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Bethlehem Asylum

Bethlehem Asylum

By

Russell Buddy Helm

As told to Russell Samuel Buddy Helm by Russell Samuel Buddy Helm

 

The Summer of love came late to the Deep South. Some say it never came at all. There were no real rednecks in The Bethlehem Asylum, it was a colorful coat to wear in order to fit in. Unless you were black or had really long hair or were a snotty college drop-out or a folk singer or a jazz musician, or a blues player or a minister of the Universal Life Church or just too freaky to pass as a redneck. Which we were.

We stood out like a sore but bright colorful thumb in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi in the late sixties, early seventies. The band traveled all over the South playing festivals, bars, concerts, antiwar rallies, love ins, art happenings and plain old rock ‘n roll bashes. We stood out because we were doing what we loved doing, which was playing great music: Our Music. We wrote it as a band even though the publishing went to certain names (mostly the record company)

When we were on stage the music was always fresh and exciting. The lyrics might be the same every time, along with the chord changes and hopefully the back-ground harmonies but the spirit was always new. As Jimm Neiman, the bass player/Captain Ego put it, “We play the soundtrack to whatever movie was going on.”

The actual experience of living as a teenager in the late sixties playing in a rock ‘n roll band was not anything like what the corporate media of today says it was. Being alive then was a question of choices. Either I could have gone to Vietnam and gotten killed like most of the other good ol’ boys I went to high school with or follow my heart and soul which meant risking my neck in more immediate places like Little Havana in Miami listening to great Salsa where they hated long hairs so much they stuck a gun in my face on a Saturday night corner on Calle Ocho. Or getting into black bars in southern ghettos where being white meant you were in big trouble. But that’s where the important music was; in the dangerous places.

The first performance was at Madam Taussand’s Wax Museum on St. Pete beach. but our home base in the beginning was the most famous coffee house in the South. The Beaux Arts. Where Jim Morrison got his start just a few summers before us. It was a page right out of Tennessee Williams’ world. Three story antibellum southern mansion run by Tommy, a retired Ballanchine dancer and his mother. Soon we were performing at Colleges around the state. Inevitably performing at antiwar rallies where the undercover CIA/FBI were taking our pictures. We were doin’ it for the music. But we were forced into politics by the events of the day. The Six O’clock News was showing body bags getting filled up with parts of good ol’ boys of every color in some god forsaken jungle in a place nobody ever heard of. The music was a voice that grew up out of the ground and found its way into the throats of the people. We could do anything. Either that, or get chopped up in the custom-made meat grinder. Things haven’t changed much. One thing that seemed different then was Hope. A sense of real Hope. Not the kind of hope where you hope you make a killing in the Stock Market, but the kind of hope where you knew that you could change the world for the better. Even in the Deep South. This seemed like a possible reality just beyond the horizon. A utopian dream of happiness, equality, and enough for everybody. It has been predicted and we were at the beginning of it. Just how much at the beginning we didn’t realize. We are also very naïve.

The Bethlehem Asylum would not have been such a success if it did not have a core group of supporters and followers. The people who drove across swamps and police blockades to see and hear the band thrash out their jazz, R ’n B Country Blues Rock ‘n Roll ol’ time religion mystical voodoo kind of music.     We wrote songs about them and sang about them on stage. We didn’t really have many songs about how some girl had done me wrong or some other safe subject. The songs were about the troublesome questions about honesty and soul. Although we certainly had our share of songs referring to the good things in life.

This story is for those who managed to survive a traumatic yet joyful and historical time and are still able to remember the real magic, love and hope that we still cherish today…..

Charles Dechant – Tenor and Soprano Saxophone, Vocals, flute.

Christian Gandhi – Piano, Trombone, alto flute

Danny Finley – Lead guitar, vocals

Jimm Neiman – Bass, vocals

Buddy Helm – Drums , percussion

Bethlehem Asylum update:

Christian has disappeared, Buddy is in L.A., Jim is gone,  Charlie is playing Sax with Hall and Oates, Danny worked for Kinky Friedman and Billy Joe Shaver and has his own music as Panama Red.

Written by:     Russell Samuel Buddy Helm

Santa Monica, CA

 

excerpt from Drummer’s JourneyBethlehem Asylum enters the Grove

 

My  band; Bethlehem Asylum rolled into Coconut Grove, Florida in our yellow school bus in the Summer of 1969. The Grove was a hip haven of retired beatnicks, bronzed babes, pirates, poets, club owners and international hitchhikers. The girls wore bikinis all day. The guys were mellow, the sailboats were handy. The music was great.

We advertized our first concert with fliers. It happened above the post office. The only person who showed up was Jerry Wexler, Vice President of Atlantic records and producer of Aretha Franklin. Liz Campbell a great folksinger had recommended he come. He invited us to his house, We ate all of his food, drank all of his wine. Smoked all his cigarettes. He invited us to come into Criteria Studios to record some demos for Atlantic records, where James Brown recorded, “Papa’s got a brand new bag” with one microphone in the middle of the room. Since then Criteria had become the GOTO studio with state of the art engineers and equipment. But still the funky vibes of sanctified Southern R n B.
The sessions were rocky. Jim, the bass player insisted on re-recording my drum parts. He was dissatisfied with my performance on his songs. So he overdubbed the parts that he wanted to hear. We let him grand stand in front of the great Bones Howe and the Albert Brothers.

Bones was working with Aretha in the next studio and every few minutes dropped in to see how we were doing. Everyone was hoping for the best.

A few weeks passed and I picked up the phone. Our so called manager was finishing a conversation with Jerry Wexler on the other line. There was no contract.

Ten years later, Jerry Wexler ran into me again.

“How come we couldn’t sign you back then?”

I was heartbroken to hear that Atlantic had wanted to sign us but couldn’t.

“Our manager, I guess.” I said with a great deal of disappointment.

Surviving disappointment is a major talent to learn. Surviving our own mistakes is a major lesson to continually keep learning. Releasing that disappointment is progress.

The first gig was at Madam Taussand’s wax museaum. I wasn’t there. It ws mythci and told many times. The wedding was in the chamber of horrors. Jim was dressed like draculaa with a cape and Roy Orbison dark glasses. He stood in the wax museum dioramas for vampires and stood stock still while the weddindg guests marveled at athe life like wax figures. The bride arrived at Jimm’s spot and flourished a batlike greeti; Gooot EEEVening!” She nearly had a a heart atackt.

The music consisted of Jim on Acoustical guitar singing and Christian on Black wooden flute. Now a word about Christian. We have established that Jim is like the shock jock of Pinellas County but the other man is the mystery from India. A Brahmin by caste as well as jazz musician of the first level. Raised in New York and played with Great musicians, Christian was an enigma and an inspiration. He had the heaviest rap of anyone and he knew how to get whatever was needed. He was also handsome and well liked by the women he befriended or rather recruited. He was on a psychic mission, and he could play the flute as well as any jazz musician I’ve ever heard. But his keyboard playing was the most exceptional jazz musical excellence I have ever witnessed. It was a lesson in music advanced theories everytime we played.

So the place we all met was at Tommy Reese’s Beaux Arts Coffe House in Pinellas Park, Florida. Yes, this was the coffee house where Jim Morrison read his poetry and got in trouble.

……………

Hi Buddy;

My name is Robbie Shakespeare and we corresponded briefly about two or three years ago while I  was looking for a copy of one of the ‘Bethlehem Asylum’ albums (CD). You directed me to CD Baby where I purchased and am the proud owner of the double album CD.

Since that time I have re-located a friend of mine who attended one of your concerts in Key West with me; the one you played at the armory with ‘King James Version’ & ‘Fantasy’.  I just bought her another copy of this same CD off of Amazon and I was wondering if you knew where I could find your hilarious though sad account of the Asylum’s missed opportunity with fame and recording contracts while playing in South Miami. I have looked briefly on your website but haven’t been able to find it again yet. Do you know where I could read this again and perhaps share it with my friend who also grew up in the South Miami/ Grove area.

I noticed and am glad to see that there has risen a demand for ‘Asylum’ records in Europe. the States, and elsewhere. Just like another favorite band of mine; ‘Gentle Giant’, it takes the public awhile to catch up and appreciate bands that were ahead of their time !

Any advice you could give to help me find your story would be greatly appreciated.

For Always A Fan;
Robbie Shakespeare

 

OK.

Here it is one more time.

Bethlehem Asylum was the strangest band in the South in nineteen Sixty Nine. There was no one even close but there were other bands that were excellent in their own styles. We were playing in a deconsecrated church in South Miami. Every record executive was there. It was the event of the season. Our coming out party was thrown by a big club owner retired in Coconut Grove from New York. State of the art recording equipment ( 4 track Ampex reel to reel!) A full film crew shooting sixteen millimeter documentary style. Bethlehem Asylum was about to arrive!

It is a hot night in South Miami. It was stuffy in the dressing room but we were assured that the deconsecrated church had good air conditioning  out in the main room. The stained glass windows had been bricked in. The pews had been removed. It was a cavernous room with strange overtones and vibes. Perfect for Bethlehem Asylum.

 

We started the show with a strong number and the room was filled with eager expectant executives enjoying their drinks from the wet bar all on a free tab. The camera men focused on us in earnest and lights generated more heat around than I had expected. We got through one number and kicked into the next tune but half way through suddenly the fuses blew and the room was dark.  There was a big groan of disappointment in the crowd. Some of these people had come from London and New York and L.A.

Howard encouraged everyone to have a drink and the band retired to the dressing room to wait for the breakers to cool down. It was getting warmer. We got out on the stage again in a few minutes and the crowd was ready for us. They started dancing. We were having a go then the fuses blew again. We retired into the dressing room and waited again. When we got back on the stage the air conditioning was back on but it was still hot. Everyone was now up and really partying. The chairs got moved into a big pile and everyone was dancing and some started to take off their clothes. It was amazing to see the Suits first removing their ties, then their jackets, the women taking off their heels then removing any outer garments. People started to get down. “Our music was doing this to them” I thought to myself.

The fuses blew again and again. The camera lights were too much for the ancient circuits, but everyone was willing to wait as long as the bar was open. It was hot. We sat in the dressing room in between each circuit break and sipped 7 up. We were totally sober and straight. This was our big chance and we were very focused on what we had to do. And it looked like we were going over well. Back on the stage the crowd got wilder. Insane dancing all over the place. Girls taking off their tops. Men down to their undershorts. Our music is doing this to them? These were executives…? What the heck was going on? It was a Bacchanalia.

Duane Allman, Barry Oakley, Red Dog and Kim the road manager for the Allman brothers appeared at the entrance to the cavernous room while we were on stage playing. They hung for a few minutes but left. I lost track of them. Later Duane told me that it was too weird for him-he had to leave.

 

Electric Larry, a clown who lived in Coconut Grove had taken over the wet bar and dosed everyone in the room with LSD. Everyone but the band. We had no idea.  The night just got weirder and weirder and we just kept playing. By the end of the night everyone was spent and happy but I was a little perplexed. The crowd had gotten pretty wild. .The promoter was arrested in his own front yard in the middle of the night when his wife called the Miami PD. She said her husband had gone crazy and was standing in their front yard in Coconut Grove screaming that he was dying. So she turned the sprinklers on him and called the cops.

 

We sat at an allnight diner on Dixie Hiway eating steak and eggs. Mike, our friend and personal manager had been very quiet. Suddenly he started unloading his pockets onto the table. He had money in all of his pockets and the pile just continued to get bigger. His eyes were bloodshot and his pupils were tight as pin heads.

“Mike, Are you tripping?” I asked him. He nodded.” Why….” I started into a reprimand but he explained that everyone in the room was tripping. That was the first that we knew of the prank that Electric Larry had pulled. Mike  said that everyone leaving just kept giving him money. They said it was the best concert they had ever been too.

To say the least, the word got out that we were merry pranksters and there was no recording contract from any of them.