Jimmy Buffet was an undiscovered folk singer on Duval Street in Key West

excerpt “Drummer’s History” Russell Buddy Helm copyright 2013 all rights reserved

1971. Jimmy Buffet was a local undiscovered folk singer down on Duval Street in Key West. We were playing out at the airport at the ‘Great Escape Lounge’ where Murphy, a friend of Jerry Jeff’s, would hang out, drink, and dance to “The Christian Ghandi Syndrome”, the last incarnation of the Bethlehem Asylum. Murphy could drink anyone under the table as well as punch out any jerks who tried to hit on her or her girlfriends. She was outspoken, good looking, talented in ways most men would never know and a lot of outrageous fun. Her presence was a vote of confidence that this band was worth it’s salt. We had a horn section, percussion, lots of vocals and two tenor saxes. Christian was the mystery man on keyboards and trombone. Charlie played flute and sax. I sat at the back of the stage next to giant slanting windows extending outward at the top overlooking the landing strip. The airport was so small it closed before sunset. The old man would sweep the nineteen fifties terrazzo floor, stacking curved back chairs on the few tables in the lobby. Dieter would arrive to open his bar. He was from West Germany and was meticulous. His wife was from Miami Beach and matched him with opposites, arguing constantly about anything. Their refrigerator had a bottle of mustard and a bottle of vodka. His bar was his work of art and he would rearrange the whole nightclub almost every day. He would project old smokers on the front of the piano while Christian led our jazz afro rock arrangements of recent hits like, ‘Woodstock’. I gazed out at the tropical jungle surrounding the airstrip while Charlie played long brilliant solos on his saxello. ‘Business as usual’ was when a small plane would descend out of the night sky with no running lights, touch down and taxi to a station wagon waiting in the middle of the deserted landing strip. They would exchange goods, then depart. With no running lights, the piper cub lifted up into the massive star speckled night sky. The station wagon cruising out with lights off, melting into the shadows. Me and the romantic Key West moon, the only witnesses.

Breakfast at the Carousel on Duval Street was the local equivalent of the Polo Lounge. All the fishermen would eat there. Many of them had made their money during the Cuban revolution when Batista was given three steps by Fidel, so all the rich ones boarded their pleasure yachts and headed across the Florida Straights in the dead of night. Many never made it across but their gold did, resulting in new large shrimp boat fleets. Duval Street runs from the Atlantic to the Gulf and can be walked in an hour if you want to exert that much energy in the tropical heat. Past the Carousel, before you get to Captain Tony’s was a funky little bar with a folk singer doing a solo, Jimmy Buffet. I was rotting in paradise, so I decided to leave at the first possible opportunity and go to the big city and make my fame and fortune. I was not going to waste away developing a drinking problem like that folk singer guy; Jimmy whatever his name was.

The Great Escape Lounge was on the outskirts of town. It was off limits to uniforms, but there were plenty of spooks coming and going, having a quiet drink before they were off to wherever their mission took them. One balmy night, after a particularly good set, complete with Scottish army regulars dancing and flipping up their kilts, I stepped outside to cool off. I was dripping wet from pounding the drums in the heavy, hot humidity. A stranger sidled up next to me. “Good band…You’re a great drummer.” he mumbled. “What’s your name?” I told him.

“Nice night….” I sighed, drinking in the clean trade winds.

He was a little tight, “Yeah. Reminds me of home.”

“Okay, I’ll bite.” I answered, “Where’s home?”

“Bangkok….I’m on vacation..my boss told me to pursue some new business opportunities down here….” I sensed he was a man of some intrigue and wanted to talk.

“So what do you do in Bangkok?”

“I’m a pilot..” He paused then added. “The guy who signs my paycheck has the same last name as yours…”

“That means you fly Air America.” I said, cutting to the chase.

He got a little more alert, “That’s not public knowledge.”

“It is, if you want to know.” I have this odd receptivity to intel operatives who have to dump or confess. They have no one to talk to about their deeds. I’ll listen to almost anyone and I don’t judge. This acceptance of people’s secrets evolved eventually into the ‘HelmTone Healing Drum Protocols’ ; a healing tool for many people. I teach therapists how to use rhythm for psychological and physical healing. These are my gifts that I can share.

After leaving Key West, and getting my dues paid, many years later, I pitched a TV show set in Key West. I mentioned to the producer some of the characters I had known, including Murphy.

“…Great name and a great character.” He said, his little TV producer brain starting to whirl hungrily. He made a hit show from that name. Someday, I will be able to keep my own mouth shut. A good friend and big fan of the Bethlehem Asylum who is in Naval Intelligence laughed at me once and said, “Buddy, you could never be a spy. You’re too tall.” She added, “…plus you can’t keep a secret.”

Healing drums may not give me platinum records like Charlie has acquired on his walls from playing with Hall and Oates, but it is something I can live with.

excerpt “Drummer’s History” Russell Buddy Helm copyright 2013 all rights reserved




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