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."