Love, Janis Addendum

FRIENDS OF CHET

FRIENDS OF CHET

Shortly after publishing my last post, I stumbled across the photo I had mentioned in the piece. I have no idea who snapped the shutter, but I do know that the shutter was snapped outside the Mason Street entrance of Chet’s apartment building before we walked down the hill to see “Love, Janis.”

I also know that Julius Karpen and I are in a deep discussion on the bottom left. As I recall, he was saying, “C’mon, man, forget the Chet bio and write my story.”

(Settle down, kids. That’s a big, fat joke and you know it.)

The woman leaning against the wall above my left shoulder is Ann Cohen, who appears to be lost in thought.  George Hunter is the guy in the hat and light jacket just behind Ann. Another True Original, Albert Neiman, is on George’s left, wearing glasses and a dark blue shirt. Peter Kraemer is behind George and Albert, wearing a light blue shirt.

These are most of the folks who crammed into Chet’s former digs that evening, but quite a few others didn’t make it outside for the photo shoot. I think they may have gotten wedged together in the tiny kitchen.

Published in: on March 19, 2009 at 9:54 pm  Comments (4)  

Love, Janis

On the evening of July 16, 2006, three dozen of Chet Helms’ friends gathered in a small, ground floor apartment at Bush and Mason in San Francisco, Chet’s last temporal residence.

The assemblage included Chet’s brother, John Helms; George Hunter, co-founder of The (Amazing) Charlatans; Peter Kraemer, co-founder of Sopwith Camel, the first San Francisco band to hit the national charts; Ann Cohen, the widow of poet Allen Cohen, co-founder of the iconic, alternative publication, The San Francisco Oracle;and Julius Karpen, a former Merry Prankster who managed Big Brother and The Holding Company after Chet and the band dissolved their managerial relationship but not their friendship.

The occasion was opening night of the San Francisco production of the stage play, “Love, Janis,” at the Marines Memorial Theater on Sutter Street, a block away.  After a glass of wine or two, and after posing for a group photo on the steep steps of the apartment building, everyone trooped down the hill to the theater.

The play, which had been performed around the country for a number of years – Chet had been the guest of honor when it opened in Austin, Texas – is based on Laura Joplin’s book of the same name. Much of the play’s dialogue is taken directly from the frequent letters Janis wrote to her family, beginning with her announcement on June 6, 1966 that she had come to San Francisco to audition for a band her friend, Chet Helms, had put together, assuring them that it was essentially a fling rather than a life choice. (The play’s 17 songs are from Big Brother’s discography and Big Brother guitarist, Sam Andrew, is the musical director.)

“Love, Janis” is unique because it features two main characters: a ‘Singing Janis,’ and a ‘Talking Janis’ played by different actresses who are frequently on stage simultaneously. (Each production run also features two ‘Singing Janis’ performers who alternate performances because the role is so demanding.) 

As the Friends of Chet contingent scattered throughout the theater that evening, I was pleasantly surprised that my seat was next to Julius Karpen. A few months earlier, I had, during several sessions, taped eight hours of interviews with Julius, seven hours of which were about his youth in Chicago, his journalism background and his amazing Prankster adventures in Mexico with Kesey. 

I couldn’t help but think that the cast of “Love, Janis” must have been feeling enhanced butterflies that night because the audience was loaded with people who knew Janis, not just as a performer, but as a person, as a  friend. I was not among those people because I only knew Janis as a performer, having twice seen her perform with Big Brother live and , of course, having listened to the records and seen the movies (Monterey Pop, Janis) and the TV shows (The Dick Cavett Show, et.al.)

Actually, I did have one relatively up-close-and-personal encounter with Janis in 1968. I was employed as a back-office, number cruncher at Merrill Lynch, Pierce, Fenner and Smith (remember them?) on California and Sansome Street at the time. Late one workday morning, news rippled through the office that something unusual was afoot. I stepped out of the Sansome Street entrance and came face-to-windshield with a Porsche 356 that was partially festooned with swirling, garish colors. I re-entered the building and went out to the large room where the ‘producers’ (i.e. the stockbrokers) broke stock. And there she was – Janis Joplin. She was sitting next to the desk of a new broker named Joe. She was decked out in the full-blown Joplin regalia: boas, feathers, bangles, sparkles, and over-sized, lavender shades. A few minutes later, Janis and Joe left the building, climbed into her Porsche and took off, turning right on California Street. Later that afternoon, I talked to Joe and he said Janis was now a Merrill Lynch client who had purchased 100 shares of a company called Oceanographics. (Assuming that the statute of limitations has expired, I hereby admit that I have, for the past 41 years, been in possession of a copy of that transaction.)

OK, end of digression.

I figured that “Love, Janis,” would be good. I didn’t figure that it would be preternaturally brilliant. But it was.  The ‘Singing Janis’ that night was a young lady from Chicago named Cathy Richardson who had been fronting a band called, appropriately enough, The Cathy Richardson Band. (She is currently a member of Jefferson Starship.) Cathy didn’t exactly imitate or impersonate Janis that night, she channeled her. It was, for me, overwhelmingly, hair-raisingly phenomenal.

During the intermission, Julius and I joined a group of people congregating in front of the stage. I spotted Powell St. John, who, along with Lanny Wiggins and Janis, had been a member of The Waller Creek Boys at the University of Texas in 1962-63. (Powell, who had written songs for The 13th Floor Elevator and later moved to San Francisco to join Mother Earth, had recently resumed a recording career.) I asked him what he thought of the play and he said it was the 4th time he’d seen it and it brought tears to his eyes every time.

And that’s the thing, people. Every person I have interviewed while researching the Chet Helms biography has, when discussing Janis, become noticebly emotional.

The girl obviously made an impact…beyond the obvious.

Published in: on March 18, 2009 at 8:44 pm  Comments (1)  

Uncle Roy Comes Through

By the end of November 2005 I had, thanks to Chet’s genealogically inclined and adept California cousins, learned a great deal about the Helms family, the paternal side, but I knew next to nothing about the maternal side, the Dearmores.

I knew that Chet had spent his late childhood, his adolescence and his teenage years in Texas, living in close proximity to his prominent, fundamentalist Baptist preacher grandfather and his uncles, two of whom were Baptist missionaries. But that was about it.

I began researching the Dearmores and soon discovered the  respective websites of Roy Dearmore, MD, and James Dearmore, the aforementioned uncles. Each website included a ‘contact’ email address so, in early December 2005, I dispatched brief notes to both sites, introducing myself as their nephew’s biographer and asking if they would be willing to talk to me.

Three weeks after sending the emails, I attended a Christmas party/pot luck buffet at Boots Hughston’s 2B1 Record’s headquarters in an industrial section of San Francisco’s Mission District. (Boots had been the primary producer of The Chet Helms Tribal Stomp in Golden Gate Park two months earlier and all of the pre-concert production meetings had been held at 2B1.)

The party that night was essentially a reunion of the folks who had worked on the Chet tribute and about 150 revelers showed up to chow down and chat people up.  Midway through the festivities, I spotted Chet’s brother, John, plate in hand, perusing the long table of various vittles. I hadn’t seen John since the Tribal Stomp in October so I excused myself from whatever conversation I was involved in, if, if fact, I was involved in a conversation at all, and approached him.

After exchanging the usual how-are-you-doing? pleasantries, I told him that I had emailed his uncles, asking if they would talk  to me about Chet.

John just smiled and said, “They won’t talk to you in a million years.”

Oh.

I hadn’t been overly confident that I would get a response from the Reverends Roy or Jim Dearmore, but I had a sliver of hope. No longer. Maybe John was right; after all, it had been three weeks since I had contacted them, three weeks of…nothing. And I couldn’t wait a million years for a reply for obvious reasons. Nor could they withhold their replies for a million years for equally obvious reasons.

Driving home through a driving rainstorm that night, I decided to plot my next move and was a bit distressed to discover I didn’t have a next move. 

But did that stop me?

Yes, it did.

I was still trying to figure our what to do when, on the morning of December 28, 2005, I flipped, kicked or clicked on my email thingie and there it was: a message from Roy Dearmore. He addressed me as ‘Mr. Hoffman,’ which was the first time I had been called Mr. Hoffman since the nuns at St. Louis School in Englewood, Colorado routinely did so in the 1950’s.

Dr. Dearmore’s email was a brief one, the contents of which shall not be revealed here, but he ended by saying he was willing to try to answer whatever questions about the Chet and the Dearmore family I might ask. 

I wrote back, thanking him profusely, and began a gentle interrogation. Most of the queries I sent him were about his family’s activities in the ’40s and ’50s.

He always responded promptly, thoughtfully, and somewhat formally, and we developed a fairly regular stream of communication.

Roy Dearmore has made enormous contributions to his nephew’s biography and for that I shall be eternally grateful.

Published in: on March 13, 2009 at 2:49 am  Comments (3)  

Road Trip – Part II

Road Trip – Part I, the precursor to Road Trip – Part II,  was published on these pages last September, almost six months ago. So, you might be asking yourself, why did it take so long to produce the sequel? Let me count the ways, beginning with sloth, laziness, procrastinationistic tendencies, brain lock, a severely sprained typing finger and…well, I think you get the idea. But that’s all water over the bridge. The  point isn’t why did it take so long, the point is that it’s done.

And please don’t hold your breath for Road Trip – Part III because there ain’t gonna be one.

On the sunny, warm Saturday morning of November 19, 2005, Clara Bellino and I hit the road as planned and almost on time. We were embarking on a 250-mile journey down Highway 101 to Chet’s Santa Maria, CA birthplace to visit Goldie V., one of his four female cousins who were born, raised and still lived in the area. For several weeks I had been in contact with Goldie, who was a few years younger than Chet and had remained close to him his entire life. She was also the primary Helms family genealogist and had already provided me with a comprehensive family history and had promised to give me copies of several old family photographs.

During my earlier conversations with Goldie, I sensed a significant amount of nervousness from her about my impending visit. The reason I sensed this was that she told me she was very nervous about my impending visit.

But when I had called her the previous evening to confirm our meeting and told her I was bringing a female friend of Chet’s along, I sensed that Goldie’s apprehension evaporated. The reason I sensed this was that she told me her apprehension evaporated.

As we cruised past San Jose on the first leg of our one-leg journey, I toyed with the idea of popping Clara’s CD into the player just to see if she would sing along, but I didn’t do that. I had another objective: a rolling interview. Clara, you see, had been one of Chet’s caretakers towards the end, keeping him company, keeping him on schedule with his meds and valiantly trying, but mostly failing, to prepare cups of tea to his exacting standards.

Although she was fatigued after a late, strenuous night of recording voice-overs, Clara was game to talk. And talk we did. She told me about growing up in France, about her semi-bohemian parents and she related a wonderful story of having traveled to Africa with her boyfriend when she was a rather, uh,  young woman. The travelers spent some time in a remote village where Clara was stricken with a severe intestinal disorder. She was doubled over in their hut when a group of villagers showed up. She staggered to a window and was horrified to discover that instead of bringing her several gallons of  Pepto-Bismol, the locals had decided to slaughter a goat in her honor. Which they proceeded to do. Clara was sincerely touched by the gesture although it exacerbated rather than diminished her discomfort.

Then somewhere between King City and San Luis Obispo, Clara told me a long joke. It was a very funny joke, but one that shall not be repeated here. For one thing, it is literally impossible to effectively translate it to written words; for another, it was what was once quaintly referred to as ‘blue’ material. In this case, we’re talking navy blue.

We pulled into Santa Maria just after noon and checked into the separate rooms I had booked a few days earlier. We were both hungry, so after getting settled, we talked about snagging some grub. I trepidaciously suggested that we chow down at the Denny’s next door to the motel. It has long been my experience that not everyone is a fan of Denny’s or similar eateries, but Clara enthusiastically agreed, which I attributed to the fact that she was delirious from lack of sleep, hunger and having spent several hours confined in a vehicle with me.

When the waitress showed up at our table, Clara ordered a breakfast item, requesting that her hash browns be extra crispy. I almost fell out of the booth in which we were sitting because that was the exact same thing I was going to order, and, in fact, did order.

Ms Clara Bellino was, I decided at that moment, the perfect traveling companion.

After breakfast/lunch, we returned to the motel. Clara said she wanted to take a nap so I told her I would call Goldie and arrange to meet with her in a few hours. (We had not set a specific time to meet.) Clara retired to her room and I made the call. To my shock, surprise and amazement, Goldie said, “But we’re all here, waiting for you.” Turns out that she had invited two of her sisters, Deanna and Frankie, to join us and they had come to Santa Maria from the Solvang area. I told Goldie we were on our way and went next door to inform Clara that we were on our way.

Goldie’s house was nearby and we arrived a short time later. After introductions had been exchanged and small talk had been made, Clara, who was now visibly fading, sheepishly asked if she could lie down on the couch for a while. She could and she did. Goldie got her a pillow and a blanket and then joined me, Deanna and Frankie on the foliage-ringed patio out back.

For the next several hours I listened to wonderful stories of Chet’s childhood and one astounding tale about Chet and Janis Joplin.  The story, which was corroborated by all three cousins and a handwritten note from Janis to their mother, Chet’s aunt Ruth, contradicts a significant portion of the widely published account of Chet and Janis’s  journey from Texas to San Francisco in late January 1963.

At some point, Goldie hauled out a couple of bulging photo albums that were filled with old black-and-white pictures of Chet’s grandparents, his parents and Chet and his brothers, John and Jim. It was, for me, a glorious afternoon and one I shall not soon forget.

As the sun was setting, Deanna and Frankie took off for home. After they left, Goldie and I woke up the slumbering Clara and we made dinner plans, settling on an old truck stop at the edge of town, a place that had been a local fixture since before the Dead Sea was even sick. You know, the kind of joint that has a menu thicker than War and Peace.

We had a rollickin’ good time at dinner, and Goldie and Clara bonded like you wouldn’t believe. Afterwards, we took Goldie home, thanked her profusely, and swore to visit again. (We did, three months later.)

Although Chet was born in Santa Maria, he spent his first nine years in the nearby Union Sugar company town of Betteravia, which, in November 2005, no longer existed. All that remained of Betteravia were the remnants of the sugar mill in which his dad worked.

Before we headed back to the Bay Area, Clara and I decided to visit the ghost of where Chet partially grew up. I had downloaded an old, blurry, grainy photograph of the sugar mill when it was in its glory days and I knew part of the mill was still standing. I told Clara I would know it when I saw it. S0 we headed west from Santa Maria on Betteravia Road. 

Despite my confident boast, I never saw it.

We couldn’t find Betteravia, or, more precisely, I couldn’t find Betteravia.

The narrow, two lane road that winds through the endless green fields finally deposited us in the town of Guadalupe, which isn’t a ghost town and, therefore, isn’t Betteravia. So we backtracked. We didn’t see any other cars on the road, but we did come across  a small crew of road workmen doing whatever it is small crews of road workmen do. We stopped and asked where we might find the remains of Betteravia.. They had no idea what we were talking about.

A few minutes later we spotted a rolling restaurant,  more familiarly known as a ‘roach coach,’ parked next to a fenced-off collection of decaying structures. The vehicle, which was occupied by a middle-aged couple, was fully-stocked and open for business, which was a bit odd because there didn’t appear to be any potential business in the vicinity.

I pulled off the road and Clara jumped out to talk to the preternaturally optimistic couple, who turned out to speak Spanish exclusively. Fortunately, Clara is fluent in about 19 languages, including Spanish. After several minutes, she was back.

“We’re here,” she said, gesturing towards the decaying structures behind the fence. “This is Betteravia.”

And so it was.

We spent the next 40 minutes or so exploring what we were able to explore, which, because of the fence and our shared fear of encountering creepy creatures lurking in the waist-high weeds, wasn’t much. And we took several pictures of each other, backgrounded by the decaying remains of the old mill. 

Then we got into the car and pointed it north, stopping at a ’50s-themed diner in King City for a bite to eat. Our main clue that it was a ’50s-themed diner were the huge photographs of Elvis, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe that festooned the walls.

Yes, we ordered the exact same thing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Published in: on March 1, 2009 at 3:20 am  Leave a Comment