“THE STORY SO FAR” by Greg Hoffman, official Chet Helms biographer
In August 2004 a friend of a friend asked me if I’d be interested in working with Chet Helms on his autobiography. I said “yes” and didn’t give it another thought. In early November 2004 I was, to my enormous surprise, invited to meet with Chet to be interviewed as his potential collaborator. I again said “yes,” met the man and afterwards drove home, convinced I had less than zero chance of being selected. In late November 2004, again to my enormous surprise, I was summoned to Chet’s apartment to work out a book deal. A week later we met again to discuss a strategy for producing the book, after which I drove home, utterly convinced that our collaboration, despite Chet’s assurance to the contrary, was doomed to fail.
“THE STORY SO FAR”
The next time I saw Chet was two weeks later, on Wednesday, December 22, 2004. The occasion was a holiday dinner at Greens, an upscale vegetarian eatery nestled deep in the bowels of the Fort Mason complex, perched alongside San Francisco Bay.
Eight people, including Jeff Curtin, who had first introduced me to Chet; Jeff’s business partner, Ben Hollin; Jerilyn Lee Brandelius (The Grateful Dead Family Album) and photographer, Grant Jacobs, who had taken numerous iconic photos (Garcia, Pigpen, Weir, Jim Morrison, George Harrison, Bill Graham with Janis) in the ’60s, attended the dinner.
While the eight of us were hanging out in the reception area, waiting to be shown to a table, the bowler-crowned Chet, who looked like an escapee from the pages of Bleak House or David Copperfield, said to no one in particular, “I need to sit next to Greg so we can talk about The Book.”
And so we did. Sit next to each other, that is.
But no, we didn’t. Talk about The Book, that is.
I don’t remember what we did talk about, if anything, but I do know it wasn’t about…The Book.
The group’s table talk that night was more subdued than raucous. Stories of the old days weren’t flying back and forth.
“Remember that night at The Avalon in September ’66 when so-and-so did such-and-such?” Well, that just wasn’t happening.
Chet was perhaps the most subdued of all. I barely knew the guy, but that night I saw a much different Chet from the one I barely knew.
I saw a Chet, who, despite having more stories than Ocean Beach has grains of sand and who loved to tell them, was content to sit amongst a group of people, some of whom he’d known for nearly four decades and some of whom he’d known for only a few years, months or weeks, sipping his tea and quietly listening, a serene smile plastered on his face, and saying very little.
Chet wasn’t exactly aloof or detached that night, but he was…uh, something.
It was a little eerie, man.
“THE STORY SO FAR”
Full disclosure: While reviewing my recent posts to The Chet Helms Chronicles, and they are all recent because I haven’t been at this game very long, I noticed that I have used a lot of specific dates and a lot of dialogue. The dates are from a timeline I began keeping the night I met Chet for the first time. Consequently, they are accurate. The dialogue, however, is based on notes I made shortly after each of my subsequent meetings with Chet. Consequently, while the dialogue isn’t always exactly verbatim, it is very close to our actual exchanges. In other words, I ain’t makin’ any of this stuff up.
That having been said, let us proceed…
On April 13, 2005 I received my first email from Chet. He invited me to attend a benefit concert for ‘The Pepperspray 8,’ a group of environmental activists who had been- What else? – Pepper-sprayed by the authorities during a peaceful, forest-defense demonstration in Humboldt County a few years earlier and were involved in a lawsuit as a result.
The event was going to be held at the 12 Galaxies Club on Mission Street in San Francisco on Sunday night, April 17. The entertainment was going to be provided by David Nelson with The Flying Other Brothers and a host of other musicians, including Pete Sears, Barry Sless and Melvin Seals, the longtime keyboardist for The Jerry Garcia Band. Chet and Wavy Gravy (who The New York Times quaintly refers to as Mr. Gravy), were scheduled to host the event.
I replied via email that I would not be able to attend because I was leaving for a long-planned trip down the coast on the 16th.
On April 15, Chet sent me the following email:
From: Chester Helms Sent: Friday, April 15, 2005 12:29 PM
To: Greg Hoffman
I am going back on the hep C meds Monday night. I am going to be
housesitting a friend’s home in Novato also starting Monday, for the next
month. On your return, this will provide a nice, quiet, serene environment
to do some of the tape sessions on my memoir. I am envious of you going
down the coast and my friend taking off for Bali for a month. Ah,
Have a great trip and I’ll see you when you get back.
When I returned from my solitary, coastal excursion I heard from various folks that Chet’s house-sitting gig wasn’t quite as serene and bucolic as he had anticipated. I suggested to him that we wait until he returned to San Francisco to plunge into The Book. He agreed.
As the end of April drew near, I was invited to a dinner with Chet and some of his friends. The dinner, which was to be hosted by a New York friend of Chet’s, was scheduled for Saturday night, April 30, at the Jeanne d’Arc restaurant in the Hotel Cornell De France, or, as I like to call it, The Cornell. I immediately checked the hotel’s web site because, well, that’s pretty much what we do these days, isn’t it?. According the site, Sunset Magazine had once described The Cornell as “A charming, French-style hotel,” and that was good enough for me. (Actually, anyplace that serves food in cardboard containers or wrapped in paper is good enough for me.)
The Cornell is on Bush Street, just around the corner from Chet’s apartment and a half-block from the art gallery he had operated for almost a quarter of century. I hitched a ride to The City with Chet’s business partners, Jeff Curtin and Ben Hollin. When we arrived at the restaurant, we were escorted to an alcove with a single, long table, at which sat an extremely attractive young woman, wearing a pink sweater and a pink beret-type hat thing.
“I’m Clara Bellino,” the young woman said, in a voice tinged with the hint of a French accent. (There was, it turned out, a valid reason for her accent. Clara, you see, had been born and raised in France.)
After Jeff, Ben and I introduced ourselves in unaccented voices, we all sat down and commenced with the chatter such situations demand.
We quickly learned that Clara had been asked by Chet to greet the dinner guests and make them feel comfortable until he arrived from far-away Novato; that she was a singer who had just released a CD called Embarcadero Love, for which Chet had done all the photography and for which ’60’s poster artist, David Singer, had done the cover design and lettering; that she was an actress who had starred in a film called Steal America; that she was one of Chet’s current caregivers; and that she was still falling a bit short on preparing a cup of tea to Chet’s exacting and rigid specifications.
Within the next 15 minutes, the rest of our party arrived: Anthony; our host, Lenny; and, finally, Chet and Jerilyn.
“I have to sit next to Greg so we can talk about The Book,” Chet said.
And so we did. Sit next to each other, that is.
And, no, we didn’t. Talk about The Book, that is.
Chet ordered his usual tea and honey and I ordered my usual bottle of beer. But this time it was an authentic, imported French beer. I had never had an authentic, imported French beer and all I can say about that particular authentic, imported French beer is that it came in a very exotic bottle, the kind in which you may feel compelled to insert a candle and display on the mantle.
“Well,” I said to Chet, ” I’m going to order the Salmon Nouvelle Orléans and hope like hell it’s way more Salmon than Nouvelle Orléans.”
“Salmon sounds good to me ,” Chet said, snapping shut Le Menu.
By the time our soup, accompanied by two bottle of fine French wine, arrived at the table, the alcove we occupied was alive with spirited conversation and a lot of laughter. I stopped laughing when I found myself face-to-face with a bowl of…pumpkin soup.
In my world, pumpkins were for pies and jack ‘o lanterns, not soup. Nevertheless, I picked up one of the dozen or so spoons arrayed before me, no doubt the wrong one, and, with considerable trepidation, sampled the orange brew. To my surprise and relief, it was palatable. In fact, it was extremely palatable. But then, I had been sipping an authentic, imported French beer whose primary function, I decided, was to make anything that came afterwards taste really good by comparison.
It wasn’t long before the absurdly efficient wait staff removed our soup bowls and returned with our respective main courses. I was presented with a large plate, in the center of which was a healthy hunk of what I assumed to be Salmon that was covered with a thick, saucy substance I assumed to be the Nouvelle Orléans.
I snatched up one of my 14 or so forks, probably the wrong one, and gently dug in. One tentative bite convinced me that I was about to consume the best salmon dinner I had ever encountered. In fact, it was so good, I abandoned my unfinished bottle of authentic, imported French beer and poured a glass of wine, probably the wrong kind for complementing and enhancing the flavor of a nice Salmon Nouvelle Orléans.
“This is delicious,” I said to Chet, indicating my plate with the wrong fork. “What do you think?”
He smiled and nodded. “I agree.”
For several minutes I retreated from the festivities and focused solely on…The Salmon. I was half-tempted to eat like I often do when I’m alone, which is to say fast, sloppy and with a total disregard for accepted table manners. But I didn’t do that. I remained, despite my unfortunate penchant for selecting the wrong utensils when confronted with multiple choices, a picture of dining decorum. Well, except perhaps for the ignoring everyone at the table part.
I was jerked back into consciousness by the sound of someone saying my name. It was our host, Lenny, who was sitting across from me, nursing a soft drink. He asked me how I liked working with Chet on…The Book. At least I think that’s what he asked. Lenny is a very soft-spoken gentleman and there was a quite a bit of cross-conversing going on around us. You know, when the person on your right is talking to the person on your left while you’re talking to the person to the right of the person on your right. Or something like that.
When Lenny and I concluded our conversation, I glanced at Chet who was, in fact, the person on my right and who wasn’t conversing with anyone. He was sitting up very straight in his chair with his hands folded together and resting on the edge of the table, in front of his practically untouched dinner. He was pasty pale and he looked tired. I was taken aback by the abrupt change in his appearance. He had appeared to be neither pale nor tired earlier in the evening.
“Are you alright?” I asked.
“I’m fine,” Chet said. “I’m just having a little stomach trouble at the moment. I’ll have them wrap this up for me to take home and I’ll eat it later.”
“Are you sure you’re OK?”
“Yes, I’m fine. Really.”
After dessert and coffee (tea for Chet, natch), our party straggled out of the alcove at theJeanne D’Arc, climbed a flight of stairs and emerged from The Cornell onto Bush Street where we engaged in that well known, torturous social ritual – the group goodbye. That’s when fresh conversations begin and promises to get together again real soon are exchanged and re-exchanged, then exchanged again. It’s almost as if each group-goodbye participant is afraid of being the first to break away from the pack. Much better to stand shivering on a mostly deserted sidewalk in the cold, late night wind for 20 minutes, which is, I believe, the current minimum time required to complete a successful group goodbye.
Finally, some brave soul, I forget whom, peeled off with a final wave, and we were done.
I remember standing at the curb, waiting to cross the street in mid-block, and watching Chet’s tall, broad-backed form, topped by a bobbing bowler, slowing walking west on Bush Street, a doggy bag holding his uneaten dinner dangling from his right hand.
Yep, that’s what I remember, alright.
I remember it because it was the last time I saw Chet Helms.
I never saw him again.
Not even once.