An artistic legacy doing good things
Some of you may not have been on the site when we began publishing some of the contributions to a collection of "spencer stories" that are now compiled into a 180 page "book" called, "The Ties We've Tied"...But here is the one Pierce contributed- it's still one of my favorites (kinda long - but worth the read - especially if you really want a glimpse of the REAL Spencer): - sorry about the ugly cut and paste job...
The first time I ever exchanged words with Spencer Bell was, very appropriately, on a backlit stage in High School. I had seen him awkwardly and lazily slouch through the halls with hair covered eyes and dark aviators, but it would weeks after his arrival at Lahser until we would be properly introduced. I should clarify that when I say properly introduced, I mean to say that I met the only side of Spencer I would ever understand, his songs.
It was February of 2002, just five months after September 11th and just seven months after my arrival to the United States from Argentina . Spencer was trying out for our High School talent show and of course, he was the final audition. I stood side stage as he played one of his first original songs, Big Blue Sun. I remember being absolutely mesmerized by his voice, but most of all by his lyrics. Most kids auditioning went up and sang cheesy punk songs, ones created by other people no less.
Spencer’s was original and best of all had a vibe I’d never heard before. It was the feeling of calm urgency, the sound of a beautiful end, the whistle of man strolling through a park at the dawn of an apocalypse.
Spencer finished his song proudly and remained seated in the audition chair while the student council nodded in approval and gathered their belongings. I rushed over to him immediately and told him how much I loved his song. Spencer let out his infamous grunt grrrhmm, and said “why thank you, what’s your name man?” I said, “I’m Pierce, are you new here at Lasher too? I just moved here from Argentina".
He was a little thrown back by where I said I had moved from and all of a sudden the other side of Spencer was properly introduced. “ Argentina ? Are you some kind of spick?” Up until this point, I imagined Spencer to be some kind of free loving, overtly politically correct hippy and, of course, he proved me wrong. “No, I’m American” I said, “my Dad just got a job down there.” Of course I was pretty thrown back by his comment, I couldn’t tell if he was rude, maybe a bully? Nah, he looked more like a giant teddy bear than a bully.
In any case, he ended the awkward conversation early and asked “well, you wanna hear another one?” He played me two or three more songs as the auditorium cleared out. He would finish a line in a verse and I would smile, or laugh. He ended one chorus early because we both burst out laughing at how funny it was. He had songs about girls, blind girls, love, and joints. I listened to each lyric methodically and fell in love with his message, whatever it was. He finished his repertoire and I asked if he had ever played a show before, he told my only one. Then I told him something I’d tell him every so often for the entire time I knew Spencer, I said “ I think I’m your biggest fan.” At this point I had heard more lyrics than conversation from Spencer, and I suspect that might have been a good thing.
My first time meeting Spencer, I was intimidated to say the least. I could tell that he liked my interest in his music, but I was too damn nervous to even spit out the fact that I played drums in a band that needed a singer. Every singer we tried out practically had a panic attack at the microphone and here, finally was a kid who boldly and beautifully sang his own material.
Later that day I called my friend/guitarist Ryan and told him I had found the perfect singer for our new band. I was surprised to find out that Ryan had already recruited him as our singer and he’d be playing with us later that weekend. And so, my high school band, Sheer Funk and Misery began with me on drums and Spencer Bell on lead vocals.
Playing music with Spencer was always a joyous occasion. I progressed more as a musician in the two years I played with Spencer than any other time in my life. He was, till this day, the most talented musician I have ever played with, even at a young age. He was literally a genius with songs, and had the remarkable ability to listen. He never intruded upon your space as a singer. We would play him a song and like a chameleon he would blend in discreetly and brilliantly. Most singers show up to practice with a completed song and force the remaining members to blend with their vibe. Spencer however was completely unselfish when it came to songwriting.
Whatever I felt as a drummer, he could put words to as a lyricist. Our practice sessions were a whirlpool of spontaneous songwriting and it felt good. He had a unique process which involved us playing a song three or four times and him frantically flipping through one of the numbered journals he carried with him everywhere. He’d turn the pages, count in his head and gnaw at his fingernailsuntil something clicked. Often times, nothing did click. In those cases he would simply say “sorry guys, no songs today.”
At one rehearsal, Ryan questioned Spencer’s method and asked” Why don’t you just write new lyrics instead of flipping through your book?” Spencer in turn loudly yelled at Ryan saying “Dammit Ryan! You can’t tell an artist to art!”
Spencer’s source of motivation was somewhat of a mystery to everybody, he often times appeared to be lazy. I only had one class with Spencer at school and during the entire semester I think he might have said one word. Every time homework was to be passed in he’d either turn in a blank sheet of paper, or just giggle sarcastically. He’d wear dark sunglasses and whenever questioned by the teacher he’d always respond that fluorescent lights hurt his eyes, it was a bizarre medical problem he’d say.
I’ve heard stories of Spencer being an absolute riot in class, but my experience was radically different. He was completely tuned out to school from my view, but always tuned in to art. Artistically speaking he was anything but lazy. He would show up to school in the morning with half a book of poetry and drawings. It was as if he could stop time at night to write. I never understood where on earth he found the time to create such mass quantities of art, but he had a routine which was somewhat of a ritual and it worked.
My days in High School with Spencer outside of rehearsal were odd mixture of playing shows, boredom and close calls with authority figures. We had begun to play shows and Spencer’s ability to entertain while under the spotlight was remarkable. Even when we’d stop to tune or fix a drum head, he’d find a way to conjure up a laugh. If no one laughed, well then he’d find something shocking to say, anything to make people feel..something.
Our group won almost every contest we were in and at sixteen, that meant everything. One battle of the bands we showed up proudly displaying Mitch Album Show entry stickers on our chests. Other bands hated our guts, but we felt like kings.
I suppose we all started to get a bit cocky, which is how a silly feud with another local band called “The Gremlins” started. A “mysterious post” on their online message board was found ranting about how their music was a sad excuse for electronic experimental. Of course towards the end of the post the “mysterious poster” commented on how they were a fan of Sheer Funk and Misery and that they would beat them at the upcoming battle of the bands. Spencer denied it was ever him, though when he did he always had a smirk on his face which would give us a good laugh and keep us on our toes.
We actually ended up losing the contest, to the Gremlins no less and one night in Birmingham Spencer’s wits came to an end. We were outside what was then a Tower Records along with a whole herd of teenagers from all the surrounding High Schools. The bassist of the Gremlins, Bill, recognized Spencer and I from Sheer Funk and Misery and immediately started making obscene gestures with a Popsicle, in front of about 50 kids. Up until this point I think Spencer secretly loved their music and was a bit envious that they were probably just as good as us. We were looking for any reason to hate them, because in our minds they were competition. They really were weird kids, and I suppose even cockier than us, so looking back on it it’s hard to feel guilty about the entire ordeal.
In any case, the entire crew of Gremlins (along with their weirdo friends) all started to gang up on Spencer and I. They never threw a punch or pushed us but they’d do weird shit like spit on our shoes and force their fingers down their throats as if they were going to spew. I could tell Spencer was getting pissed as he stood absolutely still and stared in disgust. Finally he turned to me and said, “ Pierce..Hold my book!” For some reason, probably because it was my first fight, I remember it was Book III of Spencer’s ever growing catalog of journals. I knew he meant business anytime he put his book down. Spencer pounced on Bill like a rabid dog and gave him repeated blows to the skull. At this point their friends jumped on me and I wrestled with the drummer (how appropriate) until we almost ended up in the street. About five minutes into the scuffle the Birmingham cops showed and broke up the fiasco. Of course, being Birmingham police, they wanted to know exactly who started the fight.
They lined us all up against the Tower Records wall and very authoritatively investigated each one of us. Spence and I were greatly outnumbered, and the entire Gremlins band along with all their weirdo fans were all pointing fingers saying we threw punches. Spence and I knew what we had to do..lie through our teeth. I said little, but Spencer very calmly told the police that they were in a band which had been harassing us for weeks along with all their fans. I think the cop looked around and saw a bunch of skinny, flannel wearing Mohawked teenagers and passed judgment that they must have been trouble makers. Even better, one of the cops recognized Bill from a graffiti incident about two days prior in downtown Birmingham , so he ended up in the back of a cop car for 30 minutes which made the whole fight well worth it.
I realized then that although Spencer had distaste for authority, he knew how to work it quite well.
Maybe too well in fact and often times I unknowingly became his accomplice during his teen years of kleptomania. Since I was the only member with a license, I had the rather interesting experience of chauffeuring Spencer all around the metro Detroit area. He’d walk into 7-11, tell me to wait in the car and bolt out the door yelling “go!” I’d nag at him constantly and tell him he was going to get caught and that I’d get in trouble too. Spencer could have cared less and his disregard for my well being often left me feeling used.
My senior year of High School I finally erupted when I found out that Spencer was selling our Cd’s for double the price they should have been, and pocketing all the money. I pinned him against a wall and yelled at him as he stared me straight in the eye and said absolutely nothing. I remember telling him that his music was going to suffer and that no one would believe him if they found out he was a thief. The next day at practice he showed me one of his new songs and commented that it was about our argument. I remember one of the lyrics in which he described writing music as “metaphorical soap,” and later saying “I may be a liar, but I have a tongue that works like fire.” It was the only time he ever played the song for me and we never adopted it as a band, but I remember it having a deep impact on my impression of Spencer. I realized that music was his manner of washing away the grime of everyday life. It didn’t matter what kind of trouble he raised when he wasn’t holding a guitar in hand (although he often used a guitar case to pocket merchandise) because anything was game for creative inspiration. It was then that I realized that perhaps the reason I believed and felt sincerity in his songs was because he used art in a sincere way. He was a true artist, and his outlandish acts which sometimes hurt friends were all sacrifices for a good laugh, story or song, something Spencer knew would live far beyond his days as a 15 year old.
Of course our numerous car rides were not always illegal. More than anything they were a time for music, lots and lots of LOUD music. I’d show him the band Tool who wrote songs based around numbers and the Fibonacci sequence and he’d show me Brian Wilson and talk about harmony. Our conversations rarely ventured into girls, or gossip, they were always about music, music and anything mystical. I remember him telling me that the idea of infinity was all wrong. Infinity he said must be like a circle, constantly repeating itself. If you could walk through the universe in a single direction, eventually you’d end up exactly where you started. I’ve found this theme repeated in many of Spencer’s songs and of course in his tattoo.
Mystics were often a topic of conversation because I felt comfortable talking about the unknown with him. Though I was two years older than him it felt as though I was talking to the oldest soul on earth. Spencer was adamant and certain when it came to ideas about spirituality; he seemed to always embrace it rather than fear it or approach it blindly. I loved our conversations so much that I once told him our songs should mimic them. He agreed, but there was no room for mystics in a funk rock band and by the end of my senior year, our group started to cave in. Spencer’s own songs were starting to reflect new and larger themes. I think to a certain degree the two of us had grown bored with playing trivial music about relationships and pot.
Towards the end of Sheer Funk and Misery we started to create more dynamic songs which went through odd time changes and even odder lyrics. While Spencer and I praised the new sound, I think Alex and Ryan thought it was too different, especially for us.
By June of 2003, we all decided that the days of Sheer Funk were over and the diagnosis was obvious; Spencer had moved way beyond writing funk pop songs as a musician and I felt the same. When I moved to Philadelphia for college and learned of Spencer’s departure to New York I was sure he was going on to spectacular things.
I visited him regularly during my four years in Philly and watched an amazing transformation in Spencer. He was less selfish, less cocky, plus I could walk into a store with him and not be paranoid about what may be in his pockets.
I know Spencer hated New York and we often consulted each other over the phone to talk about how the East Coast was an absolute drag. My trips to New York were very comforting and I think to a large degree we both missed our friends in Michigan . I could tell Spencer was growing and maturing because his music had matured an immense amount. He had developed a lower tonal quality in his voice (probably due to puberty), which gave his songs even more power and beauty. His lyrics were spiritual and deeper than ever and finally he had a band to match his message.
Although I spent a lot of time with Spencer he was always a mystery to me. I never understood what motivated him in life until I heard one of his songs or read his writings. My impression of Spencer was radically shaped by his instinctual need to document his life through music and art. Sometimes I think people forget that art and music come with a price, but Spencer always understood this and that’s what has stuck with me. It isn’t just born from comfortable fingers and sheltered vocal chords. It’s made from adventurous hands and even more importantly adventurous minds. It comes from damaged hearts and wounded egos.
True art is nothing more than the soap we use to cleanse our battered souls. Metaphorical soap that is. I believe that is the most important thing Spencer showed me and thus my last and conclusive impression of him is really more of a motto by which I should exist.
Live life in a manner that justifies creating music in the first place, and in the end, you might find that your music is good enough to justify your life.