Thursday, January 21, 2010

MSC: Vince Bell's Lives

The sun and moon and stars make the wind blow
Took me twenty years to understand
Sun & Moon & Stars, Vince Bell

Vince Bell was a gifted musician and songwriter on the 1970s-early-1980s Houston/Austin Texas folk scene when his life was cut short by a carload of drunk Austin teens. He did not die, though many of his friends were told he did. Instead a fortuitous diagnosis by a determined doctor brought him back to life – sort of. He did not die, but the life he had created up until that moment was gone. Vince had years of recovery ahead – physical, emotional, and mental, before he quite literally willed himself back into music. Not only did he have to reclaim his ability to play a guitar, but he had to relearn how to sing, and he had to reclaim the days of his life through the memories of others. Little remained except a conceptual portrait, learned through friends and family, of a young man with a zest for life and a gift for translating it into song. One has to believe it was the music that really saved him. With the help of devoted musicians, friends and loves, he made his way back to being that someone every Texas musician knows by name if not in life. Vince is a living legend. The University of North Texas Press has just released his autobiography “One Man’s Music: The Life and Times of Texas Songwriter Vince Bell” in its Lives of Musicians series. It is complemented by a like-named CD of 14 songs, a musical autobiography reaching back to his pre-wreck days, a set of tunes which speaks eloquently of his road back into life, a man recreating his own history. Here is my assessment of his story in print and on disc.

i feel obliged to start off with a disclaimer ~ i met Vince Bell a couple of times, hardly reason in and of itself to be reticent to write about him, but in that time i was also part of the same intimate music scene he was, we know many of the same people, you know, i hung out. i had been traveling with, playing with, and being sidekick to Lyle Lovett for a few years. we had spent nights camped out at Eric Taylor and Nanci Griffith’s little apartment in the Montrose and played Anderson Fair and other Houston joints that offered a stool and a mic. it was Lyle who called to let me know about the wreck. through Eric and Nanci’s close relationship with Vince i met him and heard him play. but my life, being stretched a lot of directions, didn’t make for me to be any more than an acquaintance. nevertheless my friends were tight with Vince in the way that people of common ground and means often are, and so i knew much about him. i say all this for two reasons: first, that i was sent the book and CD by Vince’s agent Kevin Avery, in order for me to, unpressured, write a review, and i agreed to do so. although this is somewhat standard practice [1], i feel the need to let folks know. and second, because having listened to the CD dozens of times now, and having read the book twice through, i have to tell you that it was like reading about a goodly portion of my own life [2], and not the hard portions about the wreck and the recovery, those belong to Vince alone, but because i know those places and those people, and i was swamped with waves of recognition of place and time and faces. it was all too personal in ways i hadn’t anticipated. one more thing in the way of disclaimers, Kathleen Hudson wrote the foreword, which i didn’t know until i received the book, but she is a close and dear friend, we work together often on music and writing projects, including sharing publishing of up and coming writers.

okay, so now that that’s out of the way, i need to say that i think anyone who has an interest in Texas music should give both of these their time. the book is deeply wrought of frail humanity and evocative of a time now gone. an innocent time? probably not – but hopeful in a way now lost to the cynicism of an age? absolutely. the CD, on the other hand, does something that i consider a mark of great art – it takes a time and place and makes it universal and timeless. for those of us who have lived through deep heartache, wandering needs, a sense of congruent/conflicting hopelessness and belonging, this album strikes deeply. over and over i have been hearing the words “they call me Frankenstein” in my head. we have all been there, although not in the debilitating manner that Vince was, but that’s what resonates, this juxtaposition of our own need to be such a part of the fabric that we are not stared at, but somehow needing to be on stage so that, indeed, we are stared at. and for those reasons we both grieve and celebrate with Vince, such that we can summon the courage to wake up another day and put our feet on the ground – if Vince can, maybe we can too.

i started reading the book first, partly because it showed up in my office late in the day December 22nd, one day off of exactly 27 years since the wreck that nearly cost Vince everything. so when five o’clock rolled around i simply leaned back and got started. as a writer i was immediately struck by something in Vince’s delivery – it felt like he was trying too hard. trying too hard to make each sentence carry freight. big, heavy words, weighted with importance. i knew Vince’s music already of course, but two songs stick with me, as they probably have for many of his fans –Sun & Moon & Stars, and 100 Miles from Mexico. both have been recorded and spread about by such luminary voices as Lyle and Nanci and Denise, not only for the yearning beauty of their melodies, but precisely because they have an ear for the wondrous things language can do, if and when strung together in ways that charm. so in reading those first chapters, i steeled myself to ignore what i thought was the lead in the sentences in order to plumb the depths for his wisdom. and that was easy enough knowing his way in song.

i did not finish reading before needing to take care of some other things and so i headed to town and pushed the CD into my player to listen. criminy, the wounds in that man brought me immediately to tears. right from the first line you can hear his struggle to get the words out, his effort to just breathe and sing, and for god’s sake the pain of all those pent up years of regaining his life. by the time i heard Sun & Moon & Stars and 100 Miles from Mexico i was overwhelmed. of course, the CD is filled with other gems – in fact, for now anyway, my favorite song on the album is Frankenstein. i’m a bit embarrassed by that choice since it’s the only song on the CD not written by Vince, but i think perhaps it’s the song he most makes his own. it sits a pearl amongst his diamonds. and it must be on there for a reason, he must have liked it/identified with it enough to include amongst his own.

the sum total of the hearing is to be once again simultaneously filled with painful sympathy and wonder at the odds Vince overcame. do yourself a favor and listen to the Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett versions of Sun, before you hear it from the master’s own lips. do that for you own sense of appreciation of how one man can write one song about one epiphany, and wring so much from it. Lyle’s and Nanci’s are two versions of the truth, two truths actually, delivered pitch perfectly, and yet the song is woefully incomplete until you hear the Vince version of truth on this CD. and, you know, there was Vince’s delivery of the song before the wreck . . . maybe there’s four truths in that one piece.

for another exercise, listen to Denise Franke’s take on 100 Miles from Mexico, and then Vince’s. we’re not talking about the pop-culture catchphrase “own interpretation” thing here. we’re talking about two honest human beings who find and deliver the same interpretation with compound nuances. to hear Vince sing this song is to understand something about the man. to hear Denise is to be privy to an outside look at that same man.

i had to get all that said in order to say that late that night, when i returned to the book, i found myself doing something completely subconsciously – i was reading all the sentences in that halting lilt i’d heard on the CD, the raw-edged voice, that need to breathe in cadence, that determination to push a word past the tip of his tongue. and everything fell into place. i realized Vince is having a conversation with himself in the early part of the book, convincing himself of the things he no longer remembers, the things he has been told about himself, of the import of them, the way the lives of everyone around him changed in that moment of impact on an Austin street. and suddenly, reading with that cadence myself, all of that leaden language felt instantly perfect, like, here’s this guy, sitting in a smoky bar, rattling off the moments of his life, a life not wholly within his grasp, trying to tell strangers the things he thinks they should know in order to appreciate the gravity of their own lives. i found myself reading/mimicking aloud just to hear that gravelly voice recount the tale. and then the book evolved . . . right along with Vince . . . when his life becomes his again, mentally and emotionally anyway (his body wasn’t quite ready to cooperate), so do the memories, and he writes with ease about them. and the language smoothes and begins to read like a well-written life story, but of a second life. he finally becomes the writer of his own true memories.

i confess that i am addicted to spare, acoustic arrangements of lyrical songs . . . i am about the words first, but the music has to work for me too . . . i have a habit of not reading lyrics when a song is sung, i want to know if they are hearable/understandable and if they are palpably one with the tune . . . and i don’t read the liner notes first either, don’t want to know technical details before i listen, although i always try to identify musicians later . . . on listening for the first time to Vince’s CD i sunk myself so deeply into the easily heard language that the music did not come into play, largely because it was one with Vince’s lyrics . . . this sounds ridiculous, but at the end of the album i don’t believe i could have told you what instruments were playing . . . only that i sensed a sort of perfection in the music . . . that’s not my way, i often note particular stretches and leads . . . so i have to say i was surprised to realize that the only instruments being played were Vince’s guitar and piano by Ned Albright . . . and on subsequent listenings i was keenly aware of the spareness of the cohort, and yet there was a richness in the combination and the counterpoint that almost defies the lack of other players [3] . . . i think there is immense credit due Albright on this. though i don’t really have an idea of the process by which they got from simple melody to their dense interplay, i know that music like this doesn’t invent itself overnight . . . and then there’s Vince’s guitar work, which you can do nothing less than marvel at, especially after you’ve read the book, and fathom the road he crawled . . . musically the entire album flows like the connection between a swimmer and the water. . .

i think, logically, i would recommend reading a book like this first, to give context and understanding to the songs . . . but because of the way it reads, because of what hearing that voice did for me, in this case i feel like i have to recommend that you listen to the CD first then read the book . . . and perhaps you need to hear the songs first for the pictures they paint, for Vince is as much a painter as a storyteller . . . then read the book hearing that voice behind the lines . . . and then listen again with the gravity of the journey underlying each line, each word, each determined breath.

as Vince heals over the course of the book, so do we. we follow the pain of his forming thoughts and sentences in the very choice of his words, they seethe from the page, and we slowly settle as the structure becomes more rote and familiar. we get glimpses of the road as much by the shouted entries in his journal, by the recounting of the hard moments by the folks who were present, as by his own fragments. and soon, as music drifts back into Vince’s life, and he back into music, more than a series of vignettes began to take shape, you begin to feel the resolution coming, and above the obvious wisdom that this book is being written by someone who has all his faculties, you sense the return of this man to the world he once knew well. the stories that are his, the long road to recovery, the struggle to be recognized again as a writer and musician are straightforward in the reading, and cumulatively wise. i won’t recount the stories, that’s for you to read in the book, and to hear on the CD, but i will say that the ending is not one i saw coming. in one swift moment Vince takes another big turn, around a corner to life: part three. or is it life number three? new lives for both him and a long time companion. the end not only revolves, but resolves. it fits to end it like that – it is uniquely, surprisingly, the Vince you will know well by the time you breach that last chapter. aren’t the best ends beginnings, and the best beginnings ends?

Before the headlights become the dawn
me and my amigo will be gone.
110 Miles from Mexico, Vince Bell

[1] albeit, as i explained to Kevin, i don’t so much review as i write mostly about things i like, and gush about memories and wonderful people – both of which i do here, nevertheless i think it’s a fair review of what i got from both the book and the CD . . .

[2] pictures, oh the pictures . . . Eric on the patio at Anderson Fair holding his son, laughing at the cheesiness of 70s promo photos, the swamp at Addicks Dam!, and realizing that i still have that calendar from Anderson Fair, one of the finest they did in a long line of fine releases, seeing pictures i’ve never seen of old friends, realizing how many people i know in this story – i apologize for the name-droppy sound of this, but there was so much excitement for me in the rediscoveries here . . . all of it evokes what a tight scene Texas music was in its nascency . . . and how, once it got big, like every other good thing we construct, greed takes over, people get in it just for the money and the stardom and pretty soon we’re overrun with the Pat Greens of the world . . . in all artistic movements though there is a period of great flowering, that time we look back on and rely on its highlights as pinnacles of what something was . . . make no mistake, there are wonderful new Texas writers out there, and they carry on this tradition, and create new moments of their own, and i could list a solid dozen amazing young performers . . . but i think often of what they missed out on – this time of sitting around on porches in steamy Houston summers and making literature of the mundane . . . so i’d ask these youngsters to read and listen to Vince Bell, because there they’ll get a taste of that scene . . . to read “The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock” for another glimpse of that era, and at least know some of their own history through those pages . . . i know they’ll make their own statement someday, they’ll have to, because the era of the flowering of the Vince Bell’s is gone, but i would hope their own new wisdom is informed by that of this lovely past . . .

[3] i am no stranger to the combination . . . my current album, in the mastering stage (forever it seems) relies on voice, guitar and piano too, but, although i am deeply pleased with our work, the fact is we never achieved anything nearly so full and rich . . .

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At 7:03 PM, Blogger kathleen said...

Kathleen Hudson reading this before heading to Austin on Saturday to see the show! Ah, Tony, you always amaze me, move me, inspire me! Wish you were going with me.


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