a Comment