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We’ve Made it This Far

I’ll never forget the last night I saw Bill Cochran on this Earth. He was wearing my polo shirt and reclining on the couch in a seaside villa on Jekyll Island, a big grin on his drugged face, completely immobile except for his tapping foot. It was early June, 2018, and Bill was in the last days of his bout with cancer and I was about two months away from having an improbable stroke and Johnny Knapp was still alive.

Bill was on pain meds and receiving an almost constant dose of marijuana from the vape pens he kept close by. His eyes were shut and if he’d worn a sign that said, ‘closed for business,’ it might have been appropriate, but it wouldn’t have been accurate. Not quite, because of his foot. It was tapping rhythmically and his smile was broad and he said softly, “God, I love that man,” while Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit played on my laptop, filling the room with music, sonic tonic for my dying friend’s soul. He opened his eyes and held a hand up in praise.

Bill really loved Bruce. He’d seen pretty much all of the Colonel’s bands through the years, from the Hampton Grease Band (Bill was about 13 when he somehow landed in Piedmont Park and mingled with the hippies) right on up to the Madrid Express (Bruce’s last band), decades later. Bill loved music. In fact, that was kind of the lede for the obituary I wrote about my friend after he died a week later.

Bill is one of the main reasons that there is a book called The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography, a book that took me about eight years to research and write. Because Bill was a constant cheerleader. “How’s that book coming?” “You almost done?” “I can’t wait to read it.”

He was my friend Tommy Deadwyler’s brother from another mother. The two of them had logged many miles together, geographically and otherwise. I’m going to leave that story for Tommy to tell, but he really ought to. There is a good movie in the friendship my pals Tommy and Bill shared for so many years. But Bill and I became fast friends. First time I met him, he asked if he could hold my son and dance with him. That’s the day I started loving Bill Cochran.

But I want to tell you the story about the night Col. Bruce guessed Bill’s birthday. First, this: As I mentioned, Bill walked into a Grease Band gig in the park back in 1969-ish and later told me, “I got on the proverbial bus and I’ve been on it ever since.” I know he spent years following different bands — the Grateful Dead, and he told me he was a bad influence in the Widespread Panic scene and had basically been banned from going backstage. Well, many years after those road-warrior days, when Bill was a husband and a doting father, he and Tommy and I went to see Panic in Myrtle Beach. There was no backstage ban this day. I was working on a story about the band and my two pals were with me and at one point we were walking through a narrow corridor backstage and Sunny Ortiz, Panic’s percussionist, was coming from the other direction.

Sunny and Bill stopped and looked at each other. You could see that Sunny was trying to work it out in his head, could tell that he recognized Bill. It was like two old gunfighters with mutual respect and mistrust. It was a short, almost tense pause as the two men looked each other over, measuring. Bill had his usual wide, knowing grin, and he spoke first. “Sunny.” Sunny looked serious, then a small smile and he said, “Bill.” No other words were exchanged, but I had the feeling that worlds were. Bill filled me in on some of the details later. OK, forget that.

A few years after this, I was at Smith’s Olde Bar in Atlanta to check out Bruce and his band. The place was packed when I felt a tap on my shoulder, turned around and there’s Bill Cochran, who had made the drive up from St. Simon’s just to see this show. We had a great time that night. Before Bruce’s set (there were several bands playing that night, Jerry Joseph’s was one of them), Bill and I sat with him downstairs, eating, and Bill asked Bruce, “man, I’ve been seeing you for years, we’ve met a bunch of times, and you’ve NEVER guessed my birthday. Won’t you do it for me now?”

Bruce, between bites of something, said, “Can’t. Doesn’t work that way. You asked.” So Bill said, “well, shit,” and we finished our food, then watched Bruce’s set. Afterwards, Bill and I snuck backstage (which, if you’ve been backstage at Smith’s, you know is a tight squeeze). So we make our way back to the green room and Bruce sees Bill and I walk in and he points at Bill and says, “Bill Cochran, Leo. August 21st.” And he was right on. Nailed it, first time. Bill wasn’t stunned, just delighted. Biggest grin yet, and Bruce gave him a pinky handshake.

Fast forward to the night of May 1st, 2017. Hampton 70 at the Fox Theatre. I was standing with Tommy and Bill near the soundboard when Bruce went down for the count, the most dramatic, unsettling, brilliant, tragic, and triumphant ending to a concert anyone has ever seen. Mainly, though, we were fucking worried. Outside near the backstage entrance, a small crowd gathered as Bruce was taken away in an ambulance. Bill was there. He said there was a glow coming from what would have been Bruce’s shirt pocket as he was wheeled out on a gurney. “It was God texting Bruce, telling him to come home,” Bill said. Later that night, Bruce did go home and we’ve missed him ever since.

But not very long after that, maybe a couple of months, Bill had moved from the coast up to Athens and he was on his way to a job interview. As he walked down the street he heard Bruce’s voice in his ear, “Bill Cochran … Leo.” Bill recalled, “It was like he was walking right next to me. I turned to look, almost expecting to see Bruce. I saw a door with one of those lion door knockers. Leo the lion.” Noting the address on the door (which was probably 821, but I can’t remember for certain), Bill hurried to the nearest store and bought a lottery ticket, played the address, and won 50 bucks.

Of course he did. That was Bill, and that was Bruce. So it felt right that night on Jekyll, as Tommy and Bill and I spent one more late night together, that Bill would fall asleep listening to the Colonel and his greatest band, and it felt right that the music was soothing our sweet friend. When I think of that moment and that time, the thing that makes me saddest is thinking about Tommy, who spent months taking care of his dying brother Bill in Athens. I remember how exhausted and soul tired he was. But in spite of all that, this was a weekend of joy, even if we didn’t expect Bill to survive it.

Later that night, Tommy tucked Bill into bed and sat there beside him, his hand on his friend’s chest. It stopped moving, like he was holding his breath, or …

“Jerry, he’s gone,” Tommy called, sounding a little panicked. “He’s gone!” That’s when Bill raised his head, fully alert, and blurted, “Who? Me?” We laughed our asses off over that and Bill wouldn’t let us forget it the next morning when he called from the bedroom, “Hey, Tommy … he’s gone!”

On Sunday, we took him to the beach in a special wheelchair with big rubber wheels and flotation devices on the side. The thing moved easily, like the sand was glass, and we got as close to the water as Bill wanted, then stood there soaking up the sun and listening to the water and the laughter of families. Bill dozed, opened his eyes, smiled, contemplated, breathed, stretching the minutes like saltwater taffy, stretching them into hours.

He wanted to move back to the deck overlooking the beach. He was getting tired, but didn’t want us to take him back to the hospice center yet. It got to be late in the afternoon and Bill started thinking about that bed. It was time to go back to Brunswick. On the way, Bill reminded us again how much he loved the Sidney Lanier Bridge. From the backseat, I looked at geography and colors that Bill had captured in hundreds of gorgeous photographs over the years, pixelated love offerings for the world of his world.

At the hospice center, we arranged his stuff, tucked him in, and said our goodbyes. The last time I saw my friend, he was still wearing the shirt off my back, wished that I could give him more, and realized as we turned north on Altama Avenue that I’d forgotten to tell him how much I appreciated that dance, all those years ago, when he spun around a green grass field with my little boy in his arms.

Since Bill died I’ve spent a lot of hours thinking about him, wishing he was here to read the book he wanted me to finish, and I regret not having finished it sooner, so that he could read it. But then I smile and remember that Bill lived and was my friend and that I had the great pleasure of knowing him. A book is a small thing compared to that. And if we survive wretched 2020 and live to see what we all hope is a hopeful 2021, and if we make it to April 1st, the book will be a reality and I’ll say silently to my friend, “we’ve made it this far, Bill.”

Then we’ll see what comes next.

Astros, Braves, Yogi, and The Hillside Tattler

One reason that I’m glad the Atlanta Braves will be playing the Houston Astros in the World Series is purely nostalgic. The first Major League Baseball game I ever covered was Astros at Braves on my birthday in 1986. Got to meet Yogi Berra, who was a coach for the playoff-bound Astros at the time. Got to meet Dale Murphy. And the funny thing about it is, I wasn’t supposed to be there.

Here’s what happened.

My family had a print shop in Covington, Georgia. I’d left my job as sports editor at a tri-weekly newspaper in South Carolina to join the business but I missed being a sports writer and had always wanted to cover baseball. So I invented a non-existent newspaper called  The Hillside Tattler.

Back then, if you were a small newspaper on the fringes – or in this case, a fantasy newspaper – you got into major professional or college sporting events by writing to the organization’s media relations department, stating your intentions on a copy of your newspaper’s – or fantasy newspaper’s – letterhead.

So I designed a masthead for The Hillside Tattler, created a piece of letterhead and typed a letter to the Braves media guy, begging for press passes, claiming our newspaper (located in a distant, fictional rural Georgia town) wanted to write a feature story about what it’s like to play out the string of a major league season, because the Braves had been out of the division race since mid July.

My brother Steve took these shots of Yogi Berra at work for the Houston Astros, late in the 1986 season, when Houston was still a rival of the Atlanta Braves in the National League West. Now they’re in different leagues and squaring off in the World Series.

Meanwhile, the red hot Houston Astros were coming to Atlanta to play the Braves for a late September three-game weekend series en route to their epic National League Championship Series against the New York Mets. I asked for two passes for a Friday night game, which happened to be my birthday – one for a writer (me, the fake editor of the fake newspaper) and one for a photographer (my brother Steve, the fake photographer who actually is a great photographer, of the fake newspaper).

The passes were waiting at will call, and we got there in plenty of time to see batting and fielding practice, spoke with NBC broadcasters Tony Kubek and Bob Costas who were there in advance of Saturday’s telecast. Then we met Yogi.

We’d grown up with a father who was a big Yankees fan so Berra was something between a saint and a super hero in our house, maybe the best catcher of all time, the archetype clutch player who helped the Yankees win 10 World Series then managed both the Yankees and Mets to pennants. The bow-legged Berra might have been the size of a bowling trophy, but to us he was still a giant.

He was standing near the third-base line, hitting fly balls to guys in the outfield. He patiently answered a couple of questions and I wrote it down in a reporter’s notepad that I later asked him to sign – a shameless move that proved I wasn’t an actual reporter at the time, though Yogi didn’t see through the façade. Nor did he care. He went back to work.

The Braves won the game, 5-4, then lost seven of their last eight games, falling from fourth to sixth.

Eventually, we lost the print shop and I went back to sports writing for about 10 years. Covered a lot of baseball games, got to cover the World Series, including the Braves championship run in 1995. Those were some great times, and all of it on the up and up, with actual stories written on deadline and everything – no fake letterhead, no asking for autographs, no cheering in the press box.

But the first Major League Baseball game that I ever covered was particularly special. We got to meet Yogi Berra! Sure, it was covered under false pretenses and it would have been better if was, you know, legit. But as Yogi himself said, “if the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.” Right on, Yogi. Right on.

A Father-Son Baseball Tale

I’ve taken my son to more minor league baseball games than I can remember, but not enough to call it a day yet. We have many more to see. But we’ve only gone to two major league games together.

The first time was when the Society for American Baseball Research held its annual meeting or convention in Atlanta. My pal Lynn “Gus” Sutter was in town. She was a newly minted author, at the time, of a well-reviewed baseball book, Ball, Bat and Bitumen: A History of Coalfield Baseball. She’s since written two more well-reviewed books of baseball history. Another pal, my fellow native Long Islander and Newsday sports department alum and longtime Atlanta sports writer Jack Wilkinson, got us great tickets to a Braves game.

It was Joe, Jane, me, Gus, our friends Susan Percy and Janet Ward (Jack’s better half – Jack was in the press box, working that day). And we had a grand time, all of us. But it wasn’t your typical father-son baseball outing, like the kind I’d been used to with my dad. You know, just you and the old man.

Several years later, in 2013, Joe and I had our father-son outing at the ballyard. But that one wasn’t typical, either. It was both a brutal and lovely experience. It was during a period of Joe’s life when riding in the car for him was an iffy proposition at best. He was like nitroglycerin, ready to explode at any moment. Most of the time, if the trip was longer than 15 minutes or so, he absolutely hated it and he let you know it.

The Braves were hosting the Washington Nationals at Turner Field. My buddy Ron Currens had entered Joe in a contest with Superior Plumbing, one of the Braves’ many sponsors. They were giving away tickets to a few special needs kids for each ballgame, setting them up in the fancy club level section.

Freddie Freeman as a bobblehead

We started the 95-mile trip to Turner Field and the boy was in great form, really excited about going to the game with his old man. The bomb went off when we hit bumper-to-bumper, 10-mph traffic just north of Midtown, and it continued, unrelenting, until just before we reached the parking lot across the street from the ballpark. Joe lost his shit. Wailing, turning red, steam coming out of his ears, the works. It wasn’t pretty.

But the kid has a sixth-sense of direction. Whatever hell takes him, whatever place he’d go to in those moments, he always seemed to be aware of when the trip was almost over. This tantrum was epic, like a big bang without the benefit of a new universe. But as we entered the parking lot, he calmed down. And as we rolled to our seats in the Superior Plumbing Club, he was tranquil.

And then, thank God for Jack Wilkinson again!

I’d given Jack the heads up we were coming. Now the official scorekeeper for the Braves, he stopped by our seats before the game, loaded down with gifts: Braves schedule magnets, various press box handouts (stat sheets, game notes, and blessedly, a scorecard – yes, I’m one of those fans). And a Freddie Freeman bobblehead!

“Hope you like Freddie Freeman,” said Jack, making eye contact with Joe, like always, and giving him a fist bump.

How can you not like Freddie? This was long before his MVP season, long before his amazing division series winning home run. This was a likeable baseball hero. He was particularly likeable on this night, hitting a long home run his first time up, sending millions of decibels of loud through the stadium – resulting in a stunning smile on my son’s face.

He was fully back to being Joe, the tantrum having long ago evaporated. By the time Freddie singled in the Braves’ only other run in a 3-2 loss, Joe was smiling, and making a variety of wild moves and happy sounds.

What began as a hellish ride into the heart of the big city had become a joyful night. We met Jay Cunningham, founder and owner of Superior Plumbing, who said he got more out of the free tickets program than any of the contest winners. Then we spent the last couple of innings strolling around the stadium, out in the bleachers, rolling from foul pole to foul pole.

Loaded down with ‘Bobblehead Fred’ and assorted other ballpark accrual, we left, pleased with the evening’s outcome in spite of the Braves’ loss.

On the way home, I remember what it was like on late-night rides with my dad, and what terrible company I must have been, snoring beside him across long miles. It occurred to me that such terrible company isn’t really so terrible. It can be a blessing, the sound of your child’s peaceful snoring (particularly when you consider the combustible alternative!).

I strapped Joe’s chair into our big green van. He was quiet, tired, worn out after a long day. We pulled out of the parking lot that used to be the ball park where Henry Aaron passed the Babe, looking for the interstate. In the rearview mirror I could see Joe nodding, a Braves hat lilting on his head, his perfect face reflecting city lights as we headed north toward the mountains and dark, twisty night roads. Game over, another one for the books.

Yonrico’s Mighty Heart

The first time I saw and heard Yonrico Scott share his immense rhythmic gifts he was playing with Francine Reed at the Sautee Nacoochee Center, the same place where I first saw Col. Bruce Hampton perform. It’s one of those nice little Bruce synchronicities that seem more and more inevitable the older I get. Because Bruce and Yonrico were very close, but I didn’t know it at the time, and I’d already started working on The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton. And then all things came together, or collapsed into place, as Bruce might have said.

So, today is Yonrico’s birthday. He would be 66 in Earth years, an important number as he would well know. Two sixes? He was in Bruce’s orbit, so he knew all about six significance. This would be an important birthday for him. But Yonrico died on September 19, 2019, which made a lot of people, including me, very sad. He was an excellent human being.

For what it’s worth, and to me it’s worth a lot, Yonrico took his backstage pass to the universe exactly one week before the deadline to turn my manuscript over to the capable hands and brains of the University of Georgia Press. It would not be a lie, or even a fabrication, to say that Yonrico’s death completely changed how the book begins.

The last thing that I did on the manuscript was to rewrite the introduction. I was really bummed about Yonrico, and it was so fresh; and I was still mourning the loss of Johnny Knapp, who had been gone 10 months by then. And Bruce. These were heavy losses. And after Bruce died in May 2017, every time one of our mutual friends took his backstage pass, it felt heavier. Writing that afterlife fantasy scene that opens the introduction was catharsis.

Bruce, Johnny, and Yonrico, together in an ethereal diner. It seemed the perfect place for Yonrico to thank Bruce for getting him the gig with the Derek Trucks Band. The story, as Yonrico told it, had him sitting in an Atlanta jail for an extended period after being stopped and taken in for driving with a suspended license.

Eight hours before Yonrico was to be released, Bruce let him know that Derek Trucks needed a drummer for a gig in 12 hours. The thing is, no one knew when Yonrico was going to be released yet, not even Yonrico. “How do you know I’m getting out in eight hours,” he asked Bruce, whose answer was laughter.

“That’s how I met Derek Trucks,” Yonrico said. “Straight from jail. Thank you, Bruce!”

Picked up this great print by Kirk West (of Bruce, Derek, and Yonrico) at Gallery West in Macon a few months back.

While he gave Bruce credit for getting him the gig, Yonrico also counted it as a point of pride to have been fired by Bruce several times. Whether he was actually “fired,” or given leave is up for grabs – this is a rhythm devil who played not only with Bruce and the Grammy winning Trucks band, but also Earl Klugh, Whitney Houston, Peabo Bryson, and the Royal Southern Brotherhood, among many others. Yonrico also led his own ensemble and recorded several outstanding solo albums.

But he always cherished Bruce’s peculiarities and usually jumped at the chance to work with him, for the unique experience as much as anything else. He recalled the first time he met with Bruce and Dr. Dan Matrazzo to rehearse with the Fiji Mariners in the early 90s.

“With Dan, every gig was like the Super Bowl. And I’m like, ‘Bruce and Dan in the same band, let’s do this,'” Yonrico said, setting the scene. “So I go to Bruce’s house and they’re inside, jamming. Guitar and keyboards. While they’re working on a song, I start setting up my drums, get everything ready. And they say to me, ‘alright, ready to practice?’ I was enthusiastic, ‘OK, let’s go!’ That’s when Bruce comes over and pulls out the Daily Racing Form and shows me how to handicap. That was rehearsal, learning how to handicap horses.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d stumbled into Bruce’s version of how-to-be, of course. Yonrico came to Atlanta in 1976 and got to know Bruce early on, beginning their long musical association at a Late Bronze Age show at the 688 Club. He also got to know Rickey Keller around that time and considered the multi-talented musician and producer like a brother.

“He was an Amadeus, he was that good, and a good soul, too,” said Yonrico, who launched into one of his favorite Rickey tidbits: “He was just out of college and became George Wallace’s campaign musician. We had pictures of him in the studio of him and George Wallace shaking hands, when Wallace was in a wheelchair, after he got shot. Dudes in the studio used to do cocaine on that picture.”

I wanted to know more about that Wallace photo, and what it may have touched off, or could have touched off. Keller, a white guy from South Georgia, and Yonrico, a black guy from Detroit. And Wallace. Yonrico didn’t flinch.

“Fuck George Wallace,” he said. “I understood why Rickey did it. He was right out of high school and it was a large gig. We were all working musicians, and there is stuff that I had to do that I’m not proud of. I was guarded in how I teased Rickey over that. He was my big brother and he had a lot of heart and he would give it to you, whether you were white, black, blue, or green.”

Yonrico paused in that part of our conversation to consider his losses. “Rickey’s been gone a while, man. And now, Bruce.” Then he got quiet.

When I interviewed Yonrico for the book, it was about a month before his dear friend and band brother, Kofi Burbridge, succumbed to heart disease. Yonrico was going through his own health difficulties at the time. Before Kofi passed, Yonrico was there, acting as his friend’s nurse, driving him to appointments.

We talked a little more after the Rickey stories, mostly happy stuff – he’d been Tyler Neal’s drum teacher, then found out Tyler could play guitar. And sing. Really well. Eventually, Tyler became the front man of Bruce’s last band, the Madrid Express. Bruce told Yonrico, “he’s our secret weapon.”

And we hung up.

At some point after Yonrico died from heart disease, long after I had turned in the manuscript, it occurred to me that he and three of his best friends in the world had disembarked the planet on a wave of cardiac maladies. I remember wondering, how is it that men with such mighty hearts can be betrayed by those hearts? I’m guessing the answer might have something to do with overuse.

Gratitude and Faith at 61

Sixty one is a lot of years to be alive, but not too many, and hopefully there are plenty of good ones left in the cosmic stash.

The more spins I take around the sun on this big, rotating blue dance floor, the more I’m reminded of how melancholy and gratitude are such close dance partners. For instance, I’m grateful for the time I’ve had, but sad that I’ve wasted a lot of it. And I’m sad that so many people who have wished me happy birthday are no longer around, but really grateful to have known and loved them, and to have so many other wonderful people still in my life.

My father left the planet more than 30 years ago and I miss him fiercely, particularly on special days, like birthdays, and on hard days, when I could use his strong, supportive presence. But my 90-year-old mother is healthy and happy and also strong and supportive, and I thank goddess for her, and think about how much I love her every day, and we talk often, so I get to tell her that.

And though Covid and my son’s health issues have forced me to stay close to home, away from Mom, I’m so grateful that we can see each other on Zoom (welcome to the future, Jerry) and so glad every time I hear her voice, which is the first voice that I ever knew and recognized and loved.

Mom gave me the best birthday gift I’ve ever received, the very first one, delivering me safely to the world’s embrace, then caring for me and loving me all these years. What can possibly be better than mother’s love? Nothing.

So, the second best birthday gift of all time? This day, today, which I get to spend at home with my son, Joe, and wife, Jane. We just got home after four days in the hospital with Joe, who had hip surgery. So the gratitude magic is strong right about now (though it is mingled somewhat with anxiety over trying to play catch-up at work while helping Joe in his rehabilitation).

Can’t remember what I was thinking or seeing here, but it obviously made me happy … either that, or I just farted.

Still, though. Joe is sitting beside me in his recliner, dozing comfortably (he has some good drugs), with the Grateful Dead playing in the background on YouTube (Springfield, Massachusetts, March 1973, for any Deadheads keeping track). But there’s that word again: Grateful. We are home!

Yes, caring for Joe is a monumental challenge. It can be scary, and back-breaking, and temporarily soul-crushing when he’s having a really hard time. But right now, in this moment, with dawn breaking and Jerry Garcia’s twinkling guitar harmonizing with the birds and Joe’s snores, and that bright patch of sun in the woods outside. Happy birthday to me!

But, the third best birthday gift of all time is probably the one that I gave myself two years ago, September 26, 2019, when I turned in the manuscript of my book – The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton – to the editors at the University of Georgia Press. I can’t describe how great it felt to have everything in place, digitally speaking, and hitting that blue “send” button. What a rush that was!

Now the book is out in the world, like a child, and I haven’t given it near the love and affection that my mother has given me. But I do love it, and I am proud of it, and this birthday message takes me around to the subject of the book, my friend Bruce, for whom birthdays were a big deal, a kind of recurring synchronous theme in his remarkable life.

He was always a bit elusive on the circumstances of his own birth. Sometimes he claimed to have come here from another planet. And sometimes he claimed to have two birth certificates. And his birth name, Gustav Valentine Berglund III, was radically different from the name he lived and died with. Then there was his unusual knack for guessing a stranger’s birthday upon first meeting. He did this all the time, and usually he was right, or close to it.

I’ve seen him do it. Point at a person and tell them their astrological sign, then their birthday. Sometimes to the minute. Sometimes he was way off, but in my experience, he was always on target, or very close.

When we first met he said, “Grillo, you’re easy, typical Libra. You’ve got the same birthday as Trey Anastasio, Sept. 30.” With 365 days to choose from, he wasn’t far off, but I winced slightly, and was about to say, “mmm, not quite right” when he stopped me and said, “no, wait – you’re closer to Virgo than Trey, Sept. 26.” Then he correctly guessed the time of day when I was born, and my father’s astrological sign.

But, is it guessing if he already knew on some level? Too heavy to think about this early in the morning. Bruce had a good grasp on how astronomical phenomena influenced our lives, on how the stars and planets in the sky define who and why we are on Earth.

I don’t understand it all but I know some smart people who can inform me in these starry matters (my friend Deborah Coons and my sister Barbara come to mind). Plus, I’ve got faith. A little bit of that can go a long way. It’s gotten me through 61 years and keeps me looking forward hopefully to whatever comes next.

Creating a Landslide

This is from my book, The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography. It tells the story of how Bruce got back into making albums, thanks mainly to Michael Rothschild and Landslide Records (which is celebrating its 40th anniversary with the release of a new album, this one here). Michael basically launched Landslide so he could record Bruce. In fact, Bruce had a lot of help getting deeper into music following his Hampton Grease Band days, from artists like Flournoy Holmes, Tom Patterson, Ricky Keller, Billy McPherson and many others. Making music often depends upon (and soars because of) great collaborations. Anyway, if you like this chapter, please consider getting a copy of the book through your local independent bookseller, or from the usual places online, such as Bookshop.org or even the monolithic marketplace named for a famous river in South America. Enjoy:

When Bruce Hampton made his first solo album, he wasn’t interested in just recording some new songs that featured his imaginative, inscrutable lyrics juxtaposed with a brilliant fusion of instrumental styles. He had other aspirations. He wanted to showcase his comedy, the stuff he was leaving on the stage at the Midtown Pub (mainly from 1977 to 1979). And he wanted the album to look good, so he enlisted his friend Flournoy Holmes, the Atlanta artist whose work had become the visual incarnation of southern rock thanks to masterpiece album covers like the Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach. Flournoy also helped name that album, the same service he inadvertently provided to Bruce.

“He called me on the phone and gave me the name of his album,” Flournoy said. “But I misunderstood him. I thought he said, ‘One Ruined Life of a Bronze Tourist.’ So that’s what I repeated back to him.” Recalling the conversation years later, Bruce said he told Flournoy, “That’s perfect. That’s it. You know there are no accidents. That’s the name of the album.”

Bruce released One Ruined Life of a Bronze Tourist in 1978 under the name Mr. Hampton B. Coles (Ret.)—a goof on his actual name, Bruce Cowles Hampton. It was his first album since Music to Eat, and Terminus Records rereleased it in 2000 (with several bonus tracks and under the name Col. Bruce Hampton). The 1978 and 2000 compilations credited a cast of guest musicians under false names; these artists include Billy McPherson on sax and clarinet, Bruce’s little brother, Jim Hampton, on flute, and Ricky Keller, Jerry Fields, Bill Hatcher, Ron Clinton Smith, Jeff Sipe, Jeff Mosier, and Oteil Burbridge. One Ruined Life of a Bronze Tourist “could be heard as a soundtrack to a psilocybin-soaked storyline from a lost science fiction film,” wrote author James Calemine in a review for the website Swampland.com.

Bruce, as photographed by the artist Flournoy Holmes (who designed the cover for The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography)

The album combines New York City swing (“Charlie Patrick’s Millionaires Learn to Swing”) with southern-fried blues (“Sunshine Makes Eye Contact” and “Talking Shoe”) and gibberish that sounds like a dolphin orgy (“Rise to Failure and 300”), along with some of Bruce’s standup routines and a collision of sounds and words and styles ranging from avantgarde jazz to tribal chanting. Calemine summed up the work in his review, calling the album a classic and “a bizarre musical journey into outer space and partway back.”

Michael Rothschild, founder and president of Landslide Records, stated, “Frank Zappa said One Ruined Life of a Bronze Tourist was one of his favorite albums. It doesn’t matter if it wasn’t a commercial success. It was interesting.” Fortunately for Bruce, “interesting” is what mattered most to Rothschild. The independent film producer and distributor moved to Atlanta from Jacksonville in the 1970s, and he met Bruce through a mutual friend, David Moscovitz, in 1978. “Bruce and I hit it off immediately, especially in terms of talking about music and sports, his two big things,” Rothschild said. “We became friendlier and started going to ballgames together, and that initiated what became an interesting business relationship.”

One night, Michael went to see Bruce perform with Billy McPherson and loved what he saw. Then he and Bruce started talking. “Bruce was interested in recording, and I was thinking of getting into a studio and producing something,” Michael said. “I wasn’t thinking of establishing a label. But Bruce’s stuff wasn’t very commercial, and there was no way we were going to get it out there—nobody was particularly interested in that kind of out music. So I decided to go ahead and establish a label, and figured we’d do it ourselves. That’s how we started Landslide Records.”

Basically, Rothschild started a new record label so he could record his friend’s music. In the summer and fall of 1980, Bruce and the Late Bronze Age went into the studio and recorded Outside Looking Out. He kept the Hampton B. Coles identity, and McPherson was Ben “Pops” Thornton. The two are on the cover of the album in a black-and-white photograph by Flournoy Holmes (who also designed the cover). Standing side by side, Thornton/McPherson is wearing a marching band jacket, and Coles/Hampton sports large-rim glasses and is made up to look like an older man with light hair. Guest musicians on the album include Paul McCandless, Al Nicholson, and David Earle Johnson. Of course, the credits also list bogus players and instruments—for example, Col. Crawford Boyd plays the potarth. Moreover, as Hampton B. Coles (Ret.), Bruce is credited with playing what would become one of his favorite tools, a “chazoid,” or a dwarf guitar that he described as a “perverted mandolin-cello.

Outside Looking Out marked the beginning of the Landslide catalog, and the first reviews for it and Landslide’s other initial release, Dan Wall’s Song for the Night, were positive. Writing for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in January 1981, Mitchell Feldman gave both albums great reviews. He lauded Outside Looking Out’s “interesting juxtaposition of dada poetry and fantastic music,” and its “spirit of improvisational art.”

Released in early 1981, the Bronze Age’s first national review made the record company venture “look like a real easy deal,” Rothschild said. “I mean, a rave review in the New York Times. It doesn’t get much better than that.” It helped to have connections. Trumpeter Gary “El Buho” Gazaway, one of Bruce’s pals and a guest musician on Outside Looking Out, knew Times writer Robert Palmer. Palmer was the newspaper’s chief popular music critic from 1981 to 1988, as well as a longtime contributor to Rolling Stone magazine. Gary called him “Bob Palmer, one of my best friends.”

They were both from Arkansas and had played music together. Palmer, the author of several books about music and musicians, including Deep Blues (1981), loved Outside Looking Out and the band, deeming them “a refreshing antidote to both predictable radio fare and the more self-conscious experimentation of much of the current rock vanguard.” He gave high marks to the album’s song construction and musicianship, as well as to Bruce’s singing and lyrics. In addition, Palmer applauded Hampton and McPherson for not taking themselves too seriously.

However, not everyone was delighted that Bruce was making music again. Rothschild remembered meeting former Columbia head Clive Davis, who was leading Arista, at a record release party. “We started talking, and I told him that I’d established a label. He wanted to know who was on it. I told him our first act was someone he was familiar with, Bruce Hampton.” Davis immediately stalked off and never came back to the conversation, choosing instead to glare at Rothschild from across the room. Outside Looking Out is a great audio document of some of Bruce’s best early poetry. One of the song titles, “A Stained Soul Cringes at the Small Details in the Mirror of Embarrassment,” was published as a poem in the Red Hand Book III.

This poetry collection was edited and published by Tom Patterson, who met Bruce through Mitchell Feldman at a Late Bronze Age show in 1980, “at some dive bar in Buckhead.” “They sounded totally unlike the Grease Band,” said Tom, who had seen Bruce’s first band. “The jazz influence was more overt in this group—a plus in my book—and the playing was more mature and wide ranging.” After the show, Bruce correctly guessed the birthdays of Tom and his wife, then invited himself over to their house for dinner, and so began a friendship that lasted for the rest of Bruce’s life.

The comedy gigs had frittered away, and Bruce was focusing his artistic yen on music. But he had to pay bills, and he wasn’t the kind of musician that could easily work other venues—“lounge lizard gigs,” as Billy McPherson called them. Quoted as “Pops” Thornton by Doug DeLoach in a 1982 MUZIK! magazine article, McPherson explained the dilemma: “What we’re dealing with is economics, financing. We’re playing creative music. To make money in Atlanta we all have to do lounge lizard gigs. We’re all basically lounge lizards, shit-eating lizards, total prostitutes—and on the side we do this Late Bronze Age, avant-garde, experimental thing.”

Hampton B. Coles (Bruce) and Ben “Pops” Thornton (Billy McPherson) try to gain altitude in this photo by Flournoy Holmes.

Bruce had to seek other work to support his art habit. “He had a couple of different day jobs,” Tom Patterson remembered. “For a while he drove tourists around Atlanta in a big bus and showed them the sights while rattling off absurdist historical disinformation about the city.” Driving his tour bus and dressed in a red blazer and tie, Bruce was known to introduce his guest passenger, Joe Zambie, as the governor of Georgia to a group of out-of-towners who didn’t know any better. Joe remembered another similar incident: “We passed a house with a lady standing out front, and Bruce gets on the microphone and says, ‘You people are in luck—there’s Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone with the Wind, on her front lawn.’” Joe added, “Of course, Margaret Mitchell had been dead about forty years.”

Driving jobs suited Bruce. He liked driving and knew his way around Atlanta like a human GPS. I followed him once while he delivered DVD copies of his documentary film, Basically Frightened, to different places north of Atlanta. He knew every back road, parking lot, and back lot that would save a few seconds here and a few yards there. The stories of his driving rules on tour are legendary.

Besides those hundreds of thousands of miles between gigs over fifty years, and the tour bus job of course, Bruce worked as a courier for Atlanta Blueprint Company, a job he landed through a friend of Doug DeLoach’s. At the time, Doug was supplementing his writing income as a courier for a consortium of advertising art and photography studios. “Consequently, we would randomly run into each other as we made deliveries around town,” Doug said. “Whenever that happened in the afternoon, we would meet in the parking lot and sit in one or the other’s car, with Bruce smoking Marlboros, listening to Alley Pat on WYZE and laughing like lunatics.”

Driving around was the kind of thing that satisfied Bruce’s craving for what he called “meaningless repetition.” It was something he could do easily while entertaining himself or others. Tom Patterson wrote in his memoirs that Bruce was one of the few people he knew who was “capable of turning the most mundane activity into a uniquely entertaining experience.”

Patterson said, “Bruce liked to have someone riding shotgun, anyone who would play audience to his ongoing performance.” But he didn’t listen to the radio while cruising—no background music, no rock and roll on the radio. By the early 1980s, Bruce was already adopting a curmudgeonly attitude about “today’s music.” For the 1983 article in Art Papers, he told Mitchell Feldman, “I can’t listen to any of today’s music. It bores me because it’s all premeditated and calculated to reach other people rather than yourself. I don’t hear the primal scream anymore.”

This is a rant that would last the rest of his life, this ancient complaint of “They just rant that would last the rest of his life, this ancient complaint of “They just don’t make music like they used to.” Well into his sixties, Bruce acted as if he had found hidden treasure whenever he discovered new music that he liked (or new players of old music, like the sacred-steel gospel group, the Campbell Brothers). Otherwise, he adhered to his standard assessment of current music: “The music of today is horrid!”

***

The first time Ricky Keller heard Bruce Hampton and his band the New Ice Age, the guys were all living in the same apartment complex, where the band used to perform in the clubhouse at least once month to earn free rent. “I had just moved, and I heard this smoking band in the clubhouse,” Ricky told interviewer Dean Budnick, editor in chief of Relix magazine, for a story in September 2001. “So I introduced myself to those musicians and they let me sit in. Eventually, Bruce ended up sleeping on my floor for a few months, and then out of the blue in the early 80s, Bruce called me up and said, ‘We want you to come play a gig.’ We had one rehearsal, maybe, and then I played with him eight, nine years.”

Ricky was an expert on the French horn and the bass, and around the time he joined the Late Bronze Age, he launched his recording studio in his house. “The whole reason for us having a studio and getting serious about it was to record Bruce,” Ricky told Budnick. Keller lived in a carriage house behind a mansion, and McPherson dubbed the studio “southern living at its finest.” Ricky explained why: “You could sit on the back porch in rocking chairs and look out over this nice expensive neighborhood. It was so funny that I said, ‘That’s the name of the studio,’ and it stuck.”

But Southern Living at Its Finest Studios grew to be much more. Ricky went on to work with artists from across the pop music spectrum, including Bruce Springsteen, Train, Outkast, Papa Roach, Stone Temple Pilots, and the Thorns. He also helped nurture the careers of producer/musician Brendan O’Brien, drummer Sonny Emory, bassist Oteil Burbridge, and percussionist Yonrico Scott, among others. Originally from Valdosta, down near the Florida line, Ricky had supposedly been offered a respectable job as a high school band director, but he had turned that down to start a recording studio, play in the Late Bronze Age, and become known as Lincoln Metcalf. By either name, he was beloved. After Ricky died of a heart attack in June 2003, the church was packed wall to wall with musicians and friends paying their respects.

“Ricky was a genius, a kind and gentle spirit who also had a sardonic edge,” noted saxophonist/keyboardist Jon Marett, who created a space near his Soundscape Studios for Keller’s recording studio.

Bruce as seen on the back cover of the Arkansas album — Photo by Flournoy Holmes

“Bruce and Ricky were brothers from another mother,” said Jeff Sipe, who became the drummer for the Aquarium Rescue Unit, the greatest band anyone ever heard. “Ricky would get these incredible Atlanta musicians, like Oliver Wells, the organ player. Fantastic musicians who loved to play, loved to go out, loved Bruce’s whacky sense of humor and his audacity. Ricky helped Bruce by getting the rhythm sections together and recording those tracks, then working with Bruce, one on one, take after take, to get Bruce to sound as good as he possibly could in the studio. Ricky would push him, was honest with him, ‘Try it again, Bruce; try it again, Bruce.’ And they made some great recordings.”

Thanks to Ricky’s pushing, he and Bruce produced “Jack the Rabbit,” one of Hampton’s most lasting songs. Landslide released it in 1994 on the compilation album Strange Voices: A History 1977–1987 under the name Col. Bruce Hampton. Off and on, the upbeat rockabilly song was part of Bruce’s setlists for years. Its creation sounds just like something he did with the Grease Band, when he was pulling lyrics from an encyclopedia entry about Halifax.

“Me and Ricky were sitting in the studio one day, and Ricky said we didn’t have enough material for the record, let’s do a weird tune,” Bruce recalled. “So we got an out-of-print book of five hundred or one thousand blues songs. We took a pen and randomly opened to a page and would take three words from that song, then we’d do it again. There were four hundred pages in this book. And everything we did worked, and it was all random and miscellaneous, never a thought, we just did it. It makes no sense; it was all random and it all worked.”

***

Ricky was Lincoln Metcalf, Bruce was Hampton B. Coles, and McPherson was Pops Thornton. Jerry Fields, Bruce’s old friend from the Grease Band, also joined the new group, and his Bronze Age character name was Bubba Phreon (he sometimes played garbage can lids in lieu of cymbals).

That was the Late Bronze Age at its height, the foursome that appeared in the 1983 low-budget teen coming-of-age comedy Getting It On. Later, after McPherson left the band, Bill Hatcher joined up and became Lamar Metcalf. Ricky’s wife, Carole, provided a thick southern annunciation for the song “Brato Ganibe,” reciting that title phrase over and over. (It’s something Bruce heard in a dream—it means either “world peace” or “canoeist.” The song appears on two of his albums, the 1987 Arkansas and the 1994 compilation album Strange Voices.)

In early 1982 the Late Bronze Age released its second album, Isle of Langerhan (as opposed to pancreatic insulin-producing cells, islets of Langerhans). This time, Landslide secured the services of Eddy Offord, England’s legendary producer of progressive rock whose credits by then included eight Yes albums and Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s first four albums. Once again, Robert Palmer weighed in with a great review in the New York Times. In a piece previewing the Late Bronze Age’s New York debut at the Mudd Club (May 20, 1982), he called the album “tighter and punchier than the previous album, with the players’ rhythm-and-blues roots attractively exposed.” Palmer also praised Bruce’s lyrics.

In his feature story about the band in Atlanta’s MUZIK! magazine, Doug DeLoach wrote that Isle of Langerhan was so harmoniously creative that it sounded as if the band had been playing together for decades. Even so, he noted, “It’s only been about a year since the origin of this universe-warping formation, this evolutionary crux, this ongoing social and musical experiment known as the Late Bronze Age.” DeLoach said that Hampton “plays with words and phrases seeking a sharp sense of mellifluous combinations and humorous juxtaposition.” And he quoted from the song “Merged Moons,” with its titular orbs perpetuating resurgences, and folklore, and the five elements, and earthworms. Incomprehensible imagery? It doesn’t matter, Doug wrote, because it’s fun. When taken together with the band’s complex music, he declared, “Hampton’s lyrics are as natural and emotive as they are playful and esoteric.”

The album’s guitar-driven rock-and-roll title track was eventually recorded again by Bruce’s later band the Codetalkers. It’s a great song, but the most memorable tune on the album is “Time Is Free,” written by percussionist David Earle Johnson. This was another song that Bruce played for the rest of his days; it became something like a personal theme for him.

The lyrics question the motives behind music, then suggest putting everything to music. Listen to the live version by the Aquarium Rescue Unit on their eponymous debut album. You’ll see. But great songs and a great review in the Times followed by a great live show at the Mudd Club in New York did not add up to album sales. “Neither Isle of Langerhan nor Outside Looking Out did very well commercially,” said Michael Rothschild. “I think maybe we sold two in every state.”

Isle of Langerhan was the last Late Bronze Age album, but Bruce kept the band going in one form or another until 1987. One of its memorable performances, a 1983 fundraiser for the Art Papers featuring visual artist St. eom reciting his stream-of-consciousness poetry, was captured by filmmaker/videographer Bill Brown.

That footage is included in the 1993 biographical documentary The Pasaquoyan: The Life and Works of Visionary Artist Eddie Owens, a.k.a., St. EOM. The film shows Bruce performing in full gonzo stage mode, blasting away on a trumpet, speaking in non sequiturs, and making the audience giggle with just a mad look in his darting eyes.

Flournoy Holmes captured this image of Bruce looking a little bit like a Svengali (no eye contact!)

The Pasaquoyan also features interviews with Bruce, an ardent admirer of St. eom. In typical Hamptonesque hyperbole, a scruffy-faced Bruce, clouded in a wisp of smoke that drifts across the frame from an unseen cigarette, claims to have actually seen St. eom defy gravity in a special suit that the artist created.

Outsider artists like St. eom and his fellow Georgian Howard Finster appealed to Bruce, who was (like these two visual artists) a “Cosmic Southerner.” Writer Lance Ledbetter used this phrase in an interview with Bruce for the winter 2015 edition of Oxford American magazine, writing that Finster was the first “Cosmic Southerner” he’d identified. “He held deep Southern roots and felt a cosmic connection to the universe, which he expressed through his lifestyle and art.”

Finster resided in Paradise Gardens, his picturesque homeplace in Pennville, about ninety-five miles north of Atlanta. In 1987, Bruce played a festival there with a lineup that included his friends the Shaking Ray Levis (keyboardist Dennis Palmer and percussionist Bob Stagner), as well as Finster, who was a solid banjo picker.

That was the same year that Bruce’s next album, Arkansas, was released on Landslide. It was also the year he started going by Col. Bruce Hampton—sometimes followed by “Ret.,” sometimes not. His first album as Col. Bruce Hampton, Ret., Arkansas was “his best recorded material to date,” wrote the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Bo Emerson in June 1987. In the same article, Emerson reported that negotiations were underway to reissue Music to Eat through Columbia’s Special Projects subsidiary. Bruce was apparently unimpressed and uninterested, saying, “It’s pumping life into something that’s dead.”

***

Bruce told me that Robert Palmer said to him, “I never had much control until I got to Arkansas.” Bruce loved the line, so he turned it into the lyrics of a song, and that song became the title of an album. Arkansas, released by Landslide in 1987, featured a stellar lineup of musicians.

The album was recorded at two studios—Keller’s Southern Living at Its Finest and Marett’s Soundscape. “In the studio, like when he was performing live, Bruce was all about the vibe and being honest with the music, bringing your reality, no artifice,” Jon said, adding, “But he was a fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants kind of guy. He’d come into the studio with these disheveled notes and lyrics on various pieces of paper, cardboard, envelopes, and napkins. That would be his preparation, and it was almost like he was proud of himself for being that prepared.”

The lineup for Arkansas includes players from the band Bruce was building at the time—the band that would become the Aquarium Rescue Unit, the greatest band anyone ever heard. Folks Bruce had been playing with in the Late Bronze Age (Keller, Yonrico Scott) were also involved, as were friends from other bands who had either collaborated with him before or wanted to, like Little Feat guitarist Paul Barrere, longtime Stained Souls collaborator and blues guitarist Tinsley Ellis, and drummers Sonny Emory and Walter Brewer, among others.

This album is also where Bruce debuted some of his best and most well-known songs, like “Basically Frightened” (which opens with a child’s chorus singing about a rabbit before Bruce details the many absurd things he’s frightened of). Bruce’s definitive recording of Bukka White’s “Fixin’ to Die Blues” first appeared on Arkansas. So did the loping, lovely Jeff Mosier banjo tune “Morgan,” and so did “Thron Dossull.” The album’s title track is a jazzy number with a Manhattan Transfer-ish kind of chorus. And even though Bruce told me writer Robert Palmer said the line that became the song, Bruce’s old pal and collaborator Gary Gazaway said he provided it.

“In 1980 I was going through a divorce and told Bruce that I had to get back to Arkansas to get some control of my life,” said Gary, also the source of another favorite Bruce story. This incident occurred in the 1980s when the Hampton myths really began growing legs. Bruce used to tell about the time bluesman and Arkansan CeDell Davis (famous for using a table knife in his fretting hand, playing his own singular brand of slide guitar) flew first class to New York City while sitting next to Henry Kissinger. Bruce usually told the story as if he had been on the plane. But it was Gazaway who brought Davis to play in New York in May 1982, when the old bluesman made his East Coast debut. The plane stopped in Washington, D.C., to add some passengers. “Then in walks Henry Kissinger,” Gary recalled, continuing the story as follows:

He sits in the aisle across from CeDell, who turns to Kissinger and says, “I was just wondering how your wife is doing. I saw on the tv that she’s been sick.” So they started talking. When we landed in New York, I’m getting CeDell into his wheelchair, but Kissinger knocks me out of the way. “Let me push him to the gate,” he says.

So now Henry Kissinger, one of the most powerful men in the free world, is pushing CeDell Davis in his wheelchair to the gate. Palmer was waiting for us and nearly passed out when he saw this spectacle.

Bruce told Gary it was the most incredible story he’d heard, adding, “I have to be on that plane with you, I have to be in that story!” So that’s how Bruce “got on the plane” with CeDell Davis.

Eventually, Bruce and the Aquarium Rescue Unit wound up backing Davis on his album The Best of CeDell Davis, released in 1995 on Fat Possum Records.

***

There was always a musical director in Bruce’s bands, Michael Rothschild remembered. The position was filled by “people who could play and interpret what Bruce wanted to see and hear happen.” Jerry Fields said Bruce always had a muse in his band. With the Late Bronze Age, the muses were Ricky Keller and Billy McPherson. Ricky, always devoted to Bruce’s vision, stuck it out for the duration. But Billy left the band after a few years and eventually moved into something more lucrative and risky.

First he linked up with Atlanta musician Tommy Dean in 1984 to start the League of Decency to perform at the Point, a club that Tommy’s brother Britt opened in the Little Five Points neighborhood of Atlanta. Britt wanted a jazz band for the house. “I had never played jazz before, but Billy taught me,” Tommy said. “He was brilliant, the smartest cat I ever worked with, and I owe him a lot. I’ve been able to support myself singing jazz and playing bass, and that’s directly connected to Billy’s influence.”

When the Point changed ownership in 1988, McPherson split for Seattle and became a worldwide legend among psilocybin mushroom enthusiasts, who remember him by other names: Psilocybe Fanaticus, or Professor Fanaticus.  “He had a terrarium at his house where he grew mushrooms,” Dean said. “He perfected the technique and grew them at will, and once he could do that, he moved to the Pacific Northwest and took an ad out in High Times.” Eventually, Billy was arrested by federal authorities and served six months’ home detention.  In 2011, Billy succumbed to hepatitis C.

***

The only time Steve Dukes ever saw Bruce Hampton cry, they cried together as a bluesman’s voice spun sorrow and enlightenment on the turntable. The song was “Levee Camp Moan” by Son House. “Bruce brought the record over one day, we played it, and tears ran down our faces. This was a life-changing moment,” said Dukes, who had been the last student of influential avant-garde composer John Cage. Consequently, Dukes followed an unconventional path in his musical journey. Then he met Bruce and learned the answer to the question “What happens when two avant-gardists collaborate?”

Dukes, who lives in San Francisco, is a guitar teacher whose students have included Charles Brewer (founder and former CEO of Mindspring) and former Cy Young Award–winning pitcher Barry Zito. And also Bruce Hampton.

“After I left John Cage in 1977, all I played was avant-garde music for years—no tonal instruments, no guitars, no trumpets, no pianos, only noise instruments, and typically those found on the way to the gig, in trash cans or on the side of the road,” Dukes said. “But the day Bruce and I listened to that record, it dawned on both of us that the music made sense in a way that was beyond what we were hearing. And I remembered what Cage had told me: ‘Find what you like and do it; take what you don’t like and stop doing that; then just be yourself.’ So I switched from avant-garde music to acoustic blues, and I’ve been there ever since. That was Bruce’s influence.”

Bruce trusted Dukes enough to take lessons on the mandolin, and they started a band called the Aberdeen Fresco Adjusters, Steve with his Martin guitar, Bruce with his slide mandolin. “He was totally enamored of that mandolin and the fact that, for the first time in his life, he was playing a legitimate instrument in a straight way. This wasn’t ‘out’ music,” Dukes said. “He was like a child, and this was something new. He knew I’d been Cage’s student, so that gave me enough cred with Bruce that he could relax the whole ‘I’m the weirdest musical motherfucker on the planet’ thing. He learned about twenty bluegrass songs, and we played cities like Huntsville, Richmond, Savannah.”

The duo had one high-profile gig, a performance on Tonight at Ferlinghetti’s, an award-winning public television show presented as if it were happening in a Greenwich Village coffee shop. The program had been a critical hit in Georgia, where it won a regional Emmy Award. It was just beginning national distribution when the episode featuring Bruce and Steve (taped in August 1984) aired. Bruce delighted the faux coffeehouse audience with his song “Baseball Tickets,” which he’d recorded on his solo album Arkansas in 1987.

Dukes said that he and Hampton even wrote some songs together. Bruce would write down lyrics on a napkin or the back of an envelope. Then one day, according to Steve, “Bruce just walked away. Wouldn’t answer my phone calls, stopped all contact. He used to come to my house all the time, and then everything just stopped. A sudden silence.”

And that was the end of the Aberdeen Fresco Adjusters. But it was not the end of Bruce’s participation in side projects. One of them was the temporary outfit that Bruce played in for a handful of shows through 2011, the Egyptian Windmill Operators, a trio including keyboardist Dennis Palmer of the Shaking Ray Levis, and improv guitarist Davey Williams. Bruce played with the Operators when he wasn’t leading Pharaoh Gummit, his present full-time band.

But his most lasting side project was the ongoing collaboration with guitarist Tinsley Ellis, a group they called the Stained Souls that would last for more than twenty-five years. Basically, it was an ongoing jam featuring Bruce and Tinsley and a rotating cast of guests. “I met Bruce in 1983 when we were both on the Landslide label,” Ellis wrote to me in 2014. “We formed the Stained Souls to play blues classics together. The first time we performed as the Stained Souls, we did so without a bassist, and I complained a lot about that. The next week Bruce had three bass players show up.”

The duo was sonic medicine for Ron Currens, who thought the eighties a tough time for music lovers. “Disco was still in flower, and the AllmanBrothers had broken up, and we didn’t think there was any hope of them coming back, and Gregg Allman was testifying against one of the roadies in a drug trial,” complained Currens, who was such a big fan of the Brothers that he started a magazine devoted to the band, Hittin’ the Note, in the 1990s. “But I was a big fan of Tinsley Ellis, and he told me about the Stained Souls. And man, did I need that.”

For a while, Ron remembered, the Souls played together almost every week, usually at places like the Point. The band also played at the Little Five Points Pub, which was Bruce’s happy space. “The Little Five Points Pub really was his best place—that was his living room,” said Charlie Williams, a talented Atlanta guitarist who was fourteen when he first saw Bruce fronting the Hampton Grease Band.

The Little Five Points Pub was an incubator for different bands. Widespread Panic played there in its infancy, just before becoming one of the most successful touring bands in the country. The pub is the place where Epic Records discovered the Indigo Girls. And the Monday night jams that evolved there under the intelligent design of Col. Bruce Hampton provided the perfect training ground for what would become the best band anyone ever heard.

“The Natural” Goes Deep to Clean the Slate

“The Natural” is one of my go-to movies when I’m “stuck inside” for a spell. So much going on in that screen story, so many great characters, so beautiful to look at, and so many wonderful lines.

This Robert Redford movie (directed by Barry Levinson) captures much of the novel’s depth and mythology, though it did totally deviate from the book in one key area: the ending. Schmaltzy? Dude hits a pennant winning home run that smashes the lights in the stadium to bits, sending a shower of celebratory sparks raining down upon the giddy Knights. It’s the happiest of happy endings. Schmaltz? Frank Capra would be proud.

But it always feels like there’s more going on in this movie (besides Randy Newman’s memorable and beautiful score).

Of course, if the movie had been made in the 1970s, it probably would have kept the book’s original depressing ending, with Roy striking out (even though he was really trying), after having been paid off by the evil Judge, and our hero weeping many regretful, bitter tears, his fictional fate reflecting the tragedy and sorrow of a Shoeless Joe Jackson, with nothing but an imaginary, dark and endless void ahead. Amen.

But this movie was made in the 80s, a different time, and a different mindset, and the filmmakers gave it an opposite ending. Roy hits the home run and the Knights win and our hero retires to his “after life,” a rural heaven where fathers and sons play catch in a field and Ma looks on approvingly. It’s a lovely scene to close the movie on. Roy smiling, his lesson learned, his big mistake (or mistakes) a thing (or things) of the past.

Roy Hobbs (as played by Robert Redford) in his baseball after life

That’s kind of what I think when looking at this photo, the final scene in the movie – it’s Roy’s big sigh of relief; his, “whew … now I can move on with the next part of existence” moment. His smile says comfort and family and home to me.

There is a line that Roy says, late in the film, when he’s recuperating in the maternity hospital, before he decides to go ahead and risk his life and play the game. It is one of my favorite lines in the movie, and one of the truest lines ever spoken by a fictional character. He says, “I guess some mistakes you never stop paying for.”

Roy guesses correctly. There really are some mistakes that we never stop paying for. We’ve all felt this. It’s a very human condition, and it sheds symbolic light on the stuff that we choose to cling to, or let go of; on our capacity – or ability – to forgive others and ourselves.

It comes to Roy as he lays there in the maternity hospital bed, perhaps the lowest moment of his life, when he decides at this point that it sure can’t get any worse. He’s paid for his mistakes, with interest, for years, if that isn’t enough for the universe then fuck it – there’s nothing left to do any more but play ball and swing away.

And he does. And he connects. And the Knights win. And Roy washes the slate clean. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s a movie for goodness sakes … and It’s nice to indulge in a harmless little fantasy now and then.

Let the Starving Braineaters Feed Your Ears

Col. Bruce Hampton used to talk a lot about taking the music “out.” He was even in a movie by Mike Gordon called “Outside Out.” In fact, “out” was the direction Bruce was moving in all of the time, like skin cells on their doomed outward migration to the skin surface. Way out. The epilogue of my book about Bruce is called an “outroduction

Bruce already was headed in that direction, but he didn’t find his way “out” all by himself. He had help along the way. Some inspiration. And the man who personally inspired the Bruce esthetic more than anyone was the late, great Harold Kelling, one of the co-founders of the Hampton Grease Band, and a high priest of “out.”

Harold died way too soon (in 2005), and in life he didn’t receive nearly the credit that he deserves for much of what we think of as having originated with Bruce. Don’t get me wrong – Bruce was a true original, a unique and creative and profoundly influential artist and human being. And he was influenced by Harold, who was just a few years older, and someone Bruce looked up to, someone who gave Bruce artistic agency.

Harold’s grasp and sense of the surreal and the zany helped Bruce move giddily along that road. It was Harold who first saw in Bruce the potential to master a stage, who first brought Bruce up on the stage to sing and create the lunacy they both enjoyed.  Basically, without Harold Kelling, there is no Col. Bruce Hampton.

It was Harold who no doubt made the first connection with Frank Zappa, randomly uttering, “Grease,” to him on a New York street in 1967. Zappa loved the weirdness of Harold, Bruce, and their pals at the time (this was before the Grease Band had even formed), and invited them to “sing” on his album, Lumpy Gravy. Harold opened doors for Bruce, got Bruce “out” on the road, the two of them and their pals taking frequent trips to New York. Harold was with Bruce for the Incident of the Sixes.

With Glenn Phillips (who co-founded the Grease Band with Harold and Bruce), Kelling formed a ridiculously powerful, completely unique one-two guitar punch. These were two beasts on their instruments, sonically intertwined, blasting away from different directions with remarkable dexterity and tone; and with Bruce, drummer Jerry Fields and bassist Mike Holbrook, they formed a band that writer Jesse Jarnow called, “the South’s first freaks.”

Harold Kelling founded two great, under-appreciated Atlanta-based bands: The Hampton Grease Band and The Starving Braineaters.

In fact, I won’t waste your time trying to explain the Grease Band. My book, “The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography,” glides through the Grease Band story, as it tries to cover the life of just one of its founders. If you really want to know a whole hell of a lot about the Hampton Grease Band, read this fabulous epic story by Jarnow for AquariumDrunkard.com.

It is easily the best thing ever written about the band. If anyone writes a book about Harold and the Hampton Grease Band, I hope that it’s Jesse. He’s also one of the busiest people engaged in the business of telling music tales, so he might have to clone himself.

Anyway, after leaving the Grease Band, Harold launched a few projects, most notably the Starving Braineaters. This was fusion music on steroids, dialed up to 11. This eclectic outfit caught the attention of legendary record producer John H. Hammond, who appeared set to make a recording deal with this Southern fried version of Return to Forever. A meeting was reportedly in the works, but Hammond had a heart attack and it never happened.

The music, recorded and preserved by Brooke Delarco, almost disappeared. But you and and your ears are in luck, thanks to Ken Gregory, one of the Starving Braineaters and the proprietor of the excellent 800 East Studios in Atlanta, who shared these recordings with me.

I got to know Ken through a few events he hosted at 800 – a memorial for Dee Knapp, the artist and jazz singer and wife of jazz piano legend Johnny Knapp, and a 90th birthday party for Johnny, shortly before he died. Ken is gracious to a fault, and a multi-talented musician who spent at least an hour talking with me about Bruce for the book – and then my digital recorder was stolen (with a few other items, but that interview and a few others that were on the recorder were the worst losses, by far).

As a result, Ken’s wonderful stories aren’t in the book. I’ve never told him about this, so great was my embarrassment over losing the interview (speaking of embarrassment, Jesse was kind enough to quietly point out one of my blunders in the book – I’d forgotten that the Fillmore East was previously the Village Theatre, and mangled a fact or two about Bruce and his pals going there to see Cream).

Well, embarrassment and lost interviews aside, Ken is a real hero because he has provided a priceless link (below) to 17 Starving Braineater songs. Dive in. Dig this band, and the genius of Harold Kelling. You want some really delicious “out” music? The Starving Braineaters will satisfy that appetite.

Give a listen, pick your jaw up off the floor when you’re done (and please clean the drool – we are still living in a pandemic).

LINKS TO HAPPINESS:

Music of the Starving Braineaters

Your Copy of The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton

In the Footsteps of Shoeless Joe

You’ve been talkin’, workin’ out your deal; let’s sit down, make this thing real. I said I wanted to be your friend, and you find ways to make it end. I feel – I feel like Shoeless Joe; I feel, yeah, Lord I feel like Joe. – Bruce Hampton

Those lyrics are from the song “Shoeless Joe,” by Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit, from their great album Mirrors of Embarrassment. That was just the first time Bruce sang about Joe Jackson, baseball’s tragic fallen hero, and one of its most misunderstood figures.

Last weekend I gained a better understanding of poor old Joe, thanks to the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum & Baseball Library in Greenville, South Carolina. I was in town ostensibly for a book signing at M. Judson Booksellers, but as I’ve grown accustomed where all things Bruce Hampton are concerned, the universe had other synergistic reasons for me to be there. Worlds, interests, meanings, and people collide when Hampton magic is at work.

Anyway, the book signing was a lot of fun. Didn’t sell many books, but drank some great coffee, enjoyed meeting the friendly and brilliant bookstore staff, and visited with some friends, including Sam Church, who once conspired to bring Bruce and the Hampton Grease Band to rural Habersham County for a high school dance, then enjoyed a great career in rock and roll radio; and Darryl Rhoades, a bona fide Atlanta music legend who probably hates being called that – founder and leader of memorable bands the Hahavishnu Orchestra and the Mighty Men from Glad, comedian, writer, and a baseball memorabilia expert.

Shoeless Joe Jackson is immortalized as a statue gazing out at a tape measure shot, just outside of Greenville’s Fluor Field, where he never played a game. Don’t let that stop you from visiting. Home of the Greenville Drive, this is a gorgeous ball park in a gorgeous city.

Both of these gentlemen mentioned the Shoeless Joe Jackson connection to Greenville – his hometown, where he still is a legend 70 years after his death – and the fact that there was a museum, nearby, dedicated to his memory. Of course I knew that this was Shoeless Joe’s town. I’d even taken a selfie in front of the Shoeless Joe statue at Fluor Field at a ballgame earlier this year. But, a museum? This was news to me.

I’m always on the hunt for the next “Aha!” baseball moment. Well, the Shoeless Joe museum and its executive director, Dan Wallach, afforded me enough “aha” moments to satisfy my appetite for this kind of stuff, at least for a little while – after leaving the museum, I was compelled to download a biography of Shoeless Joe for the drive home.

Anyway, forget what you think you know about Joe and his career and the Black Sox Scandal if “Eight Men Out” is your main source of information. Having read the book, and seen the movie about a dozen times (I have a copy and yes, in case you were wondering, director/actor John Sayles does look remarkably like Ring Lardner).

The book and movie are presented as historical accounts of the infamous Black Sox Scandal, the 1919 World Series that was thrown to the underdog Cincinnati Reds by a number of dirty players on the heavily favored White Sox. Both the book and movie (one of my favorites) are highly entertaining and dramatic, and also highly inaccurate.

Dan did a great job of summarizing the actual story of the Black Sox Scandal, using a revelatory report produced by the Society for American Baseball Research in 2019, called “Eight Myths Out.” It’s totally worth your time. Let’s just say that Charlie Comiskey wasn’t the cheapskate he’s always been made out to be. Eddie Cicotte wasn’t promised a bonus for 30 wins. Players – not gamblers – initiated the fix. Read the report.

The museum is located at 356 Field Street, .356 being Shoeless Joe Jackson’s lifetime batting average. Baseball nerds like myself pick up on this kind of significant minutiae immediately.

Anyway, Joe was banned from baseball for life, along with seven others, for being in on the plot to throw the Series. He wasn’t in on it, though he did receive $5,000. He tried to give it back, tried to tell his bosses (including Comiskey) about the fix. He played to win, set a record for most hits in a World Series. But once Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis tossed Joe and the others, they were gone for good.

All of this and so much more is brought to life at the Shoeless Joe Museum, which is located in the last house Jackson actually lived in – moved from its original location to its current spot, across the street from Fluor Field, home of the Greenville Drive, a Boston Red Sox minor league team (the park even has its own version of the Green Monster).

The museum tells almost as much about mill-town history as it does about baseball, with priceless photos of the corporate villages that cropped up in the Carolina Upstate.

I felt kind of high as I slipped my hand into a tiny glove like the one Joe wore, and held a replica of Joe’s bat, ‘Black Betsy’ – at 36 inches and 48 ounces with a thick handle, it was more like a shillelagh than a bat. I imagined what it must have felt like to hit .408 swinging a hefty club like that, which is exactly what Shoeless Joe did in his first full season, 1911.

They even let guys who can’t ascend the Mendoza Line hold Shoeless Joe’s mighty war club.

Speaking of which, Col. Bruce Hampton sang about Joe in a second song, called “1911.” It’s part of an unfinished, probably never-to-be-released studio album Bruce was working on with his collaborators Jez Graham and Darren Stanley, among others. He performed the song live a few times with the Aquarium Rescue Unit during their 2015 reunion tour, but the live version actually pales in comparison to the cool groove cut that Jez shared with me. I think it was recorded at Darren’s place.

Anyway, it’s got a great pace and rhythm and Jez’s piano brushes up against atonal jazz as Bruce sings, “All they had to say was 1911,” before monologuing over the music, “ Ty Cobb had a 40 game hitting streak. Batted .420. Honus Wagner had retired. Shoeless Joe hit .408 that year. How would you feel if you hit .408 and came in second place?”

But his original paean to Joe, “Shoeless Joe,” captures the tragic feeling of Jackson best as Bruce’s vocals scream cosmic empathy for the great ballplayer. That song features some of mandolinist Matt Mundy’s most freakish playing with ARU, amazingly fast lighting runs, faster than running water, with Oteil’s scat singing and made-up words mingling with his bass like sonic DNA strands. A wonderful song, the entire band at its best in a studio performance overseen by the great Johnny Sandlin.

“You got things done, you hit your home run,” Bruce sings. “You scored from first, talked to the ump. He controlled the game, got me in the dumps. I feel …”

Get your own feel going, and take a trip to Greenville, and check out the Shoeless Joe Jackson Museum & Baseball Library. Say hello to Dan and the gang. Linger awhile. Then tell me that Joe Jackson doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame.

How the Band got the Count

“Lady of Paradise is checking you out. Educated guess: She’s with the Count.”

— Col. Bruce Hampton and the Aquarium Rescue Unit

I didn’t know that Count M’Butu’s given first name was Harold until a few months before he died (which he did early Sunday morning, June 25).

I always thought it was Larry. But whatever name he answered to, his real name was written on his forehead. That’s what Col. Bruce said when he told Harold ‘Larry’ Jones his real name. And ever since that day in 1988 or 1989, Harold/Larry was known to the masses as Count M’Butu.

He was and always will be the Count, a creative and spiritual rascal who once threw cups of ice cold Coca-Cola on a bunch of white people sitting in the choice seats of the movie theater in Sandersville, Georgia.

It’s a long story that involves the young Count discovering that, as a black person, he would have to sit up in the balcony at the local cinema. Upset at this turn of events, at being separated from one of his white boyhood pals, the Count decided to give the patrons below a soda bath.

Anyway, the first time I met the Count was just days before he moved to Argentina with his lovely best friend and life partner, singer/artist Graciela Lopez, who was returning to her home country for a career opportunity. I was working on my book about Bruce and needed to catch up with the Count before he left the country. The first thing he did was set the record straight.

“It was 1989 when I met Bruce,” the Count said. “He always insisted it was 1988, so we agreed to disagree. But I know it was 1989. It was the night the band changed its name to the Aquarium Rescue Unit.”

This picture of the Count

by Michael Weintrob is

one of my favorites.

The Count met Bruce in the usual way, through the human network – Bruce’s was one of the largest on Earth, he was about one and a half degrees of separation from everyone. The Count had played a gig with drummer Jeff Sipe and keyboardist Dan Matrazzo and bassist Oteil Burbridge at a club he couldn’t remember the name of.

“I hadn’t seen Sipe in a few years, and I’d forgotten Oteil’s name, but I knew he was Kofi Burbridge’s brother,” the Count remembered. “Anyway, these guys told me, ‘we want you to meet Col. Bruce.’”

They met one night at the Point. Let’s say it was 1989. Before the gig, the Count was hanging with Sipe and Oteil when he noticed a disheveled guy loitering around his drums. Shirt half-tucked, mismatched shoes, shuffling kind of aimlessly, suspiciously.

“Hey buddy, those are not toys, those are my instruments and I’ve got to play them,” the County said. “’ Oteil took me aside and said, ‘That’s the Colonel.’ He walked right into my space, right up to my face, and I stumbled, had to step back and almost fell. I’m looking at him and sI ay, ‘Hi, I’m Larry Jones.’ He says, ‘No, no, no, no, I’m trying to think of your real name. It’ll come to me.’”

Well, the Count had been in Africa 15 years earlier working on a degree in African studies and he stayed with a family called, ‘M’Butu.’

“I hadn’t thought of it for years, but Bruce looks at me and says, ‘we’re gonna call you Count M’Butu.’ I wondered how the hell he knew that name and he said it was written on my forehead. Then he looked at me and said ‘your birthday is August 10. And I’m like, ‘where is this guy getting all of this information?’ To be honest, it made me feel a little high, a little weird. I went outside and had to readjust my attitude. When I got back in they were ready to go on stage and play.”

The Count joined them. He felt at home. He’d found his team. That sense of “team” was important to the Count. “Most people don’t know how hard it is to find the right team,” he said. “I thought that I could play with these guys.”

That night it was Bruce, Sipe, Oteil, Charlie Williams on guitar, and banjoist Jeff Mosier. This was before Jimmy Herring and Matt Mundy joined ARU. At one point, the Count recalled, Bruce had the band playing “Basically Frightened,” for about 20 minutes, “first, like it was a country song, then a swinging jazz version, and it went on like that. Then they started running around the stage and I’m like, ‘what the hell is this?’

“Then they come back and start playing ‘Basically Frightened’ again, and it seemed like it went on for about an hour, until Bruce dropped his guitar on the floor,” the Count remembered. “It was loud. Then Oteil dropped his bass. Charlie laid his guitar down. And Sipe, he just walked through his drums, knocking his cymbals down, ‘bing! Bang!’ They went off and left me standing on the stage by myself.”

So he thought. There was a refrigerator box on the side of the stage that had been there the whole time, the Count said.

“it started moving when they left the stage and all of a sudden I hear banjo, and Mosier steps out of the box, and once again I’m thinking, ‘what the hell is this?’ So I pick up this instrument called a shekere, and me and Mosier played for about 30-30 minutes, him singing and picking the banjo. I was getting into it when he just walked away, just left. I was thinking that these were some great musicians, but strange cats.”

From his place on stage the Count said he saw Bruce come back to the club in his black-striped Plymouth Duster. Meanwhile, the other guys were across the street eating pizza. They returned and fell in behind Bruce and marched back into the Point and went right back into “Basically Frightened.”

And they played that song for about another hour or so, the Count recalled, which made me blurt, “that’s it!” The Count wanted to know, “what’s it?” I told him that Bruce had been saying to me, “I’m trying to get it down to one song.” Then he’d hold up his index finger and repeat, “one song.” He’d managed to do it that night at the Point, years earlier, his first night jamming with the Count M’Butu.

“They played that song then said good night, Bruce handed me my 25 bucks and they left,” the Count said. He went home and told Graciella he’d played, “with some of the baddest musicians I’ve ever seen or heard, but their leader is crazy. They played one song all night.”

The next day he got a call from Mosier, who greeted the Count then handed the phone to Oteil, who did likewise, and it went on down the line to Sipe, and Charlie, and Bruce, who all said in unison, “we would like for you to join our band!”

The Count had to think for a second before answering, “well, you’re all bad as hell, and I wouldn’t mind playing with you, but you only play one song! The Colonel said, ‘I can handle that. Come back tomorrow night and we’ll play two songs.’”

After he finished laughing, the Count said, “Sure, I think I can go with that.”

That’s how Harold Larry Jones – Count M’Butu – joined the greatest band anyone ever heard. And if there is a green room in the vast backstage of the universe, Larry and Bruce are lounging there together, telling tales.

Deleted Scenes

Here are some scenes or things Bruce said that were originally intended for “The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography,” but for one reason or another didn’t make the final cut:

“I’m a premature vessel to the second level of consciousness.”

“I’m like an accountant that weird shit happens to. All of my life. The more insane it is, the truer it is. There’s lots of stuff in the sky.”

“The key to life is to be childlike and not childish. If you lose that childlikedness, you’re dead. Go sell stocks.”

***

Bruce happened to be in the Capricorn office – the second incarnation, in Nashville – one day when a publicist from Warner Brothers (neo-Capricorn’s partner) took a phone call from a 19-year-old college journalist in North Carolina.

Capricorn had just released put out the Elmore James: King of the Slide Guitar, and the young writer was working on a story about that.

Bruce’s likeness emerged from stone at the Hemlock Festival.

“She asked if she could talk to Elmore James,” Bruce recalled through fits of breathless laughter, because the blues master had been dead almost 30 years. “I told the guy, ‘give me the phone!’ Then I spent three hours talking to that woman.”

Bruce spoke to her in a false voice, his version of Elmore James, and he told her a lot of malarkey, such as, “Me and Robert Johnson drank shoe polish straight through bread.” According to Bruce, the journalist wrote down every word.

That’s an article that I would dearly love to find.

***

One of the things that Bruce was basically frightened of is fame. He couldn’t commit to something as pointless as celebrity. Certainly not on a full-time basis.

“I want to jiggle the middle,” he said. “I don’t want to go too far down or too far up. I don’t want to be on the  phone all day. I want to paint. I want to dribble a basketball, and be a part-timer at everything. A part-time person.”

He didn’t want to be an image, didn’t want to be a rock star, “and go out there and do the same thing every night. I mean, I want to go out there and set fires and bring sprinklers, eat benches, or something new.”

***

Bruce used to play the Hemlock Festival, just outside of Dahlonega, every November. And every year, my family and friends would go and dig this cool little weekend festival.

At his last Hemlock, we introduced one of my son’s friends, a young guitarist, to Bruce who told him, “listen to Django Reinhardt and you’ll never go wrong.”

One of my favorite Hemlock memories was the time my friend Patrick and I went backstage to talk with Bruce. We were just chatting when the band on stage started playing a Grateful Dead song. Patrick, a Deadhead, stopped mid-sentence as if in a trance.

His silence lasted only a second or two, but it had a solid beat before and after and he looked at Bruce and I and said, “I have to go dance now,” then sprinted out of the tent and back to the front of the stage so he could dance.

Bruce clapped his hands and said, “It’s Zambi Two!”