Coinkydinks – Part II

Not too long ago I mentioned a couple of interesting coincidences I have noticed while researching Chet’s biography: that his elementary school in Fort Worth was on Page Street, and that one of his grandmothers and one of his great grandmothers had been born in Joplin, MO.

Well, here are two more semi-coincidences:

1) Chet’s fraternal Great-great grandmother was Sally Ann Dungan; his maternal Great grandmother was Mary Elizabeth Dugan.

2) Chet’s fraternal grandmother was Golda Mae Thomas; his maternal grandmother was Mineola Thomason.

And so it goes…

Published in: on June 26, 2009 at 4:51 pm  Comments (3)  

Chet Helms: Summer’s Child



Today is the fourth anniversary of Chet’s passing.

He left at 12:34 a.m. on June 25, 2005.

Chet was born in summer and Chet died in summer. And along the way, he became known as “The Father of The Summer of Love.”

“The hearts that love will know never winter’s frost and chill. Summer’s warmth is in them still.”
– Eben Eugene Rexford

Chet was, and always will be, Summer’s Child.

Published in: on June 25, 2009 at 7:41 pm  Comments (1)  

Dispatch from Desolation Row

When I began The Chet Helms Chronicles I said that the contents would mostly be about Chet and my experiences researching his life .  I have pretty much stayed true to that, with only a periodic divergence into non-Chet territory.

Well, here’s another one.

On my 47th birthday a friend gave me a hardcover book that was filled with blank pages of unlined paper.

“Thanks,” I said, “I’m sure it’s very good. I’ll let you know after I’ve read it, which shouldn’t take very long.”

My friend patiently explained that it was a journal.

“I knew that,” I lied.

“I know you did,” my friend lied.

My new journal sat empty for several months. Then one evening I was on the phone listening to my other friend talking about her most recent relationship difficulty when she said something I wanted to write down before I forgot it. I grabbed the journal and scribbled her words at the top of the first page. Here is what she said:  “I say black, he says apples.”

Since then, my journal has been a repository for all kinds of miscellany- Grateful Dead set lists, notes for a baseball short story entitled “Chin Music,” notes for a children’s book called “A Cat Named Bark,” a long list of odd, but real names (Pink Schoolcraft, Ovella Bowlegs, Hardkeep Gill), and a whole bunch of other stuff whose significance escapes me. But the centerpiece of the journal, which is now falling apart, are the mixed metaphors, Malaprops and other amusing verbal statements I have heard and documented over the years, many of them courtesy of the aforementioned friend who kicked things off.

Here then, are several examples of real things that were said by real people:

“I’m going to see The Bridges of Madison Square County.”

“They held a visual for Jerry Garcia at the Washington Monument.”

“And that’s just the tip of the icicle.”

“Well, it’s back to the drawing room.”

“My favorite Disneyland ride is Pirates of the Penzance.”

“I can sue him for deprivation of character.”

“My condition is generic.”

“I love where I live because it’s so close to home.”

“She cutting her own rope.”

“She’s all boom and gloom.”

“We went to Hertz Castle.”

“I really like that ‘Thank God It’s Not Butter.'”

“I saw the place where they made that movie Three Coins on the Mountain.”

“There’s no place more French than New Orleans.” (Uh…France?)

“It’s a recipe from Sara Linkey.” (Sri Lanka)

“He really opened a book of worms.”

“You don’t have to be a rocket surgeon to figure it out.”

“We were just chewing the breeze.”

“A leopard can’t change its stripes.”

And my all-time personal favorite, which was uttered by an officer in the midst of a high speed chase on an episode of Cops:

My backup’s in front of me.”






Published in: on June 13, 2009 at 6:39 pm  Comments (5)  

Chet 1A – Part I

In February 2007 I received an email from a Santa Clara University professor named Chris Vaughn, inviting me to talk to two of his classes – Popular Culture Studies and Journalism – about Chet Helms, The Family Dog and the San Francisco ’60s scene. I told Professor Vaughn that I would be happy to share my vast store of knowledge and wisdom with his students and we set a date for what I began referring to as to as my “Lecture Series.”

Many years earlier I had received a similar invitation from Stanford University. A Creative Writing professor at the school had made one of my books required reading for a class that was exploring the fine and elusive art of writing humor. When the instructor discovered that I lived not far from Stanford, she called and asked if I would pop over and spend an hour or so discussing my book with her class.

I was very nervous and, as usual, completely unprepared when I entered the Stanford classroom a few days later and faced 15 students who were staring at me expectantly. My first impulse was to flee, but I hung around and had a great time telling stories mostly about, well, mostly about me. Actually, the stories were exclusively about me. But the best part was that when I was leaving, the instructor handed me a sealed envelope. I opened the envelope in my car and was astounded to find a check for $500 inside.  I had just been paid $500-an-hour for talking about myself to a group of strangers. It was the best job I’ve ever had or ever will have.

Then, in the spring of 2000, my step-daughter’s best friend invited me to participate in Career Day at Aragon High School in San Mateo, thereby putting a severe dent in their friendship. In any event, my name and occupation – Greg Hoffman, Writer – were added to the roster of career choices from which each student would choose two. The roster even included a local rap singer.

When Career Day dawned, I drove to Aragon, as usual, completely unprepared and fighting nausea. I was terrified that nobody would show up in my classroom and I was equally terrified that someone would show up.

At the school I was met by the English teacher who had been assigned to guide me through the process. The teacher was an extremely attractive blonde. She was also very young. I mean, I had socks older than her.

She escorted me to the classroom in which I would be holding court and I almost fell over when we went in. Every seat was taken and a dozen or so students were standing along the back wall.  After the teacher introduced me, a female student in the front row raised her hand.

“I write poetry,” she said, “and I was wondering…”

“Poetry’s not real writing,” I said.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw the teacher stiffen in her chair and out of the front of my eye I saw the young poet’s confused expression.

“It’s not?” she said.

“Nope. Poetry doesn’t use enough words. Real writing uses tons of words.”

I immediately made it clear that I was joking and the proverbial ice was nicely broken. Questions flew at me from the assembled and I told a few stories mostly about, well, mostly about me. The time flew by and the session was drawing to a close when someone asked me if I was working on a new book. Coincidentally, I had just begun writing the brief, meteoric history of  what was at the time the fastest-growing company in Internet history. The company was less than a year old and on the verge of going public.

I described the book for a few minutes then decided to push the envelope…again.

“Let me ask you something. Are your teachers always demanding that you do an outline before writing an essay or a term paper? I know mine did.”

Their answer was a resounding ‘yes.’

“Well,” I said, “I have written five books and dozens of magazine articles and I have never used an outline. Not once.”

The kids were smiling, nodding their heads and exchanging high-fives. Meanwhile, the teacher’s features were etched with an expression of sheer fury. She seriously wanted to kill me.

“So when I started this new book, I never gave a thought to doing an outline. I just started writing the thing. But there was a problem. The story I was trying to tell was a very complex one, with a lot of important stuff happening very fast and often simultaneously and  I was having a really hard time with it. So in desperation I sat down and did an outline. And you know what? Your teachers are right.”

During the break before my next and final  session the teacher asked me if I would do the ‘outline’ bit again. I did, but for some reason it fell flat in front of another full house.

Now, seven years later, I was once again going to face a group of students, only this time I wouldn’t be talking about myself, I would be talking about a long moment in time that had occurred 20 years or more years before most of them were born. Consequently, I suspected there might not be a great deal of interest in what I’d be saying, but I knew I’d be saying it for a very long time because Professor Vaughn had informed me that the back-to-back classes were each an hour-and-forty-five-minutes long.

(To be continued)

Published in: on June 9, 2009 at 10:09 pm  Comments (1)  


While researching the life of Chet Helms during the past three-and-a-half years, I have stumbled across a number of inconsequential, but nonetheless amazing coincidences. Here are two examples:

1) Chet is, of course, inexorably linked with Janis Joplin. The relevant coincidence? Well, both Chet’s maternal great-grandmother and and his fraternal grandmother were born in…Joplin, Missouri.

2) Chet is also inexorably linked with 1090 Page Street in San Francisco, site of the sprawling Victorian from which Big Brother and the Holding Company, under his guidance, emerged in 1965.  The relevant coincidence? Well, the elementary school Chet attended in Fort Worth, Texas in the early ’50s was on…Page Street.

As Joseph Heller was fond of saying, “Go figure.”

Published in: on June 3, 2009 at 6:32 pm  Comments (2)  

1. Primal Stomp

           (A word of explanation: In the late 1930’s both sides of Chet Helms’ family left Texas and moved to California, the maternal side temporarily, the paternal side permanently. That having been said, what follows are the opening paragraphs of Chet’s biography.)


             One day in 1931 the rains stopped and the winds began.

            A year later, millions of acres of ill-farmed, bone-dry topsoil began to swirl skyward, fueling a seemingly endless procession of massive dust storms that swept across The Great Plains and beyond, blanketing crops, roads, houses, cars and farm equipment with deep, drifting layers of grainy, gritty earth.

             In 1932, 14 major dust storms were recorded; the next year the number of “black blizzards” grew to 38.

             Then it got worse.

            On May 9, 1934 a dust cloud rose out of the Midwest and quickly grew to 1,500 miles long, 900 miles across, and two miles high. Lasting for more than 36 hours the dense storm, propelled eastward by strong, arid winds, affected more than one-third of the country and damaged or destroyed 100 million acres of crops. According to the February 1935 edition of the Monthly Weather Review, 12 million of the estimated 350 million tons of earth displaced by this single storm fell on Chicago. Dust fell like snow on New York, Boston, Charlotte and Washington D.C., and contemporary newspaper accounts report that remnants of the storm coated the decks of ships 300 miles out in the Atlantic.

            Then it got worse.

            On the afternoon of April 14, 1935, which became known as “Black Sunday,” the 19th in a series of storms that had been recorded in less than a month roiled and rolled out of Kansas. This was the biggest, meanest “black blizzard” yet. The huge storm plowed through the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles, blotting out the sunlight in the middle of the day, reducing ground visibility to nearly zero and dropping even more tons of debris over the already desiccated land. Additionally, the persistent drought now affected more than 75 % of the country and was especially severe in 27 states.

            Then it got worse.

            As the drought and dust storms continued to sow widespread destruction, a vicious heat wave descended on the Midwest and much of the East during the summer of 1936. On July 25, the temperature in Lincoln, Nebraska soared to 115 degrees. Dozens of daily and monthly high temperature records that were established that year were still on the books seven decades later. 

            For millions of people, the summer of 1936 was a literal hell on earth.

            Unwilling or unable to wait out the ongoing, unholy alliance of the environmental disasters of the dust and drought and the economic disaster of the Great Depression that had been jump-started by the stock market crash of October 1929, thousands of broke, tired, hungry and sometimes desperate families packed up whatever belongings they could carry and left their ruined lands behind, hoping to salvage their ruined lives.


Published in: on June 2, 2009 at 3:23 pm  Comments (4)