I got word yesterday that Chet Helms, founder of the Family Dog, passed away early yesterday morning in San Francisco. He was 62, and had had a stroke, as well as complications from Hepatitis C.
I never actually knew Chet, since he'd gone low-profile by the time I moved to San Francisco in 1970, but I met him on my first trip to the city, early in 1967. I was living in New York at the time, and my girlfriend's father was mixed up with Phyllis Johnson and the Aspen Magazine crowd. When they asked him, thanks to his connection with Marshall McLuhan, to design an issue of "the magazine that comes in a box," he decided one of the things that had to be in it was a piece on hippies, so he got them to dispatch the famous photographer Steve Schapiro and me to go find out what was going on. I enthusiastically picked up my ticket, and was half-way out the door of the Crawdaddy! magazine offices when a door belonging to one of our mysterious neighbors opened. "Hey," said the guy, "you going somewhere?" Yeah, I told him, San Francisco. "Cool. Got a place to stay?" Uhhh, come to think of it, I didn't. "That's okay. When you get to the airport, take a cab to 1836 Pine. Write that down: 1836 Pine. I'll tell them you're coming, and when you get there, ask for Luria or Lynne."
Little did I know that I was being plopped down into the center of what was going on out there. (Having the okay of my neighbor, whose name was Travis Rivers, was another piece of luck). The house on Pine Street belonged to a group which called itself the Mystic Research Foundation/Northern California Psychedelic Cattleman's Association, in the person of Luria Castell and her friends, many of whom had joined with Chet Helms to form the Family Dog, one of the two reigning concert-promotion companies in the nascent San Francisco scene. They had split with Helms, though, over some particularly hippie-ish concern; I seem to remember it had something to do with selling out. From the fact that you've never heard of the Mystic Research Foundation until you read these words, you can see who won the battle.
But my assignment was to write a great piece on what was going on out there in San Francisco, and these people knew everyone. Fortunately, they were still friendly with Helms & Co., so I spent one night with my new-fangled Phillips casette tape recorder in the light booth at the Family Dog's venue, the Avalon Ballroom, recording Big Brother and the Holding Company. (The tape still exists, and is in the hands of an archivist who says he's going to see if it can be released. It's really that good.) The next day, I was walking down Haight Street with some of the folks from the house on Pine Street, and here came Janis Joplin down the street in a car. Recognizing some of the folks in our little crowd, she hung out the window and said "Hey!" and we walked over. She got out and talked with us, and I, all of 18 and shy as could be, told her I thought she'd been amazing the night before. "Aw, ain't you sweet," she said, and planted a huge kiss on my cheek. I was on Cloud 9.
Day after day, I got up and did my interviews. Sometimes I hung out with Steve, although he, wisely enough, preferred to work without an 18-year-old millstone distracting him. Things were a little different than they seemed in the meticulous Victorian interior of 1836 Pine: a lot of the Haight elders (well, a lot of 'em were over 30) were steeling themselves for an invasion of kids that summer, and were wondering if the new society they were trying to build would survive the onslaught.
But as someone vitally interested in music, I knew I had to interview Chet Helms. I don't remember anything about the interview, though, so maybe it didn't happen. What did happen was that he gave me a copy of each of the Family Dog posters to date -- February, 1967, at least those he had in stock -- and I've kept them until now, although I'm currently funding my move to France in part by regretfully selling them off. He seemed like a nice enough guy, but preoccupied, perhaps not very awed by the presence of a reporter from Aspen.
In 1977, I tried again. By then, I was living in San Francisco, and my old Rolling Stone compadre Jon Carroll was editing New West, a New York Magazine spinoff about California. I pitched a story on whether or not Texans really ran San Francisco, since a huge number of media-visible San Franciscans, from the queen of society to one of its most prominent ministers, was from Texas. Naturally, I wanted to find Helms, who at the time was running a massage business -- strictly legit, I hasten to add. But he was very unfriendly towards the idea of being interviewed for an article, although not unfriendly to me. I think he just felt he'd been burned so many times in the past that he'd rather not do it. I had a lot more experience under my belt at that point, and was quite unhappy that he felt that way. Of course, he made it into the article anyway. No way you can write about San Francisco's Texans without including Chet Helms. (And yeah, I know the trivia: he was actually born in California, but he grew up in Texas).
I lost touch with what Helms was doing, and I even missed his 30th anniversary of the Summer of Love event, probably because I was living here.
Looking back, I can say my sympathies were always with the Family Dog as opposed to Bill Graham's organization, although Graham, in the end, was the more realistic businessman, and, in his own way, as idealistic as the Family Dog people were, albeit with different ideals. Reading the statement Helms wrote on that 30th anniversary website, I am reminded again of the tremendous potential for improving the world which existed in those days and still does exist today, although many of the principles and ideals are deeply unfashionable. (And, to be sure, the original crowd got a lot of it wrong: don't even get me started about the hippies and the class system).
And as I look at that picture on that site of a much older Chet Helms than I remember, I find myself wondering if he felt he'd been a failure, or if he'd found a way to make peace with having achieved what he did achieve and take pride in that. That's the curse of idealists, you see: never being able to do as much of it, do it as perfectly, and do it as quickly as you'd like. Surely his years in business taught him to be happy with what you can do. But whatever he felt, I hope he's at peace now. The elders from that era are fading away, and one can only hope they've succeeded in passing their messages -- and the knowledge of their lives and achievements -- along. Someday, someone's going to want to know. Vitally.