Punk Legend Helen Wheels, 1949-2000
Published Feb 15, 2000 at 6:01 am (Updated Feb 16, 2015)
"Connie came up to me from behind, and just as she was bringing the thing down on the back of my head?she was so much taller than I was, especially with her high heels on?but just as she was bringing this thing down on my skull?somebody grabbed me. It was Helen Wheels. Helen grabbed me with her arm around my waist, pulled me back behind her, and, as she did, my body swung around and the glass went right past my face. Within an inch or two. I was cross-eyed looking at it, I could feel the air, I could smell the beer. Connie immediately tried to get me again. She pulled her arm up, and Helen Wheels barked right in her face. Helen said, 'Look, you don't wanna fuck with me, Connie. If I was you, I would not fuck with me.' Helen was a tough chick.
"Connie's eyes were really blurred, she was very strung-out. She still had her arm up in the air, but she teetered a few times back and forth on her heels, thought about it and then went, 'I guess it's just not worth the trouble.' Connie dropped the beer mug and walked off. Helen just said that I looked like a nice kid and shouldn't get mixed up in things like that, then walked away. I was left standing there, shaking and holding on to the railing going, 'Oh my God, what just happened?'"
By then Wheels?a mere 5 feet, 1 inch tall, 100 pounds, tattooed on her wrists and around her groin (a flying saucer!)?was already a doyenne of the NYC punk subculture, fronting her own aggro-melodic Helen Wheels Band, while still basking in the glow of a certain outre rock cred as lyricist on a handful of Blue Oyster Cult songs, notably "Tattoo Vampire" and "Sinful Love" from that group's 1976 breakthrough album Agents of Fortune. An onstage whirligig on early HWB songs like "Room to Rage," which convulse with a concise punky energy while keeping within whistling range of tunefulness, she took full advantage of props "like little starter pistols that she'd shoot off," recalls Albert Bouchard, her off-and-on songwriting partner for 30 years, first with BOC (its original drummer), then in the Helen Wheels Band, and, recently, in the Brain Surgeons, the group in which he now performs, along with his wife, former rock journalist Deborah Frost.
"Early on, I was really mad," Wheels told ROCKRGRL magazine last spring. "I used to go out in the crowd, stab knives in the tables, kick over people's drinks. I think I alienated people during that era."
She began to get a grip in 1981 when she took up bodybuilding, releasing perhaps her best material on that year's six-song, new-wavy Post Modern Living, produced by then-BOC bassist Joe Bouchard, Albert's brother. (Nearly all of Wheels' recordings have been collected on the 1999 compilation Archetype, released by Bouchard and Frost's Cellsum Records.) While living in the East Village with a menagerie of animals?cats, a skink, a parrot named Pecker, her 14-foot-long boa constrictor Lilith?Wheels continued to perform until 1987, while cadging an Off-Broadway role and appearing fleetingly in the late-80s films The Money Pit, Toxic Avenger II and Toxic Avenger III.
Born Helen Robbins on May 6, 1949, in Queens, she grew up in Rockville Centre, graduating from SUNY-Stony Brook in 1971. It was at college, in 1967, that she met Albert Bouchard?"at a Ravi Shankar concert," he remembers?then drummer for the psychedelicized Soft White Underbelly. Soon she was designing clothes for the group, "San Francisco-y looking" duds, as Bouchard terms them, from available flotsam, including lampshades, before stitching together black leather outfits when Soft White Underbelly morphed into the heavier, more metallic and darker-edged Blue Oyster Cult. "The detail was pretty amazing," Bouchard observes, "little dollies, stars, skull and crossbones." When in the early 70s she cast about for a name for her burgeoning costuming business, Handsome Dick Manitoba, later singer for the Dictators, suggested Helen Wheels. She'd been rechristened.
After living in New York for 26 years, Wheels moved to Ithaca in 1996, where she established a small-press imprint, worked as a personal trainer and, urged by fan/guitarist Kim Draheim, started performing again as part of Skeleton Crew, with Draheim and three others. The band had been recording an album, in fact, when Wheels entered an Ithaca hospital last month for corrective surgery on her back, which had given her persistent pain since she had injured it 15 years earlier. But an infection developed immediately after she was released, resulting in severe respiratory distress. Quickly readmitted and placed on a ventilator, she expired nonetheless on Jan. 17 at the age of 50.
At the time of her death Wheels was collaborating with Mariah Aguiar, the stranger she'd saved from harm more than 20 years ago and a longtime photographer, on We Took Dawn for Granted, a book about the 70s NYC punk scene, providing text to accompany Aguiar's images. "One night we were in my living room looking at photos tacked up to the walls of so many people from back then who were now dead," notes Aguiar, who'd become extremely close with Wheels over the intervening years. "From drugs mostly, but also AIDS and other things. Suddenly, she just went down the rabbit hole?now she's one of the dead people in the book."
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