By William Michael Smith
By Jef With One F
By Craig Hlavaty
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Sonya Harvey
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Nathan Smith
By Craig Hlavaty
"One thing they always ask me when they do these documentaries and books and stuff is, 'Did you know that you were part of a legend?' No. I didn't. I was just having fun. I knew that both Townes and Lightnin' were really special, but I didn't think, 'Oh, I am part of a legend.' When you are young you don't think that."
"I'm chained upon the face of time,
feelin' full of foolish rhyme,
there ain't no dark till something shines,
I'm bound to leave this dark behind."
"I know with my old man, whether they saw each other or not, Wrecks was one of his closest long-term friends," said J.T. Van Zandt. "They never soured. So many other ones did. From the first time they decided to create and do nothing else, they were both on that train, and neither one of them ever compromised to the level that would have disappointed the other one.
"I just can't believe how wild he was and how sweet he is," J.T. continued.
After sobering up, if not quite drying out for good, Bell attempted to go straight for the first time since his days in the Army right out of high school. He took that box salesman's job, got all gussied up in a coat and tie, commuted up and down the freeway, glad-handed prospects and all that Glengarry Glen Ross jive.
But Bell was never meant for the whole "coffee is for closers" routine. It's not that he wasn't good at it; with his charm and razor-sharp patter, he's the kind of guy who could sell smug to San Franciscans by the crate. It's just that he is a natural-born live-music lifer, not to mention a guy who's better suited to the pace on the coast — golf carts instead of fleet vehicles, beach houses instead of ranch houses on cul-de-sacs. The Texas City native is far more a Gulf Coast boy than a Houstonian.
In 1996 he bought a cheap beach house in Bolivar and got in early on the downtown Galveston real estate boom, opening the Old Quarter literally in the shadow of the old Opera House. He managed to hang up his shingle in time to give the then-dying Townes a gig or two, and was shocked by how physically diminished his once-athletic friend was.
"He was my grand opening act in 1996," Bell said. "We're the same age, right? And he stumbled on the grass in front of my house and I kinda caught him. And it was like helping an old man. It was just sad. Townes was like 6'3", and he couldn't have weighed more than 140. When I grabbed him, I was just shocked at how light he was."
By that point, Van Zandt was physically in need of a pick-me-up every morning, Bell recalled. "The next morning, when he got up, he would have to have like half a milk glass full of straight vodka, just to get his hands to stop shaking," he said. "Then he'd brush his teeth, smoke a cigarette, have another little shot and he'd be fine. His usual jovial self."
Somehow Bell has managed to stay his usual jovial self through some seriously trying times — without the use of any of his old trusty crutches. He's been ten years sober this year, but his perch on the wagon was sorely tested in 2005, when his wife LeAnne passed away as the result of a medical error in a Galveston hospital.
Oddly enough, Bell's salvation after the death of his wife came in no small part through the acclaim and the fame he thought had eluded him. Turns out the esteem he had craved so much in the late '80s — so much that he almost killed himself — had belonged to him all along after all.
"I am kinda famous," he said, smiling. "I missed the rich part, but I am famous. I forget how many people know me. When things happen, like when my wife got killed, God, I must have gotten 10,000 e-mails. I ended up reading them all and it was good for me, good therapy."
Before Ike, he seemed like the same old Wrecks who reopened the Old Quarter in 1996 — quick of wit, light on his feet, ever ready with a story for the ages and a laugh from the gut. (Luckily, he had sold the beach house in now-devastated Bolivar and moved to western Galveston Island.)
"He's a heavyweight," J.T. said. "Anyone who walks in the Old Quarter, regardless of their background, Wrecks is in command. He's not some pushover old dopey. He's a significant and very intelligent person in command of all that is around him. He's very smart, he's savvy, he knows what to give a fuck about and what not to."
Looking back on his life, just before yet one more very trying chapter was about to unfold, it was apparent that Bell did indeed.
"I have sinned," he said. "Not bad, though. I think I'll go to heaven. I never killed anybody or molested any children, so I figure I'm not really a bad guy. I have this theory about the people who go to heaven, and it's that you try to be one of those people who don't deserve to go to hell, and then you are probably okay.
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