Rex "Wrecks" Bell Is Just Playing
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.
"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."
Bell said it was only at the Houston memorial tribute to Van Zandt that he came around. "They assigned people songs to play there and they asked me to play 'Rex's Blues,'" he remembered. "So up until then, which was about '97 or '98, I didn't even really know how to play 'Rex's Blues.'"
Today, now that he has survived, Bell is flattered. At last, he has come to terms with the song, to see it as an honor.
"He just wrote down the truth about me," Bell said. "'Ride the blue wind high and free' — all those words are true."
"So tell my baby I said so long,
tell my mother I did no wrong,
tell my brother to watch his own,
and tell my friends to mourn me none."
By Bell's recollection, the last 20 years of his life are pretty much stolen time.
Van Zandt and Bell met and bonded through booze. They were first introduced one night in the late '60s at the Sand Mountain Coffeehouse on lower Richmond Avenue, not far from where Maria Selma and the Menil Annex are today.
Sand Mountain was a dry venue, but Van Zandt had discovered a way around that — he artfully positioned his chair near an open window, out of which he suspended a rope that was knotted around the neck of a jug of wine. On meeting Bell, Van Zandt reeled in the hooch and offered up a shot, and a three-decade friendship was born.
Before Van Zandt's death on New Year's Day in 1997, the two of them would share dozens of shows and millions of laughs, spread across many thousands of road miles, all fueled by great lakes of booze and narcotics enough to stagger an elephant herd.
There was the time they were arrested in Nacogdoches and taken to jail, Van Zandt with his face painted like Crazy Horse and Bell with each of his fingernails painted a different color. ("I told everybody I was teaching myself to play bass using the color system," Bell said. "That was a good night in jail. We needed the rest.")
But eventually alcohol would claim one and nearly both of them. "I tried to keep up with Townes and it almost killed me," Bell said. "But Townes didn't care. He was destined to drink himself to death. He would even talk about it. He would say, 'My mission is not quite over.'"
The two also messed around with other substances, especially heroin. "I remember one time in 1971, we were in New York playing the Pratt Institute, and Townes wanted to score some heroin, so he left me at this bar where I just knew I was gonna get stabbed," Bell remembered. "But it was February in New York City and friggin' freezin'. An hour, maybe two pass, and Townes comes in with no hat and no coat. And he goes, 'Man, I talked 'em into lettin' me keep my boots.'"
Van Zandt's oldest son, J.T., had a front-row seat for many of Bell's antics. Over the phone from his home outside Austin, he recalled one such incident from the mid-1980s.
J.T. was then in high school and living with his mother in Houston, but was in Nashville on a Christmas visit with his dad and the elder Van Zandt's then-new wife Jeanene. At that time, Townes was in what passed for him as a settled, domestic phase — busy raising Will, his and Jeanene's young son. The Van Zandt family was sitting around watching TV late one night — you get the impression from J.T. that they might well have been sipping hot chocolate and watching It's a Wonderful Life — when there came a sharp knock at the door.
It was Bell. He had driven the 700-plus miles from Houston to the Van Zandt home, and there he stood, utterly unannounced and highly intoxicated, on some mission only he could understand.
"He was just lit, like in a blackout, and we go out to his car," J.T. recalled. "Well, there was like four empty Jack Daniel's bottles on the floorboards. Then he goes to open the trunk. Since it was around Christmas, we knew something good was gonna come out of there. He gets out this old vinyl, brass-buckled trunk, and it was just loaded with about 80 years' worth of drugs — bricks and bricks and bricks of marijuana and big bags of cocaine. Just the Jack Daniel's bottles would have been enough to get him in serious trouble, and there were also about 30 or 40 pounds of marijuana and probably four or five ounces of cocaine in there.
"And you know, Townes was pretty hard to shock, right?" the younger Van Zandt continued. "But even he was like, 'Man, you can't bring that shit in here.'"
"I wasn't awake during the '80s," Bell claimed, on hearing this tale. "That's my official response. The cocaine doesn't seem to fit that time frame. Are the statute of limitations out on that yet?"
The younger Van Zandt figured he might say that. "I was there and I was sober, and he wasn't," J.T. said. "He probably doesn't even remember any of that."
Bell does remember another, even darker, cross-country trek to Nashville from about that time. He fled there for refuge after almost getting shot by a guy who was looking to kill a ne'er-do-well buddy of Bell's.
"This Mexican guy was willing to kill me just to get to this heroin dealer who was at my house," he said. "And Townes was there, and this guy who was selling ounces of heroin. And this guy shot at me point-black straight at my chest — I don't know how he missed me, and then we ended up holed up in my kitchen. Me, Townes and his girlfriend, and the drug dealer, who also had a gun."
This siege went on for what seemed like several hours. "The Mexican guy didn't know there was a light on behind him and he was silhouetted, so we could have shot him at any moment, but I was telling everybody not to shoot," Bell recalled. "I told the Mexican guy that the guy he was looking for had run out the front door, and we tossed him some heroin, and he left."
So did Bell shortly after that, on another of his Fear and Loathing-esque Nashville gallivants. But this time it wasn't only Houston that disappeared in his rearview mirror. "It was my last experience with heroin," he said. "That was what it took for me to come around. It's stupid that you have to let things go so awry that you almost lose your life. I mean, the guy was going to kill me just to get to this guy."
So, like many reformed heroin addicts, Bell returned for a time — and with a vengeance — to his first and most enduring drug of choice: booze. "The heroin thing was just a very small part of Townes and me's life," Bell said. "All the people that do the biographies and the books would play that up because it makes a better story to have an illegal drug be the culprit, but really, it wasn't."
Bell recalled Townes taking him and the rest of the band on the road on occasion simply because they were having trouble scoring drugs in Houston. "But you could always find a liquor store," Bell pointed out. "You can't find a cocaine or heroin dealer in every town, but you can find liquor in every single city. But these writers love to dwell on Townes and me being into heroin and not the 40 years we drank a fifth of vodka every 30 minutes."
By the late '80s, Bell was wrestling with a formidable midlife crisis. He had always been on the fringes of glory and never at the center. When not backing Van Zandt, Lucinda or Lightnin', Bell was trying to make it on his own as a member of his band the Hemmer Ridge Mountain Boys. (Signature song: a druggy rewrite of Johnny Cash's "I've Been Everywhere" called "I've Done Everything.") He had seen friend after friend go on to national record deals and international fame — not just the people he backed, but also good buddies and pickin' partners like Guy Clark, ZZ Top and Rodney Crowell, to name a few — and he thought that kind of success would come to him, too.
But like a lot of musicians, once he hit 40, he started to wonder, to question whether any of his life's work up to that point was worth yet another low-paying gig in front of the same 80 drunks who showed up every time. Meanwhile, his friends — the ones who didn't quite make it, like him — were starting an exodus toward early graves. Others, like Hemmer Ridge Mountain Boy guitarist Mickey White, were dropping out, getting sober, settling down, raising families. The childless Bell never saw that as an option. In fact, 20 years ago, he saw no options at all.
"In about '89, I tried to drink myself to death," Bell said. "I ended up in the V.A. hospital. Sobering up changed my life. I thought I was a star, and I wasn't a star. I was just playing a star. It was kind of a rude awakening. I'm not bitter about it. I had such a great life playing with all these people, but I always thought I was gonna make it, too."
Today, he says he can see that his efforts were far from wasted, even if he was throughout much of them. "Now I can look back and see I had so many opportunities playing with Townes and Lightnin' and Lucinda and all these people, but I also missed so many opportunities."
But he'd rather look back on the chances he did seize. And it's easy to now, or at least it was before the storm. He was constantly reminded of them. The walls of the Old Quarter were adorned with pictures of Bell's gory glory days — Bell and Van Zandt looking high as two tomcats in a catnip patch in full '70s hippie regalia; Bell with surviving members of the Hopkins family at the dedication of Lightnin's statue in Crockett, Texas; Bell and protégé Carll onstage at this very club. Some of them might have survived the storm — maybe all of them did.
"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.
"You know, I got drunk, I did some drugs and I didn't know she was a year underage, but that was when I was 21 myself," he said, referring to his current girlfriend, with whom he had long ago had an illegal relationship. "Now she tells me she was only 15. I coulda gone to jail for that, and if God's gonna punish me for that, I guess I'm in trouble."
"We're not gonna make it through this life, we know that," Bell continued, and thought for a second. He smiled as the words came to him.
"So I just tell people that life is a nagging health problem that eventually cures itself."
Afterword: Bell, his brother and sister-in-law, and his two dogs evacuated Galveston Island before the storm struck and rode it out in a Motel 6 on Highway 290.
Reached at the end of one of many long days after the storm, Bell said that his house appears to be okay. "It's pretty far out west and right in the middle of the island," he says. "It's neither bay side nor beach side. Plus, I am insured to the hilt."
The Old Quarter, on the other hand, might be a total loss. "I wasn't insured at all," he says. "Unless I can get some help, we won't be reopening."
But there is that word: "unless." Bell's friends are already rallying. J.T. Van Zandt led a game if futile drive to move the September 16 Ramblin' Jack Elliott show to a Houston venue with power. J.T., Hayes Carll and Jesse Dayton are already planning Old Quarter benefits.
Once again, Bell's friends and fans will try to help him ride out even this bluest of winds and on past the misery.
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