Spencer Bell Legacy Project

An artistic legacy doing good things

As I mentioned, we collected over 185 pages of email stories and memories from people in Spencer's life (including Spencer's own journals, lyrics, photos). Ben Johnson contributed the following and has give us permission to post it here. Note, the references to "Interlochen" - where Spence, Ben, Ben Graupner, his brother Dan, Jackson Rathbone, Will Schmidt and several other friends attended prep school. It's an "Arts" Academy where Spencer went to be an actor and discovered his true love - Music and "Lost Boys".......

FROM BEN J:
I met Spencer at Interlochen Arts Academy. The first time I remember speaking with him was after he had played a song at a coffeehouse. He was very popular at the coffeehouses because he played a ukulele or a guitar of sometimes a sitar, and would sing these poppy, funny and clever songs that got stuck in your head. Really he was a fantastic performer. The theatre dept. at Interlochen never gelled with Spence, and vice versa, which had a lot to do with the faculty running that dept., but as a musical performer he was awesome. He later told me that he had realized he could sing a few days before the first coffeehouse he played.

The time that we spoke came after he had found out he was being expelled. I came up to him outside after he played and asked what was going on. I had been in a bit of trouble myself at Interlochen, narrowly avoided being kicked out up to that point, and was actually expelled the following March. He told me what was up and I told him that sucked, and wished him the best of luck. He later told me he had been scared of me all the time at Interlochen, and that he wasn’t the only one. I guess I kept a pretty stoic and solemn composure in my high school years.

A year and a half later, at graduation of ‘03, I came up to Interlochen w/ my old roommate Elliot to meet up with old friends and see the end of year festivities. We camped in the park across the street from school. Spence came up with Natalie and Brie , and we had a great time. I had just gotten my first guitar, and knew a few chords. Spence had forgotten his, but played mine a lot, and over that weekend he became a musical inspiration to me. He was so supportive and positive about my playing, taught me a lot of things, and we just felt comfortable together, sitting around the fire, drinking beer and swapping stories. When we parted ways it was as good friends, even though at that point we had spent just a few days together in our entire lives.

Fast-forward about a year after Spencer had moved to New Jersey/New York. Ben invited Spencer to move into a house with himself as well as his friends Joy, Jake and Shawn:

The house we moved into was in Fleetwoood, NY, about a 7 minute drive from Sarah Lawrence College. Spence paid reduced rent, because he lived in the sun room, and in the winter there was no insulation there. The entire house was freezing, don’t get me wrong, but Spence’s room was an ice box. He put with up it though. Around October of that school year, ‘04, we formed The Cactus. I started playing drums for the band and Spence got really excited. I think he knew, as did the rest of the guys , that I had a propensity for rhythm. It felt great to be holding down the back end of a band that Spence was fronting. I thought that the two Interlochen guys had either end, and that always made me happy.

Not that Spence didn’t work hard on his music before the band formed. He was constantly writing and playing songs, recording stuff and experimenting. He knew how to follow his inspiration, no matter how silly it might be. I remember coming into the living room one day and he told me about this idea he had just gotten to record change being dropped and toilets being flushed around the house, all to go over a recording of him reading a poem.

His writing was part of who he was, it was constant. I used to read stuff he would leave lying about, especially after he got the typewriter and there were loose pieces of paper around the house. It always sounded like Spence’s voice, maybe bored, angry, sedated or weird, but always his voice.

The band might work on the music for a song all night, and Spence would occasionally come down to the basement and make comments and contribute, but then go upstairs and do something else. He liked being the only one who could do what he did, write good lyrics and melody lines, and totally played up the lead singer attitude. It worked fine for the band but was sometimes frustrating to us.

We moved out of Fleetwood in June of ‘05, Spence was 19. He moved to his apartment in Brooklyn to live with Missy, and I moved to a place in the West Village for the summer. We worked a construction job with Jake and the band played gigs. It was a good summer, if crazy and lazy. I would pick him up at the union square subway stop and we would drive up to Rockland County every morning to build fences with Jake. At the end of the day we would drive back to Manhattan, sometimes I would drop him off in Union Square, sometimes he would come to my place and hang out. It was a long train ride to where he lived in Brooklyn and he hated doing it late at night. We listened to a lot of music that summer with all our time in the car. I think we kind of put aside all the negative energy that had built up living in Fleetwood that summer. We were tight as hell by the end of it.

I moved back up to an apartment near Sarah Lawrence campus with Jake for my senior year. The band would practice without Spence during the week and he would come up on the weekends. He was taking 3D animation classes at the New York Film Academy during the week, and enjoying not having to work a job while in school. He would take the subway all the way up to 233 St. and I would drive down and pick him up. I looked forward to those weekends, to waking up a and making coffee with Spence sleeping on the couch (after he and Missy broke up). Over that school year the band recorded Tamuawok, on the weekends, at the auditorium on campus and at the house me and Spence and Jake had worked on up in Rockland County. Those recording sessions, and the gigs we played in the City at the Knitting Factory were some of the most fun band times we had. The original plan for the next year was to get an apartment in Brooklyn that could double as a practice space, but Spence and I started talking one night about the Midwest, and how much we wanted to get out of New York. We both had been affected by living out there, and we felt it had robbed us of some basic humanness. Looking back I think it’s just a different place than the Midwest, but Spence and I are both from here, not there. We weren’t ready to live there longer, that’s for sure. So we proposed Madison to the guys, and they were skeptical, but finally agreed.

In Madison, I think Spence felt he had found his path again. He spent some time in Detroit after New York before coming out to Madison, and when he did he was ready to live and work. He was really happy with his solo work at the time and told me as much. Because Shawn had to go back to Sarah Lawrence for one more semester, it was just me and Jake and Adam and Spence for the Fall of =06. We didn’t work nearly as hard as we should have as a band, using Shawn’s absence as an excuse, but we all knew we were just being lazy. That’s when Spence told me he was happy with his solo work and therefore not overly concerned abut the band’s slow progress.

Spencer was huge. He was a big man, and his personality was equally huge. He could make people want to follow him…he certainly made me want to. He had a great sense of humor, sometimes very crude. His perspective on the world was his own, and that’s how he wanted it. What he did he did because he felt he had to. He proved himself to himself, and was what he was. In his song “the Lonesome Ballad of Lonesome Boy” there are the lyrics, “That’s me I’m the lyricist, it’s not my job, it’s my disposition, I gotta let you know this life is rich, we’re not alone, you see it’s really me that I’m trying to convince.” That is Spencer and his art, the two could not be separated, he was an artist to the core. And he wanted everyone he loved to love life as much as he did, but he could admit his own doubts. He loved living in the moment, talking with someone so completely that you forgot your own consciousness and just flow. I don’t know how I can tell you what needs to be told. He was like a brother to me, like the little brother I never had, and yet I always felt younger than him. He had the oldest soul I’ve ever met, like he was sent here for a purpose. No one has touched me as much as Spencer…while he was alive it was intrinsic and I didn’t see it…now that he’s gone, I feel it every day. What he had taught me drives me forward and gives me the strength and guts to push myself to be what I am. Spencer always was what he was and he never apologized for it.


"I had just gotten my first guitar, and knew a few chords. Spence had forgotten his, but played mine a lot, and over that weekend he became a musical inspiration to me. He was so supportive and positive about my playing, taught me a lot of things, and we just felt comfortable together, sitting around the fire, drinking beer and swapping stories".

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Comment by Lisa Clement Roy on August 8, 2012 at 8:26am

This is the first time I've read this in the full and its absolutely beautiful, seeing the friendship between the two of you :) You inspire me alot and I love all that you do, thank you to Spence for helping to guide you to be who you are today :)

Comment by Rebecca Crockett on July 16, 2009 at 3:52pm
That is Spencer and his art, the two could not be separated, he was an artist to the core....Spencer always was what he was and he never apologized for it.

The more I see his works, the more I hear his music, the more I read what he wrote, the more I see that this describes Spencer perfectly. Thanks Ben, Bill. I know it is hard to relate all of this about Spencer to those of us that didnt know him but you are giving us all such a tremendous gift - the gift of Spencer. Im so glad you have. Youve touched my heart.
Comment by Bernadine on June 30, 2009 at 11:56am
That is beautiful....."Spencer always was what he was and he never apologized for it." Just the way everyone should be.
Comment by Jessica Phillips on June 24, 2009 at 2:11am
Thank you so much to Ben & Bill for sharing this.

Like others have said, it gives one a glimpse of what it would be like to have known Spencer while he was with us. Also, I agree with Bex and Nancy that he still has the power to make us follow him. His music has allowed me to broaden my thoughts on life as well as made me appreciate it.
["...and [I] have to feel lucky for the things I've been handed, 'cause there've been a lot..."]

So thank you Ben, thank you Bill, and thank you Spencer.
Comment by Suzanne Detweiler on June 21, 2009 at 1:56pm
Thanks for sharing that with us Bill - and Ben J.

These are the stories that help the rest of us make sense of why we're so drawn to Spencer's work when we didn't even know him. He still draws us in and makes want to be a part of who he was.

Ben I hate to inform you of this because I do know you're a really nice guy....but you're still intimidating as hell! (and I rarely get intimidated by anyone!)
Comment by Barbara on June 20, 2009 at 4:34pm
I like to read differend perceptions of Spencer, especially because I'm one of those who unfortunately hadn't the chance to meet him. I can empathize with your point of view of New York and that you both loved the Midwest. The town I'm now living in is my New York... It's ok, but you're not really happy with it.
Your way, Ben, how to show us how Spencer was is marvelous. We know only some bits of him, but with your description, and the ones which follow, our puzzle of Spencer is growing. And in the end it might be a big 3D puzzle with countless statements.

Thank you Ben for writing down your memories and thoughts about Spencer. And thank you Bill for the idea to show us individual ways of looking at your gorgeous son.
Comment by Leanne Haworth on June 20, 2009 at 4:03pm
Thank you for sharing this.. I love reading people's stories about Spencer because his personality just jumps right off the page, just like in his songs! I wish I'd had the honour to have met him. Thanks again to both Bill for posting this and Ben for sharing :)
Comment by Nancy McManes on June 20, 2009 at 1:43pm
Thank You Bill and Ben for allowing us to share in this. I have to agree with Bex.. he sitll makes people follow him! Once you start reading and hearing about him you can't ever get enough. Again Thank you so much!
Comment by Mary on June 20, 2009 at 8:58am
I love reading these. You get a sense of "knowing" Spencer through his music, as he gave so much of himself in his writing. Reading the memories of the friends who knew him and loved him, make it even more so.

Thanks for sharing, Ben.
Comment by Spencer Bell Legacy Project on June 20, 2009 at 8:34am
I've asked permission from a number of Spencer's friends to blog their "email stories" as I've said. Once Pierce posted his own (which is also part of the 'book' of stories) it only seemed appropriate to want to include others. First, would be the musical friends and the closeness they experienced through creating and playing music together.
In this way, you who have come to appreciate Spencer's music can also see the human-ness of him - including all of his spots as well as his creativity. There will be more as days go by......

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