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.

Helms may have been talking the financial talk, but his business foibles were sometimes laughable. Bill Graham, who produced samba shows in New York in the 1950s, had a business background before he moved into rock. Helms had a paper route back in Texas and sold wild berries and walnuts at the railroad station when he lived deep in the Ozark Mountains. Helms wasn't just inexperienced. He didn't even know the basics of business.

Once Helms tried to trick the Avalon's landlord into promising a written lease at a constant $800 by getting a friend to pose as a potential investor. (Helms says rent fluctuated up to $1,600 a month because he lacked a lease.) The landlord opened up at a meeting with Helms and the "investor."

"Oh yes, I've promised Chester a lease," he said. Helms squirmed because he had a spy tape recorder inside a briefcase and figured he finally had a contract, even if it was just on tape. But the recorder didn't work. Helms still had nothing.

Despite the lease problems, it was tough for the Avalon to lose money in those early days. The Haight was teeming with teen-agers; both the Fillmore and the Avalon were rolling in cash. Graham wanted to expand his business empire; Helms wanted to make more converts. Graham opened a Fillmore in New York. Helms responded with a Family Dog in Denver in 1967; it was never successful and did little but siphon revenue from the Avalon.

But the Avalon faced a bigger challenge at home. The Blumenfeld movie theater chain wanted to use the building the Avalon occupied. Suddenly Helms was hit with a barrage of challenges to his dance-hall permits. Neighbors said the patrons were pissing on the street -- they had apparently forgotten that the Van Ness strip was a hangout for winos and bums long before the Avalon opened.

The Avalon found a little support. Some employees and friends circulated petitions. Bill Graham himself stepped forward to say that the Avalon was a well-run hall. (He, after all, had permits of his own.) Helms was ecstatic when Mayor Joe Alioto offered his backing. Then he was saddened to discover that Alioto was the lawyer for a theater chain competing with the Blumenfeld family.

After about 2 1/2 years of weekend concerts, the Avalon crowd was beginning to evaporate. Now, Graham was paying acts more money, and attracting bigger talent. Sometimes Helms couldn't pay the guarantees he promised to bands. The permit situation only worsened.

Finally, there was a break. Someone (Helms still won't say who) made Helms' attorney an offer. For a $5,000 bribe, a well-placed attorney with good connections could score all of Helms' permits. It wasn't even considered. "Number 1, I didn't have the five grand," says Helms. "Number 2, on principle I would have never done that."

The beautiful posters at the Avalon changed from full-color to black-and-white. By December of 1968, the Avalon was dead.

"I think Bill would love to have thought that he had done it, but I don't think Chet needed any help," says Herbie Herbert, a band manager and Helms' contemporary.

"Where did all these hippies come from?" Craig Lucken wanted to know as he looked out across the sea of unwashed bodies piling up in the Greek Theater. There were 8,500 in the venue, now, after Charles Manson, after the anti-drug propaganda, after a wave of nihilistic punk had washed across Berkeley and San Francisco fashion in the summer of 1978. The Family Dog was back.

Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart and Barry Melton -- the Fish of Country Joe & the Fish -- urged Helms to try promoting again, even though a decade had passed since the death of the Avalon. It was an easy sell -- nostalgia was surging through Helms' veins. "The wounds had healed," he says.

With milk crates and a few phones, Helms converted a laundromat on Potrero Hill into command central. The name of the event -- Tribal Stomp -- referred to the first show Helms produced at the Fillmore. (At the beginning of the dance concert trend, it was popular to give every show a title, e.g., "A Tribute to Dr. Strange" or "Trips Festival"; Tribal Stomp combined tribelike cliques and the slang term for dancing.) Almost immediately, Helms' open-door policy attracted loads of washed-up hippies. Patrisha Vestey, whom Helms hired to run the office, remembers that ashtrays were crowded with roaches, and Helms paid all his bills from a roll of cash.

Vestey was amazed that Helms' name was such a secret password into the world of rock 'n' roll. All she had to do was say she worked for Chet Helms, and people were dying to talk. They listened, too. On Helms' request, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band reunited. Big Brother & the Holding Company hadn't played in 10 years -- but found each other onstage. Country Joe & the Fish got back together. Even Allen Ginsberg, who initially told Vestey he wouldn't participate in any sort of canned nostalgia, agreed to show up.

Helms was still a master of publicity. He'd feed items one at a time to KSAN DJs to build anticipation slowly. As the date got close, Helms decided that video and audio offered the best chance for the production to recoup costs. Woodstock was a perfect model: Its organizers turned a free concert into big money with the film and recordings.

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