Chet Helms died late yesterday, a couple days after he had a stroke. Helms, who was 62, had a hand in shaping the San Francisco music of the 1960s that still informs much of what I am, musically and otherwise.
Helms was the “leader,” if there really was one, of the Family Dog, a group of hippies that, among other things, worked to bring music to the Bay area community starting in 1965, when the Dog held its first dances at the SF Longshoreman’s Hall. Helms and the Dog moved on to the original Fillmore Auditorium in 1966, which they shared, on alternating weekends, with Bill Graham, who found his calling in the Bay area at about the same time.
Helms wanted to escape from Graham, and the Dog opened and ran the Avalon Ballroom from 1966 until it went bankrupt two years later. From there, the Dog eventually pulled out and headed to Denver, while Helms gave it another shot at other San Francisco venues.
There were other things. Chet had a hand in organizing the Monterey Pop Festival and the Human Be-In, a couple of hallmarks of the Summer of Love. And perhaps the biggest thing was introducing Janis Joplin, whom he had met back in their home state of Texas, to the guys in Big Brother and the Holding Company, which was the unofficial house band of the Avalon. With Big Brother — at least initially — Janis became one of the brightest individual stars of the era, first in the Bay area and then internationally, until she died in 1970.
Like a lot of the best things about the Sixties, the vision of Helms and the Family Dog didn’t quite work — idealism wasn’t quite enough to, in this case, compete with Bill Graham, who closed the original Fillmore and moved it into the larger Carousel Ballroom, which he took over from another group of hippies you might have heard of: The Dead and Jefferson Airplane. That move came at about the same time Graham took over an old theater in the village in New York, which became the Fillmore East; the Carousel became the Fillmore West.
Neither the Dog nor the joint Dead/Airplane effort could unseat Graham, although they tried mightily. But the competition did make Uncle Bobo work a little bit harder, both for the favor of the bands and that of the audiences that filled all the SF venues, from the first Fillmore to Winterland to the Warfield and, again, the Fillmore today. Graham’s company, Bill Graham Presents, became rock ‘n’ roll promotion, and it still is a player today, despite the weed-like growth of Clear Channel into the live music world.
An accountant would say that the Avalon was a failure, but an accountant isn’t looking at the intangibles. The Family Dog accomplished a lot, not just in terms of music but in terms of establishing a community. The Dog, and Helms specifically, defined that part of our history. Monterey, the Be-In, and the countless commando festivals and free shows brought people together when the Haight was starting to be overrun. That was the kind of thing that made SF, if only for a short time, something more than just a city, and Chet Helms was at its swirling, hazy center.