It was the summer of 1989 in New Orleans. I was 17 years old and on the roam with no direction. I knew I wanted to play music but I didn’t know how to go about it. I’d left behind a pretty good punk rock band in Las Cruces, NM, who’d just recorded a cassette tape of 5 or 6 original songs. I was struggling to reconcile my rootsier musical vision with the joy of bashing out loud music with my buddies. I enjoyed my place in the punk band but I never felt like it was really me. An older friend’s band had moved to the Bay Area and quickly got jobs at the Fillmore, began rehearsing and putting their thing together in a big way. They made a ton of connections and eventually got a record deal. They were insanely talented and even more dedicated and loyal to their project. At the time that seemed kind of Partridge Family to me so I gleamed no knowledge from their success, only jealousy laden judgements on their motivations and willingness to sell out. Instead I took to the road a loner.
I was hanging around New Orleans trying to figure out what went on there. I’d been romanced by what I’d seen in a few movies and books and felt there may be a place for me. A friend and I tried playing on the street but we were far from New Orleans street musician ready, our open chord strumming and out of tune singing making zero impact on the jazz hungry tourists. In those pre-internet days, I’d done little to no research on where bands played or who was making anything happen. Even underage I could get in to some bars but never found the kind of music that turned me on. Most of my time was spent in a new wave disco trying to meet girls who looked like Siouxie Sioux.
One afternoon on the roam in the French Quarter I ran across a pair of middle aged bums who stopped me to ask about the guitar I was carrying. In their flannel shirts and dirty jeans they gave off an Of Mice and Men appearance, one tall and silent, the other short with bright eyes and a touch of charm left in his chipped tooth smile. We got some beer in tall paper cups from a drink stand and I walked with them over to the park benches along the river to show them the 70’s Yamaha I’d been given by my stepdad. The short guy strummed a couple chords on it and asked as he handed it back “do you know who I am?” As I shook my head he proceeded to tell me he was Bobby Helms, a singer who used to be famous. “Jingle Bell Rock Bobby Helms?” I asked. “You know,” he nodded approvingly.
He told me about how he had a bunch of hit records in the 50’s and 60’s before the Beatles ruined everything. He said he loved the Rolling Stones though. “That Mick Jagger could be a country boy from Kentucky,” he said. In the 70’s he gave it another shot, making country records, good ones, but nothing he did ever took. He married an awful woman, the kind who just ruins everything you’ve worked for. So he wound up splitting from Nashville, back in Indiana driving a forklift for the last few years before he came down south to find better work but there wasn’t shit. His money ran out and now he was just bumming around with the silent guy standing next to him.
We sat there in the humid gulf coast sun for awhile, staring at the mighty Mississippi River, full of tourist boats, talking about women and records and what kind of wine was the biggest drunk for your buck. Bobby Helms never asked to see the guitar again or offered to sing a few bars of “Fraulein”. We parted ways when he admitted they were actually looking for heroin and a fresh faced kid like me had no business hanging around with them. He apologized to me for his fall from grace. I was going to make it, he could see, if I’d get the fuck out of New Orleans and stay away from women like the one who took him down.
I always wondered if this guy was really Bobby Helms. Years later looking around the internet I searched for info about him. I knew the hits but the man was kind of a mystery. His wikipedia page says he was born in 1933, making him 56 that year, which is definitely age appropriate. All it had to offer about his later years was that most of them were spent in Indiana before he died of emphysema in 1997. That neither proves or disproves much. I found an interview from 1986 with a website called Classic Bands. Helms seems very edgy and paranoid in the interview, vigorously putting down other artists and saying he was blacklisted from the business. His tone is certainly that of someone who could have gone off the rails over the next three years. The last piece of the puzzle I ever found was an album from 1981 on Phillips Records. Bobby on the front cover is in rhinestones and cowboy garb with a patch over his right eye in every picture. My hobo buddy definitely was not wearing a patch in 1989. As my dad lost an eye in Vietnam I would’ve noticed and thought about that immediately. When the Johnny Paycheck Little Darlin Records got hot again in the early 2000’s there were a couple releases of Bobby’s stuff too in which he also distinctly has the patch over his eye.
I lean towards thinking the guy I met was not Bobby Helms, but I am puzzled as to why someone would lie and say they were. I’m guessing that he operated forklifts with the real Bobby in Indiana and as he played a little guitar himself he decided to take on a more interesting persona when he hit the road bumming. In a way a mysterious 3 hit wonder would be the perfect identity to assume. The average guy on the street would know enough to be impressed but not enough to ask the hard questions. If it could get a man a free beer when he was thirsty or a dollar when he was hungry, why the hell not.
I look back on those directionless times and the sketchy situations I put myself in looking for something I don’t think I ever found. I wanted to do things my way, to be independent and to be an original. I was rebellious and arrogant and could not hear much in the way of worthwhile advice. My cart was pretty far out in front of my horse when it came to my opinion of my musical self and my actual musical ability, and as a result I had nothing going on for a few years. Years where many of my friends and peers were getting educations and developing in more organized ways.
The song posted has nothing to do with New Orleans or Bobby Helms. It’s based on a couple different events that happened in different towns. One where I followed a woman home from a pool hall to discover she had a husband who was in prison and the other where I was shoved out of a trailer house by a giant cajun drug dealer who was pissed off at his friend for bringing me along unannounced. The cover picture is of the Yamaha I handed to fake Bobby Helms. The song was recorded in 2016 at Ron Flynt’s Jumping Dog Studio. Neal Walker plays bass and Ralph Power is on drums. We cut the vocals and telecaster guitar live with the basic track. There is one overdub where I played a big black Gretsch, that I sold to Ron, with a lot of tremolo doing a sparse rhythm part and a couple fills.