Liberace said, “I love your act”, as he shook my hand

excerpt: “History of the Groove, Drummer’s story” Russell Buddy Helm ©2013 All rights reserved

1977. “I love your act”, Liberace said. He shook my hand as if he expected me to kiss his ring finger which was adorned with a gold grand piano complete with a diamond candelabra that stood up over an inch on his hand. He had threaded his way through the crowd in the dressing room at the Back Lot in West Hollywood to shake my hand. I had been having a terrible night.

My first foray back into the LA session musician world was not going according to Hoyle. Rita had contracted me to drum for her grand opening debut at the notorious West Hollywood gay nightclub disco called the Back Lot. There were laser beams cutting through the thick fetid amyl nitrate scented air above the throbbing dance floor where there was more muscle than mammaries. All the guys were definitely out of the closet. I had just come down from the ranch in the Santa Cruz mountains where I had been hibernating and recovering from the last bout of Hollywoodism and Tim Buckley’s murder. Rita had put together a great band, although it wasn’t the right band for the occasion. This was more like a Bette Midler scene. I knew the guys in Bette’s band and had played with them, but this gig was weird beyond description. The B3 Hammond organ player and the guitar player were from Tuscaloosa and just had a big hit called, “Smoke from a distant fire” so they were intent on placing some original songs with Rita. The bass player was an LA guy and a little green, and he was really excited about playing with these heavy weight players. The group was entirely too funky for this scene but Rita was having a great time so we made the best of it. I was singing back up on a few songs like “Sailing shoes” by Little Feet, but I could not hear the monitors so I was sticking my finger in my ear to check my note every once in a while. That got a giggle out of the audience but I couldn’t tell from the back of the slick black obsidian stage. We had to nail my bass drum down through the slick stage floor because it was so slippery it kept sliding away from my pumping foot pedal. At the height of our show, Rita was shaking her new silicone boobs at the totally male audience as if it mattered to them, and the bass player got really excited. He accidentally kicked his bottle of beer over that was sitting on the stage next to his bass amp and it went splashing all over the glassy stage. It flowed under my bass drum and then under my drummer’s throne. A drummer’s throne is a sacred thing. It is a tripod that the drummer must balance themselves on like some sort of yoga while maintaining a groove. I had been doing it since I was eight years old but tonight the beer made the throne very unstable and in the middle of a song, it slipped out from underneath me. I suddenly went crashing down behind my drumset. My cowboy boots, that still had horse shit on them from the ranch, kicked out and hit the coffee can full of two penny nails that we had used to nail down my bass drum. The coffee can full of nails hit the bass drum microphone. The sound of the Chock full o’ nuts coffee can full of nails hitting the microphone was amplified a thousand fold and poured out of the speakers sounding like a ton of steel girders being dumped on the audience. It was a deafening crash. Rita was apoplectic. Her thyroid eyes bugged out at me as she turned to look back at the trainwreck that had been her drummer. My boots were literally sticking straight up in the air, and I was flat on my back. She looked at me with the eternal entertainer’s question on her face, “What do we do now?!!”
I gave her the age old answer with my hand, spiraling my finger in a circle; “Roll with it, baby.” She turned back to the crowd and said, “Well…I guess I have to introduce my drummer now.” That got a great round of laughter from the hundreds of pumped up guys. I got up and pieced my drum set back together and we finished the set to a rousing round of generous applause. I was glad to get off that slippery stage. We were in the dressing room when the Hammond B3 player from Tuscaloosa comes up to me and confides in his redneck drawl. “Uh…Buddy. Look. I know I can trust you, being from Macon, and all that. I need to ask you a favor. Could you go with me to the urinal. It’s one of them big circular troughs like we use to water the horses back home, and I uh…I need you to watch my back while I take a piss. Otherwise it won’t work…”
“Sure.” I said and dutifully followed him into the communal pissoir and stood at his back while all the boys oogled his member and joked about it. They could see he wasn’t a regular. He had a terrible time but eventually he managed to relieve his bladder and we got out of there as the regular boys called out all sorts of jokes. Back in the dressing room, Rita was trying hard to be gracious and star like but it was a lost cause. Her act had been totally upstaged by the drummer who could not stay on his throne. Liberace slid through the crowd and purred over to me with his retinue of young blond boys around him. He looked amazingly well and full of mischief when he shook my hand and complimented me on “My Act”. He checked out my boots since they had been so highly featured on stage.

My cowboy boots were from Coconut Grove. They had belonged to Peter Goodrich who was a sage from the previous generation of hipsters. He and Michael Lang had come up with the concept of the original Woodstock festival. When Peter drove down from Woodstock for the last time, Lester Sperling put him up in his little bungalow and everyone came to pay their last respects to the grand old man. He had a gold tipped cane with a wolf’s head on it and he sat up in bed, looking like a king, even though cancer was moving through his body. Kevin Kern sat outside the bedroom window and played wonderful acoustical guitar music while people came and went giving Peter the love and respect that he always gave to everyone else. Bananas sat with him most of the time and we listened to his stories. “I remember San Francisco,” He said with a great smile, “LSD was still legal and everyone was walking around tripping. The energy was amazing. You could feel the other person’s energy field expanding out around their bodies. We would stop and marvel at each other’s auras. The only thing I regret was that sometimes I was stoned and I missed a few things…”

The exact moment Peter died, the fire alarm went off across the street in the Coconut Grove fire department, and simultaneously a woman’s purse disappeared right off her arm as she walked in front of the fire truck trying to get out of the fire station. Peter’s friends stood and watched this comic relief and felt that it must have been staged by Peter as a last parting shot of buffoonery before he ascended up into the higher bardos of consciousness. Lester gave me Peter’s good looking Tony Lama boots. I wore them all over the world, just like Peter did, but with a great deal of respect for the man who wore them before me. I felt like I was walking in protected sacred boots that provided a certain cosmic comedy in my life and saved me from many a dangerous situation, including a West Hollywood Back Lot coming out party.

excerpt: “History of the Groove, Drummer’s story” Russell Buddy Helm ©2013 All rights reserved

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