Chet Helms Big Brother and the Family Dog

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

"Without Chet, there would be no Grateful Dead, no Big Brother and the Holding Company, no Jefferson Airplane, no Country Joe and the Fish, no Quicksilver Messenger Service," said Barry Melton, lead guitarist for Country Joe and the Fish, in his eulogy for Chet Helms.

  He gave us our first gigs and our first home," said Sam Andrew, guitarist for Big Brother and the Holding Company. "He was the real Big Brother, the real spirit behind this whole thing that we have spent our lives doing."

  The founder of the Family Dog collective and the father of the "Summer of Love" of 1967, Helms died on June 26, 2005 at 62 years of age.

Before the Psychedelic Dawn

  Helms was the oldest of three brothers. Raised in the Southwest Missouri Ozarks, he attended seventh and eighth grades in Cassville before his mother, a school teacher moved the family to Austin, Tex.

  Helms first arrived in San Francisco in the early 60s. Originally interested in the poetry scene, he noticed the prolific energies of musicians on the streets. Seeing the need for a gathering place, Helms opened his basement at 2125 Pine to musicians. Both the Family Dog collective and Big Brother and the Holding Company originated there.

  After Helms saw Wes Wilson's work, most notably Wilson's "Are We Next" poster, Helms hired Wilson to design his wedding announcements and handbills for early Family Dog events. After the success of the Trips Festival in January of '66, Helms hired Wilson to produce posters for weekly shows and dances produced by the Family Dog, first at the Fillmore Auditorium, and later at the Avalon Ballroom. Helms also hired Wilson to produce the Family Dog logo.

  In 1963, Helms had gone back to Austin and talked his friend Janis Joplin into hitchhiking to San Francisco with him, where he was convinced he could help promote her music. Joplin first played onstage with Big Brother and the Holding Company on June 10, 1966 at the Avalon.

Sunrise in 'Psychedelphia"

  Early in the era of the psychedelic poster, poster art was readily available and usually given away to almost anyone. It didn't take long for Helms to recognize the posters were being appreciated as works of art:

  It was very disconcerting to poster a whole street and then walk back a few minutes later and discover that 90 percent had been removed," said Helms in Paul Grushkins The Art of Rock. "But I soon learned that a stolen poster carried home and pasted on the refrigerator reached the audience I wanted.

  Helms emphasized the importance in psychedelic poster art of gestalt, figure-ground reversals, and the juxtapositioning of opposite colors.

  The values of the emerging culture were conveyed through verbal and visual double entendre, sexual innuendo, drug innuendo, and sometimes by merely placing two images near each other ... allowing the viewer to draw his own conclusions. In this way, the unspoken was spoken, forbidden topics were discussed, suppressed feelings held in common were acknowledged.

The Summer of Love

  The revolution triggered a great migration of young people to San Francisco. After the Human Be-in in January attracted 35,000 people who learned of the event by word of mouth, Helms realized that when schools let out in the spring of '67, San Francisco would be inundated. He organized the original Council for the Summer of Love "to mitigate the some of the problems which would predictably attend this population explosion."

  The Council formed alliances with the churches and clinics in the Haight-Ashbury; it supported the efforts of the Huckleberry House for Runaways and efforts to feed people and provide shelter; it produced free art and music events that served as focal points and kept young people from simply hanging out on Haight street.  

  We may not have accomplished all that we set out to do, but the situation would have been much worse without us. We sowed the seeds of a compassionate idealsim which still lives in the hearts of many of our own and subsequent generations.

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