The sun and moon and stars they make the wind blow It took me twenty years to understand But lost to me is how the lives of friends go Like autumn leaves in Oklahoma wind But it made me strong to be on my own It never did me no harm, no, to live all alone But now and then in the color of the evening drunken in a barroom, yeah, with a fan turning I come to miss a few —”Sun & Moon & Stars,” 1977
Vince Bell was 25 when he performed that song for a late-night Austin television pilot in 1977, the same year he wrote it. Listening to it now, the tune sounds so iconically representative of the Best of the Mellow ’70s album in my mind that I can almost convince myself I grew up listening to it, though I’m sure I never heard it before 1994.
The pilot never aired, but there’s a video clip on Bell’s Web site showing a skinny guy with a mane of long, crinkly hair standing behind a Martin D-28 and bleeding out his lyrics in a tenor that splits the difference between southern rock arrogance and folk sincerity. He was already playing older than his years.
Five years later, in 1982, he wasn’t playing anymore. Bell had been in Austin recording tracks for what was going to be his first album, with Stevie Ray Vaughan and Eric Johnson contributing guitar work. Nobody was quite famous yet, but everyone was on the verge. Bell had just laid down some vocal tracks and was leaving the studio one night when he was broadsided at highway speed on Riverside Drive. The impact threw him 60 feet and left him unconscious on the pavement with a shattered right forearm, a lacerated liver, and severe traumatic brain injury. He was in a coma for a month. He lived in a world of hurt for the better part of a decade. He taught himself to walk again, to play guitar, to speak and sing and write. He overcame a paralyzed vocal cord. Though he was not without help, he had to do it all largely alone.
He did. Twelve years later, in 1994, he released a gorgeously spare post-accident album called Phoenix. It included a new arrangement of “Sun & Moon & Stars,” which Nanci Griffith had covered on her Late Night Grande Hotel album in the meantime. Phoenix also included 1989’s “I’ve Had Enough,” a second-act love song later covered by Lyle Lovett on Step Inside This House, proof in its stark beauty that Bell never lost hold of his gift on the hard road home.
Now, 15 years later, reinterpretations of both songs are on a new CD called One Man’s Music, a collection of Bell songs old and new (he’s released two albums of original music since Phoenix) in a well-matched guitar-and-piano presentation. The CD accompanies a book, One Man’s Music: The Life and Times of Texas Songwriter Vince Bell, published this month by University of North Texas Press. Both are being released in conjunction with Bell’s first public performances of One Man’s Music: A Monologue with Song. The hour-long one-man show covers the whole story: the young guitar player’s paradise of Houston’s Montrose neighborhood circa 1971; his coffeehouse-circuit touring days; the accident and recovery; and Bell’s eventual return to the stage, and to relative normalcy. At 57, his memory still kicks in and out, but he’s adapted. Otherwise, you’d hardly guess what he’s been through.
He’s lived in Santa Fe the last five years. He’s set aside the D-28 and now plays a custom-built mesquite dreadnought with grain gnarled like a metaphor for the distinctive instrument life has made of his voice, gruff and weathered and warm.
For the latest version of Sun & Moon & Stars, he’s dropped the “drunken” from “in a barroom” (it was a drunk driver that ran him down). He has to work harder around some of the lower notes now, and you can sometimes hear the echo of a long struggle to contain his vowels.
He never writes specifically about the accident, but shards of apparent reference work their way out of his songs like splinters leaving skin.
Do you get this message from the other side?I know it’s so hard for you to look at me …
But there’s no denying the signature shudder that backstory brings to the only song in Bell’s catalog written by someone else: Gary Burgess’ “Frankenstein.”
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 They call me Frankenstein That’s not even my name …
For my money, Bell’s version on Phoenix is one of acoustic music’s high-water marks. That shit will spook you up.
I’m back and I’m strong never did me no harm to live all alone, to be on my own But now and then in the color of the evening, in a barroom, with a fan turning, I come to miss a few —”Sun & Moon & Stars,” 2009
Pity might be the toughest emotion to swallow. How do you keep from feeling sorry for someone suffering trials that you know would make you feel sorry for yourself?
How do you treat the subject of your pity with anything approaching the equality of consciousness that is the thing most wrenchingly and isolatingly stolen from the pitied?
If you’re a poet like Bell, how do you float your words across that gulf without watching them drowned in well-meaning sympathy? For all the resonance and depth that Bell’s story adds to his songs, it can also get in the way. You don’t have to know the man’s biography to place him among the top rank of Texas singer-songwriters. You just have to listen to the music.
“I’ve worked like a dog,” Bell has told me more than once, “so you can’t tell I’m brain injured.”
Don’t pity Vince Bell. He was lucky and he knows it. “Cosmetic” is the word he uses to categorize the damage done to him. “Catastrophic” might be a defensible word choice, too, but in the pointless hierarchy of tragedy, he’s right enough. He had any life he knew taken away, and he dug deep to get it back, but at least there was something left to recover. There isn’t always.
I used to could, but no longer can, listen to Vince Bell without thinking of my friend Chris King, a Houston musician (bass, drums, washtub) and father and son who ran his car into a tree a little over a year ago and ended up with a debilitating brain injury. I’d seen him for the first time in a long time just a few months earlier. We were at the wake of a friend who’d finally drunk himself all the way to death and a lot of people were in guiltily celebratory moods to see each other again. After I got home, Chris sent me a MySpace friend request. I didn’t recognize his tweaked picture and didn’t snap to the initials he was using, so I sent back a confused note mistaking him for someone else I’d just met who had a big, bushy, Chris King-style beard. He wrote me right back:
brad tyer, motherf*cker, you know me! … this is chris king …
A couple of months later I got another e-mail from a mutual friend, letting everyone know that Chris had been hurt.
The next time I saw him was last fall. We were at the funeral of yet another friend. He was in a wheelchair, his mother moving him around. I couldn’t tell if he could even recognize me, and I froze. I couldn’t tell how much of what I’d known of Chris was still there, and I didn’t know how to deal with that. I still don’t.
Vince Bell gets it. Having been applauded and lauded, he suddenly had to deal with even close friends not knowing how to deal with him for years, looking at him like a mystery they couldn’t solve. I don’t doubt that relearning the guitar with a shattered arm and a blown-out memory is tough, but the sheer communicative estrangement of brain injury is the almost unbearable part.
I want to think that Chris recognizes my reaction inside out, that he sees it almost every day in the eyes of idiots like me, and that it frustrates the hell out of him.
Do you get this message from the other side? I know it’s so hard for you to look at me …
I suspect that while I was standing there dumbstruck, leaning over his chair not knowing what to say, Chris was struggling to engage muscles he hadn’t been able to find in a while so he could slap me upside the head and yell at me:
… motherf*cker, you know me! … this is chris king …
I’ve got reason to hope maybe next time he will.
Vince Bell performs One Man’s Music at Anderson Fair in Houston on April 24 and 25. See www.vincebell.com.