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.