The fog clouded over the empty soccer fields at the west end of Golden Gate Park in a thick gray mass as Chet Helms attached a tiny microphone to his lapel. A CNN reporter in expensive shoes and a sharp charcoal suit studied a short list of questions while his partner steadied the camera on his shoulder. Helms carefully looked at the reporter, not the camera itself.
“What was that Summer of Love thing all about?” the reporter asked.
Helms answered the question the same way he's answered its variants hundreds of times. He talked about the 1967 Council for the Summer of Love, the Diggers, the Oracle, the Family Dog, the Be-In. He fiddled with his beard and tried to keep his straw hat from blowing away.
Helms, 55, gestured to the field behind him. He told the reporter about the Summer of Love 30-year celebration planned for October, when he expects 40,000 to 50,000 people to blanket the grass for a “consciousness-raising event” — in more pedestrian terms, a daylong rock concert. For 12 more minutes Helms tried to explain the event's imperative. He talked about the poverty line, the prisons-to-schools ratio in California, and other weighty issues. He wouldn't say who would perform, but he injected big-name endorsements from Paul and Linda McCartney and Steve Miller into the pitch.
When Helms finished, the reporter thanked him for his time and left in a red four-wheel drive, on his way to Half Moon Bay for an interview with the circus. Helms drove the same ailing tan Audi coupe he's driven for 17 years to his modest downtown art gallery for an afternoon of meetings and more interviews.
The television spot, generalized into nostalgia and stripped of news, aired five days later on CNN Showbiz Today, between a piece about a Times Square Disney parade for the animated movie Hercules and a report that Speed 2 reaped the most money at the nation's box offices on its opening weekend. The producers gave Chet Helms' talking head precisely 40 words. Of the “consciousness-raising event” there was no mention.
That the most omnipresent news source in the world ignored nine months of preparation for a celebration of what Helms considers a landmark event in American history might seem like a tough personal blow. But Chet Helms is used to such affront.
Thirty years ago, Helms' carefree style and proclamations of cultural renaissance made him the most charming hippie in San Francisco. He ran the Avalon Ballroom — one of the twin pinnacles of the Summer of Love — as if it were his own living room. His taste in music and his open-minded booking policy established him as one of the most connected and inventive players in the San Francisco music scene. Everyone loved Chet Helms.
Back then, everyone thought Helms wanted to be a hippie, not a businessman. To some extent it was true: Helms hoped to build a place to make drama, theater, community, and love; a place to work with and motivate others. To do those things, Helms knew he needed to create a space where people could grow. He did that with the Avalon, but his lack of business experience eventually killed the venue — and the drama, and theater, and community.
Helms tried to return to the culture business a few more times; each venture failed more pathetically than the first. Today, after 30 years of stupid business moves and incredible financial failure, only the love is left.
Way back in 1966, Chet Helms would dance like an ecstatic preacher in the middle of his Avalon Ballroom. Helms looked like any other stoned hippie in the joint, but he was actually the man desperately trying to make the Avalon work and even expand.
Over in the corner there'd be some lumbering blues band pumping out 126 decibels for Helms' spins and twists. Like all good dancers he exuded confidence. People watched him twirl, his long, blond hair flopping up and down and slapping at his waist. Sometimes they'd begin to dance. If he could get them going the sprung wooden floor would bounce back at them, elevating them, bringing them closer to God. This was important to Helms, a man who once wanted to be a missionary, but who accidentally ended up in rock 'n' roll.
Helms believed in dancing so much that every night he would let in 60 people for free. He expected those people to dance. They would teach the teen-agers who sat on the couches along the wall with $3 matchboxes of pot how to dance. At least that is what Helms thought, but it's not clear that everyone understood. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Philip Elwood once stopped by the ballroom at the corner of Van Ness and Sutter and wrote that there was no one at the top of the stairs to collect tickets — from anyone. Rich kids from Marin would tell Helms they had no money, and he would let them in for free sometimes.
Across town at the Fillmore auditorium, budding rock impresario Bill Graham didn't think much of the stoned and unscrubbed. He'd actually stand in the middle of a room full of people and scream, “I'm not a hippie.” Graham didn't care if anyone danced at his Fillmore. He only wanted to make sure that everyone paid for his — or her — ticket.
There is a tendency to simplify the past, to turn history into melodrama. In 1997, 30 years after the Summer of Love, Chet Helms gets the good-guy role and Bill Graham remains the villain. Graham, ever the businessman, got rich selling hippie culture. Helms ended up with hepatitis C, a heart condition, and a stack of hospital bills. It's fashionable, especially in San Francisco, to hate a winner. But melodrama relies on ignoring large sections of truth.
The truth is Helms wanted to succeed. And to some extent, he believes he did. “The reality of it is that I sustained a business that employed 20 to 40 people for six or seven years straight,” says Helms of his Avalon years and subsequent tenure at another dance hall out on the Great Highway. “I didn't have the same business background as Graham did. I basically was not so much of a bottom-liner. But there were other things that were as important.” [page]
Helms wanted to help create a parallel civilization that would allow the Avalon to prosper alongside the Fillmore. In Helms' world, people would come first, business second. He and his comrades would build a new society.
Helms didn't prepare for what might happen if his grand plan cracked. What if everyone was too stoned to dance? What if Bill Graham capitalized on every innovation the Avalon ever made? What if Helms ended up running a downtown art gallery, and CNN didn't care enough about hippie values to give them more than 10 seconds of air time? What would he say then?
Would he say something as heartfelt and idealistic and naively self-absorbed as the '60s themselves?
“I think I did the things that I wanted to do,” he says now. “How many people can say that they had a part in changing the world? I was part of a core of 100 people who had a profound impact on the later half of the 20th century.”
It was an accident that Helms found out people would pay him money to watch rock 'n' roll. He was looking for another kind of accident; in fact what he was looking for was nothing short of osmosis. Infatuated by the Beatles, particularly by the political content of their lyrics, Helms started bumming around with a bunch of musicians in the basement ballroom of 1090 Page St. It was 1965. “Part of my illusion was that if I would hang out with musicians it would rub off,” says Helms.
It didn't work.
The casual jam sessions, glowing with the film stock avant-garde director Bruce Conner projected onto the walls, were beginning to attract people to the ballroom. The room could hold 300, but soon there were many more than that, all with weed and wine, and most were underage. Helms thought he could discourage them from coming by charging 50 cents apiece. That move filled the place to capacity.
Two things resulted from the jam sessions. First, all of the guys who could actually play their instruments banded into Big Brother & the Holding Company. Helms became their manager, and eventually hooked them up with Janis Joplin, an old friend from Texas, whom he'd met years before when the two of them hung out in the same beatnik-wannabe crowd at the University of Texas in Austin. Second, four roommates got an idea to produce concerts from the jam sessions.
They called themselves the Family Dog, because of all the mutts running around their communal home. They were looking for a business opportunity, and after scrapping an idea to start a pet cemetery, the foursome decided they'd try to promote a concert at the Longshoremen's Hall. They'd seen 1090 Page, so they knew it could be done.
After three shows that were critical (but not financial) successes, the Family Dog ran out of money. Unaware of this fact, Helms and his best friend, John Carpenter, manager of the Grace Slick-fronted psychedelic band the Great Society, asked Family Dog member Luria Castell to book their bands at the next Family Dog show. She gave it to them straight: She didn't have the money to pay the deposit on the hall. Helms thought a gig would be worth his cash and gave her $250 — his “life savings” — and told her to book the hall. A few weeks later, Castell was gone — with Helms' money. She'd fled to Mexico and left him some old furniture in place of the cash.
A few weeks later, Helms was at a benefit for the San Francisco Mime Troupe organized by Bill Graham. Graham managed the Mime Troupe at the time and was trying to raise money to help the political theater group pay legal fees related to performing in a public park without the proper permits. He'd thrown a benefit before, but this was the first at the Fillmore, a place two of the Family Dog folks had told him was available. The rent: $65 a night, or $500 a month.
Helms told Graham about the $250 expropriated by the Family Dog. He said Big Brother would play at an upcoming Mime Troupe benefit — just for the exposure. He knew a couple of bands from out of town who might play for Graham, as well. At the time, Graham was mulling the idea of taking the monthlong lease at the Fillmore. He made a handshake deal with the two hippies to book alternate weekends at the hall. Graham wanted to know the name of their company. Helms' answer was an odd one. “Family Dog, I guess,” he said.
In 2 1/2 months, Helms' Family Dog produced only four shows at the Fillmore. After the third, however, Graham made one of the best business moves of his life — he stole Paul Butterfield from Chet Helms. (Graham's repugnant behavior is described both in his excellent autobiography and by music critic Joel Selvin in his book Summer of Love.)
Helms and Carpenter knew that the seasoned players of Chicago's Paul Butterfield Blues Band would befuddle California audiences weaned on largely inept local bands. But Graham couldn't believe they were going to pay the then-princely sum of $2,500 to book a group that he had never heard of and that had sold only 200 albums in the entire state.
Finally, though, Graham acquiesced, and a week before the concert Helms and Carpenter decided they'd go down to Los Angeles to watch Butterfield in a small jazz club. Helms, Carpenter, and the bartender turned out to be the entire audience. Helms freaked out. [page]
He and Carpenter spent the rest of the week on the phone, pausing occasionally to pass out posters and handbills. They worked so hard they rarely slept. They'd call everyone they knew and tell them to call the people they knew.
“Are you going to Paul Butterfield?” they'd ask.
“Who's Paul Butterfield?” was the us-ual reply.
“You don't know who Paul Butterfield is?” Helms would ask back.
For no good reason whatsoever, the phone tree worked. Butterfield drew 7,500 people through the Fillmore over three nights. The money was incredible. Very early the Monday morning after the last of the three shows, Graham woke, got on the phone with Albert Grossman, Paul Butterfield's sleazy New York manager, and made an exclusive deal: When Butterfield wanted to come back to San Francisco, he would play for Graham.
And Graham alone.
From that point forward, Graham loved to prattle on about getting up early in the morning. “I get up early,” Graham loved to offer as a primary explanation for his business success.
Even after going behind Helms' back, Graham didn't ditch the partners — he still had too much to learn. He gave them one more show. “Frankly, he was about 10 years older than John or I, and he wasn't in touch with the people or the bands,” says Helms. “They were our age. They were our peers. They were the guys we partied with, and that we hung with. He really wasn't connected with that. We brought the people, and we brought the bands to him.”
Graham fired the two after their fourth show. His reason: The partners were using his thumbtacks and Scotch tape, rather than their own materials, to hang posters inside the Fillmore. Helms didn't have much to say. He didn't have a lease or a contract. Sure, he was outraged, but more precisely he was nervous. A band called the Blues Project was flying out from New York to play a show for them in 10 days. Helms needed a venue. In a scramble, he talked the owner of the Avalon Ballroom into allowing a few shows there. The Blues Project opened the Avalon on April 22, 1966.
In short time, the Avalon would become the venue in San Francisco, hipper, more street, more “esoteric” than the Fillmore. Helms oversaw most of its development, and he made innovations that Graham would imitate, innovations that would make Graham — but not Helms — rich.
Helms believed in theater and ceremony. At the Avalon, entire circuses of light — created at first by light artist Bill Ham, and then carried on by a dozen rotating artists — swirled around the room, transforming the space into something breathing and otherworldly. Up in the balcony was a puppet show of dancing marionettes. For Helms, the whole happening was a collective religious experience, with sacrament (LSD, marijuana), ritual (two-set schedules), sanctuary (a hall without beefy security guards), and drama (light shows, dance, music, performance).
There were other embellishments that made the Avalon special. Every show had its own full-color collectible art poster, cranked out by one of Helms' free-lance artists. The Avalon's sound was fantastic — the monitor, a speaker that points at musicians so they can hear themselves and each other, was invented there. The scene, chummy and full of friends, was just plain better than the Fillmore's.
Allen Cohen, then the publisher of the Oracle, a Haight Street psychedelic newspaper, says Avalon performances weren't merely concerts or dances. “It was more like a ritual transcendence.”
And, says Julius Karpen, who managed Big Brother after Helms left, “The scene lived and breathed, and Chet was in the center of it.”
By the next year, Helms had built the Avalon into a shrine of hippiedom. Kids showed up literally by the thousands. Journalists chronicling the Summer of Love made perfunctory stops at Helms' club. At times, Helms used the opportunity to trumpet his message to the media. He figured that if he talked like the straight reporters, he might get them to recognize what he considered a renaissance.
But writer Joan Didion visited the Avalon and torched Helms in her Saturday Evening Post article “Slouching Towards Bethlehem.” The epic-length essay claimed that the social strife of the 1960s had led to the “social hemorrhaging” that afflicted hippie kids and teen-age druggies in the Haight-Ashbury. She didn't blame Helms for any of those social ills, but in fewer than 500 words she painted him as more concerned about the billions of dollars that people under 25 would be spending than about the young people themselves.
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. [page]
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.
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. [page]
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.
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.” [page]
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.”
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. [page]
“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.
To have created and squandered opportunity, formed and crashed companies, turned looming victory to sudden business defeat on a heroic scale — to have repeatedly sought the business success scorned by his generation's vision of virtue, and to have repeatedly failed to achieve that success, because of too strong a belief in the vision — may be Helms' ambiguous legacy. It may be a legacy absolutely fitting of his enormously ambivalent generation.
But none of his contemporaries seems to blame him for any of the failures that pockmark his career in music promotion, perhaps because, on one level or another, all of those contemporaries, for some period of time, to a greater or lesser degree, believed in the people-first, business-second ethic that led Helms on his own trip.
The ultimate judgments of those who've known him best are, therefore, as gentle as evening fog on a windless night.
“Chet is really remarkable. He's very calming,” says Queenie Taylor. “Whether that is good for business, who knows.”
“I just think that Chet is a person that I like. Chet is still among us. He is a very capable keeper of the light. He is a person of very high integrity,” says Herbie Herbert. “He could just make a buck instead of doing something for the Love Generation, but he's out there making love.”
“If Chet had the money, I'd work for him,” says Pete Slauson, the man who recorded Tribal Stomp to no eventual business purpose. “The situation would be unique. Only Chet can do it. The guy's sat there with George Harrison and the Beatles, and he knows them all. He created a great space. There was nothing to compare to the Avalon.
“No one else can create that kind of spirit.