That Night: May 1-2, 2017

As I post this, it is 12:20 a.m. on May 2nd, 2021, four years after Bruce fell on the Fox Theatre. It was almost at this exact moment on that night when I saw the EMTs rolling Bruce out of the theatre and into the ambulance and I thought, “this won’t be the last time I see Bruce Hampton.” Unfortunately, it was. So far. I’d like to put any potential reunions off for a while, but I have missed him every day. Anyway, this is an excerpt from the introduction to my book about Bruce, “The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography,” recalling some of that unforgettable night.

Bruce used to talk about being eighty or ninety, “like Johnny Knapp,” and still performing, at least until he dropped dead onstage. “I’ve got a gun to the back of my head,” he’d say. “I can’t retire. This isn’t really a choice.” He’d also say that he was probably supposed to be an accountant or insurance salesman, “with a Volvo wagon, two and a half kids, and a white picket fence.” But there was the gun and there was the stage, and one compelled Bruce to the other.

I heard Bruce talk about dying on stage a number of times. But so have a lot of performing artists. The big difference between Bruce and them is, of course, he did it. I’ve missed him every day since, and so have many others.

Still, dying onstage was just an abstract notion from a master of the abstract. Who took him seriously? He certainly didn’t. And then there Bruce was on May 1, doing the most serious thing in his life. When he collapsed at the feet of guitar superkid Taz Niederauer, everyone in the Fox Theatre thought it was another one of his slapstick bits, the kind of stage antic he was known for. So the band kept playing. Even after three, four minutes, they played. Keeping time and keeping track of time are not necessarily the same things.

“When you’re playing onstage, it’s hard to always tell how much time has gone past—you can’t tell fifteen minutes from fifteen seconds,” said Denny Walley, who was in shock for about a month after the show. “Well, think about it: forty-six hundred people on their feet for almost four hours, all of these musicians who loved Bruce and felt a deep sense of gratitude toward him. It was all so overwhelming, like an overdose of love and joy affecting every fiber of Bruce. Then to go from that high, high moment, to the absolute bottom, like almost into the pits of hell. It blows your mind in an instant. This was the most extraordinary event of my life.”

Even after it was obvious that something was terribly wrong, after Bruce had been taken away in the ambulance, Johnny Knapp, Jim Basile (musician, longtime Atlanta radio personality), and I figured we’d be laughing about this with Bruce at some future lunch. We figured Bruce would be fine; he seemed indestructible to those of us who have eaten with him. But we got the news around 1:30 a.m., as we approached the traffic light where Tenth Street crosses Peachtree in the heart of Midtown Atlanta. Joe Zambie, one of Bruce’s closest friends (and the Godhead of the religion/philosophy Bruce created, Zambi) called from the hospital.

“He’s gone,” Joe said in a rickety voice that we could hear over Jim’s Bluetooth. Then a long pause and an inarguable tone of finality. “Bruce is gone.”

Johnny sounded like he was in pain, crying, “Oh no!”

The atmosphere sucked from the car, we glided numbly down that stretch of Peachtree that used to be called The Strip, once upon a time Atlanta’s little version of Haight-Ashbury. Somewhere to our right just a few blocks down was Piedmont Park, where fifty years earlier the Hampton Grease Band had played free concerts for the hippies who dug the band and never forgot its eccentric lead singer, a guy named Bruce.

“The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography” is available online at most sellers you can think of, or through your local bookstore (who can order it for you if it’s not on their shelves, or right here from the University of Georgia Press.

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