Brain Surgeons & Friends

To Helen With Love!


By Richard Meltzer

brown ‘n’ sugar

sugar gold

Sugar PANTS!

–“Smellin’ With Helen,” 1968

To Helen With Love!, a CD tribute to “the life and music of Helen Wheels” put together by some folks I used to know, and some I still know, was recently released by New York’s Cellsum Records. What follows is my own tribute to Helen, one which (I have the feeling) may be deemed blasphemous by one or more of the participants.

Please, dear reader, consider it no less loving an appreciation than theirs–not a damned iota less! I just, well, view certain things differently, let’s say, but the problem may simply be that I no longer hold to the sacraments of their particular branch of the R & R Church…there are so many branches, y’know?

Twenty-six years ago, before some of you kiddies were born, I slipped the sausage to Helen Wheels, who died last year. It’s possible (tho how could we be certain?) she’s the first woman I’ve fucked to end up dead. There’s one I once poked who went on to rip her eyes out, or so she later said–grabbed hold, she claimed (first one, then the other), and yanked ’em–but being blind isn’t quite the same as being NOTHING.

When I first met her, in 1967 or early ’68, Helen Robbins, as she then was known, was a shy little college girl, sweetheart of the drummer for this band called Soft White Underbelly. When I say little I simply mean she was on the small side, short, and the median height of the band, as bands go, was itself below average–a buncha peewees. (Near that median myself, I tend to notice these things.) Short and cute, on the cusp (at least) of pretty, tho by no means beautiful, “sexy” in a nonspecific way, a warm if not hot mammal heat source, an appealing soft creature, about 18, casually groomed, a very sweet smile when she smiled, but above all shy…reticent…she didn’t say very much at all.

If in certain lights, on a cursory scan, her casualness might’ve passed for that of a “hippie chick,” there was nothing especially hippie about her in either a kosmic or style-sheet sense, nor was there anything all that radical-lifestyle about the band, whose music was more psychedelic than they were (just as later, in their Blue Oyster Cult incarnation, their music would be more metal than they purported to be), whose preferred drug was probably beer, who would bicker over who was gonna buy the next round of peanut butter: just a pack of kids, more unhip than hip, kids “too nice” (maybe) for the long haul of rock and roll.

In the dump they rented in mid-’68, four decaying floors on a Long Island street where Gatsby might’ve boogied Daisy whatserface in 1923, a place I called home for most of a year, Helen (generous, cheerful, more outgoing, still very sweet) became a source of stability and continuity. She and Albert the drummer were kinda cute together, like R. Crumb’s adorable Bearzy Wearzies, and their room, neatest in the house, was the one chosen by Walrus, the household’s favorite cat, to have her kittens. (Providing equal succor to the least favored, whenever Helen felt entitled to a “wish” she reserved it for Tiger, an old beat-up tomcat stray whose tail had gone numb.)

A knock at the door one night in late ’69 altered the sweetness of the picture. Without prelude, a couple in their early 20s, total strangers, asked, “Where’s the mescaline?” It turned out Helen, without consulting anyone, had set up a little business. For customers she’d suss out the younger patrons of the liquor store she sometimes worked at–“If you like gin, I know something that’ll really get you high.”

A fucking wave of panic swept the house. Rich people, straight people, lived next door and across the way, like this ad exec in AA whose accounts included Kiku cologne–the upscale male stinkum of its time–someone who didn’t cotton to his midteen son hanging out with a goddamn rock band in the first place. It was, no shit, a somewhat dangerous neighborhood to be dealing drugs to strangers. For weeks, every time we heard a siren in the distance, all of us, Helen included, would stop dead in our tracks, figuring this was it. (Lock us up, throw ‘way the key.)

Next to kick in was Helen’s SLUT PHASE. I was gone by then, sorry I missed it, but tales traveled far & wide of her spreading for anyone who walked in the door, including this big ogre named Monty who used to lurk about in a fringe jacket and–I vaguely recall–a knife on his belt…

And THEN: Fall of the House of Underbelly. While the band was in LA recording an album that wouldn’t be released for 31 years,* she took too much acid, failed to get oil for the heater, and the pipes froze and burst, flooding the house, revivifying two years’ worth of dried catshit, causing mold to sprout everywhere. In the dead of winter this is what they returned to. By summer she was G-G-GONE.

Time, as it commonly does, lurches on. Years pass.

From out of the blue Helen would phone me, or I’d run into her at BOC shows or here and there in Manhattan. Small talk, how’s tricks, not exactly flirtation but almost. She had the same lovely smile. Finally, 1975, I’m about to leave New York, now’s my chance. I call–hi howzit?–and bop up to her Lower East Side pad with a pint of rum.

Her cunt was tight, or tight enough. Small is good for some things–eminently practical things–after all. After we’d fucked three times, she whispered, “Eat me and I’ll come again”…how nice. There was a lot of bounce, sauce and sass, a lot of enthusiasm, even if it wasn’t quite rapture or fireworks. No fuss, no muss–the closest I came, in my waning days in the Apple, to boogie w/out courtship, fanfare, or grief. In the decades since, I’ve almost never beat off thinking about her, but yes, it was nice.

For a couple years we stayed in touch. Now officially Miz Wheels, she formed a band and recorded for cheezy little labels like Real American Records…

flags all over the place…stickers on the cover, “Guaranteed 100% American Music”…oh boy. In publicity shots she’s a sawed-off Lily Tomlin, which is not to say she looks dykey, she just looks hard, stern, “handsome” rather than cute, more like a racehorse (or praying mantis) than a bearzy wearzy. Lots of metal and leather.

The letters, once long, got short: “Hi! Do they play my record where you are? Me & my old man got a tarantula, 4 snakes & a 1930 Harley Davidson! Hope you’re fine too!” “Rock and Roll Made a Man Out of Me” sang Handsome Dick Manitoba, vocalist for the band that for a time backed her up; well it made something out of Helen as well. It got her to the fucking door, and on the other side was NOT MUCH.

By no stretch of the imagination was her music–or its “attitude”–punk, as was occasionally claimed. (Punk wouldn’t even piss on the flags.) Altho possibly more hard-edged–“tough”–“kick-ass”–than any Underbelly installment’s would ever be, it was just basically the kind of rock that celebrates nothing real (not for anybody with half a brain, 2/5 of a heart), that is so lowest-common-denom by design that the LEAST noxious thing it’s gonna do is make you stupid.** (The kind that MOST working bands, American or otherwise, continue to produce, with or without trying.)

Slightly later, Helen took up bodybuilding, which led, supposedly, to bit parts in some movies. Her only listing in the Internet Movie Database is Toxic Avenger, Part II (1989), as the fifth of five “Bad Girls.”

A year and a half ago I had my hemorrhoids scraped and spent two days in the hospital, living to talk about it. In a different clinic not long after, Helen had her back fussed with and didn’t make it. Two optional surgeries. One lives, one dies. Dust.

But first: wormfood.

The wage of sin is death.

The wage of rock is death.

The wage of everything is death. It’s simply the end towards which all meat properly TENDS.

Dig it. i

* St. Cecilia: The Elektra Recordings by the Stalk-Forrest Group, as they were known for 10 or 11 minutes, has just been issued by Rhino Handmade. I actually think it’s pretty good, even great, at least as good as the average Quicksilver album–their only documentation as a psychedelic combo.

** Am I perhaps being too harsh? Check out the CD compilation Archetype (on Cellsum) and judge for yourself.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Russ Ando.