Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Chet Helms 1942-2005

Chet Helms died last month. He was a moving force behind the Summer of Love, many psychedelic bands, Janis Joplin’s manager, Avalon Ballroom and Filmore impresario and so on. My Chet Helms story, by way of Dan Hicks…….

As a brand new teenager, and more than averagely geeky, I was whisked away from Anaheim, California to Reno, Nevada. Friendlessness leads to further geekiness and I took refuge in time-honored geek pastimes like ghost towns, fishing, rock collecting, and the Catholic Church. Reno was still “The Biggest Little City in the World”…..you could still go trout fishing smack in the middle of downtown, and the region was still full of ghost towns, derelict mines, etc.

The best ghost town for us geeks was the silver mining capitol of Virginia City. It was still not yet Disney-ed or Bonanza-ed and there were only a couple of open businesses. One of these was The Bucket of Blood Saloon. Another was the Territorial Enterprise newspaper, which was still owned by Lucius Beebe and still housed the ghost of its former editor, Mark Twain. There were lots of graveyards, lots of abandoned mines, and you could actually get yourself killed without much trouble at all.

In fact, for those in search of evidence of divine interference in worldly things, I offer this: I was the head altar boy for our local church, and got the call for all the big deal masses for the Bishop. I did mass every morning for the cloistered Carmelites, taught Catechism and all that. When the time came, I was the obvious pick to take the test to go to the seminary in Chico. The day of the test we had an unprecedented three-foot snowfall and all the passes through the Sierra were closed. On the day of the make-up exam, the son of the mayor of Reno and some buddies got in an ore-car in Virginia City and went careening down the tracks in an old mine. Ooops. No OSHA yet, and the boys fell a couple thousand feet down a shaft. Result: Solemn High Requiem Mass with the Bishop…..and I missed the test. I figure God must have killed those kids just to keep me out of the collar. And, in all that time with all those priests, none of them ever grabbed my ass or offered me Jesus Juice. I am almost insulted.

Anyway…….Lucius Beebe was a nut: a more or less openly gay man in the first half of the last century. He was a Yale and Harvard guy, a gourmet, and a newspaper columnist in New York and San Francisco who restored elegant railroad dining cars for fun. His column in the Chronicle was called “This Wild West”. I can only imagine. Anyway, at the start of the San Francisco rock scene, there was a strong Stanford/literary connection. Ken Kesey was at Stanford, Jerry Garcia as well. Chet Helms was a friend to both and leader of this weird commune/band called The Family Dog. Somehow, Beebe and Chet Helms hooked up, and for reasons that probably involved recreational drugs in some way, Chet Helms and The Family Dog wound up as the proud proprietors of The Bucket of Blood Saloon in Virginia City.

There weren’t hippies yet, but there was definitely LSD, and the newcomers did not blend in real well. There was more than a little friction. Still, everyone tried……the Family and the locals. The Dog fixed up the old relic, put in a player piano, and like that. In the saloon, all the girls dressed as dance hall girls, and the bartenders wore old fashioned shirts, vests and garters.

On opening day, the locals and tourists all turned out. The town marshal came in due course to check on things. He walked up to Chet at the bar, removed his gun belt and said to Chet: “Check my weapon, barkeep?”

Chet squinted down at the pistol through heavily dialated pupils, and looked up at the marshal. Chet shrugged, pulled out the pistol, and fired two shots through the ceiling.

Chet handed back the gun and holster.

“Works fine, Marshal!”

Maitre d’ Hall of Fame, for sure.

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