Chet Helms, aka Family Dog, celebrated along with his era

By Joel Selvin

They turned back the clock more than an hour Sunday at Speedway Meadows in Golden Gate Park.

For a tie-dyed crowd of more than an estimated 20,000, with the air filled with marijuana and incense and free music in the park, it was the '60s once again, as people danced in the sun to current versions of 60s headliners such as Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Canned Heat and others from the era. Peace and love were in the air again.

They were laying to rest a tribal elder, Chet Helms, a beloved figure at the heart of the Haight-Ashbury community in the 60s, who died from a stroke in June at age 62. Helms ran the Avalon Ballroom under the name Family Dog, where the real hippies went to dance, and he brought his old pal from Texas, Janis Joplin, out to join the band he was managing, Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Many of the groups appearing Sunday at the Family Dog's last Tribal Stomp reunited just for the occasion; the once-awesome power trio Blue Cheer, the original acid-rock dandies, the Charlatans. Guitarist Jerry Miller represented Moby Grape, Country Joe McDonald led everybody in his famous cheer and a rousing version of "Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag."

There were missing men formations. The late Dino Valente's son, Joli Valente in an all-white suit, reprised his father's repertoire from Quicksilver Messenger Service with a band that also included bassist Mario Cipollina, the brother of late Quicksilver guitarist John Cipollina. Only the drummer remained from the original Canned Heat lineup.

Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane, long one of the staunchest advocates of free music in the parks, surveyed the scene with the sleek new verson of the Jefferson Starship, fresh from headlining the dedication concert the day before at the Jerry Garcia Amphitheater in McLaren Park.

"Let's hear it for the marijuana collective up on the hill," he said, pointing out a booth at the rear of the field.

Crafts booths and food stands lined the meadow, selling the usual array of hippie trinketry: pipes, jewelry, incense, posters. The 60s poster artists created 16 different posters to commemorate Helms, an early supporter of all the great psychedelic artists.

"It's like a time machine," said Dan Hicks, who began his career as drummer for the Charlatans. "Except everybody's older."

Backstage, hundreds of Helms' friends celebrated. Many haven't seen each other in decades. Richard Olsen of the Charlatans suggested that everybody should have worn photos of how they looked back in the 60s.

"I don't know who I'm talking to half the time," he said. "Course, back then, you were too stoned to remember."

Mountain Girl, Jerry Garcia's ex, greeted the Grateful Dead's original manager, Rock Scully, who has been living quietly in Monterey the past several years.

You look like a movie star," she said to him. "You had your teeth fixed, and you look wonderful."

The show, which ran with distinctly non-hippie efficiency, was produced by Botos Hughston, Helms' former partner in reviving the Family Dog brand at the Maritime Hall in the 90s. Helms and Hughston had an acrimonious falling out, but his former partner underwrote most of the expenses for Helms' public send-off. That's the kind of guy Helms was -- even his former business partners couldn't stay mad at him.

"He was angry at first," said Hughston, a onetime rock musician who has been producing street fairs for years. "But Chet and I kissed and made up a long time ago. I figured I'd rather have a party than a new car."

Helms never hit pay dirt in the music business. He was a hapless visionary, a businessman who was not good with money but never short on ideas. He eked out a living for the past 20 years of his life running a small art gallery on the slope of Nob Hill, and when he died, he was years behind in his rent. But he had always been rich in other, perhaps more important ways.

At Speedway Meadows on Sunday, his freewheeling Dionysian spirit was properly evoked. For an afternoon at last, the promise of the 60s was back in fashion. Everything was groovy, and good vibes were everywhere.

Backstage, Judy Davis, who would have been Helms' widow if he had ever married her, sat by a tent tending her grandchildren, an empty Altoid box by her side filled with butts and roaches. She collected digital photos of people she knew, making them pose by sticking their head through a cardboard cutout of the Family Dog logo. She looked a little glazed.

"I'm so proud," she said. "It's an amazing day. Even the music was good."

San Francisco Chronicle
31 October 2005

Chet Helms may be gone,
but enough hippie rockers are left
to throw a Final Tribal Stomp

By Joel Selvin

They're burying the last hippie tomorrow in Golden Gate Park.

In their youth, the hippies were just happily wasted. Nowadays, some of them are thick-waisted -- and maybe just a bit gray. But veterans of Woodstock and Monterey will gather in Golden Gate Park Sunday for a free concert in memory of Chet Helms, who died in June from a stroke at age 62.

Inevitably described in his obituaries as the proprietor of the Avalon Ballroom during the glory days of the San Francisco rock scene, and the man who discovered Janis Joplin, Helms was so much more.

That Helms died penniless attests to his enduring honesty. That he will be feted Sunday at Speedway Meadows by hundreds, if not thousands, of friends and people whose lives he touched is a testament to his character. Helms never was someone whose success could be measured in material terms.

At the height of the exploding rock scene, Helms was the anti-Bill Graham. While Graham quickly and correctly ascertained that there were big bucks in the rock concert scene, Helms saw greater possibilities than money. He saw the music's power to bring people together. He understood the joy of dancing as a political statement. He was trying to change the world, not sell hamburgers.

Raised by his Baptist minister grandfather in the Ozarks after his father died when he was 9, Helms never lost his youthful dreams of a missionary life. He brought that evangelical zeal to his life as a hippie. His ceaseless energy, his drive to be part of the action, made him one of the original engines of the scene, whether he was rushing out to borrow a strobe light for the scene's first acid-rock dance at Longshoreman's Hall or inviting his old pal from the University of Texas, Janis Joplin, out to San Francisco to join the band he was managing -- and that had been named after him -- Big Brother and the Holding Company. But what's more important about Chet was that he never lost his way. He lived by the code and his life stood for something.

Plagued by major health problems for the past several years, he remained an ever-present fixture on the sidelines at any truly festive San Francisco rock scene event. He developed an interests in digital photography and took a lot of snapshots when he went out. He was a hugely cheerful man who always had some plan in motion, some scene he was following, some philosophical undercurrent in the firmament he was tracking.

The Avalone operation may have foundered under unworkable hippie ideals, but Helms never gave up. He moved his operation to a former slot car raceway near Playland-at-the-Beach, but that proved short-lived. Many years later, he brought back a reunited Paul Butterfield Blues Band -- a group that figured prominently in his original falling out with Bill Graham -- for an immensely successful Tribal Stomp at UC Berkeley's Greek Theatre in 1978, but his ambitious plans for a second Tribal Stomp at the Monterey Country Fairgrounds -- featuring a lineup as diverse as British punk by the Clash and Jamaican reggae by the Mighty Diamonds -- failed miserably the following year and he was out of business again.

His crowning achievement was the concert celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Summer of Love he staged in Golden Gate Park in 1997, which drew a huge crowd to see old-timers such as Jefferson Starship, Sons of Champlin and Country Joe McDonald at the Beach Chalet Meadow. It was a free concert -- Chet begged, pleaded, wheedled and cajoled the budget out of God knows where -- so he didn't make dime one out of this deal, either. When City Hall sent him a bill for $50,000 worth of police overtime, he told them he didn't have any money, but they could have his jacket.

Helms spent most of the last 20 years of his life operating a tiny Nob Hill art gallery called Atelier Dore, which he financed originally by the sale of one of the few authentic assets he was able to accumulate in his life, a huge painting by 19th century French illustrator Gustav Dore -- hence the gallery name -- which he sold at auction in the early 80s and celebrated in high-style that night backstage at a Grateful Dead concert in New York. When he died, he was years behind in his rent.

The Paul Butterfield story is instructive. Impresario Graham never tired of telling it. Graham and Helms began throwing concerts at the Fillmore Auditorium in January 1966 as partners. After a couple of successful concerts, Helms told Graham the next band he wanted to present was the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. The next morning, while Helms slept late as per hippie custom, Graham got up early and called the New York booking agency that represented Butterfield and cut a deal.

Graham loved telling this story. He thought it showed the rewards of diligence, how the early bird gets the worm and the world belongs to those with an alarm clock and some get-up-and-go, a little chutzpah.

To Helms, it was always about the betrayal of a partner. He could be annoying, petulant about perceived slights and close-minded on certain subjects. He did love the spotlight and the approbation that came with it; he would have been pleased to see his obit so prominently placed in the New York Times. But he guarded the lamp of the 60s with steadfast devotion and as long as he lived, it would never be extinguished.

"All-reety," Helms would say, an all-purpose affirmation he used to punctuate conversation. All-reety to you, too, Chester. That model is now permanently discontinued.

San Francisco Chronicle
29 October 2005

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