Stomping on Chet Helms


Back in the day, as the current catchword runs, I used to hang with a pal named Chet Helms. In the late Sixties he threw some of the best dance parties ever, and he grew famous, at least to some of my generation.

Chet died of a stroke last summer. He was 63, like me. His friends threw a party for him in Golden Gate Park a few weeks ago. I couldn’t make it for transcontinental reasons so I asked our San Francisco correspondent, Gary Parma, to go have a look. Here’s his report:

“OK man, here is the actual man in the crowd view of Chet Helms day at Speedway Meadows. It was a clear sunny day, with enough fluffy, pristine clouds to highlight the royal blue sky. Occasionally a caressing breeze blew in from the west (stage) to freshen us in the toasty, afternoon California sun. Since I had taken Creative Writing just before meeting Chet I think it best to use adjectives like lugubrious, importunate and ubiquitous all over this letter so you’ll feel the mournful tone of the day.

I parked at the bison paddock. They, at least, seemed unchanged since back in the day. I walked back to Speedway Meadows and started hearing Freedom Highway from more than a mile away. You remember them Chris, their most famous song goes…bha da bum, bha da bum, ka chung, ka chung on a howling lead guitar while the singer repeats “I wanna git ya, I wanna make luv to you, I wanna git ya etc. etc.” I bet our posters would list them as an opener for Sam The Sham or 13th Floor Elevator.
Approaching the crowd, I was seriously struck by how many corporate logos were in evidence. Computer corporations, imported beer corporations, Nike and other apparel corporations all proclaiming the counter culture had succumbed. There is no longer, nor has there been for a long while, an overarching affiliation of “f*** the mainstream thinking on housing, transportation and relationships or God and man and war.”
Though the war at least was roundly rejected by several booths and, objectively speaking, about 20,000 of us at the event. I expected to hear “How do you spell Gulf of Tonkin? W.M.D.!” from the stage, but I was too late for Country Joe.

A guy on a cell headset said “…and there’s really a lot of old hippies here.”

As Blue Cheer played I remembered a late night in the Haight-Asbury of ’65 when a friend took me to hear an important band rehearsing on the 3rd floor, all stairs packed body to body, only cool people allowed in band’s apartment wherein they ululated and thrashed at max volume while people like me knew this was serious and apartment doors were opened so thunder claps of Rock & Roll, punctuated with what sounded like a train crash from a Zola novel, serenaded us till the cool people closed the apartment door and word was passed body to body that we should leave ’cause they were going to “work on some songs.”
But here in Golden Gate Park I saw them again while a placid 10 foot floral goddess, a nondescript 8 foot swan and a silly 8 foot flamingo swayed and danced and compelled us to smile. “Enjoy the here and now” I felt them exude as they wove gracefully through the crowd.

Although I bobbled my head like a rock fan all afternoon, Paul Kantner’s group had the best musicianship in evidence. His guitarist and two “chick” singers really were good. One of the girl singers liked Paul a lot and caressed and kissed him in between her doo wop phrases and before and after the songs.

It made sense to me. The whole afternoon felt brimming with meaning. I am still loving my neighbor, I do want to conduct my affairs in a moral manner. What the world needs now is kindness.”

Thanks, Parm. I think I’m glad I missed the big Tribal Stomp. Chet’s gone and Nike is dancing on his grave. Yet we’re the ones buying their hundred fifty dollar sneaks. For another perspective, here’s Joel Selvin’s report, as published in the SF Chronicle October 31.

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One thought on “Stomping on Chet Helms

  1. Hi Chris, This is an interesting piece you put together as a memorial to your friend Chet Helms. I appreciated reading Gary Parma’s article with the added links, as well as the link to Joe Selvin’s report in the SF Chronicle. The photo link viewed for those interested the contrast in appearance between Chet as a younger visionary, to the more elderly gentleman art dealer.In my own youth a quieter musical focus than yours was on mood singers like Sarah Vaughn, Billy Eckstein, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald with the JATP. And they’ve all passed on. Time moves along with its seasons of sunshine and reflection.Gary

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