Chet Helms On Bringing Janis Joplin to S.F., Starting Music Scene [1998 Q&A]

Chet Helms (L) with members of Big Brother and the Holding Company (Photo: Courtesy of PBS)

Chet Helms, who died in 2005, has the honorable legacy of being the man who helped start Janis Joplin's singing career. The first manager of Big Brother & the Holding Company, Helms was the one who not only suggested that Joplin join the group, he even drove to Texas to pick her up.

As you'll see in this 1998 interview conducted by Ben Manilla Productions, Helms was an ideologue, and his strong beliefs explain why he became such a catalyst at the start of San Francisco's psychedelic music scene -- he would go on to co-found the concert production company the Family Dog, and later be described by the San Francisco Chronicle as "a towering figure in the 1960s Bay Area music scene." In this interview, Helms goes into great detail about his early days with Janis Joplin, about his first experiences seeing her sing, and about bringing her into Big Brother & the Holding Company, the band he managed.

Note: Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired you to bring Janis Joplin into the group? How did that come about?

I had dropped out of the University of Texas in 1962, and I hitchhiked back and forth between the east coast and San Francisco a couple of times in that year. We'd go through Austin. On one of these occasions, I met Janis there at a place called the Ghetto, where all the "beatniks" from the University of Texas were. It was a very low-rent, barracks-like building -- no amenities, really. A lot of red wine parties, peyote parties, crash-on-the-floor parties, and a more sexually libertine group of people in the general populace at the University of Texas. I met Janis there.

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I had heard her sing. At that time, I would note that her manner of delivery was totally a different one. She needed to be intoxicated to sing at all at that time. I mean, just nerves, shyness, introversion, or whatever. She just wouldn't sing unless she had a few belts in her. Then, she would stand very rigidly. Either someone else would accompany her, or with no accompaniment, more commonly, she would just stand there, perfectly rigid, and just belt these country blues songs.

For a few moments when I heard Janis, it raised the hair on the back of my neck. It was some core feeling that this person could provoke in me, it almost felt out of control on my part: Here's someone who can have this effect on me.

I was very impressed with her. On that occasion, I hitchhiked on to the east coast. I came back several months later on my way back to the coast, hanging out a bit with her again. I was a very romantic figure to her. She had spent summer '61 in Venice, California, hanging out in coffee shops, trying to be a beatnik poet person. At this time, she was in school. Here I was, on the road. I was free as a bird living my own life, a poet. I was a very romantic figure to her.

Also, I was part of the folk music scene here, as I had been in the University of Texas. Here, what you had at that time was the Kingston Trio, the New Christy Minstrels, etc. It was all very polished, very tight vocal harmony stuff. There was no funk, no roots to it, no discord in it. It was always very pure, very sleek, very orchestrated stuff. Yet, everyone was into the lingo of Alan Lomax's books. "We're fine in our roots. We're fine in our musical roots. We're getting that soul," and all this.

When I first heard Janis, my first reaction was, "Jesus Christ, these people are yapping about roots all the time. If these people could hear this, this is roots. This is what it's about." Anyway, I pretty much told her how I felt. That I thought that if she came to California, she would knock people in San Francisco on their ass, because this was something they had imagined but not experienced, except through the records of Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) or somebody like that. Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry. Maybe Barbara Dane.

She decided to drop out of school and hitchhiked to California with me. We hitchhiked a little over 50 hours from Boston to San Francisco. We arrived sometime in '63 in North Beach. When I had left, there was a club there called the Fox and the Hound. When I came back, it was called Coffee and Confusion. We went there on a Monday night, open-mic night. They didn't pay anybody and they wouldn't allow you to pass the hat. It's a totally free gig. I persuaded he owner Sylvia Fennel to give Janis a chance. Janis had her autoharp and she stood up there perfectly rigidly and just belted all these country blues songs. I put the emphasis on country blues. She wasn't doing Bessie Smith or Billie Holiday, stuff like that. She's doing things like old country southern blues songs and stuff. More on the gospel side of blues and the urban blues from the north and stuff.

She got a standing ovation. Sylvia said, "Pass the hat." She got about $50 or $60 -- which, for two kids who'd been hitchhiking around and for whom meals were few and far between, 60 bucks was a lot of money.

People have always asked whether our... I think there was romance between us. It was never consummated sexually. We slept on the same bed often. We cuddled. We were very close friends but we were both cut from the same cloth a little too much, in that we both had these sexually repressive and fundamentalist family backgrounds, heavy religious backgrounds. I think that we were both in rebellion against it. When we tried to get together, we had too much baggage on either end.

Then over the next couple of years or so, she and I drifted apart. She became more involved in speed and various things. A couple of times her career almost took off, where she had record companies who'd heard her and wanted to sign her. In one instance, she walked out of the Anxious Asp, a lesbian and gay bar in North Beach, and a bunch of bikers were hanging around the street. They were drunk, she was drunk, they gave her a bad time, she mouthed off to them and they beat the crap out of her and put her in the hospital. She lost that big opportunity.

Then, on another occasion, when somebody was ready to sign her -- and I was not representing her at this point, I was just her friend -- she crashed a Vespa. She had a little Vespa motor scooter and she crashed and broke some bones and was rushed to the hospital. Again, a big opportunity missed.

Progressively, she got out strung on speed to the point where everyone was very concerned about her. Even people and friends who were doing speed with her were concerned about her. We had a big party on Minna Alley. I forgot what we put her on -- a bus or a train or a plane or whatever -- but we basically had a big party to raise money and gave her transportation back to her family.

It got to be the worse plan, actually.

She went back to Texas at that point. Meantime, in 1964... Let's see. I'd been dabbling in speed, and I stopped doing it in late December of '63. Also, right around that time, I took LSD for the first time. Someone handed me a sugar cube wrapped in aluminum foil. I said, "What's this like?" They said, "It's just like speed." I said, "Okay." Damn, I popped it in my mouth and had the trip of my life. I had this tremendous heaven-and-hell vision where I could see myself killing myself with speed going down this one path, and then I could see this positive, constructive, "I can recreate my life" path going this other way. It was clear what choice I had to make at that point. That was the last I did of speed. It was after I took LSD. It had no appeal for me after that.

When I put Big Brother & the Holding Company together and was first managing them, we were always weak on vocals. Peter Albin did all the lead vocals at that time. Not that he's a bad singer, but he was fairly limited in range and the type of material he could do. We were constantly looking for a vocalist; over about seven or eight months of time, we mass-auditioned 50, 60, 80 vocalists. I don't know how many but lots, lots. People would come and jam and sing and nothing just quite felt right.

I suggested to them that we try to contact Janis. Peter and James had both seen her in North Beach singing in the Coffee Gallery. They said, "Man, she's great but she's just too unique. She's too weird. It just wouldn't work out." At the outset of starting Big Brother, there was a lot of resistance to Janis. Time went by, we auditioned all these people and nothing really worked out. My friend, Travis Rivers, another Austin person, came to me and said, "I'm going back to Austin. Any messages you wanna convey to anybody?" I said, "Yeah. Find Janis, tell Janis to call me collect." He said, "Sure. I'll do that."

I talked to James and Peter and the band again about it. I said, "Listen. Travis is going back there. Janis is gonna call me and I'd like her to come out and try her out as a vocalist." They said, "Well, okay. We'll give her a shot." She called me and had a couple of concerns. One of them was were all our friends still on speed, which I could truthfully tell her, at that moment in time, no, they were not. Most people I knew were on this real positive creation cycle. They were forming bands or they were writing plays or they were making live shows or they were designing costumes. It was beginning to be a very creative period.

Then, her other big concern was, "How will I live there? If it doesn't work out, how will I get home?" I basically agreed to pay her and Travis' rent for a few months and I agreed that I would give her a ticket home if she didn't like it.

Anyway, she came out and rehearsed. The first time I heard her, it was on one of those little alleys over in the Duboce Triangle area -- either Henry Street or Beaver Street. They had a big art studio over there, in an old carriage house. It was a space big enough for a band, and insulated and isolated from other buildings so that a band could rehearse.

It was, to my mind, just magic from the beginning. I have to say, I don't think she ever played as well with any other band as Big Brother. Not to say that a lot of musicians she played with weren't great as individuals or whatever, but nothing ever quite worked, I don't think, as well as Janis and Big Brother together.

What made Janis special as a vocalist? You mentioned the hair standing up on the back of your neck.

She had the unique ability to really tap into her pain and to project it. That's something that, in some sense, we all desire. We all have pain. We all know that the relief from that pain is in the expression of it, or in getting it out in some sense. Most of us don't have the ability to do that, but Janis did. I don't think that she was necessarily uniquely pained, but she was uniquely in touch with her pain and had the ability to project it.

Her stage mannerisms, in my opinion, the core of them were largely adapted from Roky Erickson of the 13th Floor Elevators. She played for about three months off and on with him during the period of time when she was back in Austin before she played with Big Brother. When she was here before, when she was standing very rigidly with her arms at her side, or holding her autoharp and stroking it on the beat. Her entire delivery suddenly changed; there was a fear that you'd get hit with a tonsil in the tenth row. A lot of her physical stage manner was different and much more animated. These were the things, in large part, that she picked up from Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators -- and prior to that, that Roky picked up from Little Richard.

What was it like working with Janis?

It was a real roller coaster. It was emotionally difficult, sometimes. She had a very strong personality, very opinionated personality. For all her toughness, if rejected, she was a really easily wounded person, with very sensitive feelings. Generally speaking, I got along reasonably well with her as their manager. She was very ambitious.

I would say, one of her negative sides perhaps, is she pretty much didn't care who got in the way. She was going to get to the goal, no matter who she saw as an obstacle. She was going to step over him or step on him. I don't think that she was gratuitously mean or messed people with people for no purpose, but if she saw you or anyone in the way of her and her goals, she didn't hesitate to plow on through.

From the beginning of Janis performing with Big Brother, she began to be courted by different record companies, almost constantly. [Bob Dylan's manager] Albert Grossman actually courted her two or three different times... The first turned in to a super session, what eventually became the Electric Flag; she was courted for that but didn't end up being part of it.

In Janis' view, she began to see me as the obstacle to that band getting signed. Their one big opportunity as a band, they auditioned for Bobby Shad about two weeks after he got out of the federal penitentiary as one of the few guys who went to jail behind the payola thing. I don't think he went to jail for payola per se, but of some related matter. It was for payola basically. That's what they were trying to get him for.

He'd been in federal penitentiary for five years. He got out. Two weeks later, he's at Buena Vista Studios, auditioning bands. A friend called and said, "This guy'd like to hear Big Brother. I've been auditioning these various bands for him. He's here in town. He's interested in signing bands and so on." I said, "Okay, sure."

We went up there and they played a couple of tunes. I'm in the control room in the studio with Bobby Shad and the band is performing in the other room. He sat in there outlining for me in great detail how he and I were going to screw the band out of their publishing, this, that and the other. "We don't have to tell them about this," and so on and so forth.

Finally, I just got disgusted and said, "Look. It's not the way I operate. We're outta here. No deal." I went in and literally pulled the plug on the band. I just said, "Hey. Guys, we're outta here. This guy's a thief. He's just been sitting there discussing with me how we're going to screw you. We don't need that."

Also, I had a philosophy, even though we were very hungry and we were almost literally starving, that in a negotiation, it was bad to be dealing from a point of hunger. Or at least the person on the other side of the deal knowing that you're that hungry. I always tried to adopt the posture that we would wait until we got the right deal. I definitely knew the Mainstream deal was not the deal for Big Brother.

Anyway, I came to be perceived in Janis' mind as the guy who wouldn't let them sign. I began to be perceived in the band's mind as the guy who was going to cause them to lose Janis because I wouldn't get them signed. There were a number of other people interested in them at the time. It wasn't that I wasn't working on it. I just wasn't dealing from a hungry place, though I was hungry. We all were.

What do you think Janis' legacy is?

Tremendous on a whole lot of levels. One, her greatest value is as a role model for women. She said to women, "You can wear pants, it's okay. You can talk any way you like, it's okay. You can sing loud if you want. You don't have to sing sweet. You can sing rough if you like. You can talk dirty if you like. You can throw away your bra if you like."

I think every woman presently living owes Janis a lot. It's just a whole lot freer for women because Janis did the things she did.

To me, about the most important writing that I see going on is being done by women right now. Songwriting, anyway. Alanis Morissette, Heather Nova, Tracy Chapman, Melissa Etheridge and Bonnie Raitt and on and on and on. It's a woman's game right now. I think that's great. I think it's about time.

That's the big thing that Janis left behind.

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I think so. I met James Brown recently for the first time, when he played at the Maritime Hall. He kept hugging me and saying, "You're a great man, Mr. Helms. You're a great man but..." Then he kept saying, "You find us another Janis Joplin. You find us another Janis Joplin. I love that woman. I love Janis. You find us another Janis." I said, "I will, James."

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