Back Door Man
The Man Behind More Oar, Bill Bentley
Several months ago, Bill Bentley watched Bill Bentley having a quick bite to eat at the Hole in the Wall. The flesh-and-blood Bill Bentley was in town for Wilco's Austin City Limits taping, on the job as senior vice president of Warner Bros. Records. The other Bill Bentley was a pencil drawing among the several dozen lining the walls of the UT-area nightspot, a portrait of the executive as a young man. To the twenty- and thirtysomethings who patronize the Hole for its mix of unknowns, unsungs, and Free for Alls, those portraits are old history. To the forty- and fiftysomethings who still belly up to the bar, they're old friends. It's often said that Austin reveres its past. If so, call the Hole in the Wall church, and let those faces gaze down like saints in prayer; some of those people affected the world we live in. Bill Bentley is indicative of the way Austin has of making the unlikeliest rock & roll heroes.
Bentley's credentials are certainly impressive enough. As a publicist, he's worked Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, the Blasters, Green Day, X, Lou Reed, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and R.E.M. As an executive, he's helped guide the careers of the Barenaked Ladies, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and Wilco. As a record producer, he brought to life 1990's exceptional Roky Erickson tribute, Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye, and most recently the critically lauded More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album. Bentley casually calls these stellar associations "walking with giants." Appropriately, it started with Elvis -- Presley, of course.
"Elvis was my power figure," says Bentley from his Warner Bros. office in Los Angeles. "When you're a kid, you always look to a power figure to identify with, to make you feel safer and bigger. I joined the fan club. I was five, six years old, and I remember getting $1 from my mother and sent it off for my little card.
"To get me to go shopping with her, my mother said she'd buy me a 45. I had almost every Elvis RCA single until he went into the Army. They were EPs with great picture covers. I'd stare at them and stare at his hair. Six, seven years old and trying to get a little pompadour like Elvis, wearing a little beanie that would shape your pompadour like his.
"I went off to college, and my mother had a garage sale and sold my little RCA Victor record player. She threw in the 45s with the record player. I came home from college and asked where my singles were. She just said, "Uh oh!" My heart broke. But I got the power from them."
Bill Bentley was born in 1950 and raised in Houston, the son of Houston Post newspaper cartoonist Bud Bentley. While he followed his father in the business, it was as a typesetter. He would ply that trade for years to come, but first there was a world for a curious teenager to explore. "Elvis went into the army and I thought life was over," says Bentley. "I tuned music out because it got so bad. Then, in '62, for some reason my older brother took me to [a] black club in Houston and James Brown was playing. The Plaedium, it was called, I saw it misspelled on a handbill. Three drummers, 15 people in the band, Brown -- the full-on experience.
"My dad worked at the Houston Post on Dowling, down in one of the Wards. We'd go to pick him up and sit in front of the car, waiting for him. Down Dowling, you could hear Albert Collins and those guys playing. Drive across Gray, and you'd hear Lightnin' Hopkins, playing in front of an icehouse. Juke Boy Bonner was big down in the Fifth Ward, but that was rougher and scarier. We used to drive past the Duke Records place on Erastus Street and sit and look at it. It was like going to the Vatican."
That wasn't all he saw. A neighborhood music store put a gold sparkle drum kit in the window that dazzled him. He got the set as a Christmas present, which led to high school bands, school dances, and Battles of the Bands "where we always got trounced." On the side, Bentley still pursued blues and soul acts, but his attention was being drawn increasingly to a local Houston band called the 13th Floor Elevators and the emerging counterculture.
Austin's Vulcan Gas Company was going strong when Bentley enrolled as a freshman at Southwestern University in Georgetown in 1968. One night, the police followed him from the club back to the college, kicked in his dorm-room door, and busted him for pot. The arrest sent him back to Houston, where he attended the University of Houston and learned to typeset while awaiting trial. He received five years' probation and headed to Austin to attend UT, where he found work as a typesetter at The Daily Texan and majored in psychology. For all the talk of its early years, the music scene in Austin circa 1972 was rather unsophisticated.
"[Jimmie Vaughan's] Storm was around, but those guys were so good I couldn't imagine playing with them," says Bentley, who decided to sell his drum kit and went about doing so through an ad. Upon the very bulletin board he was about to post his ad, he saw a notice reading, "Drummer wanted. No frou-frous allowed." He answered it and found himself in the company of a group of English majors known as the Bizarros.
It was an auspicious meeting for all. Over the years, the Bizarros' ranks would include Bill Campbell, Ike Ritter, and Velvet Underground founding member Sterling Morrison. The event that really changed Bentley's life occurred as he was slacking with friends one lazy 1974 afternoon.
"Big Boy [James Medlin] was living in a place behind a building on 15th," recalls Bentley. "We were hanging out one day and [Austin Sun editor] Jeff Nightbyrd drove up in a Mercury and [Sun publisher] Michael Eakin pulled in with a pickup and a couple of desks in back. They asked us to help them move the stuff, and we were like, "Fuck you, we're drinking beer up here.' So we just sat back and laughed at them trying to get those desks upstairs.
"Finally, we did go help them. I started talking to Nightbyrd and told him I was a typesetter and a drummer and he said, "Why don't you be our music guy?' I'd never written, and he said, "That's okay, neither have most of these clowns.' He had an ulterior motive, of course; he needed a typesetter. I did that for two issues and couldn't hack it and quit. So I kind of backdoored my way onto being a writer. That was the beauty of Jeff Nightbyrd. He'd let you try."
In more ways than one, the Sun was the spiritual forefather of The Austin Chronicle -- at once irreverent but also respectful. As music editor, Bentley wrote feature stories, the gossip column "Near Truths," and a record-review section called "Short Cuts." In one memorable review of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Gimme Back My Bullets, Bentley opined a five-word review: "Please, somebody give 'em back!" The Sun also hired James "Big Boy" Medlin as a sportswriter, a poet named Michael Ventura, a young John T. Davis, and others.
After the Sun fizzled out around 1979, Bentley freelanced at the Austin American-Statesman, then got a job at KLRN (predecessor of KLRU) as a publicist. He also found time to start KUT's beloved R&B showcase Twine Time before handing over the reins to current host Paul Ray. The Bizarros were also still around, but changes were happening and Sterling Morrison was fired in order to bring in Bill Campbell. The animosity that created was painful to see -- Morrison didn't talk to Bentley for six years.
Meanwhile, Medlin and Ventura moved out to California to write for the L.A. Free Press after Hustler magnate Larry Flynt bought it and Nightbyrd began editing it. Bentley, living in West Campus, wasn't doing much, so he formed a band with Speedy Sparks and preteens Will and Charlie Sexton. In the fall of 1979, when he was offered the music editor job at the new L.A. Weekly, which had risen from the ashes of the Free Press, Bentley took the job without hesitating. That lasted a couple of years, after which he then dabbled in booking bands, bringing New Orleans and Texas artists to Club Lingerie. In 1983, he landed a publicist's job at hip label Slash Records.
Three years later, when Warner Bros. bought Slash, Bentley became a "creative editorial writer" -- a fancy title for glorified ad copywriter. For two years he wrote promotional and ad material, "waiting for a publicist to leave," and in 1988 that happened. At that year's South by Southwest Music Conference, Bentley's old friend Tary Owens informed him of Roky Erickson's recent financial problems. Owens suggested they do a tribute album, a project that eventually became Where the Pyramid Meets the Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson.
"I am in love with Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators' music," says Bentley. "Always have been. The best psychedelic band of all time and one of the great Texas bands of all time, and really overlooked outside of a small group of people. They communicated ideas. The Bay Area bands could play better, but they weren't saying as much. In Tommy Hall's lyrics, I felt like he'd tapped into a philosophical mindset that was truly inspirational. You go back and listen to the first two records and there are things to believe in in those songs.
"It was when tribute records were starting -- there was that Neil Young one, The Bridge. It was unbelievable all the people [who] wanted to do something for Roky. Every generation goes back to music like that, the Elevators, the Velvets, music that created a sound, a style. I had more tracks than I could use. It's out of print now. Unfortunately, it's not my call to re-release it. But it's not so much about commercial sales as it is keeping Roky's spirit alive, and for him to inspire other people through these artists that love him.
"It's hard to do, because so many people covered his songs, but I would love to see all the Townes Van Zandt covers put together. There was a guy who invented a style of songwriting in Texas that I always thought was just wonderful. He had an understanding of despair I have never heard another songwriter equal. Scary and beautiful at the same time."
Is it the demons that gives men like Roky Erickson and Townes Van Zandt that brilliant edge? Yes, but they have angels too, Bentley declares, and cites another forgotten genius, Skip Spence. Spence led Moby Grape, the San Francisco band that has probably had to wait the longest for recognition. Hearing of Spence's health problems, Bentley decided a tribute album was in order, only his twist was to make it a tribute to Spence's one and only solo album, 1969's Oar.
"When I heard he was not in a good way, and with so many people I knew loving Oar though it hadn't made a big impact, I thought, "Well, it worked for Roky,'" explains Bentley. "Remember that for the first couple of years after that, Roky came out a little bit. He did an Austin Music Awards show, the tribute led to another record or two for him, and people discovered him! I thought it made him get a sense of his own worth to where he tried.
"By then I knew that records like this don't sell, so it wasn't about raising a lot of money for Skip. I thought it would help bring the spotlight back to him and help him feel like he'd accomplished something, inspire him to keep writing songs, and try to get them out there. I checked with his publisher and then started rounding up people to be on it."
It wasn't a tough cattle call, and within a week, 17 bands and performers were on the program. Bentley takes special pride in a hidden track of Spence himself, left over from an X-Files soundtrack for which Warner Bros. didn't use the song.
"So, at the end, Skip gets the last word," Bentley muses. "Earlier in the year, I wanted to give the tapes to Skip, but one thing after another happened and I never got up there. Then I heard he was in the hospital in Santa Cruz and I did go to see him. He was unconscious, sedated so he wouldn't pull all the tubes out of himself. I sat in the room trying to communicate with him, and I think I did a little bit.
"I left the tapes with the nurse. The next day he went into a coma. A week after that, they took him off life support and he came to and they played him the record. Then he died. He'd led the life he wanted to, and would have had to be in the hospital for years. I knew that wasn't how he wanted to live. He moved on from his own will.
"You listen to Moby Grape today and his songs take your head off. You listen to Oar and every song was written while he was committed in Bellevue Hospital. Then he went to Nashville and recorded it in three days by himself. And that was the end of his creative life, but the people that need to remember know what he accomplished with Oar. It's been reissued so if people want to, they can go hear what I fell in love with 30 years ago."
Bill Bentley, back-door writer, used to have a surefire question that virtually guaranteed a heartfelt response. "What's the payback?" he'd ask. So what's the payback, Bentley? "I asked Stevie Vaughan that when I interviewed him for the Sun," he answers. "He said, "There's two. One, there's when you're playing onstage and your toes curl up, and two, it's when you're passing it on.' That's Stevie. To know that you're helping keep the music that really touched you alive. There's no better feeling than giving people something that touches them. Passing it on. You don't get there very often but when you do, it makes life sing."
Margaret Moser pestered Bill Bentley into letting her write for the Austin Sun all those years ago. See what happens when you don't say no?