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In 2 1/2 months, Helms' Family Dog produced only four shows at the Fillmore. After the third, however, Graham made one of the best business moves of his life -- he stole Paul Butterfield from Chet Helms. (Graham's repugnant behavior is described both in his excellent autobiography and by music critic Joel Selvin in his book Summer of Love.)
Helms and Carpenter knew that the seasoned players of Chicago's Paul Butterfield Blues Band would befuddle California audiences weaned on largely inept local bands. But Graham couldn't believe they were going to pay the then-princely sum of $2,500 to book a group that he had never heard of and that had sold only 200 albums in the entire state.
Finally, though, Graham acquiesced, and a week before the concert Helms and Carpenter decided they'd go down to Los Angeles to watch Butterfield in a small jazz club. Helms, Carpenter, and the bartender turned out to be the entire audience. Helms freaked out.
He and Carpenter spent the rest of the week on the phone, pausing occasionally to pass out posters and handbills. They worked so hard they rarely slept. They'd call everyone they knew and tell them to call the people they knew.
"Are you going to Paul Butterfield?" they'd ask.
"Who's Paul Butterfield?" was the us-ual reply.
"You don't know who Paul Butterfield is?" Helms would ask back.
For no good reason whatsoever, the phone tree worked. Butterfield drew 7,500 people through the Fillmore over three nights. The money was incredible. Very early the Monday morning after the last of the three shows, Graham woke, got on the phone with Albert Grossman, Paul Butterfield's sleazy New York manager, and made an exclusive deal: When Butterfield wanted to come back to San Francisco, he would play for Graham.
And Graham alone.
From that point forward, Graham loved to prattle on about getting up early in the morning. "I get up early," Graham loved to offer as a primary explanation for his business success.
Even after going behind Helms' back, Graham didn't ditch the partners -- he still had too much to learn. He gave them one more show. "Frankly, he was about 10 years older than John or I, and he wasn't in touch with the people or the bands," says Helms. "They were our age. They were our peers. They were the guys we partied with, and that we hung with. He really wasn't connected with that. We brought the people, and we brought the bands to him."
Graham fired the two after their fourth show. His reason: The partners were using his thumbtacks and Scotch tape, rather than their own materials, to hang posters inside the Fillmore. Helms didn't have much to say. He didn't have a lease or a contract. Sure, he was outraged, but more precisely he was nervous. A band called the Blues Project was flying out from New York to play a show for them in 10 days. Helms needed a venue. In a scramble, he talked the owner of the Avalon Ballroom into allowing a few shows there. The Blues Project opened the Avalon on April 22, 1966.
In short time, the Avalon would become the venue in San Francisco, hipper, more street, more "esoteric" than the Fillmore. Helms oversaw most of its development, and he made innovations that Graham would imitate, innovations that would make Graham -- but not Helms -- rich.
Helms believed in theater and ceremony. At the Avalon, entire circuses of light -- created at first by light artist Bill Ham, and then carried on by a dozen rotating artists -- swirled around the room, transforming the space into something breathing and otherworldly. Up in the balcony was a puppet show of dancing marionettes. For Helms, the whole happening was a collective religious experience, with sacrament (LSD, marijuana), ritual (two-set schedules), sanctuary (a hall without beefy security guards), and drama (light shows, dance, music, performance).
There were other embellishments that made the Avalon special. Every show had its own full-color collectible art poster, cranked out by one of Helms' free-lance artists. The Avalon's sound was fantastic -- the monitor, a speaker that points at musicians so they can hear themselves and each other, was invented there. The scene, chummy and full of friends, was just plain better than the Fillmore's.
Allen Cohen, then the publisher of the Oracle, a Haight Street psychedelic newspaper, says Avalon performances weren't merely concerts or dances. "It was more like a ritual transcendence."
And, says Julius Karpen, who managed Big Brother after Helms left, "The scene lived and breathed, and Chet was in the center of it."
By the next year, Helms had built the Avalon into a shrine of hippiedom. Kids showed up literally by the thousands. Journalists chronicling the Summer of Love made perfunctory stops at Helms' club. At times, Helms used the opportunity to trumpet his message to the media. He figured that if he talked like the straight reporters, he might get them to recognize what he considered a renaissance.
But writer Joan Didion visited the Avalon and torched Helms in her Saturday Evening Post article "Slouching Towards Bethlehem." The epic-length essay claimed that the social strife of the 1960s had led to the "social hemorrhaging" that afflicted hippie kids and teen-age druggies in the Haight-Ashbury. She didn't blame Helms for any of those social ills, but in fewer than 500 words she painted him as more concerned about the billions of dollars that people under 25 would be spending than about the young people themselves.