Friends of LITA | Q&A With Bill Bentley

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*Photo courtesy of Houston Chronicle

Bill Bentley, the Texas/LA music journalist, publicist, label executive, and producer, has had an impressive and lengthy career in music. Bill first cut his teeth as the music editor at the Austin Sun and later at the L.A. Weekly. He was also a club promoter, publicist at Slash Records, Senior VP of media relations at Warner Bros., and now A & R director at Vanguard Records. However, Bill is the antithesis of a typical music industry tie. Kind, sensible, and extremely humble, Bill is a beloved figure whose work is a labor of love driven by respect and admiration for the musicians he works with.  We recently caught up with Bill for a short Q&A, in which we discussed his friendship with Lou Reed, The 13th Floor Elevators last show in Houston, telecommunicating with Skip Spence, and lots more. Read the interview in its entirety below.

 

You’ve had a very expansive career, working with tons of great artists such as Lou Reed, Neil Young, Roky Erickson, Skip Spence, Jimmy Scott, and many more. Who’s your most memorable artist?  Maybe the one that you’ll tell the great grandkids about?  

My most memorable artist was Lou Reed. That could be because since 1967 and hearing the first Velvet Underground album, I fell under his spell. Or it could be because in the ’70s in Austin I became close with Velvet guitarist Sterling Morrison, who had an encyclopedic memory of the entire life of the Velvet Underground and had been waiting for someone to tell it to. I joke that I graduated from VU, just listening to Sterling’s stories for three years. But Lou himself was beyond heroic. He was an artist who always thought of his creations first and then let everything else come second. He wanted to be popular, but more importantly he was driven to follow the sound in his head. He was a genius songwriter as well. We met in 1988 and I worked with him for 20 years. We were talking about a new album the summer before he died (October 2013). He remained on fire forever, and I learned so much about being true to yourself from him. He told me once, “Don’t let anyone change your mind,” among so many other valuable things. I still get shivers with what I learned from Lou. He definitely changed my life.

 

I hear you have a funny story about the first time you meet Lou Reed. Care to share it with us?

The first time I met Lou was when I went to New York in fall of 1988 to interview him for a promo CD about the debut Sire album New York. We were going to send that recorded interview to the press. I had written Lou a letter a month before saying how excited I was about working with him and also about my years of friendship with Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison in Austin during the ’70s. So I walked into the studio to meet Lou, who saw me and said, “Come with me.” We went into a small room and he said, very factually, “Sterling remembers everything and I remember nothing. Do we have that straight?” I said, “Absolutely,” then we went back into the studio and started a 25-year friendship. I think Lou wanted to make the point that this wasn’t going to be about the past and whatever Sterling had related about the ’60s. Boy was he right: Sterling remembered EVERYTHING and wasn’t shy about sharing it.

 

Last year, we reissued Roky Erickson‘s first three solo albums. You’re a longtime Roky and 13th Floor Elevators fan. You produced the 1990 Roky Erickson tribute album Where The Pyramid Meets The Eye: A Tribute to Roky Erickson, which helped raise funds for him and revamped his career. What is it about Roky’s music that resonates with you? 

During the 1960s when Roky Erickson was the lead singer in the 13th Floor Elevators, I became a rabid fan of the band in Houston, where their label was located. They played there all the time, and we would follow them from gig to gig like total true believers. Roky’s voice had the fervor of Little Richard but also a massive dose of mysticism in it. Maybe that was because the Elevators’ lyricist Tommy Hall was a person who believed in expression, the power of spiritualism in music, and the way LSD could help listeners get there. We joined the cult, and never quit.

 

I also read that you were at the last 13th Floor Elevators show in 1968. Can you tell us about that performance?

I saw the last 13th Floor Elevators show at the Love Street Light Circus and Feel-Good Machine in Houston in 1968. It was a club where you could lay down on the floor with pillows and watch the band. The Elevators were in tatters, and Roky sang with his back to the audience for most of the night. He was also singing a different song than the band was playing, which was accidentally avant-garde, to say the least. Guitarist Stacy Sutherland looked in bad shape, and by the end of the night he wasn’t even onstage. He left. I knew it was over that night.

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*Interior of Love Street, circa 1968

One of our favorite records here at Light In The Attic is Skip Spence’s 1969 solo album Oar. You’re also a big fan of Skip, and, much like with Roky, you produced a tribute album: More Oar: A Tribute to the Skip Spence Album, which helped raise money for Skip’s medical bills and garnered greater attention to his music. What was it like working with Skip?

Working on the Skip Spence tribute album More Oar was a complete trip. Skip was living in a trailer in Santa Cruz and wasn’t really conversant on the phone, but his publisher Lynn Quinlan was speaking with Skip to get all the lyrics so other artists could do his songs. It was like a tag-team affair. After everything was done, I heard Skip was in the hospital, so I took the finished tape and went there to play it for him. He was in a coma, so I had to leave the tape with the nurse. I did get to sit in the room with him for an hour and try to telecommunicate a bit. I heard the next week when he regained consciousness, his family played him More Oar, and Skip listened with a smile and when the last song finished, he closed his eyes and died. Right then. I got chills when I found out, but it sure made me ecstatic that Skip got to hear how much all the artists loved his music.

 

This year for Record Store Day, we reissued Stephen John Kalinich’s 1969 LP A World of Peace Must Come. You’ve been friends with Stevie for a long time. How did you first meet and get turned on to his poetry?

I met Stephen John Kalinich in 1982, shortly after I moved to Los Angeles from Austin. He was friends with an artist named Renee Ciral, who was friends with my then girlfriend and now wife Melissa. So we got to be friends really fast, and he told me about the album Brian Wilson had produced of him in 1969, but the tape had gotten lost for over thirty years. Then one day Stephen found the tape, and then we started our quest to get it released. Luckily, Light in the Attic came to the rescue.

 

The jazz singer Jimmy Scott recently passed. Jimmy had an unquietly beautiful contralto voice, which was the result of a medical condition he had since birth. You co-executive produced his album All The Way in 1992. How did that project come about? 

I read a story about Jimmy Scott by Jimmy McDonough in the Village Voice in 1988. Almost a year later, I saw he was playing a club in New York so I went and fell in love with his voice right then. I began a crusade to get him signed, but no one would go see him. Then Jimmy Scott sang at Doc Pomus’ funeral, and Seymour Stein from Sire Records was there. Seymour immediately said he’d sign Jimmy, and that first album, All the Way, is the end result. It started a long adventure with Jimmy that was second-to-none for me. He did it all, from world tours, documentaries, collaborations with Lou Reed, David Lynch, David Byrne, Bruce Springsteen, and dozens of others and on and on. It never ended with Jimmy. We spoke a week before he died, and he was as hopeful as ever to keep going. Jimmy Scott never said goodbye. When it was time to sign off, he’d always say, “In a minute.” I loved that about him, among so many things. He was a true hero to me.

 

Do you have any unique memories of Jimmy you care to share?

One of my great memories with Jimmy was his first night in L.A. after his comeback. It was a small club, but he had so many fans there, from Jack Nitzsche, Ry Cooder, Joe Pesci, and a dozen others. He took me aside, held my hand, and thanked me from the bottom of his heart. He knew a new life was starting for him, and it almost didn’t happen. It touched me to the core. So many things were to come, but that moment I was so grateful to have met a man like that. Then, years later, there was big Hollywood premiere of his documentary If You Only Knew. 800 people were at the Egyptian Theatre to see it, but the projector didn’t work. So before the audience filed out very disappointed, they rolled a piano out onstage and Jimmy sang two songs. Everyone was so overwhelmed they almost forgot the movie projector didn’t work.That was Jimmy’s strength: to inspire and heal his listeners.

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We recently reissued two Vanguard titles by Bob Frank and Peter Walker as part of our ongoing Vanguard Vault series. As the A & R director of Vanguard, what album do you think we should reissue next from Vanguard?

If I could pick the next Light in the Attic reissue from the Vanguard vaults, it would be Garland Jeffreys and Grinder’s Switch’s only album for the label. It came out in 1970 and is like an intriguing mix of The Band and Velvet Underground, which makes sense, because Jeffreys went to Syracuse University with Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison from the Velvets in the early ’60s, and then his band backed John Cale on Cale’s first solo album Vintage Violence. On that album, they called themselves Penguin, which got to me right away because I’m a big fan of penguins. Jeffreys went on to establish a great career starting with his Atlantic Records album in 1973 that is still one of my favorite releases ever. He produced it with Michael Cuscuna, and has people like Bernard Purdie, Paul Griffin, Dr. John, Fathead Newman, Richard Davis, and even the Persuasions on it. Also, he was one of the first rockers to record in Jamaica, and the song from those sessions, “Bound to Get Ahead Someday, is a classic. Jeffreys writes songs that mix so many influences, but they always have an extremely personal vision which no one else has quite matched. He’s just as good now as he has always been and carries the rock & roll torch proudly. The last time I looked on Amazon, the one copy available of the CD that was briefly out is listed for $566.41. Seriously. It’s time for action, Light in the Attic!

 

Before we let you go, can you share with us what you’ve been listening to lately?

Right now I’m obsessed with a singer-songwriter named John Fullbright. He’s from Oklahoma and is right on the edge of greatness. It reminds me of the time I first heard Townes Van Zandt in 1965. You could tell something serious was up, and it was just a matter of time before the world found out. I think Fullbright has that greatness in him, and while not every song gets there, enough do that you can tell he’s on the list of those who really can make a mark.

Also, lately I’ve been listening to this deep singer-songwriter from Scotland named Richard Macintyre. His band is named Siiga, and he’s from the Isle of Skye there. I can’t stop listening to his debut release. He played in Los Angeles a month ago at Hotel Café, and I got to see him live, then found the album. It hit me right where great music always does: the heart. Hopefully we’ll work together someday. No matter what, the world will definitely discover Macintyre. You can just feel it coming. When I hear his music, it makes me wonder what it must have been like at Warner Bros. Records in 1967 when they first heard Van Morrison’s test pressing of the Astral Weeks album. Coming off the huge Top 40 hit “Brown-Eyed Girl,” I would bet the label thought they’d be getting something different, but hopefully they knew they were in the presence of something timeless with songs like “Madame George” and “Cypress Avenue.” Music is something without rules, and my feeling is always to look for surprises, because today’s surprise could well be tomorrow’s legend. When you really think about it, the cosmos is in control anyway.