Out of Townes

Possessed of both a wild streak and a wry sense of humor, Rex "Wrecks" Bell would seem the perfect candidate to lead his own band. Yet for most of his career, the bassist has been content to play the role of sideman and impresario. He dutifully served as right-hand man to two indisputably legendary figures, plucking the bass behind Lightnin' Hopkins (for the last decade of the Third Ward griot's life) and for Townes Van Zandt (whose "Rex's Blues" was written for the sideman). Still, people couldn't help but notice Bell. Perhaps it was his fashion sense.

Once, on tour with Van Zandt, he and the troubadour ran afoul of the boys in blue, and Bell found himself answering some tough questions. "I had a girlfriend who painted all my fingernails different colors," he says. "And people would ask me why, and I would say, "Oh, I learned to play bass on the color system.' So Townes and I were busted in Nacogdoches one night, and his whole face was painted like an Indian's. We spent the night in jail, and they said, "Are you with the guy with the painted face?' Actually it was a pretty good night in jail. We needed the rest."

The stories fly fast and loose from Bell. There are plenty about Van Zandt, of course, and a good number about Lightnin', too. Then there are the tales about his original Old Quarter nightclub in downtown Houston, starring a virtual who's who list of early-'70s folk, rock and blues artists. But a growing number of stories concern his latest incarnation of the Old Quarter, this one in downtown Galveston.

Freshly married and two years sober, Bell has traded his bass for an acoustic guitar and has emerged from the sideman shadows with a fine album of his own. The Ray Wylie Hubbard-produced Dog's Life finds the perpetual bridesmaid walking down the aisle at last. Unlike his 1998 debut, Wrecks' Blues, a Van Zandt tribute album, Dog's Life is a true Rex Bell record. Sure, Van Zandt gets his due -- there are two covers and one Townes-inspired tune -- but at long last we get to hear what that erstwhile bassist with the multicolored nails has on his mind.

Bell has a rare sense of humor, capable of wringing the blues out of even the saddest bones, a trait readily apparent throughout Dog's Life. On the cowboy jazzy "Somebody to Impress," he sings, "I built the fastest car / I won the human race / I invented a new nickel worth a dime / I've got peace in the Middle East in my attaché / Is that enough to make you mine?" On the Lightnin' Hopkins-style "Dollar Blues," Bell offers, "Well I may be rich, but I'd give it all for a little more." These Bell originals provide further evidence as to how Wrecks has been able to charm everyone he's met, including the perpetually tortured poet Van Zandt, who had difficulty making it from day to day.

Bell was raised in Texas City, but he quickly adds, "I had a car, so I was from Galveston." In 1962 he enlisted in the U.S. Army and was shipped off to the Pacific, just not to the war. "I didn't make it to Vietnam," he says. "I made it to Hawaii. During my three years of service, not one Vietcong made it onto Waikiki Beach."

Bell then conceived of running a nightclub as a way to be around music while he learned to play. After mustering out in late 1965, Bell worked in a VA hospital and saved up, occasionally playing a songwriter's night in Houston's prehistoric folk scene. This was a genteel, gently leftist world, exemplified by hootenannies at the Jewish Community Center or placid nights at Mrs. Carrick's vehemently dry Sand Mountain Coffeehouse. Then, far from Houston, in Newport, Rhode Island, Bob Dylan plugged in, and folk was henceforth divided by the same generation gap that marked the rest of society in the late '60s.

Shortly thereafter Bell opened the Old Quarter on Congress Avenue near the city jail. This was not your mother's folk venue, nor Mrs. Carrick's. "At my place you could hear the same people [who played at Sand Mountain], but you could drink beer and you could smoke joints on the roof."

Van Zandt quickly made the Old Quarter his home club, and there helped to inspire a generation of Houston-bred songwriters. Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Lucinda Williams and Rodney Crowell, to name but the most famous, all got their earliest gigs at the Old Quarter. In the national popular-music imagination, these are Austin songwriters, but Bell knows better. "Yeah, they'd go play Austin," he says. "But they were from Houston, they lived in Houston, and they were in my club just about every week."

Unfortunately the Houston police of the time took a dim view of Bell's club. Perhaps it was the long hair, or perhaps it was the dreaded integration of blacks and whites at a Lightnin' Hopkins or Big Walter Price show. Perhaps it was the joints on the roof. Whatever the reason, the police viewed the Old Quarter as but a hippie pleasure palace to raid at will. In 1973 a harassed Bell sold out to partner Dale Soffar. "Listen, there were no civil rights back then," he says. "Literally every week I would go to jail. They once took me to jail just for having "Donald Duck Is a Jew' written on my walls."

Bell and flatpicker extraordinaire Mickey White then formed the Hemmer Ridge Mountain Boys and hired on as Van Zandt's band for tour of the west, a liquor-drenched trek that was captured in songwriter Richard Dobson's 1998 book, The Gulf Coast Boys. Later the Boys backed Lucinda Williams on her second album, Happy Woman Blues. The Boys disbanded in the early '80s, and Bell went on to play bass with a rock band called the Louvres and with Andy King and the Blues Mechanics. Eventually he dropped out of music and toiled an "empty" eight years as a box salesman.

When Bell re-entered music, it was again through the door of the Old Quarter. He officially reopened the club in 1995 in Galveston. Within a week Van Zandt booked a gig, the first of two there before his death. Since then the club has attracted talent that normally wouldn't step foot onto Galveston. And yet Bell was still in the shadows.

Enter Barry Snell. The San Antonio attorney wanted to meet the Rex of "Rex's Blues" fame, and to hear his music. The two hit it off immediately, and Snell thought it an injustice that Bell had never made a CD of his own. So in 1997 they went into the studio with some of Bell's friends and made Wrecks' Blues. Shaken by the death of Van Zandt earlier that year, Bell did not want to take center stage, and as a result the album featured only songs written by Van Zandt. It was, at best, a tentative step toward artistic freedom.

Much the same could be said about Dog's Life. Yet for a guy who has been in the shadows for three decades, the album is indeed a bold step. As the title suggests, Bell is content these days. "I'm living a dog's life, I really am. I get to fish all the time. I've got a house, a lovely wife, a club and a golf cart."

What more could a man need? Except, perhaps, a little overdue recognition.

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax