Looking back in 2002, the Jack Kerouac and Grateful Dead biographer Dennis McNally piquantly described London and San Francisco as the twin psychedelic capitals of the world. In the case of the San Franciscan psychedelic ballroom scene, there were, loosely speaking, two great impresarios, the men who put on the events that distilled the scene's soul though music and multi-media. Chet Helms, Texan (many assumed), hearty, lanky, long-haired and bespectacled, was the counterculture foil to the hard-nosed, highly competitive Holocaust survivor Bill Graham.
The two rose to become the top concert promoters in the San Francisco Bay music scene, notable for hot-housing Big Brother and the Holding Company, Country Joe and the Fish, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane and Quicksilver Messenger Service. Helms provided stages for these and many other, especially grassroots, acts. Graham ultimately outmanoeuvred Helms with his merciless commercial game plan, yet hippies never lost their admiration for a man who put his love of the music before personal profit.
Although Helms went on to run an art gallery and work as a photographer, it will be with the San Franciscan Bay rock scene that his name is indelibly linked. Born in California in 1942, he grew up in Texas, where his mother moved after his father died. Before dropping out of the University of Texas and moving to San Francisco in 1961, Helms had seen an aspiring singer low on self-worth, high on promise, called Janis Joplin. Where locals saw a source of merriment, he saw a voice with potential.
In 1966 it became plain that the band he was managing, Big Brother and the Holding Company (a name stinking of paranoia and caught-in-possession), needed a stronger vocal presence. Helms called on Joplin, still wearing her hair in a bun, and extracted her from her Port Arthur hell for good. (Her earlier attempt to make it in San Francisco had flopped.) She débuted with the group in June 1966.
San Francisco's fabled Summer of Love in 1967 had had a pre-spring. Helms was part of the movement that laid its foundations, eventually operating the Avalon Ballroom on Sutter Street under the trading name of the Family Dog, a loose collective that included Luria Castell, Ellen Harmon, Alton Kelley and Jack Towle. It soon became plain that hippie life style, bread-headism and business-like functionality were incompatible. Helms took over and rewrote the book briefly. The Avalon's philosophic motto went, "May the baby Jesus shut your mouth and open your mind."
"The bands had the real possibility of changing the music business," Bill Belmont, road manager for Country Joe and the Fish, shrewdly put it later,
and they let it slip away. No one ever said, "Let's establish a price based on draw." The bands allowed Graham to dictate what he would pay, and except for Chet Helms there was nowhere else to play. In the early days no one knew what a band was worth.
The Avalon succumbed to business inefficiency and noise complaints, but before it closed in November 1968 Helms put on inspiring bills such as one with Bill Haley and his Comets, Bo Diddley and Big Brother. Helms knew what music was worth artistically. He never developed Bill Graham's ruthlessness or ambition, and left the concert business in 1970.
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