Ken Bell, R.I.P.


Loss of a friend is a tough thing to put into words. Kenneth Bell was a special individual in my life in ways I’m sure he was utterly unaware of.

I’ve never done a very good job of fitting it. I can manage it when I really have to, but most of the time it’s a bit of a battle. In middle school it was like trying to climb Everest. I liked all the wrong music, read books on purpose, and baffled the crap out of my peers because I simultaneously adored Star Trek, Star Wars and playing baseball, football and soccer any chance I got.

I was a nerd who played sports. The jocks didn’t know what to make of me because I used words with more than one syllable and knew what they meant. The nerds found my love of perspiring on purpose unsettling, and a tiny bit suspicious. I wanted to play guitar in a band so badly that it made me lose sleep and I constantly daydreamed of being an actor on a soap opera (hey, I was a kid, and it looked like steady work to me). To say that nobody got me would be a massive understatement.

I met Ken Bell through a host of girls that befriended me in the 7th grade. Ken didn’t go to our school (he went to Catholic school) but they all knew him and hung on his every word when it came to music or pop culture. The first time we met I was wearing a Stranglers pin on my jacket. He raised an eyebrow (which, when I think of him now, is the expression I will always see on his face) and asked me, very seriously, if I knew to which band said pin belonged. When I told him I owned two of their records he smiled and we were friends henceforth.

By 7th grade I had ventured into deepest, weirdest Berkeley in search of records one couldn’t find at our local Record Factory store a couple of times. There was a UHF channel (channel 20) that was struggling to come up with enough programming to stay on the air long enough each day to maintain their broadcast license. Long before MTV existed Channel 20 would play obscure music videos well into the wee hours of the night on the weekends. There was no method to what they were doing. The videos could be obtained for free from record companies and the only artists making these little promo films circa 1979 or 1980 were people like the Stranglers, XTC, DEVO and Gary Numan. And back then they’d make a promo clip for every potential single they had (or in the case of DEVO, put as much energy and creativity into the videos as they did their records). Channel 20 put no effort into programming the videos they aired. They’d just play them in order. I can remember watching eight or nine Stranglers videos and deciding they were the most exceptional band I had ever seen up to that point in my life, so I’d gone off to Berkeley to get one of their records and ended up buying two.

Once I’d met Ken we made regular trips into Berkeley together (often with many other friends in tow). My record collection grew in breadth and depth rather quickly, although never got any more coherent (I now know this to be a good thing, but when I was 13 it was just troubling). Ken was the only person I knew who was equally comfortable with AC/DC and Ultravox alternating on the turntable. He never scoffed at any music. He liked some better than others, but he’d never grimace and groan like pretty much everyone else I knew at that point (and well into my 20s), who mostly expected, nee demanded heterodoxy in one’s record collection. He was also the proud owner of one of the most awe-inspiring KISS belt-buckles I have ever seen.

Most people loved DEVO’s “Whip It” when it came out. Ken Bell was one of the few people I knew who recognized that it was NOT a novelty song. I can also remember a typically long and tedious AC Transit bus ride up to Telegraph Ave. one summer on a record shopping excursion when I went into a full on tirade about the Oakland A’s and the feeble product they were putting on the field that year. I am pretty sure Ken didn’t give half a shit about professional baseball, but he listened to me as if I was, at that point in his life, the most interesting person he had ever met. He didn’t mock me for liking what I liked, or being passionate about it. Gracious is the word that a lot of people have thrown around about Ken on Facebook today, and yeah, we could all learn from him.

The photo atop this post is from a show one of my bands did on Halloween several years ago. Ken came dressed as Speed Racer. My inner nerd did a happy dance when I saw him in that get-up. This was before he knew he was sick, before any of us knew. The last time I saw him was at another gig with the same band at the same venue, after he’d been in treatment for quite a while. He was physically smaller, and looked a bit fragile, but he was still Ken. It honored me so much that he would come out and use up his, at that point, limited energy, to watch me play music. He’s said to me at some point that night, “I remember how bad you wanted this, Joe.” And honestly, at that moment I didn’t remember it myself.

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about who I was in the past. I know the whole story, and trust me, I haven’t forgotten a bit of it – even many parts I wish I could. That conversation though did make me think. The today of being who I am can become sort of automatic. At 47 years old I take for granted that I can pick up a guitar and play it – that I can play pretty much any song I put my mind to learning. 34 years ago I just wanted it a whole lot.

I’m possibly being overly sentimental because I’m feeling the loss of a friend, but I do believe that Ken Bell sitting there across from me and discussing the relative merits of one Ultravox record over another, and then switching gears to talk about KISS and AC/DC without having to do the then requisite spit-take that most people who loved Ultravox, Gary Numan, Lene Lovich, The Stranglers and XTC did back then helped me to just be me, to be ok with liking what I liked, and maybe not pass such harsh judgement on my own tastes as I thought I should.

If there’s an afterlife, Ken, I’d like to believe your spirit is having a drink with Alan Myers and Bob Casale right now. God bless you, my friend. Oh, and cancer can suck it.

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