Rex "Wrecks" Bell Is Just Playing

The Galveston singer-songwriter spent a lot of years on the periphery of music greatness and right in the middle of its excesses

 Foreword: Much of the reporting of this feature took place before Hurricane Ike. On the eve of the storm, Rex Bell sent the following e-mail out to his mailing list: "Well, I'm a Gulf Coast boy, when I get scared, everyone should, I'm scared. The Shows are canceled this Fri. & Saturday. Thank goodness Motel 6 accepts dogs, that way I can bring my girlfriend, JUST JOKING.

"I do have a sick brother and two dogs. I will take them with me to a Motel 6 north of Houston. The Ramblin' Jack show is tentative, he is taking Amtrak from L.A. I will know by Saturday. Right now, they are not running any trains through east Texas.

"The show is sold out, I will refund all moneys if we can't rebook immediately.

Pre-Ike, Rex "Wrecks" Bell sits onstage at Galveston's Old Quarter nightclub. Wrecks and the flags survived the hurricane.
Daniel Kramer
Pre-Ike, Rex "Wrecks" Bell sits onstage at Galveston's Old Quarter nightclub. Wrecks and the flags survived the hurricane.
Wrecks, far right, is the sole survivor of this crew of legendary troubadours.
Courtesy Rex Bell
Wrecks, far right, is the sole survivor of this crew of legendary troubadours.

"I guess I have gained a lot of inner strength through the years, it comes in very handy now.

"God Speed. I'm fine, make sure you are too. Wrecks."

"Ride the blue wind high and free,

she'll lead you down through misery.

Leave you low come time to go,

alone and low as low can be."

"Rex's Blues," Townes Van Zandt

At long last, bassist, singer-songwriter, club owner and bona fide Texas music legend Rex "Wrecks" Bell had found salvation from both the bottle and the needle. And he did so not through God or a 12-step program. No — the way Bell stiff-armed his demons was the same way he wallowed in them — he opened a bar.

He was utterly relaxed and content as he sat at his desk in the office of Galveston's Old Quarter, the folk/country/rock/blues nightclub he opened in 1996 to succeed the hippie-era Houston incarnation of the same club, and the tales were flowing fast and loose as he remembered his past and reveled in his pre-storm present.

"I quit a $50,000-a-year job selling boxes to come do this, and it was the best move of my life," said the 63-year-old redhead between bites on a veggie-laden, though not vegetarian, sandwich. "I thought, 'Man, I'm gonna die on the Gulf Freeway wearing a tie,' and I just ­panicked."

There was much to crow about in his new career. "I'm doing so damn well here, I think I'm gonna have to start telling people not to come." (Unfortunately, that problem has been taken care of, at least for the time being.)

He'd just landed a major coup for September. Legendary 77-year-old folksinger Ramblin' Jack Elliott called him out of the blue and asked to play a gig. Elliott is one of the few artists alive today who influenced both Bob Dylan and Bell's old friend Townes Van Zandt. "He said he had recorded [Van Zandt's] 'Rex's Blues' with Emmylou Harris and wanted to meet the man who inspired the song," Bell enthused. He smiled wryly: "Of course, I had to tell him he had already met me, four or five times. Well, he is 77."

The original Old Quarter, which still stands (today, as a law office) at the corner of Congress and Austin, was where Townes Van Zandt recorded his very finest album — Live at the Old Quarter, Houston, Texas, in 1973. (The album wasn't released until 1977.)

The Galveston Old Quarter — slogan: "Where Lyrics Still Count" — has brought a touch of laid-back smarts and original music to a newly gentrified, increasingly yupped-out downtown Galveston. Earlier this decade, it was the launching pad for the career of Hayes Carll, one of the hottest young talents in Texas music. Ten years ago, you could have found the fresh-out-of-college Carll singing for tips at the Old Quarter on open-mike night; earlier this summer, Don Imus called Carll's "She Left Me for Jesus" "the greatest country song ever written."

Carll is just the latest in a long line of Lone Star legends Bell has helped along the way. This is a man who has played bass with three of the most storied musicians ever to come from Houston: Van Zandt, Lightnin' Hopkins and Lucinda Williams.

And not only that — he also was the inspiration for Van Zandt's song "Rex's Blues," which has since been recorded by Son Volt, Guy Clark, Steve Earle, David Olney and James McMurtry, among ­others.

Most Van Zandt fans consider "Rex's Blues" to be among his finest songs, both melodically and lyrically, but for a long time, Bell was not one of those people. In fact, he found it hard to listen to "Rex's Blues" during the time that the song's more depressing verses still served as an accurate portrait of his life.

"Townes wrote that song about me, and it could have been about anybody," Bell said. "It could have been about [fellow crazed Texas musician] Blaze [Foley], it could have been 'Blaze's Blues,' it could have been 'Townes's Blues,' it could have been a lot of people's blues. And I hated that song. Hated it.

"It's really not flattering at all," he continued. "But it's so true. It really does depict Townes and I when we were doin' our drugs and drinkin' and all these dangerous things. He would always ask me to leave the stage when he would play it. I never did ask him why — I saw it as a good chance to go back to the green room and get a shot of vodka — but he never would let me play it with him."

Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

Hey Rex, I'm sure you don't remember me, but you might remember my older sister, Pam Slaughter, from the Old Quarter Houston days in the early 60's.  Pam Is alive and well, albeit without a home computer at the time.  She asked me to look for you, and this is what I found.  I do remember you and Dale and many happenings back in the day.  Would love to hear from you and will gladly pass along Pam's phone number.  She would be floored by a call or text from you.  Much good memories, Jed Slaughter

Houston Concert Tickets

Concert Calendar

  • April
  • Sun
  • Mon
  • Tue
  • Wed
  • Thu
  • Fri
  • Sat

Find Any Show in Town