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John Bell: Salad Days with Widespread Panic

Photo by Jeffrey Dupuis

Widespread Panic is celebrating the band’s 25th anniversary the only way it knows how — playing concerts across the country. The final leg is taking place this fall with their annual Halloween and New Year’s Eve dates as well as the sold out Panic En La Playa at a Mexican resort in early 2012. Following that, the members will go on an indefinite hiatus.

With much of Panic’s past, present and future documented in the July/August “Relix” cover story I approached my conversation with John Bell by emphasizing other matters in his life such as his environmental interests, his wife’s wellness center and his use of the Energy Enhancement System.

He spoke about being absorbed by music as a child and then becoming a part of one of the most popular touring acts in the country.

Although he’s very much a part of the digital age, the native of Shaker Heights and Pepper Pike, Ohio also brought up his sadness that favorite stops to visit while on the road such as Borders bookstores and Tower Records are nothing but memories now. Whether it applies to his band, his life or the general public, it’s apparent that a sense of community among musicians, fans and strangers gathering at brick-and-mortar businesses is important to him.

In good spirits, the conversation flowed easily and, most importantly, Bell was agreeable to tackle any subject presented to him.

JPG: I’m calling you from your old stomping grounds in Northeast Ohio.

JB: Yeah!

JPG: You grew up in Shaker Heights?

JB: Through six, maybe, part of seventh grade. Then, we just moved out to Pepper Pike. My parents owned land out there for years and years. That was one of their lifelong dreams, designing a house together. So, there were always some blueprints there on the desk in the living room.

JPG: And, because I keep reading different accounts did you go to Shaker Heights High School or University School?

JB: I went to US. I was at Sussex Elementary and lived right across from the playground.

JPG: Nice.

JB: Well, it’s kinda nice but then you’re the first one called home because you can’t deny your dad’s whistle. (laughs)

JPG: Finishing up about Ohio, this may have some meaning to you. Do you remember Jane Scott from “The Plain Dealer?” (The beloved Cleveland pop critic died last summer ).

JB: Yeah, I got an envelope full of articles from my dad and a bunch of email links from my friends who are in this century. (laughs)

JPG: I don’t know if you heard, the Rock Hall had a tribute night for her with several hours of remembrances and performances.

JG: She was really hip. She came out to our shows and was just a sweetheart. And I grew up reading her column to see the concerts that were coming up. She was adorable.

JPG: So, I take it you were a veteran of places like the Richfield Coliseum and Blossom Music Center.

JB: Yeah, man. I started watching World Team Tennis there and then they started bringing concerts in there. And Blossom Music Center, that was pretty much the place you really loved to go during the summers. But if it was raining the Coliseum was there and it was closer.

From Blossom it was probably a 45-minute hike back home. That’s nothing when you’re younger. Nowadays, it’s like, ‘Oh, let me check and see what’s on TV.’ (slight laugh)

JPG: As far as music itself, whether it was going to concerts or something else, was there anything in particular as you were growing up that inspired you to do what you’re doing now?

JB: I suspect, but maybe it’s…all kids kind of pretend, you know, when watching TV. We had some kind of guitar in the house ever since I can remember, whether it had strings on it or not. So, there was something to pretend with.

I remember, and I think my grandparents, my dad’s folks, gave me a little transistor radio when I was five years old and I was allowed to listen to that into the night. I had a little earplug in it and everything was cool. Subliminally, I think I was absorbing stuff. Mostly what you got was WIXY 1260 and CKLW from Windsor. And Windsor’s right across from Detroit, so you got a lot of Motown there.

But then, one of the biggest things about music was I was never pressured into it, save for the first piano lessons to see if anything stuck. But that’s a good thing for parents to do, at least expose them and see if there’s some connection there.

JPG: Do you think a light came on in college when you were working with Michael Houser?

JB: I was writing stupid stuff as soon as I learned to write but it was little kid, first, second grade stuff. But I was still trying it. As far as a light coming on, I think that might have taken place in ninth grade or something like that. I just remember playing the guitar and singing in my basement and something sounded kinda okay to me. (laughs) It wasn’t like I was just pretending. I think I hit my first note. And then I had some friends from Cleveland, we had some guitars and sang together. Just piddling around. Being real nervous but trusting each other. That was a big deal. Every little step of the way was a big deal.

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