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.