There’s no telling how the promising musical career of Vince Bell might have played out had he avoided that near-fatal auto accident in late 1982. It is difficult to imagine it would have been as interesting, provocative or inspirational as the one that emerged — slowly but triumphantly — from the wreckage of that December Texas night.
A friend and fellow traveler of Lone Star troubadours Townes Van Zandt, Steve Fromholz, Guy Clark, Lyle Lovett, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Willis Alan Ramsey, etc., Bell had been laying down album tracks at Austin’s Riverside Recording with Eric Johnson and Stevie Ray Vaughan before calling it a day and heading home just after midnight.
On the way home, Bell and his then-wife Melody were broadsided by a drunk driver traveling in excess of 65 mph. Melody’s feet were pinned by the engine, but Vince was thrown 50 feet from the vehicle and was found lying in a pool of gasoline with closed-head and spinal injuries, a mangled forearm, collapsed lungs, scarred eyeballs and his liver squeezed out of his body onto the pavement.
Despite making the obit section of the Austin American Statesman’s daybreak edition, Bell survived, emerging from a month-long coma to undergo countless surgeries, numerous setbacks, and more than a decade of physical and mental therapy while re-learning to walk, talk, sing and play guitar.
Bell recounted his harrowing journey from barely alive to his long-delayed, aptly-named 1994 debut disc Phoenix with humility, awe, humor and insight in his 1998 memoir, One Man’s Music.
With Sixtyeight Twentyeight (subtitled The life and times of a Texas writer and a flat top box guitar), Bell delivers a breezy, peripatetic collection of memories, essays and letters drawn from his remarkable sojourns. His well-worn 1968 Martin D-28 dreadnought serves as something of a mute-yet-musical Harpo sidekick to Vince’s slightly-daffy, buoyant Groucho.
Far too little is known about ‘closed-head’ brain injuries, but often they don’t completely “heal” so much as the subject learns to adapt to the periodic disconnects. It also helped Vince to have understanding friends and a soulmate (Sarah Wrightson) to ease through the rough spots.
The book’s entries are brief (generally one to three pages) and roughly chronological, although — like Vonnegut’s ‘unstuck-in-time’ Billy Pilgrim — Bell does not seem to have quite the same relationship to past and present as those whose lives have unspooled more or less unencumbered.
The tales ring true, imbued with a sense of wonder and a palpable joie de vivre. Often reading like riveting song-sketches, Bell’s vignettes include distilled accounts of far-flung road-gig mishaps and breakthroughs, salutes to steadfast friendships and safe harbors, exasperating glimpses of ‘Townes unbridled,’ lost weekends, wrong turns, and rewarding musical reunions. Interspersed are comments on his more recent albums Texas Plates and Live In Texas, plus technical and spiritual revelations that led to Bell’s idiosyncratic mastery of song.
Happily, that beleaguered ol’ D-28 finds its rewarding second act (in a fairy-tale, ‘new lamps for old’ trade-off) — not unlike its unsinkable, charmed and charming companion.