I met Craig Willis Bell a few months ago when one of his latest conglomerations, Deezen,
opened up for the first phase of the Gizmos reunion in Indiana. Being a huge Rocket From the Tombs fan, I was a little freaked out that this man was opening - opening! - for the Gizmos. But, he was (and is) completely down to earth and totally cool and even accepted our offer to play bass in the mid-west version of the Gizmos! I wanted to learn more about him and, after he responded positively to reviews of some of his discs on this blog, I asked if he would consent to an email interview and he graciously accepted! Again, I'm no writer and as this testifies, I'm no interviewer, but here's Craig and his take of the early days of punk and new wave in the mid-west.
Let’s start with the basics - where did you grow up and what first got you into music?
I was born in Elmira, NY, where my dad worked on the railroad. We moved to a number of different places in New York state and elsewhere as he was promoted on his job, finally landing in Cleveland, Ohio in 1961. I was nine. I had always been into music and especially the radio when I was young. My brother and I built shortwave kits and listened to broadcasts from all over the world. I made a giant wire antenna in the rafters of our attic and started keeping a log of stations I could hear as I listened to the distant static-y signals late at night. The farthest west I ever reached was Denver. I listened to Wolfman Jack on a Texas station, long before he was talked about in Rolling Stone. Long before Rolling Stone for that matter! I liked listening to different kinds of music and discovered lots of small RnB and soul stations in the NE Ohio area, as well as country and early rock. Of course everything changed with the Beatles coming on the scene! I don’t think people who weren’t there to experience it can ever know what a tsunami the British Invasion was. Plus, lucky me!, I lived in Cleveland where we had the normal top 40 stations blasting the newest US hits, but we had 50,000-watt monster CKLW out of Windsor, Ontario, Canada broadcasting not only the latest Motown hits, but all the British stuff that was coming over to Canada, weeks before it hit the US charts! In on the ground floor!!
What was your first band?
When living at home, I was not allowed to own a guitar. I played the trombone (horribly) and the clarinet (see trombone) in grade school but wanted to rock! I would hang around with friends who formed bands, being the go-fer/roadie. Without the intervention of my mother in Feb of 1964 I probably would not have seen The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, but I did. Although, that did not completely seal the deal. What did was going to the Beachcliff Theatre with my buddy Dave Davis and spending the afternoon sitting through the Gerry and the Pacemakers movie Ferry Cross The Mersey
in 1965 about four times; after that, we wanted to be in a rock and roll band!!! Since I was 13 at the time, I had to wait another five years until I graduated from High School and moved out on my own to follow that dream. During my high school years, I met the boyfriend of a girl I knew from my church who was a guitar player and liked a lot of stuff I was into. Jim Crook was home on leave from the Army and soon to be off to Vietnam, as were thousands of others during the 1960’s. Jim did his stint, and he and Shari married when he returned in 1970. About a year later he invited me to come over to his house on the West Side of Cleveland to meet his friend, guitarist Jamie Klimek. They both were very excited that I had both Syd Barrett solo albums. I was very excited that Jamie had a cute sister. I started hanging around more until Jamie decided to put me to use by handing me a bass guitar, showing me how to tune it, what the four strings were, and told me to figure the rest out for myself. So I did. We needed a drummer, so I asked my friend Michael Weldon, who was a guitarist in that band I used to hang around with in school (I should mention their name here, The Rivers Edge) and we were given a drum set by another friend and we became Mirrors in 1971.
How did you hook up with Rocket From The Tombs - who did you meet first?
I knew of Peter Laughner from he, and his wife, Charlotte Pressler, being fans of Mirrors and coming around on occasion to the few shows we did. Just as we were starting to play out a bit, I got drafted into the Army and would be gone from 1972-74 keeping you all free. (You’re welcome.)
Jamie has some humorous remarks about this in the liner notes to Those Were Different Times
release on Scat Records, if you can find it. Upon my return, I rejoined Mirrors. Jim Jones was holding place for me in the band while I was away, and we resumed sporadically playing around town. Later that year Peter approached me to join RFTT, which was going through its transition from a loose, parody, fun, weirdo band, to a loose, intense, fun, weirdo band. I went to the rehearsal space downtown near the Shoreway Bridge in Cleveland where I met Cheetah [Gene O'Connor - guitar] and Johnny [Madansky/Blitz - drummer] for the first time. I had known David Thomas (Crocus Behemoth) for some time as he worked at the Viking Saloon and wrote a column for the weekly entertainment papers.
Obviously the band was big Iggy fans - what other influences were the basis for your sound?
The Stooges were up there with The MC5, Velvet Underground, The Kinks, Troggs, Beefheart, Barrett, Pink Floyd, Eric Dolphy....we can go on but you get the picture.
Were there places that you could play in town? What kind of reaction would you normally get? Any particularly memorable shows?
RFTT played about five shows in its first go around. We got some really good gigs at the Agora, opening for the likes of Iron Butterfly and Left End. Peter was really psyched about this NYC band Television and brought them to Cleveland for two shows with us in this penthouse club. We also played with Mirrors and die electric eels at the Viking Saloon a few times.
How was it working with those guys? Were there line-up changes while you were in the band? Did everyone get along?
Were you aware and did you have interactions with the other scenes in Ohio - Akron, Cinci - or were you playing before any of these other scenes got off the ground?
We got along as well as any early twenty somethings with lots of ideas fueled by various and sundry substances who suddenly found themselves in the middle of something that took on a life of its own. So we did what any band of twenty somethings with lots of ideas fueled by various and sundry substances who suddenly find themselves in the middle of something that has taken on a life of its own – we broke up! Stiv Bators started hanging around and for awhile it was discussed if he would join the group, but instead, we decided to implode.
As for other budding Ohio music scenes, Besides, meeting Stiv, who was from Youngstown, Mirrors had played shows with Akron’s Tin Huey and that was about it, for me, before I left Cleveland that September.
Did you try to do any other bands in Cleveland?
When I joined RFTT I was kicked out of Mirrors, so at the end of 1975 when Rocket was no more, I was kind of lost at sea. I briefly worked with Cheetah, Stiv, Johnny and Jimmy Zero in an early version of Frankenstein, which later became The Dead Boys, and David asked me if I wanted to join his new project with Peter, Pere Ubu. I also worked with Kevin McMahon for awhile in what later would become Lucky Pierre, but in the end I wanted to try and do something that was my own. I had been writing a few songs starting in Mirrors wrote and/or co-wrote some more in RFTT, and decided to pursue that direction.
What brought you to New Haven?
When I graduated, I got a job on the railroad (the family business, as it were, I was the 6th generation to work on the railroad) When I returned from my stint in the Army, my job no longer existed. All the Eastern railroads were being re-organized because massive bankruptcies in the late 60’s early 70’s totally messed up the business. I could not get a decent job in Cleveland in the years after I came home, and when RFTT went bust, I thought it was time to try to find work somewhere else. I got a job in New Haven, CT on Amtrak and moved there in the fall of 1976.
Was there a scene happening when you got there?
I didn’t know up from down when we, my then girlfriend Rene Duer and I, came to CT. I had only been there once before while in the Army to see Pink Floyd, and it took about a year to start meeting people and finding out what’s what. I slowly learned of goings on, and soon answered an ad for a bass player in a town close by for a recording. After that I started meeting more musicians in the area and put my own ad in the paper to find some people to form a band. I met Malcolm Marsden, Malcolm Doak and Mark Mulcahy and we formed Saucers in late 1977. We had a rehearsal space in an old building off downtown and one day a couple of guys walking by heard us playing and stopped in to check us out. Tom Hearn, and his friend Legs McNeil, of Punk Magazine fame, liked what they heard and offered us our first gig at a strip mall bar along the shore in Devon. We were off! After awhile more bands playing original music and non-top-40 covers started either forming or coming out of their spaces and we started doing off nights in a few local clubs that would let us in. Most of the scene at the time were the Top 40 cover bands. Then we found a bar down by the Yale University campus that became Ron’s Place and from 78-81 it was the scene of an extraordinary explosion of original music in the city and surrounding region of Southern CT that has lasted to this day.
From the comp (It Happened But Nobody Noticed) it seems like a real scene developed, if it hadn’t already been going. What did you think were the strong bands and bands that you dug playing with? How long were you there and what made you leave?
Yes, there was, and still is, a vibrant music scene there. The Poodle Boys, Disturbance, Hot Bodies, Stratford Survivors [with Mad Mike Czejka of the Fuzztones, among many others], Scout House, Subdudes, Baby Strange and many others both on the original 13-song LP I put out in 1982 and the CD re-master I made in 2006 with another 13 bands from that era, a testament to the diversity and incredible talent that exists there. A documentary about the NH scene was made a few years ago, titled after the comp, It Happened, But Nobody Noticed and is on YouTube.
What brought you to Indianapolis?
After 13 years and many bands (Saucers, Future Plan, The Plan,
The Bell System, Rhythm Methodists) I was burned out on music, on trying to get a record out, and on bad choices, I needed a change. I took a job transfer to Indianapolis, IN in 1989.
What was your first band there?
I pretty much was through with music when I moved here, I was beaten and broken. I spent the first few years working my RR job and feeling sorry for myself and allowing myself to sink into the dark shadows of life. Around 1995 things started to clear a bit and I pulled the guitar out from under the bed and my wife Claudia, who had been playing in bands with me since 1982, and I started playing a little bit every Xmas with friends in Columbus, Ohio. Then I went to Cleveland for a show and ran into Jim Jones and Jimmy Zero. From that I was invited to speak and perform at the RnR HOF and Museum in 1997 along with Jimmy and other Cle musicians. After that, David issued the RFTT album of old recordings, The Day The Earth Met Rocket From The Tombs, in 2002 and we reformed to do a one off show in Los Angeles that has turned into a, so far, 12-year new journey.
So I decided to give it another go. I cleaned myself up a bit and started over with some folks here, Sam Murphy, Mike Theodore, and Jason Bambery in The Down-fi. We recorded our CD America Now
in 2009. We have continued through some personnel changes, Sam and I, along with Blane Slaven now on drums, with another EP and a couple of singles. We are presently writing and recording new material for immediate release!
I also joined with Sam and our friends Mike Rippy, Kelsey Simpson, and Dan O’Connell (replaced by Kerry Miller) in Deezen for the past number of years also.
What are your plans now?
I am retiring from the railroad this December 2014 and plan to play and record music as long as I am physically able. Besides playing and recording with TDFi, Rocket From The Tombs, and Deezen, I play with friends in various other projects at present such as The Gizmos, Teddy and the Mofos, and X_____X. Have bass will travel!
Deezen live, opening for the Gizmos
The Gizmos with Craig, Kelsey and Sam from Deezen