- The 14th Dalai Lama
This isn’t a story that I want to tell.
It isn’t a tale of some long lost musician, another of the “whatever happened to?” shooting stars that I’m fond of covering. It isn’t about that certain smile-inducing magic that a particular song possesses, or about the heart wrenching disappointment of witnessing a dream wither - not entirely, anyway. This is a story of devotion and of heartbreak; of a frustration so pronounced - so profoun - that it inspires one to smack their forehead and implore, “How can this happen?”
For Joe Bennett, lead singer and guitarist of 1950s rock ‘n’ rollers, the Sparkletones, this story — spoiler alert — won’t have a happy ending.
Rockabilly music mainstay Levi Dexter appears to have become the bastion of music-related breaking news, the Brian Williams of roots music. Sandwiched amongst accounts of the latest political gaffes and friends’ status updates that dominated my Facebook page’s news feed was a brief message from Dexter. Joe Bennett had been diagnosed with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder… and Parkinson’s disease… and anemia… and age-related dementia, a string of health issues that resulted from his exposure to the chemical, Agent Orange, during the Vietnam War. If suffering from such an abundance of conditions wasn’t discouraging enough, the Department of Veterans Affairs had repeatedly denied most of Bennett’s medical claims.
The smile slid from my face as a feeling of déjà vu enveloped me. Less than a year ago, in another Facebook posting, Dexter shared that Jumpin’ Jack Neal, upright bassist for the iconic Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps, had passed away. Neal had enjoyed just one year in the rock ‘n’ roll limelight before leaving the Blue Caps and, seemingly, faded into obscurity. I paused, pondering Bennett’s poor health. How had the man who, along with Sparkletones drummer Jimmy “Sticks” Denton, had been responsible for the revered rockabilly classic, “Black Slacks”, apparently disappeared from the music scene, only to reemerge as a victim of medical bureaucracy?
As I had the previous August, I took to the Internet, trawling through page after page of search results in the hopes of finding an answer. There wasn’t one, just notation after notation repeating the meager details that I already knew, until Robbie Grice, co-host of Guitars, Cadillacs and Hillbilly Music for public broadcasting affiliate, South Carolina ETV Radio, shared some sought-after insight and fond memories of the musician. “I actually heard Joe’s ‘Black Slacks’ by Robert Gordon before hearing Joe’s version,” he shared. “Both are great, but those South Carolina country boys blew me away. I saw his email address years ago, and just wrote a fan letter. He replied, and we continued emailing each other. He’s a great guy, and it’s a travesty for the VA to do him this way.”
“Blew away” may be an apropos description of the Sparkletones’ initial musical impact. The quartet — comprised of Bennett and Denton, along with Wayne Arthur on the upright bass and supplemental guitarist Howard “Sparky” Childress — performed at an open talent call in Spartanburg, S.C., in early 1957, catching the eye — and ear — of CBS talent scout, Bob Cox. Convinced that he could land a recording contract for the teenagers, whose ages ranged from 13 to 17, Cox left his job at CBS and became the Sparkletones’ manager.
It was a decision that would prove to be fruitful. Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones — or, simply, the Sparkletones, as they were occasionally billed — were signed to the ABC-Paramount label and, in October, “Black Slacks” reached the number 17 slot on Billboard magazine’s Hot 100 Singles chart.
The song has long been the subject of misinformation. Paul Anka, who would soon achieve fame with his smash, “Diana”, had been hard at work in the studio when Bennett and the Sparkletones recorded “Black Slacks”. Although frequently credited with providing backing vocals for the track, Anka instead joined Bennett and the boys on the single’s flip side, “Boppin’ Rock Boogie”.
“Paul Anka was in there, and the producers thought that he would add something to the song,” Bennett’s wife, Doris, related during a recent telephone interview.
Bennett and the Sparkletones, despite their youth, were not your typical modern day boyband clones. They composed their own songs and spent hours on the road, driving from gig to gig; from one coast to another. A 13-week engagement at Las Vegas’ Royal Nevada Hotel provided Bennett with one of his favorite remembrances, a visit from Elvis Presley. They appeared on many of the entertainment-themed television shows of the era, including The Nat King Cole Show, American Bandstand and the granddaddy of them all, The Ed Sullivan Show. The group seemed to be on the cusp of music superstardom, but life, fate — whatever you choose to call it — has its own rules, and an inconvenient way of intervening. Bennett and the Sparkletones’ follow-up release, “Penny Loafers and Bobby Socks”, climbed to number 42 on the Billboard chart in early 1958, and then… nothing. A handful of other recordings failed to chart, including “Cotton Pickin’ Rocker”, a tune that matched the intensity of “Black Slacks” and, in 1959, ABC-Paramount’s housecleaning resulted in the Sparkletones being a band without a record company. The group would release four singles on the Paris label, but none of them would make a dent on the record charts. The lack of a second hit, combined with multiple personnel changes — Childress and Denton had left the group, and Cox had resigned from his managerial post — signaled the end of the Sparkletones and, in October of 1960, the group called it a career.
The Sparkletones may have disbanded, but Bennett never stopped playing or creating music. He entered the military and, while stationed with the Air Force in Spain, served with the man who would become known as Mickey Hart. The pair, as part of the Jaguars, provided backing for some of the country’s biggest acts.
Following his stint in the Air Force, Bennett briefly joined Hart in California, but attempts to again collaborate musically were unsuccessful. He returned to his Air Force position as air traffic controller, and Hart went on to become the drummer for legendary jam band, the Grateful Dead.
While stationed in Vietnam, Bennett witnessed one of a pair of horrific plane crashes — the other in Spain — the memories of which haunt him some 40 years later. Those nightmarish images have greatly contributed to the PTSD with which he is afflicted. “Everyone was killed in front of him,” Doris Bennett related. “He saw the body parts coming down.”
It was while serving in Vietnam that Bennett was exposed to Agent Orange, a chemical that has been linked to an assortment of potentially debilitating ailments, including those that the musician presently suffers from. Convincing the VA to provide and cover the cost of treatment necessary to his physical and mental health has become a nesting doll of hair pulling frustration for the Bennetts: the decision to treat the former serviceman’s PTSD has been met with a cascade of denial of coverage for Bennett’s other Agent Orange-related conditions.
“We’ve had our share of hard times with the VA,” Joe Bennett acknowledged.
In 1992, after adding an Air Force assignment in Germany, music jingle composer and years as an air traffic controller in Alaska to his resume, Bennett relocated to Spartanburg, S.C. He continued to perform, occasionally reuniting with his fellow Sparkletones for a one-off gig at assorted rockabilly events, and taught guitar to a new generation of pickers, most recently at the Roper Music Company.
And then, Parkinson’s disease emerged from its hibernation. “It kind of happened suddenly,” Doris Bennett remarked of the diagnosis. “He had had PTSD for years; he’s now 72. Around the past 10 years, he had a twitch in his arm.”
Joe Bennett was quick to dismiss the jerky movement as little more than a muscle spasm. The shaking in his arm when he attempted to hold a newspaper was nothing to worry over.
A friend — another Vietnam veteran — encouraged Joe to seek treatment for exposure to Agent Orange.
What followed was a descent into a bottomless pit of unaccountability and bureaucratic red tape, with Joe Bennett’s life — literally — hanging in the balance. Bennett was shuttled from one facility to another. He was examined by a series of VA doctors and psychologists, none of whom would point a finger squarely at Agent Orange and label it to be the culprit. As Doris Bennett had been quietly informed, all are told to remain silent in regards to labeling a patient as “disabled”. Someone has to pay for those disability claims, right?
As the Bennetts spent two years shuffling from doctor to doctor and organization to organization with few results, Joe’s health continued its downward spiral. When his Parkinson’s worsened, causing him to collapse while on the job on multiple occasions, the musician was continuously forced to reduce his work schedule, until the time came when he couldn’t work at all. He was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, a cousin to Parkinson’s and an Agent Orange-affiliated condition, in which abnormal protein deposits are found throughout the brain.
Bennett was prescribed risperidone to curb his increasing PTSD symptoms, a medication recently debunked as a method of combating the condition. The medication did, however, have a disturbing side effect. “(It) caused him to go into a Parkinson’s state for six weeks,” Bennett’s spouse shared. Bennett was transferred to a mental health facility, where the cocktail of medications that he was given to counteract the effects of the risperidone caused a chain reaction that resulted in chemical pneumonia — and in more hospital time.
Although Medicare had assisted the Bennetts with some coverage, they, as well as the VA, continue a potentially lethal shell game of just who — if anyone — would cover health care costs for the former Air Force air traffic controller. It’s a fight that frustrates Doris, but one that she refuses to yield to. “This is how the red tape works, and it’s just really sad,” she commented.
“I think they’re going to avoid me and do whatever they can to get me out of the way,” she later added.
A recent diagnosis of anemia, which had gone untreated for two years, also uncovered the possibility that Bennett may have leukemia. His weakened state has made confirming the illness through bone marrow testing impossible… but the oncologist would like to see Mr. Bennett again in four months, anyway.
A lot can happen in four months.
“Why wasn’t I told?” an exasperated Doris asked. “Why didn’t they watch him for two years with his anemia?”
Life has changed for Joe Bennett — for his devoted wife, too. Doris no longer works; she has slipped into the role of full-time caregiver for her husband. The Bennett home remains in a state of lockdown, a preventative measure to ensure Joe’s safety, and to keep him from running away. A physical therapist and a couple of nurses pay Joe Bennett brief visits once or twice a week and, while civilian doctors insist that Bennett needs more substantive care, with this case — with this patient — there’s always a “but”… and another tidbit of unfortunate news.
After 13 months of waiting for the VA to assist her husband — 13 months of pleading and fighting, of hoping that someone would declare that her husband’s health care would be taken care of — Doris Bennett received word that the VA had lost her husband’s records. Each piece of paperwork that Doris had ever submitted need to be sent once more.
My mouth fell open. For the first time in a long while, I was speechless. How could this happen, in our country, to someone who had served in the military? To anyone?
Joe Bennett isn’t alone. There are others, other Vietnam vets afflicted with Agent Orange-triggered maladies whose medical files have mysteriously vanished from VA offices. In this instance, the old adage of strength in numbers isn’t of comfort.
“We have been loyal citizens and certainly love our country,” Doris asserted.
While the Bennetts’ battle with the VA drags on, Joe Bennett faces his own private struggles. His ailments have worsened to the point where the talented, beloved musician has considered ending his own life. He takes solace in helping his wife respond to the numerous well wishes and words of encouragement that he’s received via email and snail mail, and in the few tunes he’s able to pluck out on his guitar.
A few days ago, I stumbled across a video of Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones’ performance of “Black Slacks” at last year’s Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekend, the genre’s premiere stateside festival. Attendees loudly sang along and swayed to the music, men and women decades younger than Bennett and his band mates. I couldn’t suppress a smile. Music can be an excellent goodwill ambassador.
Yet, each time “Black Slacks” or “Boys Do Cry” burst from my stereo, a certain question will flit through my brain. How can this happen?
Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find an answer.
Published: July 25, 2012