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.

After Helms had stewed and brooded for almost a year, his girlfriend, Judy Davis, convinced him to find something else. Besides, Helms was broke. He decided he'd try to sell two canvases by the 19th-century French academic painter Gustave Dore that he'd picked up for a song back in 1971. When a private collector bid $142,500, Helms couldn't believe it. Suddenly, he had more money than he'd seen in his life. He immediately bought dental work ($4,000) and a used tan Audi ($7,000). The rest of the money was for starting over -- the purchase of a small space for an art gallery on Nob Hill. "I never made it in rock 'n' roll," he says. "I thought I might as well have a stab at the art world."

Helms stayed away from rock music for the next 14 years. By then, three surgical procedures that aimed to remove plaque from the arteries in his heart had completely drained his pockets -- and more. His old friends responded in classic fashion: They offered to throw a benefit concert.

When the event finally came to fruition on April 30, 1994, 3,500 sweaty hippies crammed themselves into the Maritime Hall. Another 3,000 were turned away at the door. The crowd looked like a 25-year high school reunion of the kids who grew up in the Haight-Ashbury. Yes, they were there to watch more than 80 musicians play for seven hours. But the event wasn't just a concert.

Helms stood onstage with hepatitis C, his heart condition, that stack of hospital bills, and a mess of emotions. "He was clear, pristine," says Boots Hughston, who paid $40,000 out of pocket to produce the benefit. "He was really humble. He was excited. He was very much thankful."

"I remember him saying that he was glad that they hadn't waited until he died to have that tribute," says Helms' friend Craig Lucken.

Terence Hallinan, then on the Board of Supervisors and an ex-roommate of Helms' from the early '60s, passed a key to the city. The crowd exploded. Members of the Doors, the Monkees, Moby Grape, and Country Joe & the Fish all performed. There were poets and writers, Michael McClure and Ken Kesey. Graphic artists made 11 different commemorative posters; the profits went to Helms.

All told, $70,000 came out of that audience and went toward Helms' medical care.

"Shit Chet, let's just start the Dog again," Boots Hughston told Helms. "I'll pay, let me do it."

Boots Hughston, now a short 48-year-old man with a paunch and awkward hair, met Chet Helms in 1967. Back then, he wanted Helms to book one of the psychedelic bands he played sax with at the Avalon. Eventually, Hughston got the show, but he never really made a band work. Instead, he earned his way for a while doing session work with Ike & Tina Turner, Santana, and Van Morrison.

Then, in the 1970s, Hughston turned to promoting street fairs, stage-managing the Tribal Stomps, and running the Reggae on the River festival in Humboldt County. He also started investing in real estate. In the 1980s, as a favor to a friend, he helped Helms track the licensing of old Avalon images.

Now, Hughston wanted to take advantage of the vibe created by the Helms benefit and use the Maritime, a large hall with beautiful varnished floors, a wide balcony, and good acoustics, as a venue for launching an offensive against the hegemony of Bill Graham Presents, which had ruled the concert scene in San Francisco for decades. Hughston says his intentions transcended business. He wanted to "bring the families back together." He thought the Family Dog name might do it. He also says he wanted to help Helms, a close, personal friend.

Helms didn't ask for any help. As a matter of fact, he was tired. He didn't really need the stress of running a venue again. But Hughston and a few pals leaned on Helms. "C'mon," they said. "You won't have to do anything. We'll run the hall."

Eventually Helms agreed, signing on with a handshake. For 10 percent of the net (with a $1,200 monthly guarantee), he would contribute the Family Dog logo and show up for concerts and be Chet Helms.

It took a year for Hughston to get the hall. Once he did, he spent "hundreds of thousands" remodeling it, and on Oct. 27, 1995, Gregg Allman, one half of the Allman Brothers, opened the Maritime. Helms was there, but, per his arrangement, he hadn't done much to make it happen.

"It's sad to say," says Hughston, "but Chet had almost nothing to do with the beginning of the Maritime."

After about three months of good, if not terribly successful, shows, the working arrangement with Helms shifted.

"Things changed when [Hughston] ... lost a bit of money. It was kind of a back-to-the-wall mentality," says Helms. It was costing Hughston plenty -- $50,000 a month -- just to run the hall. Big name artists wanted exorbitant amounts of money. (Maritime wouldn't release any figures, but sources say that Willie Nelson, who played after Helms left, could get $50,000 just for a night. Posters alone could cost $4,000 a week.)

And, Maritime partner Grant Jacobs says, "It wasn't like we were making a fortune at the door."

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