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.