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Permanent Occupation

Rico Bell (Eric Bellis) is an affable, soft-spoken painter who doubles as a musician. He possesses a warm, George Harrison-esque voice and is an accomplished accordionist/guitarist. Bell has traveled the United States and Europe as a 17-year-member of The Mekons: an on-again/off-again, cult-favorite, pioneering punk band turned English alt-country outfit. Bell is also a lauded solo artist known for penning tender ballads that are equally informed by folk, Cajun, country, R&B and soulful rock ‘n’ roll. The Liverpool native witnessed the birth of The Beatles and, a decade later while residing in Leeds, surveyed punk’s first salvo from center stage. Whether painting, penning tunes or performing, Bell always manages to stay busy – he has to, he has no choice in the matter.
“The first time I actually played live at a club, I got this immediate adrenaline buzz and an immediate communication that I hadn’t experienced properly before, and I thought that was great,” Bell explained.
“As opposed to painting,” Bell added, “which is a very slow process, and maybe you don’t communicate for a year until after you’ve done the thing, and it’s on the wall or whatever. That hooked me into the music and then I became schizophrenic, of course,” Bell chuckled. “Now I gotta do two things and neither of them will I ever be able to stop.”
Bell speaks via phone from a friend’s house near Philadelphia. He is preparing for a solo performance. When he reaches Florida, however, he will have his entire five-piece band, the Snakehandlers, by his side. Bell has been juggling his solo career and The Mekons gig for more than a decade.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, The Mekons made a name for themselves around England and Europe as unrepentant punk rockers with a flare for concentrated chaos and acerbic wit. By the mid-1980s, The Mekons went through several personnel changes and decided to incorporate more eclectic influences into their raw sonic discourse such as hardcore country, folk and Celtic. The result was Fear and Whiskey (1985), one of the first examples of country/roots music performed with a punk sensibility. It was during this tumultuous time for The Mekons that Bell was brought into the fold.
“Fear and Whiskey was the dividing part between the old band and the band that exists now,” the singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist said. “They really asked me to play with them originally for the singing I do – the accordion was just like, ‘OK, we can use that.'”
Prior to joining The Mekons, Bell was “not particularly” an enthusiast of their eccentric brand of punk rock.
“Wow, great, pretty mental,” was his reaction to one of their early recordings.
For the last few years, The Mekons have spent considerably less time in the studio and on the road. Fellow Mekons Jon Langford and Steve Goulding have occupied themselves with side projects such as The Waco Brothers, Pine Valley Cosmonauts and Skull Orchard. Bell has continued to paint as he has done since he was a teen while simultaneously pursuing a solo music career on Bloodshot Records, where he has released three discs.
Bell’s latest, this year’s Been A Long Time, is an eight-song, limited-edition CD-EP that serves as the perfect primer for Bell neophytes. The collection includes previous highlights from as far back as 1988 and new ones as recent as 2001. All the selections are Bell originals save for the lead-off track – a rousing cover of John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” that beautifully marries several acoustic and electric guitars with spine-tingling fiddle. As a teen, Bell used to take his chances with the local truant officer to watch a young Lennon perform with The Beatles during lunchtime.
“I saw The Beatles at The Cavern (in Liverpool) on a couple of occasions,” Bell recalled fondly. “I sat next to Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones, one time, right at the beginning when both (bands) were just starting.”
Despite the fact that he recently married and is pushing 50, Bell maintains a schedule most men half his age would find taxing. Following his performance in Florida, Bell will continue to log dates by himself and with The Snakehandlers until August. Then, The Mekons have a new album set for release and a three-month promo tour of the states planned. In October, Bell and Langford will display their artwork at a gallery in Providence, R.I. In November, The Mekons will reconvene for a 25th anniversary tour of Europe.
“It should be fun,” Bell said contently before pausing. “I wanna try and do some painting in between.”

Contact Wade Tatangelo at oracleofflimits@yahoo.com