The music feels inevitable, it is on you like a tide, covering and pulling you in, notes cascading and there are no boundaries, no tangible lines between body, thought, sound and water.
And sometimes it is on you like a cavalry charge, headed downhill, guitars instead of guns, percussion instead of artillery, and it is there, Widespread Panic is there, and John Bell and his voice are at the helm of a moving, morphing circle of music.
“We’re six guys listening to each other from the other five directions, actually six directions because you’re listening to yourself, seven if you’re listening to the audience. Go on and add the universe,” says Bell.
“If you’re really on, and paying attention, you’re hearing everyone at once. And if you get to that place where all six voices are listening to each other, with intention, you’ve got the makings of something really huge when you play music in an improvisational form.”
The general is mellow in his recliner, filling his cells in the Cedar Heights energy room, putting some of the pieces together as I try to grasp what it means to create musical performance on the spot, and wanting to understand where this guy comes from.
On a map, it’s Cleveland, Ohio. It’s Top 40 radio.
“We didn’t know any better, we were fed that stuff, especially pre-FM. But I embraced it, I loved it, it was all I knew and I think I started mimicking what I was hearing, for lack of anything better to do,” JB says. “I was still young. You pretend to be a baseball player when you watch those guys, and you join little league and all of a sudden you catch a couple of balls and you become a ballplayer, and people are saying you have natural talent and boom, you’re gone.
“That’s the way it was for me and music, that’s the way it is with everybody. You pretend a little bit and all of a sudden you’re like, I’m in life! O crap, I’m in life!”
And what a life. JB isn’t complaining. He’s taking me along on this story-ride, and he’s exclaiming, he’s sharing the discovery (and I’m trying to write this while my wife makes eggs-istensial for breakfast) in retrospect.
So instead of growing up to be Willie Mays (what’s in that suitcase full of wonders?), he grew up to be JB. But to do it he had to go South, to Athens, Ga., to the university, to meet Mikey and Dave and Todd and Sunny. Ahead of myself. Sorry.
“I wasn’t accomplished in anything else. Playing my guitar and singing was the most comfortable thing I did. And then I needed some cash, so I played some open mike things, got lucky one time when other, really good musicians didn’t show up, and made 20 bucks for the gig,” JB recalls. “I was intrigued by the possibilities.
“I started getting gigs around town, and in Athens it was cool, ‘cause there were a lot of little places that might be happy to have a dude in the corner playing music, so I started schlepping myself like that, started seeing what the feeling of performing music in front of people would do.”
This was the hook, the irresistible high, the something else.
“All of a sudden there is something that takes place within you that’s really a charge and worth exploring,” Bell tolls. “And it’s not like, ‘oh, dig me,’ or something like that. It’s something that happens in you.”
It’s part of developing the language for that higher level of conversation, I think. And it goes back to what Bell was saying about six guys listening to each other. He was building the foundation to be able to do that, way back then. It was just gigging, but it wasn’t. Something had to happen to make it art.
The JB thought process:
“I’m playing guitar, knowing I’m in front of people but not really nervous, part of the room, thinking about beer, singing, all of those things coming together into one thing, and I was like, ‘oh, this is the place where something starts cooking.’
“It’s beyond just standing up there playing, because you can stand up there and you can feel nervous. For me, if you get to the place where things are just cooking, that’s the easiest place to be in the world. You don’t even know you’re performing.”
That’s not saying getting there didn’t take some work. It took a lot of work, but maybe it hasn’t felt like work. He’s been working on this art since 1978, and there’s something to be said for repetition, like exercise. And there’s something to be said for opening up channels that can be tapped into.
“Like you’re not playing for anybody, the music is playing itself and you’re right there, and that’s what’s going down.”
But the repetition really does count for something, he says, like a golf swing.
“You got to know where the ball is going, or where you want it to go. Visualize your shot before you take it, and then let it go. But there is some preparation, some mechanical preparation involved.”
Music, like golf, can become part of muscle memory. You might still hit a sour note, and you might still be off in the woods looking for your last shot. Either way, it takes some balls to do both.
And with that shot, we’ll stop this one here and carry on with the next one another time.