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Unspun 

Wednesday, Sep 10 1997
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Fall of the House of Love
Reality is catching up with decent but financially hapless Summer of Love promoter Chet Helms so quickly that even the usually warm, safe, and fuzzy San Francisco Focus skewered him in its September issue.

The magazine's cover story -- "the ultimate guide for Bay Area canines and their best friends," complete with a lovable dog's mug to illustrate it -- was standard Focus fare.

But Helms didn't get off so easily in a 2,000-plus-word story by Gina Arnold, who's been writing about pop music for almost as long as Helms has been trying to keep the '60s alive. Arnold doesn't have a reputation as an investigative reporter, but she only needed to visit Helms' 30th anniversary of the Summer of Love fund-raiser to find evidence that his ambitious plans have little foundation in reality.

Starting with a doctored tape that has the late Bill Graham introducing Helms as "the Charles Atlas of the psychedelic set" (in reality, Graham had been talking about the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia) and ending with the meager audience's tepid response, monetary and otherwise, the scene is dismal.

Under questioning from Arnold, Helms' plans for his Oct. 12 concert all but evaporate. The political leaders and bands he's supposedly asked to address the gathering either have yet to confirm or are poor draws -- or both. One big-name act he tosses out as a possible performer is already booked elsewhere, Arnold notes. The concert, she concludes, is "an insubstantial pageant." Later in the story she writes that "in the end it will be nothing more than an echo of a bygone era."

Arnold's story appeared a few weeks after Jeff Stark's exhaustive examination of Helms' history of failure in SF Weekly's Aug. 13 issue

(headlined, like Arnold's story, "The Fall of Love").
The backlash against overromanticizing the era Helms is trying to promote has extended even to the daily press. But Helms still has one firm media ally in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which is a sponsor of his event and put Helms and his festival on its June 18 cover. In the accompanying story, Senior Editor Ron Curran described Helms as "equal parts freaky intellectual and grizzled sage." Curran duly quoted Helms saying the "response to Summer of Love '97 has been excellent from all over the world." (!) And "festival organizers say the run-up ... has been overwhelmingly positive,"Curran reported.

Curran apparently continues to feel protective of Helms. In his Aug. 20 media column, Curran let Helms complain that Stark's story made him feel bad. Curran then asserted, without providing details or substantiation, that Stark had made numerous errors in the piece. Curran did not feel obligated to give Stark -- or anyone else at SF Weekly -- a chance to respond to that serious charge.

Reached early this week, Curran said he couldn't recall all the errors. He said that one source in Stark's story denied having told Stark something, but that person was never quoted on that subject in the story. Curran said that he had given Stark a chance to respond by calling him a number of times. Stark says he never heard from Curran on his home or office answering machine.

Curran said that he asked SF Weekly Editor John Mecklin about the mistakes in the conversation they had, which he quoted in his column. "It was my recollection that I detailed the errors," Curran said.

"That's complete bullshit," Mecklin said in response. Mecklin confirmed that he spoke with Curran, but the subject of factual errors in Stark's story never was raised, directly or indirectly, Mecklin said.

Unfortunately, there is time aplenty for more fawning stories on the Summer of Love before Helms' concert takes place. As an antidote to the overdoses of nostalgia likely to be published in coming weeks, Unspun recommends an essay by Cookie Mueller, a free spirit and scenemonger who landed in the Haight that summer of '67, at the age of 19, and who captured the everyday seediness -- and charm -- of that overglorified time.

Mueller gained her first minor fame as an actress in John Waters' early movies in the late '60s; she went on to chronicle the downtown New York art/drug/club scene for fringe publications; she died of AIDS in 1989.

In her short essay -- called, simply, "Haight-Ashbury -- San Francisco, 1967" -- Mueller explains that she was co-inhabiting a five-room flat with 11 people that summer. (Incidentally, the essay appears in the recently reissued collection of her writings, Ask Dr. Mueller, from High Risk Books.)

The flat shared a "dismal cement courtyard" with the building where Janis Joplin was living. "On some mornings I could see her rattling her pots and pans in her kitchen. Sometimes we'd talk across the concrete abyss like housewives."

One morning, Mueller goes off on a stroll and encounters a group of teen-age girls who invite her to get stoned with them and travel up and down the coast with "Charlie."

Mueller smokes their dope, but turns down the trip. "[T]hese people were weaned into peace and free love straight from their parents' Wonderbread and Cheese Doodles, so they were disgustingly enthusiastic."

Many years later, as she reads The Family, a book about Charles Manson, Mueller realizes that she had almost joined up with Squeaky Fromme, Susan Atkins, and Mary Brunner.

"I just missed meeting Charles Manson by five minutes."

The Dead Zones
On Labor Day, some three weeks after the San Francisco Chronicle launched its East Bay and Contra Costa zoned editions, Managing Editor Jerry Roberts addressed his suburban readers with a "Reader's Guide to Local News." (His note also ran in the older Peninsula edition, which was expanded at the same time.) Like the editions themselves, Roberts' message sounded tentative and canned.

Roberts boasted that the paper had "made a major financial commitment to local news" by hiring more staffers and adding more space in the paper. But many of the staffers are two-year, provisional hires, paid below standard rate. And the added space is not guaranteed. It is, Roberts writes, "as much as 1 1/2 pages per day of extra space." And as little as? Roberts doesn't say.

The changes come in the face of the Chron's long-term loss of circulation in the suburbs in the East Bay. The Chron's main competition comes from Knight-Ridder's six-paper Contra Costa Newspapers Inc. in the East Bay and the San Jose Mercury News on the Peninsula, also owned by Knight-Ridder.

Each Chronicle zoned edition is to have its own local columnist, three days a week. But they all weren't in place when the new editions were launched. Each edition also has a new weekly Friday pullout, lamely named the "Special." Most of it is local listings lifted from the upcoming Sunday pink section, local sports coverage, and two or three soft features.

The dimmest of the Friday Special's offerings is "The Commuter Triangle," a question-and-answer column, which runs nearly identical dense and useless questions and answers in all three editions -- so much for local angles. (Sample question: "[I]f it's not rush hour, I sometimes have to wait 20 minutes for a train. Why doesn't BART run more trains out of Richmond?")

As for the "expanded" East Bay and local coverage the rest of the week, it con-sists mainly of pretty boxes around stories that are often retreads from the Contra Costa papers.

Like Tip O'Neill's old saw about politics, all news is local, ultimately. But the Chron's version of local East Bay news, like Roberts' "reader's guide," is formulaic and tired.

Phyllis Orrick can be reached at SF Weekly, Attn: Unspun, 185 Berry, Lobby 4, Suite 3800, San Francisco, CA 94107; phone: 536-8139; e-mail: porrick@sfweekly.com.

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Phyllis Orrick

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