Chet Helms: Summer’s Child

Today, June 25, 2011,  is the sixth anniversary of Chet’s passing.

Chet Helms was born at 12:48 a.m. on August 2, 1942.

Chet Helms passed away at 12:34 a.m. on June 25, 2005.

Chet Helms was born on a Saturday in summer and Chet Helms passed away on a Saturday in summer. And along the way, Chet Helms 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 Helms was and always will be summer’s child.

Published in: on June 25, 2011 at 5:58 pm  Comments (2)  

Me and Morrison

Actually, there is no me and Morrison, meaning, of course, me and Jim Morrison.

There is only me admiring Morrison’s enormous talent, which I have done since January 6, 1967 when I saw The Doors at the Fillmore Auditorium, the band’s first appearance away from Los Angeles. The Doors were on a bill with Sopwith Camel and The Young Rascals that night and their performance remains one of the most electrifying I have ever seen. The next morning I went to Town & Country Records in San Mateo and bought their eponymous first album, which had been released that same week and which I promptly set about trying to wear out.

Now the reason I am mentioning this is that earlier today when I discovered that the 40th anniversary of Jim Morrison’s death is just a few days away, I remembered the time in the early ’80s I tried to spend a night in his home from 1968-70: Room 32 of the Alta Cienega Motel in West Hollywood.

I knew the Alta Cienega  had been his home because it was mentioned in the first Morrison biography, “No One Here Gets Out Alive,” that was published in 1980. Shortly after I read that book, I had to travel to Los Angeles to further (i.e. establish) my career. On the drive down from the Bay Area, I decided since my three scheduled meetings were in West Hollywood and since I needed a place to stay for two nights, I’d give the Alta Cienega a shot.

It was dark when I pulled my yellow, ’68 VW Beetle into the parking lot of the seedy motel, which was located on the corner of La Cienega Boulevard and Santa Monica Boulevard. The infamous Sunset strip was just up the hill, the infamous Barney’s Beanery was just around the corner and a hopping 7-11 was directly across the street.

When I rang the office bell, a light inside flashed on and a door slid open behind a small, barred window with a wooden ledge. The face of an ancient Asian woman appeared behind the bars. I asked if there were any vacancies and she wordlessly slid a registration form and a pen under the bars and onto the ledge. While filling out the registration card, I asked if there was a chance Room 32 was vacant. She replied, “$24. Cash only.”  I pushed the money under the bars and she  pushed a room key at me and slammed the door shut.

I don’t remember the number of the room in which I stayed that night, but it was on the second floor, it wasn’t #32 and it needed a major makeover to qualify as toxic.

When I was leaving the next morning, my next-door neighbor, a tall, skinny, shirtless, barefoot, long-haired gentleman was smoking a joint while leaning against the wall next to his room’s open door, out of which Dylan’s voice floated. When I shuffled past him, he gestured with his right hand and asked if I wanted to buy a painting.

Leaning against the wall next to him were three or four unframed canvasses, each of which was painted solid black. I glanced into his room and saw at least a dozen other canvasses painted black.  I thanked him, but said I wasn’t in a position to buy art at the moment. Or something.

In the parking lot, I walked past a rusty, hideously dented, blue and white Rambler station wagon that was stuffed with black paintings. I figured it was my former neighbor’s car and that he was a premanent resident at the ol’ Alta Cienega.

When someone passes away, people often say that he or she has gone to a better place.

In Jim Morrison’s case, I firmly believe that is true.

Published in: on June 24, 2011 at 4:57 am  Comments (1)  

The Legend of Chet and Janis – Excerpt I

(Several months ago I wrote in these pages that I was going to periodically post brief excerpts from the Chet Helms biography. This is the first installment.)

On Saturday, January 19, 1963, Janis celebrated her 20th birthday at Threadgill’s. It was also a going-away party because she had decided to leave The Waller Creek Boys and go to San Francisco with Chet.

On Wednesday, January 23, the couple hitched to Fort Worth and presented themselves at 3510 Avenue D on the east side of town, the home of Chet’s mother and stepfather.

That is the moment the enduring legend of Chet and Janis, peppered with a healthy dose of mythology, began.

Ellis Amburn in Pearl: “Chet’s mother was appalled when Janis came stomping into her house in her funky blue jeans, the first three buttons of her blue work shirt undone, and wearing no bra. Says Chet, ‘Janis sat around swearing like a trooper, right in front of my mother.’”

Amburn goes on to recount how when Chet’s mother refused to let the couple spend the night “there were screams and tears.”

Alice Echols in her Scars of Sweet Paradise more or less repeats this story.

But it strains credulity to believe that Janis, who could indeed be loud, course and vulgar with her friends, would behave that badly in the home of a friend’s parents, a home in which she was seeking temporary shelter. She simply hadn’t been raised that way. It also strains credulity that Chet, despite his periodic disagreements with his mother, would allow her to be so disrespected by someone he’d brought into her home.

Almost two decades before Amburn’s book and almost three before Echol’s, a far more sedate version of the incident appeared in Myra Friedman’s Janis biography, Buried Alive. She writes that although Chet’s mother was shocked by Janis’ mannish attire, she was far more distressed that her son was traveling with a person of the opposite sex. Friedman quotes Chet as saying, “It created a crisis in my mother’s religion.”

Chet’s younger brother, John, who was in the house that night, agrees. John was flabbergasted that Chet would show up with a female companion, expecting to be put up for a night or two, aware of his mother’s religious beliefs, not to mention the social mores of the day, but he insists that Janis neither stomped around nor swore in front of his mother.

  “That is 100 percent wrong,” John says. “Make that a thousand percent wrong. When my mother answered the door, Janis was standing next to Chet, strumming her autoharp and softly humming a tune. Janis was very sweet and polite with my mother.”

But neither Janis’ demeanor, nor Chet’s assurances that they were just friends convinced Novella that they should spend the night under her roof. So after dinner, John drove Chet and Janis out to the Fort Worth stockyards on the edge of town and dropped them off to begin the next leg of their journey. When John returned home, his distressed mother told him that having to turn Chet away had broken her heart.

And thus began Phase II of the legend of Chet and Janis.

The story Chet told countless times over the years is that he and Janis hitchhiked from Fort Worth straight through to San Francisco in 50 hours and went directly to North Beach where Janis sang a few songs at the former The Fox and The Hound, which, under new ownership, had recently changed its name to Coffee and Confusion. Despite a strict policy against passing the hat, the club’s crusty owner, Sylvia Fennell, was so impressed by Janis’ performance, she waived that rule, which resulted in a $50-$60 windfall for the newly-arrived Texans.

It’s a terrific story and it’s almost true.

Chet and Janis didn’t travel straight through from Fort Worth to San Francisco; they stopped in Santa Maria, Chet’s birthplace, to visit his favorite aunt, Ruth Helms Vallance, whose husband, Frank, had recently passed away. Ruth was temporarily living in an apartment with her youngest daughter, Goldie, while waiting for a new house to be completed. Her other three daughters were out of the house, but living in the area.

The Helms side of the family was considerably more liberal than the Dearmore side and Aunt Ruth had no qualms about allowing Chet and Janis to bunk at her place. During their brief stay in Santa Maria, Chet and Janis made the short side trip to Betteravia, the company town where Chet had spent his first nine years. They visited the general store where several employees and patrons told them stories about Chester Sr., who was fondly remembered more than a decade after his death. They also went to The Santa Maria Inn, which featured a display of some of the Native American artifacts Chester Sr. had spent his short lifetime collecting.

After spending a night in Santa Maria, Aunt Ruth and Goldie drove Chet and Janis to the Greyhound bus station. Ruth bought the couple bus tickets for the 250-mile jaunt north to San Francisco and lent them $20.

Two weeks later, Aunt Ruth received a card from Janis, thanking her for her generosity and hospitality. A $20 bill was tucked inside the card.

It is true that Janis sang at Coffee and Confusion soon after arriving in San Francisco and it is true that the hat was passed for her that night. Despite that initial success, Chet and Janis soon mostly went their separate ways, not because they had any personal conflicts, but because they had different agendas and separate circles of friends.

Published in: on June 13, 2011 at 7:06 pm  Comments (3)  

Rebel Without a Pause

Ten years ago my favorite contemporary writer, Elmore Leonard, published his “10 Rules of Writing” in a New York Times article.

Rule #1: Never open a book with the weather.

With that in mind, here is the opening line of my in-progress Chet Helms biography:

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


I didn’t ignore Mr. Leonard’s weather rule on purpose; I simply wasn’t thinking of his rule or anyone else’s rule when I wote that sentence, which, by the way, I ain’t dropping.

When I mentioned my egregious rule violation to my friend Malinda, she laughed and told me to read the opening line of a book I had published in 1978. I dug up a copy of “A Hallelujah Jamboree: The Sister Mary Mummy Stories,” a collection of allegedly humorous scribblings, and flipped it open.

Chapter 1, line 1:

 “After a solid week of spewing forth violent thunderstorms that were brief in duration but strung together tighter than an expensive strand of pearls, the morning sky finally displayed the sun against a cloudless, blue background.”

Oooops again.

I won’t mention what I’ve done with the other nine rules.

Published in: on June 13, 2011 at 2:22 am  Comments (3)