The art of implication

Vince Bell's been dead once, and he's got the record to prove it

Record label executives like to say, in that snide sideways-speak they call language, that artists can't sell records unless they have a story to tell. They insist the music doesn't always speak for itself, and that an artist must first have a gimmick in order to get played on the radio and sell records. Vince Bell, then, is a record exec's dampest dream--a would-be superstar who, quite literally, died for a brief moment in 1982 only to be resurrected as one of the greatest songwriters ever to come out of Texas.

The Austin American-Statesman reported 14 years ago that Bell had died in a car crash coming home from a recording session with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Johnson. His car had been broadsided by a drunk driver doing 65 near I-35, and Bell's body had been ejected through the top of his vehicle; his shattered body wound up on the side of the road in a pool of blood and gasoline. Bell would lie in a coma for weeks, emerging only to find he had been declared dead.

He might as well have been. Bell had been, before the wreck, something of a pupil of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark's--"I learned rhyme from Townes and how to think and pick from Guy Clark," Bell says now--and among the leading lights in a Houston folk scene that also fostered the likes of Lyle Lovett and Nanci Griffith. Those who knew Bell back then, including Griffith, still believe that had it not been for the wreck, Bell would have been bigger than all of them.

But the damage was extensive, leaving Bell's body nothing more than a corpse with a pulse. His right arm had been mangled. His memory had been destroyed. He could not speak, much less sing. He could not walk, much less step on a stage.

"I didn't see anyone but doctors and therapists in 1983," Bell recalls. "I had eight doctors and three therapists and saw them sons of bitches every day."

Bell is speaking from his home in Fredericksburg, about 100 miles outside of Austin, where he lives with his wife and "fail-safe" Sarah, who also acts as his sometimes publicist. When he speaks, his voice is harsh and sweet. He chokes on his laughter, and he almost seems to whisper even when raising his voice.

There's an odd beauty contained within that voice, which Bell had to find after much therapy and time in a mental hospital outside of Houston. It's the voice that informs the songs on Bell's 1994 record, Phoenix, a "comeback" album that sounds very much like the work of a man who has come back from the dead, complete with songs about Frankenstein and other scarred and stitched-together beasts brought back to life.

"Those were desperate, forlorn days a long time ago," says Bell, who was born in Dallas 44 years ago in the long-disappeared Florence Nightingale Hospital. "I didn't go into the mental institution till nine months after the wreck. When I figured how fucked up I was, I said, 'Jesus Christ.' I called my people and said, 'I'm in trouble. My life has ended, my career has ended. I'm getting divorced. Fuck, this is impressive. You better tie me to a rock or a tree.'"

It would take Bell a decade to recoup his memories and regain his abilities, years to learn how to play the guitar again when once it had seemed so natural. He had to begin, in fact, on the piano, forcing his right and left sides to communicate after so much time separated by a head injury that caused Bell to occasionally nod out, drool, and stutter. When he finally picked up his guitar, Bell found the bronze strings had turned green, oxidized from non-use.

Yeah, Bell has one hell of a story to tell, from the promising beginning to the ghastly middle to the happy ending. Phoenix is the last chapter of that old tale and the first of the new story Bell begins to recount with the enthusiasm of a man who still struggles every day to get out of bed and who could still "drown in a glass of water," as Bell says in the language that only comes naturally to poets and priests.

Bell recorded the album in 1994 in the Tenderloin section of San Francisco--the city's "urban war zone," as Bell calls it--with Bob Dylan's old pal Bob Neuwirth producing. The sessions began almost painfully for Bell, who presented Neuwirth with a book of 130 songs Bell had written and remembered from the past 25 years; they were in the form of poems, scribbled in a journal Bell takes with him wherever he goes, and in which he is always keeping notes and writing down newfound memories. There was no music.

Neuwirth would flip through the book and then ask Bell about particular songs. Bell would say it was one he had written in Lake Tahoe in 1977 or in Houston in 1980 or wherever he headed after the accident to put as much distance between himself and the scene of the crime. Then Bell would have to remember and relearn the song, trying to grasp it out of thin air.

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