Making the Sausage

Even though it’s a pretty short book (the entire volume is around 200 pages), a whole lot of time and energy went into making The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography. About eight years’ worth. So, I’ve got a ton or two of notes, way more than I was able to use. There should be a miniseries, there are so many notes.

Anyway, I thought it might be fun from time to time to share some of the process with the two or three of you that might get lost on this lonesome backroad of the worldwide interwebs. I’ll call it Making the Sausage and it’ll be a place where I can share some inside stories of how the book came together. Some of it might even be interesting and eye-opening. This first installment, though, is doodling; scrawls made during work on the Bruce book, including some drawings that probably can be used to have me committed, if anyone’s interested (or committed).

My first notes from Johnny Knapp, plus illustrations, because I’m a compulsive doodler.

Something about Zambiland, apparently. With illustrations. This is from an interview with Bruce, though the drawings are mine, the kind of weird shit that happens subconsciously when I’m on the phone or taking notes. Bruce seemed to understand.

This was from some notes about Bruce’s movie work, doodles and random words that I made while recording an interview with one of the film directors that worked with the Colonel.

Honestly, I’m not sure what this one is all about. Some compulsive doodling while talking on the phone, but I’m not sure who I was interviewing in this case.

More autopilot doodling, during an interview with Jeff Calder. I was sitting in my car in a Georgia Tech parking garage recording Jeff tell some fabulous stories. This was one of the highlights of the process – not the drawing, the chance to interview the co-founder of the Swimming Pool Q’s, who is a great writer and insightful observer and, it turns out, an old friend of a very good friend of mine here in Northeast Georgia. Bruce would have been pleased with all the synergy that unveiled itself during the making of this book.

Other Random Lunatic Scrawls Found Among Bruce Research and Interviews:

Bruce and Virgil ‘Fire’ Trucks

Bruce at an IHOP lunch. That’s Jim Basile’s shoulder behind the Virgil Trucks baseball card. Jim is probably Bruce’s equal when it comes to baseball trivia.

A few days after Virgil Trucks, the old pitcher, died in Alabama, Ron Currens shared the sad news with Col. Bruce Hampton, who already knew, of course. We were at the Lilburn IHOP to interview the Colonel, Ron for a piece about Bruce’s new documentary (for the magazine Ron co-founded, Hittin’ the Note) and me for my book, The Music and Mythocracy of Col. Bruce Hampton: A Basically True Biography (coming this spring from University of Georgia Press), and also for the hell of it, because it was Bruce, and Ron asked me to be there. It was late March 2013.

Like Bruce, Ron knew that Trucks was one the Truckses. Virgil’s nephew, Butch Trucks, was a founding member of The Allman Brothers Band. And Virgil’s great nephew is guitar master Derek Trucks, who co-leads another band you’ve probably heard of, along with his wife, a bluesy guitar-playing siren named Susan Tedeschi. Derek is also one of the countless musicians Bruce mentored in some fashion.

Virgil had been one of Bruce’s baseball heroes, a maker of early memories for the kid. Bruce even had Virgil’s autograph in his collection of sports memorabilia. Several years earlier, in an interview with filmmaker Michael Koepenick for the documentary we were there to talk about, Basically Frightened: The Musical Madness of Colonel Bruce Hampton, (an interview that wasn’t used in the final cut), Bruce gushed about, “Virgil ‘Fire’ Trucks. Ted Williams called him the greatest pitcher who ever lived.”

The Trucks family, he explained, had been in his life for as long as he could remember, thanks to Fire Trucks, who threw two no-hitters in 1952, which comprised nearly half of his victory total that year (he went 5-19, unusual for a guy who won 177 games in a great career). “He was my hero,” Bruce said. “I like that name, ‘Fire Trucks.’”

That day in the IHOP, after Ron shared the news, Bruce mythologized about Virgil and Ted Williams, saying, “Ted said he’d be out of a job if there had been another Virgil Trucks. I think he went one for 70 against him.”

We laughed at that, Ron and I, because A) we’re baseball fans, and B) it’s a funny thought, Ted Williams going one for 70 against anyone, and C) Bruce’s delivery was great. We didn’t care that it wasn’t accurate. Bruce had made the point he was trying to make in his own colorful way: Ted Williams had a lot of goddamn respect for Virgil Trucks.

That part is completely true. Teddy Ballgame thought Virgil was the fastest pitcher he ever faced and always considered him one of the best. Ted also considered him one of his favorites because he hit 12 home runs off Virgil Trucks (the most he hit off any single pitcher).

Anyway, this is an anniversary of sorts for Virgil Trucks, an all-star pitcher who won a lot of games for the Detroit Tigers, and was one of the few pitchers to post a 20-win season playing for two different teams (St. Louis Browns and Chicago White Sox in 1953). Today or yesterday in 1955 (Bruce might know), Virgil returned to the Tigers in a trade that sent Bubba Phillips (you remember him) to Chicago. As Bruce noted, Virgil also was a Yankee (in 1958, his last season as a big league pitcher).

When it came to baseball history, Bruce was a spray hitter with precision power – he could be all over the place, and he could go long to straightaway center. Most of the time he was correct. All I know is, baseball is what connected us. Baseball and sports trivia in general, but mainly baseball. Over lunch in a cheap Mexican place in Helen, Georgia, with Tommy, Tosh, and J.B., he talked baseball and asked some impossible questions. So I kept showing up to lunch, wherever and whenever I could.

At the IHOP, a few days after Virgil Trucks died, Bruce talked mainly about the movie, and about his old baseball hero, of course. In the end, Ron asked one final question. Was there anything else the Colonel wanted Hittin’ the Note readers to know?

“Mythocracy is what I live, and I don’t like truth, or melody,” he said. “Every lawyer and every politician says, ‘to tell you the truth …’  I don’t want to tell you the truth, I’m sick of a culture with truth. Myth is where I’m at. What’s funny though, about 88 percent of the stories are true, that’s what’s scary, and the rest is embellished. I’d rather have somebody laugh than know the weight of an onion in Idaho. And I can’t believe Virgil Trucks is dead.”

Happy Birthday, Johnny Knapp

I don’t worry about Johnny Knapp anymore. No need to. But I used to, and it kind of bothers me that I don’t, because it’s another reminder that he’s not free for lunch at the IHOP or supper at the Dan Thai or that little Chinese place next door to the gas station, where the restaurateurs never charged him for a meal. It was a takeout place but it had two obligatory booths with sticky vinyl seat covers. “Mister Johnny,” the gentleman who owned the joint used to say, genuinely happy, shaking the old piano player’s magic right while Johnny steadied himself on his walker with his magic left hand.

Back then, I worried about him because you just never knew when he might slip and break an ankle, or cut his toe on the wheelchair lift in his house. For a guy who played little miracles on a keyboard, he could be clumsy as hell. The polio probably had something to do with it, though he wasn’t the kind of guy to make excuses. Usually.

Johnny was a player in the whiskey-soaked, smoke-filled New York in the 50s and 60s, making cash money playing society music on weekends and jazz on the weekdays, jamming in his soundproof basement with Charlie Parker, who always wanted to read his yoga books. “Thanks to yoga, I took the braces off my legs,” said Johnny, who brought the books to Charlie in the hospital, where the saxophonist, “was listening to music, but it wasn’t Stravinsky, who he loved,” said Johnny. “It was Delius, and that really surprised me.”

Yoga notwithstanding, Johnny’s infantile polio still had lasting effects. It definitely slowed his gait, a handicap that actually led to his famous parking pass at the Apollo Theatre in New York. The legend, as Col. Bruce Hampton told it and retold it, is that Johnny Knapp was the only guy who had a parking pass at the Apollo Theatre. He got the pass because he was slow afoot.

He had a regular gig at the San Su San in Mineola, a club owned by the mob out on Long Island. He didn’t have a handicap parking pass. So Johnny often had to park a strenuous (for him) walk away from the club. Consequently, he was showing up tired, and just in the nick of time. “The manager wanted to know what the hell my problem was and I told him,” Johnny said. “He said I needed a handicap parking pass and that he’d take care of it. Next gig, I had parking pass. Well, that pass was good for anywhere, including the Apollo. So whenever I played the Apollo, all the other cats wanted to ride with me because I got to park right next to it.”

That was one of the stories that flowed like syrup at the IHOP during lunches that stretched into 2 or 3 p.m. sometimes. The sound of Bruce slapping the back of his hand into his palm and cackling at something Johnny said. They were like a comedy team, the two of them. It’s a shame they didn’t know each other for years and years. But there was a history.

When Bruce’s band (the Fiji Mariners) had a standing gig Saturdays at the Brandy House, Johnny had one on Sundays. This would have been the 1990s, early 2000s. But they didn’t know each other. That took Jez Graham, the spectacular Atlanta keyboardist who knew both men. He introduced Johnny and Bruce and started the Tuesday lunch thing. Bruce or someone would bring Johnny, who wasn’t driving any more, and a small crowd of musicians, writers, and at least one deity (Joe Zambie) would gather. Food would get cold (but eaten) as talk flew across the table and Sue the waitress kept bringing Bruce glasses of watered down iced tea.

I’ll never forget the first time Bruce told me about Johnny Knapp. He told me to meet him an Arby’s just inside the perimeter. It’s in the book I wrote about Bruce. It was a late afternoon in July 2012:

Bruce Hampton was stealing my curly fries, punctuating each theft with, “Shhh, don’t tell my wife.” He’d just come from the YMCA swim­ming pool in nearby Doraville, and he smelled of chlorine. The restaurant was a block or two from where the old Pearson Gulf Station used to be, where Bruce had worked in the early days of the Hampton Grease Band.

Then, pointing a curly fry at me, he said, “I’ve got to tell you about the most amazing cat I’ve ever met. His name is Johnny Knapp. Piano player. He’s in his eighties, and he’s a beast.” Bruce continued, “He played Lincoln’s second inaugural ball. He was born in Lower Manhattan and got polio as a baby. When the doctor told his parents they should move to the country r his health, they moved to Brooklyn. A bunch of us meet him for lunch on Tuesdays at an IHOP and just stare at him like he’s Babe Ruth.”

He recited the Johnny Knapp legend, stories run through Bruce’s hy­perbolic lens: The son of Czech immigrants, Johnny jammed with Charlie Parker, backed Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn, and gigged with Louis Armstrong. He saw the Hindenburg crash while on a Boy Scout trip to New Jersey. Johnny was slated to perform at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the day Robert Kennedy was shot, and in the aftermath of the as­sassination, Roosevelt Grier knocked him down. Finally, Johnny was Steve Allen’s band director, and he had the only permanent parking space at the Apollo Theatre.

“Sometimes Bruce is full of shit, but some of that stuff is true,” said Johnny, who didn’t see the Hindenburg. Nor did Rosie Grier knock him down. But the other stuff was real.

He’d hooked me. I went to the Tuesday lunch and kept going. It was like a scene from Woody Allen’s Broadway Danny Rose, bunch of dudes sitting around a table eating fatty food and drinking coffee, telling lies, asking trivia questions and sometimes making up the answers. Jez, who is a healthy eater, chose the IHOP because it was the only place where Johnny could get cheap crepes the way he liked them.

We used to celebrate birthdays at the IHOP. Look at Facebook, you’ll see plenty of pictures from Unknown Vincent or possibly my brother from another mother, Andy Estes. Looking at them puts a smile on my face and a tear in my eye. Bruce was a friend and Johnny became a very close friend. The kind you worried about.

Johnny was born and died during the month of November. As I sit here wrapping this up, it’s his birthday, November 25, one day before my mother’s. He would be 92 now. He had a squeaky Brooklyn rasp and a sweet nature, could curse like a sailor, knew the filthiest jokes. He liked to eat crepes at the IHOP and wor wonton soup at the Chinese place and used to come to my house on the holidays and play our electric piano. He loved Bruce Hampton, who introduced Johnny to a new generation of fans and musicians and one my mother’s three sons, who kind of misses worrying about Johnny Knapp.

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.