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Bill Bentley Goes Online with Sonic Boomers

Native Houstonian creates Web site for boomer music fans

Bill Bentley has been going to a lot of funerals lately. Both of the 57-year-old Houston native's parents passed away in the last year, each time necessitating trips back to Texas from his long-time home in L.A. What's more, the two fields of endeavor he has devoted the last few decades to — print media and the major-label record industry — are fast wilting in the Internet's all-encompassing radiance.

While it's hyperbole to call either dead, both are definitely, as they say in northern England, "not so well." But Bentley, along with a Houston investor he wishes to keep anonymous, is doing something about it. April marked the launch of Sonic Boomers (www.sonicboomers.com), a Web site Bentley hopes will serve as something like Pitchfork for the older set, or maybe something like No Depression on the Web.

As with Pitchfork, Sonic Boomers presents both news and reviews. The difference is that while Pitchfork is consumed with the goings-on and recordings of acts like MGMT and Yeasayer, Bentley's site links to stories about Dave Grohl jamming with Led Zeppelin and serves up Bud Scoppa-penned analyses of albums by Steely Dan's Walter Becker, not to mention Bentley's own reviews of subdudes, Carlene Carter and Joe Higgs platters. And instead of Pitchfork's cadre of young and at times wildly solipsistic critics, Bentley is trotting out gold-plated bylines such as John Morthland, Dave Marsh and Greil Marcus.

"The Web is where everything's going," Bentley says over the phone from his office in Los Angeles. "That's why I started Sonic Boomers. I'm a print guy to the death. I used to hang out at the Post with my dad, and I helped start a newspaper, and that's what I love the most, but I just saw that you couldn't start a magazine today."

That's an alarming prospect for someone like Bentley. The son of old daily Houston Press and Houston Post cartoonist and graphic artist Bud Bentley, the younger Bentley was literally born into print, and has had as long and worthy a career behind the music scenes as his old high school friend/rival Billy Gibbons has had under the lights.

Bentley is in uncharted waters. He believes, with some justification, that older music fans are underserved on the Web; so far nobody's been able to come up with that one must-bookmark site. And Sonic Boomers is not there yet. As Jennifer Maerz points out in the SF Weekly article, so far there's a static quality to the site. Content stays up too long, and it lacks the bells and whistles (read: video and streaming audio/free MP3s) necessary in the brave new digital world. And how to monetize this stuff is still the big question.

But if anybody can pull it off, it's Bentley. Few people in the business have as much enthusiasm or as many vital connections as he does.

And it all started in Houston...

Bentley grew up off Westheimer near what is now the Galleria. As with millions of his fellow boomers, he was transfixed by Elvis's historic 1956 performance on the Ed Sullivan Show, and he recalls that thereafter, his mother would always buy him an Elvis single every time he would go with her to the Henke's on Westheimer.

Other outings yielded more immediate pleasures. Back then, Bentley recalled, the Post was on Dowling Street, and Bentley looked forward to going to Third Ward to pick up his dad, because he could hear the amplified licks of people like Albert Collins, Pete Mayes and Johnny Copeland billowing out of the clubs a block away. "So that was what got me into the blues," he says.

And if they took West Gray home, Bentley recalled, they would often see Lightnin' Hopkins picking away out in front of an ice-house. "And that just completely blew my mind," he remembers.

Family trips to Galveston yielded even more exotic fare — Bongo Joe, a fez-sporting, eccentric street poet who set his free-form lyrics to beats on a homemade drum kit made of discarded oil drums. "He used to play on the Seawall right in front of the gift shops near the Galvez Hotel," Bentley says. "That's what got me hooked on drums — I became a drummer from seeing Bongo Joe. Everything lit up, I could just see that this was the music, right there in front of me, that really got inside of me."

As Bentley remembers it, music all but died when Elvis went in the Army and returned as a cheesy movie star. But then fate intervened in the form of Bentley's older brother. When Bentley was all of 12 years old, his brother took him to see James Brown at the Paladium Ballroom which was then on Southmore. "I got to go to a nightclub, and it was just, you know, James Brown full-tilt. That was right after [Live at the Apollo] had come out. So that was the eye-opener in terms of live music."

Bentley was obsessed from then on, and he describes the Houston from 1962 to 1968 as about as good a music town as you could find anywhere. Oh, the shows he saw: the Everly Brothers and Jerry Lee Lewis at the Coliseum with (ha ha) Ray Stevens opening; Bobby "Blue" Bland at the Cinder Club; Juke Boy Bonner in Fifth Ward jukes; Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson in a long engagement in a dive off Almeda called the Mark IV; B.J. Thomas and Roy Head battling it out in Van's Ballroom... Bentley says the stories he tells set the British musicians he has come to know to drooling with envy.

Bentley was inspired enough to start a band at Lamar High School called the Aggregation, which, he says, got its ass kicked in every talent show it ever played. The usual victors were their rivals from Lee High School, a band called the Coachmen which featured Billy Gibbons on lead guitar.

It was around that time that kids started getting into pot and acid. Bentley got into the 13th Floor Elevators when they were still parked in the lobby and rode them until they ran out of steam. (Even today, on his Facebook profile, Bentley lists his religion as "13th Floor Elevators.") Bentley says he was at every one of their shows at both locations of La Maison and also caught the band in its long fade-out era when it would play at David Adickes's Love Street Light Circus on Allen's Landing. (Years later, Bentley would produce Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, a 1990 all-star tribute to the Elevators and Roky Erickson.)

Meanwhile, across town at the Galleria-area Catacombs, Bob Cope was bringing in the top touring acid-rock and heavy rock bands — people like the Grateful Dead, Moby Grape, Frank Zappa and Jeff Beck. As Bentley recalls, the usual opener was Billy Gibbons's new band, the Moving Sidewalks. Meanwhile in Montrose and what is now the Museum District, there was an avant-garde, ex-beatnik scene centered around the University of St. Thomas. The de Menils hosted a club for young filmmakers and once brought in Andy Warhol for a weekend. Mayo Thompson and the Red Krayola, Houston's first noise band, eventually came out of that Montrose demimonde. And the folk scene that would eventually produce Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle and Eric Taylor was just starting to come to life.

Yep, it was a helluva music town. Bentley says up until 1968, Houston was a city with no rules, no boundaries, save for staying out of country music bars, where longhairs could expect an ass-kicking. White kids could go to black clubs and be treated like family. According to Bentley, all that came to a screeching halt in 1968. "What killed Houston for us in terms of music appreciation was King's assassination," Bentley says. "That was the end. You did not feel welcome in the clubs anymore, and I totally understand why. We were blamed for his death, and I think rightly so — I mean not everybody, but the white race."

After moving to Austin for college, between gigs drumming in a band called LeAnne and the Bizarros with original Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison, Bentley had a hand in the founding of the Austin Sun, a forerunner to the Austin Chronicle. After relocating to Los Angeles in 1980, he served as the music editor at the then-fledgling L.A. Weekly, now a sister paper to the Press. From there Bentley jumped to the ranks of the flacks, through which he rose slowly from indie label Slash to senior vice-president of media relations for Warner Brothers. While at Slash and Warner's, Bentley worked closely with Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, Green Day, R.E.M., X, Lou Reed and the Replacements.

Warner Brothers canned Bentley in 2006 in one of what has since proved to be many cost-cutting convulsions to wrack the labels. Speaking to SF Weekly, Bentley sounded relieved to have been let go. "I love doing press, but the labels got to be so hard to work at," he said. "The money got smaller and everybody just got mean. Labels are a battered bunch. Publicists just don't have as much fun as they used to. Each [record] that fails, it's like the [labels] hold you personally accountable for its failure. It's like, 'Man, you guys put out the wrong records.' Warner was such a good label, though, for so many years."

And it was a helluva industry for so many years too. Bentley was there from the very inception to the meltdown of today, and here's hoping he can make the jump to today's leaner, meaner music business.

john.lomax@houstonpress.com

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