SIXTY-EIGHT / TWENTY-EIGHT
The Life and Times of a Texas Writer and a Flat Top Box Guitar
By Vince Bell; vince bell.com
Something fascinates about a piece of gear, how we grow fond of it and come to rely on it as a friend. More than a tool, it becomes a repository of memories, times, and adventures shared together. This is especially true of boats and musical instruments, of old pickup trucks… and weapons. For Vince Bell his guitar is a weapon; he calls it the cannon. The guitar is a Martin D-28, the ‘D’ standing for dreadnaught, named after a battleship.
Comprising 171 pages, 59 short chapters, this is the story of a man and his instrument; of good times and bad, and the damage sustained and survived by both through decades of hard use. From the steamy enclaves of Houston’s Montrose area—shabby, hip, and inexpensive—where in the late 1970’s “the median age… was 22 and gas was 19.9 a gallon,” he heads out on the highways of Texas, the nation, and later the Euro trail. Each chapter delivers a short, self contained vignette, some only a page in length. Perhaps it comes naturally for a songwriter to employ the same kind of economy when working in prose. Vince can tell a good story, with an eye for detail that can put you right there where you can feel the humidity, the bumps in the road, smell the grungy awfulness of a honky-tonk backstage, groan at the litany of dead end jobs taken on just to survive. He has a gift for simile, describing the dog Pup wandering Houston’s original Old Quarter ‘like a policeman taking names,’ or a snapshot of a drunken Townes Van Zandt whose guitar hung from his shoulders ‘like a rifle.’ Segueing to a story one might have wished to find in the gauzy Margaret Brown film, Be There to Love Me, Vince nails him: the elusive genius, drunk, trickster, teacher rolled into one.
Vince is not adverse to strutting at times. At the epicenter of the Texas musical scene that would later produce Nanci Griffith and Lyle Lovett, he was a major contender until his accident… blindsided coming home from the studio, left unconscious with horrific concussion, liver damage, a shattered right arm. This is ground covered in Vince’s first book, One Man’s Music. He asks for no sympathy, never complaining or bemoaning his fate as like any artist he struggles with his materials and limitations. What emerges is a tale of grit, tenacity, and will to carry on. His dedication to craft shows on every page, and his energy amazes: Constantly rehearsing and reworking his material, he doesn’t quit until he gets it right; the guitar lick, the exactly right word. He is patient as he is tough.
Reading this book I found myself going back and listening to his records again. They inform one another, his songs and his prose, and I would say that any fan of Vince’s music would enjoy reading Sixty-Eight Twenty-Eight and vice-versa. Whether or not a reader unfamiliar with the singer-songwriter world, particularly the Texas scene, would find this story interesting may be a question worth asking. And it may be that people and places mentioned here are unknown to the general public (if such a thing exists). As such this is niche literature, but I don’t see anything wrong with that.
Not to quibble, but on second reading some passages beg for clarity. In the chapter ‘Say In Your Owndamnway’ he writes “And we never wrote for an existing market, but instead, because it was true…” You kind of know what he is saying in spite of wondering what the pronoun ‘it’ refers to. The next sentence clears things up: “We didn’t care that our words, or our musical notes, were marketable like a trendy hairstyle, or a pair of designer jeans.” Again, I’m a little in the dark about a chapter called ‘No Thanks, That’s Plenty for Me’. Beginning with Vince telling how he tuned down his guitar for his second CD, Texas Plates, it morphs into notes on the individual songs, finishes with telling how he came by the title. After living a year in Tennessee he noticed he still had Texas plates on the car. He recounts how a friend from Texas had been there four years and his wife wouldn’t let him change the plates. “Ride ‘em cowgirl,” he writes; then in a one-sentence paragraph delivers the title:
“No thanks, that’s plenty for me. You keep it.”
Plenty of what, is it fair to ask? I guess he means Nashville, about which Texas musicians have always felt ambivalence, if not hostility. These occasional snags don’t manage to damage the overall appeal of this book. “There certainly had been the doubters about the worlds I created with that 28. And others I would have judged more than capable of accepting my uncompromising perspective with the imaginative art form just never… did… get it.” I guess you could color me one of those—in the parlance of the post-hippy years— though I respect this man and love him dearly; there were a couple of spots where I… just didn’t… quite.