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

Joel Selvin, Chronicle Senior Pop Music Critic

Saturday, October 29, 2005

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 interest 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 Avalon 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 Doré -- 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.


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The Final Tribal Stomp:
Jefferson Starship, Dickie Peterson and Leigh Stephens of Blue Cheer with Prairie Prince, Country Joe McDonald, Barry “The Fish” Melton, Quicksilver Gold with Joli Valente, Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks with a special appearance by the Charlatans, Eric Burdon, Nick Gravenites, Harvey Mandel, Canned Heat, Rowan Brothers with Peter Rowan, Cold Blood with Lydia Pense, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Roy Rogers, others; 10a.m.-5:30 p.m. Sunday at Speedway Meadows, Golden Gate Park. Info: www.2b1records.com/chetmemorial.