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.

Pete Slauson had recently finished making promotional videos for Donna Summer and Boston. The week before the show, Slauson told Helms that he and his partner would shoot the event. Slauson arranged for the necessary releases and found an investor to pitch in enough cash to rent equipment and buy tape.

Everyone involved was a nervous wreck before the show, but advance ticket sales were strong. And on production night, the theater filled up like something out of a time-release movie. The show itself, beginning with an invocation set by several poets, ran incredibly smoothly. Boots Hughston, a guy Helms knew as a musician in the Avalon days, managed the stage. Helms played MC, his lazy, conversational speaking style perfect for the event. The party backstage seemed almost as big as the one in front. Ginsberg stayed until the end of the show. Helms literally shed tears of joy.

"It was a very important show," says Hughston. "It reunited the families. Everybody didn't feel bad about being hippies. We are what we are, which is people that love Earth and love mankind, all at the same time. Kind people. It gave us a sense of pride."

For Helms, the show seemed an enormous vindication. "I'd taken so much flak for not being a success in the way that the public viewed success," says Helms. "It was really one of those high and holy events when you felt a connection to the universe and to other people and to being."

It took several days for everyone to come down. Helms and the crew celebrated the show at a great party. They watched Slauson's raw footage.

Finally, reality sunk in. The event had looked hugely successful, but Helms' accountants had screwed up. Basically, Helms recouped his expenses.

After the show, Slauson says, a record company offered $250,000 for the rights to produce a record from Tribal Stomp. Helms thought the sound was worth more and turned the offer down. "I thought he was crazy," Slauson says. "That was just for the audio. I wanted to use that to finance the video."

The record was never made. Helms and Slauson got into legal disputes. Attorney fees stacked up over the years. No one has seen the video.

"I love Chet," Slauson says. "But he's the lamb who backs off the cliff in fear of the unseen wolf."

Helms planned the second Tribal Stomp for Sept. 8-9, 1979. He worked the entire year arranging the venue -- the Monterey Fairgrounds, at the exact place the famous Monterey International Pop Festival was held 12 years earlier. The bill was huge, with more than 40 acts scheduled to play over two days. Whereas the first Stomp appealed to nostalgic thirtysomethings, Helms wanted this event to have cross-generation appeal: Wavy Gravy and the Clash shared the same stage.

Helms had a hard time getting the correct permits for the event. Permission for audience members to camp didn't come until the last minute, so he couldn't advertise an alternative to expensive tourist hotels. Two weeks before the concert, Us magazine came out with a story about major concerts that had collapsed due to the gasoline crisis in 1979.

Besides booking the event in Monterey, the biggest mistake Helms made was one that he should have learned from Bill Graham during the Avalon days. Helms neglected to impose territorial imperatives.

Territorial imperatives are spelled out in a fundamental clause of most sizable musical performance contracts. If a contract includes territorial imperatives, a band cannot play other concerts near in place or time to the performance under contract. This prohibition protects the owner of a concert venue; the fewer performances a band gives in a region on a particular weekend, the higher the audience demand for the performances that do occur.

As a former manager, however, Helms thought territorial imperatives hurt bands. "I had managed Big Brother and watched them struggle and watched them starve," says Helms. "Maybe that was a poor business judgment on my part, but that wasn't where my heart was. My heart started out with the bands, and I could never bring myself to put those kind of restrictions on people."

When Helms booked the Clash the band was still fresh in the States, and the fans were rabid. But without a territorial imperatives clause in the contract, the group booked their tour finale in San Francisco's Kezar Stadium a month later. Other bands played nearby as well. Suddenly, the coups of Tribal Stomp II didn't look so special.

Slauson, along to film the Stomp again, sensed a sinking ship. Twelve days before the Monterey show he demanded to know where the money for audio and video was. Helms didn't have an answer. Slauson said Helms was greedy. The accusation was too much.

Helms fainted in response.
When the gates finally opened, there were eight people in line. Helms needed at least 13,000 just to break even. Over the entire weekend, only 6,000 would show.

Helms was crushed -- even losing the Avalon had not hurt as much. There were some lawsuits. He became deeply depressed. He wrote off rock music and went back into therapy.

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