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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.

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!”

Joe Feels the Music

The dad is downstairs in his self-appointed salt mine, pounding plastic keys with arthritic fingers, trying to make stories about scientific research, trying to wrap his damaged brain around the carbon cycle and soil organic matter and, oh yes … what if those microbes are putting more methane into the air than carbon dioxide? What then?

Upstairs the son is lying on his black gym mat, between virtual classroom sessions, obviously enjoying a Widespread Panic concert from Red Rocks (2011) playing on the TV. Obvious because every minute or so I hear him making happy sounds, singing or talking. Joe is considered nonverbal, but he does vocalize, and he does it with intention.

There is a long story about Joe and his love of music and how he inspired my love of music, and maybe there will be time to tale that epic tale one day. Maybe. But it’s going to take some work on my part and his, because such a story needs to be a road story. As in, Joe and I really need to hit the road one day and go on a festival or concert tour.

It’ll take extra work because Joe doesn’t travel easily. He has lots of equipment and assorted necessary accessories that travel with him. He has lots of needs. But who doesn’t? Meeting Joe’s multiple and sundry needs would require a great effort on his part and mine to make everything move smoothly between Point A to Point Wherever.

When the music is near and the sound is right, Joe will party like this all night.

Anyway, that is the unplanned plan, the big kahuna on the bucket list. Extended road trip with Joe to soak up sonic goodness from sea to shining sea, or thereabouts. That’s the dream. Plenty of hoops to erect and knock down or go through before we get to that point. And of course, Mama Jane would have to be included. That is a must, for both Joe and I. This doesn’t have to be just a father-son story. It should be a family story … as told by a father and son.

If the geographical journey takes shape, rest assured you’ll read about it. Even if it is just a spiritual journey taken on the magic carpet of modern technology in the home, you might read about it. Who can tell? We write about what inspires us.

My son and his joyful soul-grasp of music is a gigantic part of what inspired me to go ahead and write the book about Col. Bruce. The physical challenges that keep him close to home much of the time also keep me close to home, so I wasn’t able to run off with the circus very often to see Bruce in his natural habitat.

In some ways, that made writing the book a little tougher than it might have been otherwise. In other ways, that helped make writing the book a total joy because I could focus on Bruce and his life, and spend time with Joe. That’s called a win-win.

But, back to the working dad and the son upstairs and Widespread Panic.

After hearing several of his happy sounds, elicited with gusto and loud enough to be heard over the music and the sound of the wheels turning inside my broken head, I had to rush upstairs to see my boy. The picture that you see here is what I found.

Dude was singing along with JB, and doing a damn fine job of it. More than that, he was enjoying the song and the moment with confident abandon and it reminded me once again that I would so love to feel the music the way he does. It’s one of my son’s super powers.

Bruce Hampton, Car Salesman

Bruce was the everyman bandleader, an irregular regular man’s man who loved eating, smoking, betting, sports, music, and the company of his friends. He was part Oscar Madison, part Babe Ruth, part Frank Zappa, and entirely Bruce Hampton. He was also a car salesman. Buy low, sell high.

Anyway, the photo below is from a popular website that is selling the book where a few readers have taken the time to write reviews. One of the reviews tells a fabulous story about how Bruce’s skills as a car salesman helped a friend out of a jam. Hope you enjoy it half as much as I did:

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.

Have a catch?

I’m the idiot you see out there pitching baseballs past invisible batters into an invisible catcher’s mitt, sometimes on the Sautee Nacoochee ball field and sometimes in one of the batting cages/nets/things at the recreation department complex. Rather than going after dragons disguised as windmills, I’m chasing something more elusive.

It’s an addiction that has come along late in life, a desperate cling to spring in the autumn of my years. The last time I played competitive baseball was almost 30 years ago. Last year, before I turned 60, I got it in my head to start tossing the old horsehide around again. It’s not competitive, but it is meditative. And it feels like a connection to something old, even older than my childhood. Wind up, step, throw.

That’s me, the baseball guy who forgot his cap.

There must have been something in the horsehide zeitgeist, because soon after I started pretending to be the white Satchel Paige (April 2020), I read about this book. I think the writer might be a kindred spirit. The main difference, of course, is that he went on the road to connect with people over games of catch, and I stayed in my neighborhood and invited people to play during a pandemic. Sometimes they played but mostly they stayed home, so mostly I played alone, pitching my bag of baseballs into a backstop, retrieving them, jogging back to the mound, and pitching again.

I don’t know why I started. Something was missing in my life, probably. Well, baseball, obviously. But maybe it was the pandemic, the topsy-turvy feeling that the world had tilted awkwardly forever, the feeling that things never would be the same again. I wondered if that theory held true for my curveball, which rarely ever curved. Turns out, it did. The curveball is snapping in ways that I can neither explain nor control — but I’m getting better, more strikes than wild pitches now.

None of it matters, or all of it does, or some of it does. All I know is, after almost 30 years of hardly ever throwing anything besides a fit, the old starboard soup bone feels good, feels like it could go nine innings. As long as the batters are invisible. It would be nice to have someone to throw the ball back, though.

Whaddya say? I’ve got some extra gloves, about a dozen (mostly round) baseballs in a bag, even a few softballs somewhere. Even have a few bats. We can hit fly balls to each other. Wanna be 12-years-old for a few moments in the sun or under a turbulent sky?

It Hasn’t Sunk In

The book has had its second printing and it still hasn’t fully sunk in. Chuck Leavell wrote the foreword. The keyboardist who provided the soundtracks for so many lives. The guy who played with the Allman Brothers, Sea Level (get it? C. Leavell?), Eric Clapton, George Harrison, the Rolling frickin’ Stones. That Chuck Leavell, one of the most in-demand piano players in the world.

I’m speechless. Numb from where I’ve pinched myself. And if they do three, four, five printings (a man can dream), I’ll still be stunned and it has nothing to do with my imposter syndrome. It’s Chuck Leavell, man! He’s been a music hero of mine since the 1970s – a music hero to millions, creator of some of the most iconic sounds we’ve heard. His piano solo in Jessica, for example. If it’s never given you chills or made you want to get up off the couch, check your pulse.

That Chuck Leavell. Tree farmer, conservationist, author, kind person. He’s such an authentically creative and industrious man who gets so much done in a typical day, that Billy Bob Thornton says, in hilarious Bruce Hamptonesque deadpan, “He’s the kind of guy that makes you feel bad about yourself.” That’s from the wonderful documentary, Chuck Leavell: The Tree Man, which came out last year.

I highly recommend this film.

Billy Bob is joined by Jimmy Carter, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, David Gilmour, John Mayer, and a bunch of folks who sing their personal praises of Chuck throughout the movie, which tells the story of this down-to-Earth, prolific artist, who is probably the first person in the music business you think of when you hear the phrase, “fine human being.”

So how the hell did this schmo, your faithful if unreliable narrator, ever cross paths with Mister Leavell? How else? Work.

Years ago, I worked as an editor/writer for a well-regarded business magazine here in Georgia. I put editor first because I had a variety of editor titles (senior, managing, then executive), but I was primarily a writer. Didn’t do much editing. But one of the sections of the magazine that I did edit was our biggest annual project, the 100 Most Influential Georgians.

A third of the list was composed of friends of the publisher (we may have included a few dead guys occasionally by accident; I can’t be sure) – you must have some influence if you’re cocktail party pals with a guy who buys ink by the barrel. But the other two thirds of the list included people who had legitimate influence – senators, governors, CEOs, philanthropists, environmentalists. And at least one rock star.

At some point we were able to convince the publisher (who also wore the editor-in-chief mantle, but like me did very little editing) to include Chuck Leavell on the list. Even the seersucker wearing boss couldn’t argue with the Rolling Stones. So Chuck made the list and stayed on it for years. As tree farmer of the year, as co-founder of the Mother Nature Network, as an author, as a rock music icon. Influence. He deserved to be on the list. Plus, he had way, way, way more fans than Sonny Perdue and I think more people than usual attended our rubber chicken gala just to be near a Rolling Stone and Allman Brother all at the same time.

I used to work at this place. We did serious journalism there. Seriously, we did.

Of course, as editor of that section, I got to assign the 100 little stories that we wrote for the section (a paragraph each, with a mugshot and credentials). I usually had four or five other writers helping me, and usually gave myself the most boring people to write about, plus Chuck. Yep, that’s how I met Mister Leavell. Work.

I contacted him through his people and he got right back in touch from his personal number, acted like he was shocked to be included on such a business-heavy list of muckety mucks, but was truly honored and showed up at the awards banquet.

Anyway, through the years, in those too-rare instances when I had the opportunity to write a music story, Chuck often was a go-to source, a reliable and experienced voice who could talk about the artistic and business sides of the tunes industry, and always make it interesting.

I also interviewed Chuck for the book, prodding him for his memories of Bruce, how they met, the famous gig at the Georgia Theatre, which became Aquarium Rescue Unit’s first album. Chuck, the consummate pro, brought in particularly for that engagement, no rehearsal, no nothing, just Chuck flying by the seat of his pants making it sound like he’d been with the band forever. “It put me on my toes like I’d never been before, and it remains one of the recordings I am proudest to be on.”

Fast forward to 2019. I was meeting my editors at the University of Georgia Press face-to-face for the first time. They had a helpful to-do list to think about as I closed in on finishing the manuscript. Topping the list: Get someone good to write the foreword. Can you think of someone that Col. Bruce’s fans, or readers of this book would know?

Yes, I could. Chuck Leavell. Like Bruce and Johnny Sandlin, back when they were planning for the Georgia Theatre gig, Chuck was the first guy I thought of. The first-class go-to guy for so many people. I had no expectations, just hope when I reached out to him. And when he said yes, that he’d be glad to, I nearly passed out with glee. Then a few weeks later he turned in a beautiful short essay that leads off my first book, “The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography.”

Thank you, Chuck.

And it still hasn’t fully sunk in.

If you’d like a copy of “The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography,” you can get it here and here and also right here. Thank you!

It is Opening Day!

Bruce Hampton was, among other things, an avid baseball fan. Yes, he was a fan of the Atlanta Braves franchise. More than that, he was a fan of the game and knew its intricacies, its nuanced statistical nooks and crannies. For instance, if you named the second string catcher of the Tampa Bay Rays, he could probably tell you what the guy’s batting average was with runners in scoring position on the second Wednesday of each month. And if he didn’t know it, he’d make up a plausible number.

Bottom line, the man loved the game, thought it was the greatest sport ever invented, grew up listening to St. Louis Cardinals broadcasts and thrilling to the exploits of an aging Stan Musial. That was something Bruce had in common with a dude from Arkansas who would one day become his friend and artistic collaborator, Billy Bob Thornton. They were both Cardinals fans.

When Billy Bob was directing Bruce in the Academy Award-winning film Sling Blade, they would toss the ball around during down times, Thornton showing off his junkball pitching while Hampton enlightened the young director with Cardinals trivia.

Eventually, Bruce moved on to support the Braves when they moved to Atlanta from Milwaukee, replacing the Atlanta Crackers as the city’s local nine. But he never forgot the magic of old Ponce de Leon Park (the Crackers’ home field) and the legends who played there (like Eddie Mathews, a double Gemini). Bruce even made a short film about it. You can watch it here.

Here is Bruce with baseball pitching ace Virgil Trucks’ nephew, Derek. While Derek doesn’t have Virgil’s fastball, Virgil couldn’t play guitar worth a damn. Bruce loved baseball and music, probably in that order.

-Photo by Ron Currens

I had the great and unexpected pleasure of meeting Bruce, and we bonded over baseball, particularly over its lore, its trivia. We could bullshit for hours over grits (his) and coffee (mine) about the best clutch hitters (Yogi Berra, according to Bruce), all-around players (he gave Willie Mays a slight nod over Henry Aaron, saying, “Mays had the better arm and could catch a fly ball anywhere in the atmosphere.”), wildest characters (Dock Ellis: “He pitched a no-hitter on acid, ‘nuff said,” Bruce opined), scariest person (“Ty Cobb scared the hell out of me when I met him,” he offered).

For his 67th birthday (April 30, 2014), I gave him a copy of “Inventing Baseball: The 100 Greatest Games of the Nineteenth Century,” a book that included three of my stories. He loved it and said, “you should have interviewed Johnny Knapp – he actually saw some of those games; he played Lincoln’s second inaugural ball … ” And our table at the IHOP erupted.  

Bruce’s favorite baseball trivia question was this one: “Who was the last switch hitter to win the Most Valuable Player Award in the American League?” It’s a dandy and kind of a trick question. Everyone wants to say Eddie Murray, the great slugger for the Orioles. But the answer is Vida Blue, a pitcher who won the MVP Award in 1971 and was a terrible hitter.

But did you know that Bruce, too, is the answer to a baseball trivia question? Well, he’s AN answer to a trivia question, or a trivia request, which would be, “name someone who attended both the first and the last games at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium.” Yep, Bruce was one of the few. He was there in 1965, when the Aaron boys (first Tommie, then Henry) hit home runs in an exhibition game loss to the Detroit Tigers. And he was there in 1996, when the Braves dropped Game 5 to the Yankees in the World Series.

See … baseballs on the cover. It was inevitable.

-Cover art by Flournoy Holmes

That game is legendary in Ron Currens’ memory. Ron, founding editor of Hittin’ the Note magazine, was one of Bruce’s best friends. They attended many baseball games together (Ron had season tickets), including that World Series contest. The reason the game stands out so much for Ron has nothing to do with the outcome, and everything to do with Bruce’s pregame shenanigans.

A pretty Fox TV reporter was interviewing fans who had been to both the first and last games at the Atlanta park, and when she got to Bruce to ask him about his memories, he told her the night was particularly profound for him because his uncle had been buried out there under second base. The reporter went mute, the cameraman shook with laughter.

Today, I am shaking with laughter, with excitement, with nervousness. Today is opening day of the baseball season, and opening day for my new book, “The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography.” Today is also April Fool’s Day. I cannot think of a more perfect intersection of timing. This is Bruce’s birth month, too.

This is a book that I wanted to write. It’s a book that Bruce wanted to happen. It has baseballs on the cover – art designed by the awesome Flournoy Holmes, who knew instinctively that baseballs would have to be part of the cover and the story, a small but critical part.

Anyway, it’s also a book that I hope people will read and enjoy, and I’m so happy its finished and proud that its published and look forward to talking Bruce and baseball with anyone who wants to.

Let’s play ball!

She Is Sam

This should have been the first thing I wrote after turning in the final portion of the manuscript, which was the index, which was basically all her work. She is Sam, my first-born miracle, my brilliant little Valentine, Spider Monkey, and Field Mouse — my cross-country companion, tiny and mighty, sometimes pointy but always sharp, completely huggable, heartbreakingly beautiful, and constantly present (whether she is near or far) daughter, who doesn’t know the meaning of the concept, ‘half way.’

Except for me and Bruce and the University of Georgia Press, Sam – more than anyone or anything else – is the reason that there is a book called “The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography,” about to become a bona fide entity on April 1st.

Samantha Leigh Safin and her dad, somewhere near the Columbia River in Washington. She was flying the coop to begin her brave journey as a mighty grown-up on the Pacific Coast. A trip for the ages.

There is some perfect symmetry here that the book’s subject would really appreciate: The publication date happens in the same month as his birth (his birthday is April 30), and the same month as Sam’s birth (her birthday is April 6). This is my first book, guided toward the finish line by my first child.

So here is what happened:

I began thinking about the book in 2009, 2010, running the idea in my head, making a few inquiries of friends who knew Bruce, and so forth. In 2011, after Bruce gave me permission to write it, I started working in fits and starts and often not at all.

In those days (like today), I had a full-time job, occasional freelance writing gigs, community commitments, and gigantic family responsibilities, all of which left very little room for pursuing the life story of a musician who moved around his professional and geographical landscape with all the predictability of an oblong pinball. So I would squeeze in interviews whenever possible, tracking down the musicians in Bruce’s extensive virtual rolodex; or I’d beg my wife’s forgiveness to run off with the circus temporarily and catch a live show.

This went on, in its haphazard trajectory, for five or six years. I gathered stories, jotted down a few phrases and pages, but nothing resembling a book … until 2016. A big reason for that is Johnny Knapp. Bruce had introduced me to Johnny several years earlier and I’d become very close with this ball-busting jazz pianist. Johnny kept urging me to write words so that I could finish the Bruce book and get to work on a play that we could write together. He even wrote a few songs, I wrote some lyrics, we had an outline for a story … but I had miles to go yet on the book. He’d say, “finish the goddamn book about Bruce so we could write the goddamn play.” I miss Johnny.

She is on social media, but not because she likes it.

So I wrote a little here and there and had about 75 good pages to share with Bruce the night he died after collapsing on the Fox Theatre stage in May 2017. I never delivered the pages and, in fact, most of them wound up in the trash. After Bruce died I wasn’t sure what to do with the book. I was depressed. I put it down for several months then picked it up again and wrote with some intention. Then I had a stroke (August 5, 2018). As you can imagine, that slowed the process a bit. Once again I stopped thinking about the book for a few months, spent time wallowing in some self-pity, recovering my senses, working on some freelance projects that needed to be finished. Sam left her home in Michigan and spent a month with us, making sure her old Dad was on the road to recovery. The memory of her coming into my hospital room that hazy night still brings me to tears.

Anyway, in November or December of 2018, about a year after I’d contacted them and about six months after giving up on them, I heard from the University of Georgia Press. They were interested in publishing the book and wondered where I was with the manuscript, and when they could have a look. The plan was to turn it in on my next birthday, Sept. 26, 2019.

Gulp. This was real now. I started turning down freelance opportunities and spent every spare minute outlining or writing, editing and rewriting, gathering photos, then writing some more, then erasing and rewriting. By July I was about 10,000 words over the number I’d projected to UGA Press – with four chapters left to write. That’s when I called my daughter.

Sam had been an honors student who majored in English – her heroes in literature weren’t the authors, but the great editors who helped give them a voice. While she never actually pursued work as a writer or editor, Sam is both. Every November, she dives into the NaNoWriMo, which is National Novel Writing Month. My daughter has written about 10 novels. Someday, I expect, she’ll publish something. When she feels like it. She’s too busy enjoying her life with her awesome husband Eric, and working in her rewarding, challenging, and super successful, non-literary career (here’s how she describes her work: “I do Salesforce and Pardot.” She is a self-described ‘polymath.’).

The marvelous polymath has amazing editorial super powers

But mad skills are mad skills. “Sam, I need you to be a heartless editor and cut the hell out of my book,” I said, explaining the lay of the land and what I needed to do by Sept. 26. My daughter is probably the most dependable person there is – after my wife, who she blessedly takes after. She said, “no problem, Daddy-O.” Then proceeded to make what I thought was a pretty good manuscript much better.

She cut some of my fat babies, but did so lovingly. She slashed with intention. She offered editorial advice, some direction, asked good questions. She read about a man and music that she had previously cared nothing about – Sam is a woman of her generation, she has her music, but she came to genuinely appreciate Bruce, and was passionately interested in the project. In fact, she could probably beat you or me at Col. Bruce trivia by now, because once a thing enters Sam’s head, it stays there. Her retention is otherworldly. When she was a little kid, reading books faster than I could crack one open, we’d quiz her to see if she was really absorbing the lit. She was, and then some. Comprehension is one of her super powers.

Every few days, chapters would come back to me, trimmer and healthier than before. I was able to turn in a manuscript that was only 75,000 words in the end (I’d estimated 70,000 but begged the Press to take the 5,000 extra, reasoning that it was way better than the 100,000 word epic that had been looming before Sam applied her editorial scalpel). Sam saved the day. And then she offered to do the index, too, jumping into that project eagerly (“Ooh, something new to learn,” she said, and then mastered it).

Now the book is almost out there. It’s off the press and headed for bookshelves – I’m told that half of the pressrun of 1,000 already has been sold, which is just amazing. A box of books should arrive at my door any day. I’ve already promised signed copies to a bunch of folks, and my engaging daughter thought of that, too. Turning the manuscript over on my birthday was a purposeful thing, something I planned. It seemed like the Hobbit thing to do. And here’s something that my little scheming Samantha Leigh planned and carried out with her usual precision, this custom pen that you see pictured. It arrived in the mail, my special birthday present, “something to sign books with,” she noted.

This is a gift that I look forward to using over and over again. But there won’t be enough blank space in the book to scribble all of the words that I owe my daughter when it comes to inscribing her copy. But that’s OK, because I know a very sharp  editor who can trim it down to a manageable word count.

One Day at the IHOP in 2014

There was supposed to be five of us but Joe Zambie cancelled so it was just four: Bruce, Johnny, me, and I forget who the fourth guy was. Sue was our waitress, as usual. Johnny ordered tea and crepes, as usual. And the bullshit began to flow like four kinds of syrup on Bruce’s turkey sausage. Also as usual.

Here’s how it went that day:

Bruce: Zambie says he can’t come because he doesn’t have a car. That’s just Zambie, of course he has a car (Bruce cackles and rolls his fists around each other and raises his hands in the air, in the Zambi/Zambie salute).

Johnny: He has a cat that has cancer. He loves this cat so much. Zambie drives the cat up to the veterinarian school in North Carolina every Monday to get cancer treatment. Seven hours there, seven hours back.

After an agreeable nodding of the heads by the cat lovers among us, the conversation turned, eventually, to Bruce’s ranking of the best all-time guitarists. He said that he and Oteil Burbridge had been talking about it and they’d come up with a list.

Johnny: Where is Tal Farlow on your list?

Bruce: He’s 42nd?

Johnny, who played in Tal Farlow’s trio, called bullshit on that.

Bruce: No. 1, with a doubt, Django Reinhardt. He invented it! Then B.B. King, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, Ralph Towner. He’s Beethoven. Ralph is the king. ARU [the Aquarium Rescue Unit, the best band many people have ever seen] had one bad gig. We were playing in Washington, D.C., at Blues Alley, and we saw Ralph Towner play and then we couldn’t play. He dismantled us. We just sat there while he destroyed us. He’s a composer, he’s a decomposer, he’s reincarnated Beethoven. Hendrix is 12th.”

Me: What about Hubert Sumlin? I’ve heard you say that he was the best.

Bruce: He’s actually No. 1. Me and Oteil put him about 7th on this list. He’s the shit. He plays nd nothing happens, and it’s all ghost notes, and you’re like, ‘where in the fuck is that coming from?’ He doesn’t know any keys. We asked him, ‘who’s the best guitarist you ever heard?’ He goes, ‘my brother, but was too shamefaced to come outside.’ We asked him how he lost his teeth and he said, ‘Howlin’ Wolf kicked ’em.’ Then he said, ‘A police dog bit ’em off.

Bruce was cackling again. Everyone at the table was laughing. Even Sue, filling up a bottomless pot of coffee, was laughing.

Bruce: An hour later hour he’d say, ‘I was poisoned in Canada by three women.’ We took him on tour with us, the Code Talkers. He never slept. He was always in a coat and tie, 20 women all night long coming and going in his motel room, 77 years old. His sheets were never turned down. We spent eight days with him. It was like being with the pope. At the end of it he said, ‘It’s time. it’s time to go to the crossroads and get your stuff and go home.’ I’m telling you, he would play and nothing would happen. It was just insane.

Johnny: Who is … Hubert … what?

Bruce was on a roll and continued with his Hubert routine, pulling out phrases from what he told us was the best week of his life on the road. Sumlin was one of his longtime heroes.

Bruce: He said, ‘I didn’t use a pick, I used chicken wire, and I picked enough cotton to kill five people.’ The Rolling Stones paid for his funeral. They stole everything he did, but if you’re gonna steal, steal from the best. The Stones are Hubert Sumlin. And they’re honest about it.”

From there the conversation sort of went all over the place. Bruce dropped his phone in his grits at some point. Anyway, this is the randomness that unfolded:

Bruce: If you never have to go out there and fucking sweat, you’re never gonna appreciate a napkin. You’ve got to appreciate the little things.

Johnny: I met Johnny Mercer once, it was at a party where Cole Porter was playing.

Bruce: Synchronicity! I was with Dave Schools, years ago, and I had just met Stanley Booth the day before, and he’d just started working on something about Johnny Mercer. Anyway, Dave says, ‘I just found out that I’m Johnny Mercer’s nephew.’ A minute later, Stanley Booth calls and says, ‘do you know any of Johnny Mercer’s relatives.’ I go, ‘yeah,’ and hand Dave the phone. That is absolute insanity.

And he’s just gotten going at this point on the whole synchronicity thing …

Bruce: In our song, “Brato Ganibe,” Ricky Keller’s wife, Carol, the first word she says is, “Frahner.” Two weeks ago I hired a bassist whose name is Frahner! Frahner Joseph. Insane!

Johnny: What the hell is that? Brato what …?

Bruce: Brato Ganibe was a dream I had for three years. Its either a canoeist or universal peace. Brato means canoeist and Ganibe means universal peace on my planet. When I see it in a book somewhere I will dive through an IHOP window and crucify myself onto a Dodge with the single bullet theory.

Johnny: Ah, there he goes. He’s going into the abyss. Can I tie a rope around myself so I don’t get pulled in?

Bruce starts making goofy sounds and the tape gets garbled, but then clears up for a second and I can hear …

Bruce: The alphabet is actually 36 letters.

And that’s it. Gotta say, I really miss those guys.

Bruce and Johnny doing what they loved best.