The Fall of Love

Chet Helms and his Avalon Ballroom were the heart and soul of the Summer of Love. Thirty years of stupid business moves later, love is all that's left.

There is a tendency to simplify the past, to turn history into melodrama. In 1997, 30 years after the Summer of Love, Chet Helms gets the good-guy role and Bill Graham remains the villain. Graham, ever the businessman, got rich selling hippie culture. Helms ended up with hepatitis C, a heart condition, and a stack of hospital bills. It's fashionable, especially in San Francisco, to hate a winner. But melodrama relies on ignoring large sections of truth.

The truth is Helms wanted to succeed. And to some extent, he believes he did. "The reality of it is that I sustained a business that employed 20 to 40 people for six or seven years straight," says Helms of his Avalon years and subsequent tenure at another dance hall out on the Great Highway. "I didn't have the same business background as Graham did. I basically was not so much of a bottom-liner. But there were other things that were as important."

Helms wanted to help create a parallel civilization that would allow the Avalon to prosper alongside the Fillmore. In Helms' world, people would come first, business second. He and his comrades would build a new society.

Helms didn't prepare for what might happen if his grand plan cracked. What if everyone was too stoned to dance? What if Bill Graham capitalized on every innovation the Avalon ever made? What if Helms ended up running a downtown art gallery, and CNN didn't care enough about hippie values to give them more than 10 seconds of air time? What would he say then?

Would he say something as heartfelt and idealistic and naively self-absorbed as the '60s themselves?

"I think I did the things that I wanted to do," he says now. "How many people can say that they had a part in changing the world? I was part of a core of 100 people who had a profound impact on the later half of the 20th century."

It was an accident that Helms found out people would pay him money to watch rock 'n' roll. He was looking for another kind of accident; in fact what he was looking for was nothing short of osmosis. Infatuated by the Beatles, particularly by the political content of their lyrics, Helms started bumming around with a bunch of musicians in the basement ballroom of 1090 Page St. It was 1965. "Part of my illusion was that if I would hang out with musicians it would rub off," says Helms.

It didn't work.
The casual jam sessions, glowing with the film stock avant-garde director Bruce Conner projected onto the walls, were beginning to attract people to the ballroom. The room could hold 300, but soon there were many more than that, all with weed and wine, and most were underage. Helms thought he could discourage them from coming by charging 50 cents apiece. That move filled the place to capacity.

Two things resulted from the jam sessions. First, all of the guys who could actually play their instruments banded into Big Brother & the Holding Company. Helms became their manager, and eventually hooked them up with Janis Joplin, an old friend from Texas, whom he'd met years before when the two of them hung out in the same beatnik-wannabe crowd at the University of Texas in Austin. Second, four roommates got an idea to produce concerts from the jam sessions.

They called themselves the Family Dog, because of all the mutts running around their communal home. They were looking for a business opportunity, and after scrapping an idea to start a pet cemetery, the foursome decided they'd try to promote a concert at the Longshoremen's Hall. They'd seen 1090 Page, so they knew it could be done.

After three shows that were critical (but not financial) successes, the Family Dog ran out of money. Unaware of this fact, Helms and his best friend, John Carpenter, manager of the Grace Slick-fronted psychedelic band the Great Society, asked Family Dog member Luria Castell to book their bands at the next Family Dog show. She gave it to them straight: She didn't have the money to pay the deposit on the hall. Helms thought a gig would be worth his cash and gave her $250 -- his "life savings" -- and told her to book the hall. A few weeks later, Castell was gone -- with Helms' money. She'd fled to Mexico and left him some old furniture in place of the cash.

A few weeks later, Helms was at a benefit for the San Francisco Mime Troupe organized by Bill Graham. Graham managed the Mime Troupe at the time and was trying to raise money to help the political theater group pay legal fees related to performing in a public park without the proper permits. He'd thrown a benefit before, but this was the first at the Fillmore, a place two of the Family Dog folks had told him was available. The rent: $65 a night, or $500 a month.

Helms told Graham about the $250 expropriated by the Family Dog. He said Big Brother would play at an upcoming Mime Troupe benefit -- just for the exposure. He knew a couple of bands from out of town who might play for Graham, as well. At the time, Graham was mulling the idea of taking the monthlong lease at the Fillmore. He made a handshake deal with the two hippies to book alternate weekends at the hall. Graham wanted to know the name of their company. Helms' answer was an odd one. "Family Dog, I guess," he said.

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