This should have been the first thing I wrote after turning in the final portion of the manuscript, which was the index, which was basically all her work. She is Sam, my first-born miracle, my brilliant little Valentine, Spider Monkey, and Field Mouse — my cross-country companion, tiny and mighty, sometimes pointy but always sharp, completely huggable, heartbreakingly beautiful, and constantly present (whether she is near or far) daughter, who doesn’t know the meaning of the concept, ‘half way.’
Except for me and Bruce and the University of Georgia Press, Sam – more than anyone or anything else – is the reason that there is a book called “The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography,” about to become a bona fide entity on April 1st.
Samantha Leigh Safin and her dad, somewhere near the Columbia River in Washington. She was flying the coop to begin her brave journey as a mighty grown-up on the Pacific Coast. A trip for the ages.
There is some perfect symmetry here that the book’s subject would really appreciate: The publication date happens in the same month as his birth (his birthday is April 30), and the same month as Sam’s birth (her birthday is April 6). This is my first book, guided toward the finish line by my first child.
So here is what happened:
I began thinking about the book in 2009, 2010, running the idea in my head, making a few inquiries of friends who knew Bruce, and so forth. In 2011, after Bruce gave me permission to write it, I started working in fits and starts and often not at all.
In those days (like today), I had a full-time job, occasional freelance writing gigs, community commitments, and gigantic family responsibilities, all of which left very little room for pursuing the life story of a musician who moved around his professional and geographical landscape with all the predictability of an oblong pinball. So I would squeeze in interviews whenever possible, tracking down the musicians in Bruce’s extensive virtual rolodex; or I’d beg my wife’s forgiveness to run off with the circus temporarily and catch a live show.
This went on, in its haphazard trajectory, for five or six years. I gathered stories, jotted down a few phrases and pages, but nothing resembling a book … until 2016. A big reason for that is Johnny Knapp. Bruce had introduced me to Johnny several years earlier and I’d become very close with this ball-busting jazz pianist. Johnny kept urging me to write words so that I could finish the Bruce book and get to work on a play that we could write together. He even wrote a few songs, I wrote some lyrics, we had an outline for a story … but I had miles to go yet on the book. He’d say, “finish the goddamn book about Bruce so we could write the goddamn play.” I miss Johnny.
She is on social media, but not because she likes it.
So I wrote a little here and there and had about 75 good pages to share with Bruce the night he died after collapsing on the Fox Theatre stage in May 2017. I never delivered the pages and, in fact, most of them wound up in the trash. After Bruce died I wasn’t sure what to do with the book. I was depressed. I put it down for several months then picked it up again and wrote with some intention. Then I had a stroke (August 5, 2018). As you can imagine, that slowed the process a bit. Once again I stopped thinking about the book for a few months, spent time wallowing in some self-pity, recovering my senses, working on some freelance projects that needed to be finished. Sam left her home in Michigan and spent a month with us, making sure her old Dad was on the road to recovery. The memory of her coming into my hospital room that hazy night still brings me to tears.
Anyway, in November or December of 2018, about a year after I’d contacted them and about six months after giving up on them, I heard from the University of Georgia Press. They were interested in publishing the book and wondered where I was with the manuscript, and when they could have a look. The plan was to turn it in on my next birthday, Sept. 26, 2019.
Gulp. This was real now. I started turning down freelance opportunities and spent every spare minute outlining or writing, editing and rewriting, gathering photos, then writing some more, then erasing and rewriting. By July I was about 10,000 words over the number I’d projected to UGA Press – with four chapters left to write. That’s when I called my daughter.
Sam had been an honors student who majored in English – her heroes in literature weren’t the authors, but the great editors who helped give them a voice. While she never actually pursued work as a writer or editor, Sam is both. Every November, she dives into the NaNoWriMo, which is National Novel Writing Month. My daughter has written about 10 novels. Someday, I expect, she’ll publish something. When she feels like it. She’s too busy enjoying her life with her awesome husband Eric, and working in her rewarding, challenging, and super successful, non-literary career (here’s how she describes her work: “I do Salesforce and Pardot.” She is a self-described ‘polymath.’).
The marvelous polymath has amazing editorial super powers
But mad skills are mad skills. “Sam, I need you to be a heartless editor and cut the hell out of my book,” I said, explaining the lay of the land and what I needed to do by Sept. 26. My daughter is probably the most dependable person there is – after my wife, who she blessedly takes after. She said, “no problem, Daddy-O.” Then proceeded to make what I thought was a pretty good manuscript much better.
She cut some of my fat babies, but did so lovingly. She slashed with intention. She offered editorial advice, some direction, asked good questions. She read about a man and music that she had previously cared nothing about – Sam is a woman of her generation, she has her music, but she came to genuinely appreciate Bruce, and was passionately interested in the project. In fact, she could probably beat you or me at Col. Bruce trivia by now, because once a thing enters Sam’s head, it stays there. Her retention is otherworldly. When she was a little kid, reading books faster than I could crack one open, we’d quiz her to see if she was really absorbing the lit. She was, and then some. Comprehension is one of her super powers.
Every few days, chapters would come back to me, trimmer and healthier than before. I was able to turn in a manuscript that was only 75,000 words in the end (I’d estimated 70,000 but begged the Press to take the 5,000 extra, reasoning that it was way better than the 100,000 word epic that had been looming before Sam applied her editorial scalpel). Sam saved the day. And then she offered to do the index, too, jumping into that project eagerly (“Ooh, something new to learn,” she said, and then mastered it).
Now the book is almost out there. It’s off the press and headed for bookshelves – I’m told that half of the pressrun of 1,000 already has been sold, which is just amazing. A box of books should arrive at my door any day. I’ve already promised signed copies to a bunch of folks, and my engaging daughter thought of that, too. Turning the manuscript over on my birthday was a purposeful thing, something I planned. It seemed like the Hobbit thing to do. And here’s something that my little scheming Samantha Leigh planned and carried out with her usual precision, this custom pen that you see pictured. It arrived in the mail, my special birthday present, “something to sign books with,” she noted.
This is a gift that I look forward to using over and over again. But there won’t be enough blank space in the book to scribble all of the words that I owe my daughter when it comes to inscribing her copy. But that’s OK, because I know a very sharp editor who can trim it down to a manageable word count.