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.

Hughston booked additional shows to spread out the fixed costs -- utilities, for example -- of running the hall. Helms disagreed with the theory: If Hughston ran several shows a week, he thought, not all of them could be special events -- which is to say, Family Dog events. Hughston told Helms it was all about money.

"He wanted to change a lot of things that were -- to me -- quintessential attributes of Family Dog shows," says Helms. Helms wanted an immersive light show; the operators had to be in the room, engaged in the show. Hughston wanted to put them in a control room on another floor and have the light show pumped into the space by video projector.

"Boots was taking care of the business. That was not Chet's primary concern," says Queenie Taylor, a local event producer who booked a few of the early Maritime shows. "I don't think that Boots completely shared [Chet's] vision, and that's why they are not working together. That vision can be unprofitable."

But Hughston wasn't the only one with money concerns. The Maritime took a bath with one of Hughston's bookings, Richie Havens and Mose Allison, two acts that Helms also loved but knew wouldn't draw. "Those were idols of Boots' and I think that's the temptation when anyone gets involved in promotions," Helms says. "That's not always the most realistic business thing to do."

Helms also thought Hughston was heavily overpaying -- by as much as $5,000 or $10,000 -- for some concerts.

There were other silly mistakes, like Hughston announcing performances before he confirmed the bands that were to play them. Neither the Counting Crows nor Tracy Chapman ever played the Maritime -- even though Hughston had said they would.

Then there were operational concerns. Hughston didn't want to have staff meetings. Helms wanted to hear what everybody had to say on any given issue.

"Chet is about a vibe. He's got the Zen Buddhist approach. Boots is the antithesis: He is a control freak," says Herbie Herbert, who worked in the music industry for 25 years and now fronts the Sy Klopps Blues Band. "He's such a little tyrant, such a little fascist."

Meanwhile, although the Maritime wasn't faring well, Hughston and his financial partners were recording and digitally videotaping every band that performed, with the idea of marketing live CDs and videotapes. Helms, who was originally supposed to receive a percentage of the Maritime's monthly net profits with a minimum $1,200 guarantee, worried that the venue would sink all net profits into this new business venture -- and Helms would, therefore, always receive a percentage of nothing.

"That's how it happens in the movie business," he says. "You achieve a surplus, and you seed a new project with it, and if those projects are cross-collateralized, you never see a net."

Helms wanted Hughston to separate these projects instead of lumping them together, and threatened a lawsuit in May 1996. Hughston was offended.

"We came to divergent views about how it should be run," says Helms. "As it began to go down the tubes, I wanted to get more and more involved, because I thought he was changing the basic formula that people had appreciated and expected from the Family Dog."

But not everyone believed Hughston was the bad guy that Helms was making him out to be. Nick Gravenites, a musician and songwriter, says Hughston is hardheaded but honest. "If something is wrong or not fair, he will not budge. If the deal isn't right, he's a real levelheaded business man," Gravenites says.

After 25 shows in seven months, Hughston decided he'd had enough of Helms' demands and gave him a 30-day notice. Helms didn't waste a minute. He called a press conference on May 3 of last year to announce that he was leaving the Maritime, taking the Family Dog logo, and demanding $3,600 for three months of his guarantee he said Hughston still owed him.

At first, Hughston thought that losing the logo might hurt his still-young nightclub, but he says it actually helped business. "That logo brought a lot of stigma from the industry. People thought it was a bunch of hippies. There were agents who didn't want to be involved."

The split between Helms and Hughston trapped a few friends in the middle, but only temporarily. The Maritime had revitalized Jim Phillips' career. An artist who hadn't worked in rock 'n' roll in almost a decade, Phillips became the art director when the Maritime opened. Helms' departure was excruciating for him.

"It tore me in half," says Phillips, who quit the Maritime, but eventually returned. "I was Chet's art director, but Boots picked me to do the first poster. I've tried to be loyal to the people who have helped me, [but with Helms] there's not a real plan in place for the future."

"Chet was kind of going behind Boots' back and trying to pull people out of there," says Tony Urrea, Helms' old friend and former limo driver. "Chet maybe wanted me to leave the place -- he said 'I know you want to stay.' "

Urrea, who loved Helms like a brother, loved Hughston's ideas. He stayed.
In the wake of the Maritime split-up, two decades past Tribal Stomp, half a lifetime after the Avalon gave teen-agers a summer and a culture and a ballroom to call their own, no one wants to say anything very harsh about Chet Helms.

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