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A Promise Fulfilled

Vince Bell returns from the brink with hard-won songs of love and loss

Songwriter Vince Bell is sitting on the other end of the line, which is somewhere in the Fredericksburg home he shares with his wife, and his straining voice -- imagine a whisper threading its way through gravel -- is asking the mostly rhetorical question: "What medical therapy exists in this world to teach you how to get up in front of a thousand people and get an encore?" The correct answer is the obvious one: none at all.

It's not a question too many performers have had occasion to ask, but the 43-year-old Bell has had to ask lots of questions and been compelled to perform many tasks that the common man will never have to consider. Tasks like learning to walk. Learning to speak. Never mind learning to play a guitar. Hard enough, surely, the first time around, but powerfully daunting when you have to master those basic capabilities a second time, midlife. "Learning to play the guitar the first time," he says, "was a can of worms in a plastic bag. Learning the second time was just cruel."

That's what Vince Bell has gone through this past decade, which would make for one torrential tearjerker of an against-all-odds inspirational made-for-TV movie and little more if Bell hadn't just released the long-delayed first shot in a career rudely interrupted 12 years ago: the achingly beautiful Phoenix on Austin's Watermelon Records. What's even more striking is that from the evidence of the music, you wouldn't know that there was anything out of the ordinary to Bell's story but a powerful talent for writing gruffly beautiful lyric music. That, unlike the long delay, is by plan.

"I can recall saying to myself, "I just want to be normal. I just want to be like everybody else. I just want to get along so that I can have a little privacy in my life." So that everybody in the room can't tell that I'm head injured, can't tell that I'm hurt."

Here's how it went down.
During Christmas week, 1982, a Dallas-born, Houston-bred ex-football player named Vince Bell was in an Austin studio laying down reference vocals for a demo tape he was recording. Buddies like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Johnson were helping out. Bell, then 32, was floating with the cream of the Houston songwriter crop, those second generation idolizers of Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark who learned their chops, Bell remembers, "on Richmond Avenue in the old Sand Mountain Coffeehouse, back when you used to drink cherry cokes with whipped cream on top; they didn't have alcohol. Those were the bad old days."

The real bad old days dawned on Bell when he left that studio.
"I left that damn session going home that night about one o'clock, and somebody hit me in the driver's side door going 65 miles an hour. I was at a stoplight. It knocked me out the other door. It did not open; it squashed me out through the door and the roof, left me 50 feet away face down in a pool of gasoline."

Bell went into a coma, and when he woke up in the hospital, the connections between his brain and the rest of his body were so degraded that he seemed to have been separated into two people. "The guy on the left was asleep over in the corner; the guy on the right was destroyed," he recalls. His right arm was totally unworkable, his left side was "dyslexic," and the armature of his mouth, he says, was "just fucked." He was what the medical profession disingenuously calls head injured, and although he underwent physical therapy during his hospital stay, it wasn't until nine months after his release that he began to understand the extent of the damage he had suffered and sought institutional help.

"I was really hurt, my man, I was just a dim little bulb É I was really out of it. There was no consideration of playing the guitar; there was no consideration of returning to any kind of normalcy. I was so screwed up, like I said, I didn't go to the mental institution for nine months because I didn't know how fucked up I was. I didn't have any idea, until almost a year later, and then I realized that my career had been ended, my life had been ended, among other things."

With that realization came the start of a long process of rehabilitation -- a process made all the more difficult by the fact that no medical authority was willing to risk a prediction on whether Bell might ever walk or speak clearly, much less play guitar again. They didn't know.

"I did one whale of a lot of "firstly lastly costly mostly swiftly ghastly ghostly" that the vocal therapist made me do. I could see a G chord in my head, but I couldn't tell my left hand what to do anymore. I had to re-teach it how to play that damn G chord. Fortunately, I could do it once, twice, three times, four times, and then all of a sudden long-term memory would kick in and I would know what a G chord was. Then I could go to D. I still have to carry a black bag with me everywhere I go. It has my pills, everything from pens to paper to fingernail clippers. It's all in this bag, and I have to carry it with me, because if I don't, I'll wake up over at your house doing an interview and I'll have a headache, and if I don't have those Advils with me, I'm screwed up for a while."

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