A Promise Fulfilled

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."

The first song Bell played on his guitar, years after the wreck, was "I Shall Be Released."

Bell is far beyond that simple two-chord progression now, though. He walks just fine with the help of a cane, and he speaks, as he likes to say, "better than the damn operator." The promise of his former life holds true in the songs that he's recorded on Phoenix -- wrenchingly felt meditations on love and loss that straddle all sorts of musical lines, breaking down distinctions between folk and blues and lyric confession even as they make those lines irrelevant in the face of a singularly tried-by-fire voice.

Bob Neuwirth, producer extraordinaire and onetime road manager for Bob Dylan, heard the honest ache in that voice and asked to produce the album, to which a flattered Bell responded, "Okay, you decide the songs, you decide the players, you produce the album. I'll come in and sing and play the best notes I can for you."

Neuwirth brought in a supporting cast for Bell's debut that would be the envy of any artist: Geoff Muldaur on mandolin, David Mansfield on violin, Stephen Bruton on guitars, John Cale on piano, Lyle Lovett and Victoria Williams on vocals, and little known but top-notch washtub bassist Fritz Richmond. The crew holed up in a studio in San Francisco's Tenderloin district for four eight-hour days and emerged with Phoenix, which Bell rightly describes as "a beast of a brave little album."

For openers, Neuwirth chose the session's only cover, fellow Houstonian Gary Burgess' frighteningly resonant "Frankenstein." Over a delicately spooky fingerpicked pattern, Bell's pained vocal sings, "My brain is always running and ticking / My arms and legs tremble to my feet / I try to walk straight and tall and narrow, it's just a stagger with a beat," and you know he knows whereof he speaks. It's an impression that holds fast through a lilting duet with Williams on "Hard Road," the rough-and-tumble country blues of "Troubletown," and "I've Had Enough," which may be the single most clear-eyed exposition of the cruelty of love that stops working ever committed to song. That's just a sample. Every song here gives the feeling of being hard won, and there's not a dud in the bunch. It's music that doesn't serve well as background, but up close and personal, it's more revealing, and more satisfying, than most conversation.

Aside from a liner note by T Bone Burnett that points out Bell's unique situation of being a writer who's read his own obituary (Bell says he's never actually read the thing, but it did run in the Austin-American Statesman the morning after the accident), there's no direct reference to the wreck on the album, and anyone trying to read the lyrics as therapeutic will have to make a grand stretch. Nonetheless, Bell's return from the brink after so much promise cut short makes for a journalistically tempting angle, and Phoenix has been enthusiastically received as the album of a lifetime. Bell's first review appeared in Rolling Stone.

But the rave that meant the most to Bell came two years ago, when he joined David Rodriguez and Townes Van Zandt in a songwriter circle at Main Street Theater for Linda Lowe's Writers in the Round Series.

"As it turns out, this world has made a true poet out of me. Townes Van Zandt said that about me, and it flattered me to no end."

Lots of things flatter Bell these days, and, maybe because it's so unlikely that he's still here at all, the little victories are a constant source of surprised pleasure. He's written a song every 60 days for 22 years, he tells me. "Can you believe that? That's just unbelievable to me." He was tickled pink when the new fingerpicking style he's had to invent drew the admiring attention of Geoff Muldaur, and he's flabbergasted to have John Cale -- "I mean, from the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, good Lord!" -- on his album of what he calls "my skinny little songs."

But what Bell is happiest with is having traveled the road back to normal.
"If there's anything that I'm good at now," he says, "it's not playing the damn guitar or singing the notes. It's not allowing you to see the liabilities that I hold to yesterday. That's the fact of the matter."

Vince Bell celebrates the release of Phoenix at 8 p.m., Saturday, October 22 at Anderson Fair. Call 528-8576 for info.


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