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.

"The whole process made me feel a whole lot better about my authorship, made me feel good and proud about taking those songs off the backs of matchbooks and bar napkins," Bell says now. "That's the thing about my work--its lyrical agenda is very large. If you're not keeping up with what it's saying to you, you're going to be lost and not understand. The words are the most important part of the music I play. It's a treat.

"I take a lot of pleasure out of twisting a phrase and writing poetry. It's fun, damn it to hell. It's fun to be subtle yet revealing, to learn how to cut to the chase and imply what you want and not declare what you have. You have to imply like an artist. It's been fun to learn those crafts. What a prose writer does with a shovel, a poet does with a microscope. I prefer the art of implication."

Phoenix, a haunting record even when its tempos are quick, is sparse and beautiful; its words leave room for a thousand interpretations, its arrangements invite the listener in for a minute or a lifetime. Bell, aided by the likes of Victoria Williams and former Velvet Underground cellist John Cale, has crafted a record that reeks of near-insanity, death, and vanquished demons that still pop up at night. It is mournful ("Lost to me is how the lives of friends go"), unforgiving ("You were sad to be sorry, you were sorry every day"), painfully honest ("Survivors number a few but seldom do come around"), and poetic even in its use of silence.

It's the record Guy Clark has always wanted to make, and the one Lyle Lovett never will, and one doesn't even need to know Bell's story to find a song like "Frankenstein" (ironically, the only song on the record he did not write) mesmerizing in the way it parallels Bell's life without ever directly addressing the car accident or the tortuous rehab that followed. When he whispers the first line of the song, which is also the first line of the record, you can't help but be sucked into the whole tale. "I got stitches all over my body," he hisses. "I sure wish I was dead."

"When I first heard the record, I went, 'Whoa, pal, this is pretty cool. You can go off and die again if you want,'" Bell says, laughing that hoarse laugh of his. "I looked at that monster figuratively and thought, 'He looks a lot like me.' I had to learn how to walk and talk and play guitar. It was dynamic. It was the best of the John Wayne movies. It was a horrible coincidence that song ['Frankenstein'] came along at a time when I understood every stitch it was talking about."

Not long ago, Bell found himself in the Stouffer Hotel in Austin playing to a ballroom filled with men and women suffering from head injuries. He stood before them, played his songs, and made jokes. He never once treated that audience differently than he did any other, but the whole time he kept thinking, "I am them, and they are me," he says.

"It was a huge room of stuttering, drooling people just like I was," Bell recalls of the night. "I felt more head-injured than I had been in years. I can be real cute when I get on stage--and I'm sure I'll be real cute when I see ya'll in Dallas--but every day when I wake up I'm head-injured. Every fucking morning.

"When I come to Dallas, I'll wear boots and be cute on stage and people will think, 'Isn't he just so erudite?' but when I'll wake up the next morning in Dallas I'll have to go, 'Let's get it together. It's another day.' It's different from the bad old days when I wasn't head-injured. It's a sneaky deal and a serious deal. Some days I'll be walking through the airport and go, 'What airport are you in? Oh, fuck. Let's find out what's going on here.'

"I'm never sure what I should say about this because I'm not sure what difference it makes, but one day I'm recording with Stevie Vaughan and Eric Johnson, and the next day I'm on my ass because someone run over my butt. What I learned is everybody has this kind of stuff, and everybody gets called on the mat. It just doesn't happen the same way for everybody."

Vince Bell performs February 9, 8 p.m., at Uncle Calvin's Coffee Emporium, 9555 N. Central.

The screen is crying
Brad Pitt as Stevie Ray Vaughan? It couldn't be any worse than Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon, and weirder things have happened, but that's the rumored casting surrounding the some-time-in-the-near-future Vaughan biopic from director Robert Rodriguez (El Mariachi, Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn).

Miramax Pictures and Rodriguez, who still lives in Austin, have optioned the rights to the 1994 Vaughan biography, Caught in the Crossfire--written by Texas Monthly senior editor Joe Nick Patoski and co-author Bill Crawford--for $15,000. That sum will increase by $100,000 should Rodriguez actually shoot the film, which he is scheduled to do after he completes his remake of Zorro.

"They have 18 months to make the movie" before the option runs out, Patoski says. "All I hear is he's making Zorro now, and this is the next one." The Hollywood trade magazines are reporting that Jimmie Vaughan has also been signed on as a technical advisor and possibly as a producer--which is hilariously ironic since Vaughan went out of his way to not cooperate with Patoski and Crawford when they were writing their book. As Jimmie's Austin-based manager Mark Proct says, "no one likes the Joe Nick book" among the Vaughan inner circle.

"Well, not so much no one likes the book," Proct says, "but there are some major chronological errors and other major mistakes in the book, and we figure if they're going to make a movie about Stevie, they ought to get it right."

Proct says Vaughan and Rodriguez began speaking about the project when the director was filming From Dusk Till Dawn, which featured one new Jimmie song ("Dengue Woman Blues") and two old Stevie tracks ("Mary Had a Little Lamb" and "Willie the Wimp"). "Jimmie felt like he could communicate with Robert," Proct says. "He's a big fan of Robert's work, but they haven't had a meeting dedicated to the Stevie thing."

The rumors that Pitt will play the late guitarist, who was killed in a helicopter crash in August 1990, have been circulating throughout the film industry for months--so much so that word has it Pitt has rented a house in Austin. Proct says he hasn't been able to get confirmation from Pitt's office about the actor's interest, but, "if I were Miramax, I guess I wouldn't deny it because it will keep the interest way up. Maybe Brad Pitt wouldn't make a bad Stevie."

In related news--well, related to a book about a dead icon, anyway--Patoski's Selena biography, Como la Flor ("Like the Flower"), is due from Little, Brown on April 1. Like the Vaughan book, it was done without the family's OK.

Blond Bomber goes national
Forty years after first appearing on the stage of the Big D Jamboree as a teen-aged boy singing action-packed rockabilly songs, the once and future Blond Bomber is again signed to a national label. Ronnie Dawson has signed to the Cambridge, Mass.-based Upstart Records, a subsidiary of Rounder Records and the home to Nick Lowe, Los Straitjackets, and Big AssTruck. The label will release Dawson's new record, which he recorded last year in England and which still does not have a title, on May 21.

But before then, as reported here a few weeks ago, Dawson will have two of his older records released by the locally based Crystal Clear Sound, which distributed and promoted Dawson's 1994 record Monkey Beat! in the U.S. This month, CCSwill reissue Dawson's Rockinitis, which makes its first appearance in the States and on CD; that will be followed by a rerelease of Rockin' Bones, a collection of Dawson's singles from the 1950s and '60s that will include a long-lost gem that has been sitting in the MCARecords vaults for decades.

Scene, heard
Direct Hit may no longer exist as a record store, but the same-named label is still up and running. Kelly Handran, who began the label out of the Exposition Park store she and husband Sean ran until last year, says the label is releasing three seven-inch singles simultaneously within the next few weeks--one from Girl (fronted by Chris Clardy, formerly of Slowpoke), a split single featuring the Mullens and Mess, and another from the Mood Swings (featuring Joe Jarvis from A.S.D.). Following the release of those three records, which should be in stores within the month, Direct Hit will release a split single from UFOFU and Funland and another from Dooms U.K....

The legendary Tiny Tim-Brave Combo sessions will finally see the light of day: On March 19, Rounder Records will release Girl, a record so astonishing you won't believe it even after you've heard it...

Ethyl Merman ain't Ethyl Merman no more. "The estate of Ethel Merman was going to sue us if we used the name," says frontman Turner Van Blarcum. "We beat ourselves to death for three weeks trying to come up with a new name, but we got on with it, so fuck it." The band's new name is Pump'n Ethyl--the very same moniker that will grace the band's debut CD on DSR (that's Dragon Street Records to you) this month. The album was, for the most part, recorded in one night at Crystal Clear Sound and initially intended as demos for the studio's Steve label; but, as Dragon Street owner David Dennard explains, "I said, 'Shit, this is a fucking great record.'" As such, this will be the first Dragon Street release since 1994's Buick Men from Hagfish, and it includes a cover of Dean Martin's "Everybody Loves Somebody.

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