I Miss the Weylman

Steve Weyl (as in ‘wile away the day’) was the most potentially dangerous friend I’ve ever had. He was my big brother Steve’s friend first, part of the tribe of fake Indians that used attacked the train at Stone Mountain Scenic Railroad as part of the old Wild West show. The Steves and some of their friends preceded my generation of fake Indians by a few years.

I call Weylman ‘potentially’ dangerous because he talked a dangerous game, and he always had weapons. Never used them on another person, that I know of, but he had them. And if I had a nickel for every time he threatened to put my head on a pike or impale me or skin me alive or just plain shoot me, I could have bought the presidency. And if he had a nickel for every time I threatened him in similar fashion, he would have died a very rich man last Saturday, when he took his backstage pass.

If there is such a thing as a backstage pass to the universe, as my friend Marlin Geiger promised, then Steve Weyl is no doubt using it to meet some of his musical heroes, like Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, or Chris Squire, or George Harrison, and definitely John Lennon. The only time I can remember seeing Weylman cry was while listening to Lennon’s song, “Woman.”

It was two or three weeks after his mother had died, maybe three months after John was murdered. I was visiting Weylman at his old hobbit hole, probably March 1981. We were on our way to a place that made Chinese calzones (“you have got to try this place,” he said, pointing the way while I drove). The song, still new at the time, played on the radio. We listened for a few seconds before he snapped it off. “Goddamn that song,” he said. “It’s beautiful and it reminds me how much I miss my mother.” He wasn’t one to wallow.

Steve, who rarely had a job, played trumpet and flute. He once played in a band with my brother Steve (bass/piano) called Guerilla Ontologists. Their lead singer’s name was Spaz.

If my family was an ongoing Seinfeld episode, than Weylman would have been Kramer, without the hair. I can’t tell you how many Thanksgivings, Christmases, birthdays, and other gatherings he crashed. It was just implied. On the one hand, Mom or one of the other grown-ups in charge (i.e., not the men of the family) might grumble, “why didn’t you tell me he was coming?” On the other, in those rare times that Steve didn’t show, you might hear, “I made extra calamari, where the hell is he?” The man lived for the calamari and spaghetti we had every Christmas Eve.

He became so close with our clan through the years that he was basically part of it – he was treated like everyone else. He called Mom, “Mom.” He was one of us. For years, Steve, and my brothers, and I went on annual weekend trips, usually to some Civil War battlefield or state park. We took many hills together, picked off many fantasy generals waving plumed hats. In the end, he had his priorities straight – his last thoughts, I’m told, were all about the health of his old dog, Guinness.

Steve’s dogs were always old. I think they were born that way.  The first one I remember was Socrates, who lived to be about 18 and shambled around Steve’s tiny hobbit hole (that’s what we called his house, set back 100 or so yards from Highway 29, between Lilburn and Lawrenceville, in the back of a lawn surrounded by woods). It was part Shire, part Neverland, and back in the day we ingested the kind of chemistry that added all of the appropriately fantastic colors. He had the best, undulating lawn for frisbee, football, and bottle rocket battles. Most of my first ‘other-worldly’ experiences, back in the 1970s, were had there.

Some were had at the Stone Mountain railroad Wild West show. You’d never see such a show today, and for good reason. We were too young, stupid, and high to understand how racist it was. But that job left its mark on all of us who worked there – I mean, hell, we got paid (got paid shit) to play Cowboys and Indians! This truly was Neverland, a bunch of overgrown boys (teenagers mostly, plus a few ‘old’ guys, college students in their 20s), running around with guns and fake tomahawks, playing poker and drinking liquor between shows.

Many years later, we’d have occasional unofficial reunions. Our last pilgrimage, sometime in the early 1990s, ended memorably. All of us had passed the age of 30 by now, so we definitely would have been tried as adults if we’d been caught, because we definitely broke some laws – sneaking into Stone Mountain park after midnight, hiking up the back side of the mountain, then breaking into the old Wild West show set.

It was mostly façade buildings, the fake town broken in two by a covered bridge over a rain pond (where Weylman used to comically bathe himself as a train filled with tourists pulled into town – that gag always got big laughs, while mayhem and murder was happening all around him). This particular night was around Christmastime, and the set was decorated for the holiday. We could see the candy canes and Santa dummies, the doused lights strung across the buildings, our eyes now accustomed to the 2 a.m. gloom. The set, the the park, the world was cold and quiet.

Then my brother Steve noticed a switch that had been installed on one of the posts in front of the barbershop, the only real building on the set. I can see it all in slow motion, the other guys reaching out, trying to stop my brother from flicking the switch as we cried, “noooooooo …” Too late. There was an explosion of light and sound that would have given the Grateful Dead seizures. “You better watch out …” came screaming from the speakers hidden inside the barbershop.

We stared at each other a moment, overgrown Lil’ Rascals. Someone, probably Weylman, yelled, “Run!” Then four or five grown men sprinted down the train tracks like punks as Santa Claus is Coming to Town continued its admonishing, ear-splitting loop. And here’s the thing. All of us, except for Weylman, were in reasonably good shape. Weylman’s knees were mostly destroyed. He’d had injuries and surgeries, had even broken his neck once while working the Wild West show. He was always just barely stitched together, and he was a large man – tall and wide, not fat really, not then. Just large.

My brother Steve, brother-in-law Will, and I were all pretty fast, pounding those cross-ties four at a time, in a full sprint. But here came Weylman from behind, gathering steam like a locomotive, huffing and moving like rabbit in flames on his two wrecked knees, screaming, “get the fuck out of my way!” And he burst through and past us, bolted down the tracks, then suddenly dove left into the woods, yelling, “follow me!”

We could hear the police sirens by then. Moving from tree to tree, like cartoon characters, and hiding behind walls, we inched our way to safety through the woods by the faint glow of our cigarettes.

Steve Weyl, I remember you.



A Letter From my Father

My father, Tony Grillo, Sr., died 31 years ago today. On some level, I’ve missed him or thought about him every day since.

This was a guy who grew up without a father, a man who loved all five of his kids equally and unconditionally, while cultivating a unique bond with each of us. If you talked to my four siblings, they could all describe the distinct, individual relationship they had with Dad, each with its own special theme. He knew what interested us, so he became interested in those things, too.

For example, when I was six and dinosaurs were the most important thing in my world, he told stories about the stray dinosaur he adopted, a brontosaurus named Al who eventually died of a broken heart when he accidentally crushed his sweetheart underfoot (a tiny chameleon whose name I can’t recall).

A few years later, after I read a biography of Willie Mays, he found a new way to connect with me. Sure, there were more wonderful bullshit stories, but instead of a pet dinosaur, these centered on his incredible exploits in sports – like the yarn about a ball club of senior citizens he managed to a pennant. But then, he’d also seen DiMaggio and Mantle and Mays and Robinson in their primes. He told those stories, too, and I found something that interested me more than the dinosaur buried in the front yard. I was hooked.

For a few years as a kid, I was an annoyingly rabid fan, my whole life depending on wins and losses (becoming a sports writer years later tempered those emotions a little). My home team was the Atlanta Braves (we’d moved to the Atlanta suburbs), so there were plenty of losses. But I also loved the New York Mets, the first baseball team I can remember being aware of, having been born on Long Island. 

The year 1973 was particularly huge for me as a sports freak – my beloved Miami Dolphins (we had previously lived in the Miami area for five years, and they became my team) completed their perfect season with a Super Bowl win over the Redskins in January. I played Dixie Youth ball, starting in center field (the same position as Willie Mays) for the Cardinals and had a high old time. Then, during the Major League Baseball season, Dad took me to half a dozen Braves games, including at least one against the visiting Mets, featuring Mays in the last season of his career.

What a season. Hank Aaron chased Babe Ruth’s career home run record, belting 40 dingers (not bad for a 39-year-old) as three Braves smashed 40 or more (Darrell Evans and Davey Johnson were the other two). Hank was one homer shy of the Babe’s record, with 713, heading into the last game of the season. Dad got us tickets so we could see Hank catch the Babe. He had three hits against the visiting Astros, but none of them was a homer. Still, even though he didn’t get the record that day, Hank received a stirring, well-deserved ovation following his final at-bat. It was magic. I still get chills. I think my father cried.

The Braves finished near the bottom of the division, but the Mets … well, it was a terrific postseason until it wasn’t. Willie was embarrassing and the Mets lost to the hated A’s after leading in the Series, three games to two. My 13-year-old soul was shattered. 

But my father turned it all around for me. He left on a business trip before I woke up Monday morning, and I found this letter (handwritten) on the kitchen table:

October 22, 1973

Dear Son:

I know how you feel about going to school today and facing all those kids that’ll tease you about the Mets losing. I just want you to read this first. (I’d made bets with friends and had boasted obnoxiously, and when the Mets lost Game 7, I had a fit that bordered on a tantrum. I was not looking forward to school on Monday and my come-uppance, and Dad knew it.)

First of all – the Mets only lost a game – nothing more. They won about 20 of 25 games in September to get them into the playoffs. Then, they won three of five games to win the pennant. Then, they won three out of six games to get them to Game 7 – and that’s the game they lost. They’re not losers. But, you won’t be able to make your friends understand that – so don’t try. (I didn’t.)

It’s a funny thing about winners and losers, Jerry Joe. (Dad always called me Jerry Joe).

I could tell you how to win real easy … just try your best. But losing. That takes a great person. You have to have a lot of guts to be a good loser. Watch your friends closely today and smile when they tease you. And watch the ones (the winners) that don’t tease, and show that they can win like sportsmen. They will be great and so will you.  (I don’t know how great I was, but I did smile a lot that day — a sincere rictus.)

It’s not so bad. You’ve been a winner before. Now show yourself you can lose also, with class. When it comes to losing, Daddy knows what he’s talking about – remember how many times you beat me in ping pong. (This part of the letter always breaks my heart a little, because I never thought of him as a loser … besides, he probably let me win some of those games.)

Remember the ovation Hank Aaron got when he didn’t get the 714th – I’ll bet it wouldn’t have been any better if he did.

Have a good week, Jerry Joe. I know you’re a good winner – I’ve seen you. Now, show that you’re a great loser … it’s not so hard. (Dad was right. This was a lesson in perspective – like he said, it was just a game.)

Be kind to your brother and sisters and especially to Mom.  (Now we get to what was probably the motivating factor behind the letter. Dad was, above all things, a great husband to my equally great mother, who had a bunch of kids, a job, and other responsibilities at home … he wanted to make sure that I wouldn’t be a little asshole that week.)



(Love you, too, Dad)

I had a Stroke, and I’m Lucky

For the past five and a half years, I’d been semi-serious about getting into (and maintaining) decent physical condition.   

It was January of 2013 when this became a thing for me. I’d topped out at 201 pounds, too much weight for my 5-foot-11, ectomorphic frame. My knees were hurting, my recurring lower back pain was recurring more often, I felt slow and sluggish. The main reason, though, was my son, Joe, who has significant mobility issues.

I was 52 and my life had reached the far side of its arc, and my boy is only going to keep growing. I mean, he was and is small enough to lift fairly easily, but the way I’ve explained it before is, “I’ll be lifting him the rest of my life, so I want to get stronger before he gets larger.”

So, not being made of Corvette money, my midlife crisis manifested in gym memberships. I cut back on beer, lost unnecessary weight and put on necessary muscle, and patted myself arrogantly on the back whenever I managed to hold my own with the 20-somethings on a basketball court.

This summer, as I approached 58, the same age my father was when he died, I was reaching personal bests in silly things like pull-ups and the bench press; I was holding steady at 175 pounds; I was taking the stairs two at a time, running; my knees felt better, my back stronger, my three-point shot was singing; and I was feeling genuinely positive about the road ahead. Then I had a stroke.

* * *

The shrill, kryptonic buzzing in my right ear came suddenly, drowning out the TV, an electric bee in my head signaling the quick arrival of a darkening, viscous cloud, slithering inside my skull, gripping my damaged brain like a phantom hand, separating me from who I was, what I thought, and how I lived.

“Jane, get me an aspirin,” I said, or my echo said. “I think I might be having a stroke.”

The buzz went away, along with my equilibrium. The room spun as two wives handed me two aspirin and two glasses of water and my two sons sat nearby in their two wheelchairs, probably wondering what the hell was going on with his/their dad/dads. My body gave in to gravity, tilting slightly left on the couch as a fading Seinfeld laugh track mocked the slow and muddy descent into the next chapter of my life.

“I’m going to puke,” I said, the understatement of the night. The bucket and I would be intimate for the next six or seven hours.

It was 7 p.m., Sunday, August 5th, my big sister’s birthday. The next day, Joe would turn 17.

The first pair of EMTs determined that it was not a stroke or a heart issue – all of the vital signs were excellent, including blood pressure, which is odd, because it had been routinely high for the past year or so. The guys asked if I wanted to go to the hospital, but I refused. Not going to the hospital right then might have been the smartest, luckiest move we made that night (well, that and the aspirin).

They left, the dizziness stayed. The room and I spun in opposite directions. Every move I made equaled more puke. So I sat, or leaned, motionless, sweating like crazy. Jane asked if I wanted to try and go to bed. Just thinking about moving down the hall to our bedroom made me puke.

“I’ll stay here until my head clears,” I said.

The couch was my universe, my hell, my salvation, for hours. I puked until there was nothing left to spew, and after that, made loud, heaving noises that, in my memory and imagination, sounded like hippopotamuses fucking.

Around 2 a.m., Jane, unable to sleep, called the EMTs again. This time there was no question. I had to go to the hospital, and I was physically unable to get up and walk to our car. In the ER at Northeast Georgia Medical Center they pumped me full of anti-nausea drugs, praise Jesus, and I underwent my second MRI in two weeks (more on that later).

Later, I don’t know how long because the hours moved like wet cement going uphill (which had to be hell on my wife and son, who were at my side for all of this), a tall doctor with the bedside manner of an icicle entered the room and said, “well, you’ve had a stroke …”

Jane and I were like, “but, but, but the EMTs said …”

The EMTs don’t have an adequate test for this kind of stroke, Dr. Antarctica explained succinctly. This, it turns out, was a cerebellar stroke, which accounts for less than 10 percent of all strokes. “If you’re going to have a stroke, this is the one to have,” he said. “You’re very lucky.”

Excuse me if I don’t get all Lou Gehrig about this, doc. That’s what I wanted to say. But yeah, lucky me, for a whole bunch of reasons, among them the fact that I’m still alive, the fact that this episode revealed I’ve got a hole in my heart that might have killed me eventually, and the fact that, if I’m smart, I should recover fully (or close to it).

* * *

A cerebellar stroke is what happens when a blood vessel is either blocked (ischemic stroke) or bleeding (hemorrhagic stroke), causing complete interruption to the cerebellum, which sits in the back of your skull, where it controls movement and balance.

My desperate cry of, “aspirin, please,” could have been really stupid, but turned out to be really lucky because this was the ischemic variety, and aspirin can thin the blood and prevent further clotting. If this had been a hemorrhagic stroke, aspirin could hasten the bleeding.

The cerebellum has symmetrical left and right sides, each controlling movement for the corresponding side of the body. My stroke was on the left side, so my left arm and leg were affected.

One of the first things I tried after coming home from the hospital was playing the guitar. At first I was frustrated, but knowing this would only be temporary, I had to laugh at my callused fingers as they fumbled on the fretboard, struggling to find familiar chords and notes.

The spacey feeling in my arm and leg is gradually receding, but sometimes it feels like I’m stepping into a cloud. I get dizzy and tire easily. I get angry and depressed. Then again, it’s been less than two weeks since the brain fart (which sounds better to me than “stroke”). Patience is a virtue that I have to learn to embrace. Gratitude I’ve got in abundance.

I’m grateful for my daughter, Sam, who flew down from Michigan to see her old man — my lovely little field mouse, my chauffeur who is also a wonderful cook (wasn’t it just yesterday that she was making cupcakes in an Easy-Bake oven?). I’m grateful for her husband, Eric, holding the fort at home, playing bachelor, missing his wife. He is truly one of the funniest people I know. Speaking of funny, I’m grateful for my boy Joe and his wicked sense of humor — he burst out laughing when his mother asked how he felt about his old man using some of his therapy equipment. I’m grateful for my mother’s unconditional love, for my four super siblings, my friends, my co-workers, all amazing human beings.

Mostly, I’m grateful for Jane, my wife and best friend, who has spent the past 17 years as a powerhouse healthcare advocate on behalf of our son, and the last 30-something years putting up with me and the attendant peaks and valleys. Every day she sets standards that are impossible for me to meet, but give me something to strive for. I had and have exactly the right person in my corner — loving, pragmatic, creative, soulful, more beautiful today than she was the day I met her.

It’s Jane who pointed out that we should be grateful for going to the hospital when we did (rather than hours earlier). That’s because these cerebellar strokes are strange beasts – the symptoms can and have been misdiagnosed, as migraines or food poisoning or meningitis, for example. Such an epic failure can lead to awful circumstances for the patient who isn’t properly treated.

Again: very, very lucky. Today, I consider myself, yada, yada, yada.

The risk factors for this brain monster are the same for other ischemic strokes: hypertension, high cholesterol, heavy smoking, alcohol and/or drug abuse, sedentary lifestyle. After checking almost everything off the list, and being stuck and prodded for two days, we discovered that my little friend was most likely caused by the hole in my heart. What?

I was born with a hole in my heart and didn’t know it until all this shit. It’s called a patent foramen ovale, or PFO. Usually, a PFO will close shortly after birth, but when they stay open (as they do in 25 percent of us), it can allow clots to pass through the right side of the heart to the left, then travel up to the brain, and then … well, you get the picture.

In my case, the clinicians actually took a picture, running a camera down my throat to get close-ups of my beating heart. My options now are: do nothing (not really an option), treat it with medicine (blood thinners), open-heart surgery (ewwww, no thank you), or an implanted closure device (the newest and from where I’m sitting, maybe the most appealing option). We’ll see. I sense a cardiologist visit in the very near future.

But first, a visit to the neurologist, to establish some kind of baseline for this new chapter of life. I’ve got questions and questions. When can I drive? When can I start working out again? When will the occasional beeping (not buzzing, thank God) and dizziness leave me for good? Do I need yet another MRI?

Oh yeah, about that. Two weeks before all of this went down, I began work on a magazine story about brain research. Part of my own research for the story included undergoing an MRI.

It was an interesting experience. The MRI machine is a tight and incredibly loud space. My ears were plugged to muffle the intense racket, the banging sounds caused by the vibration of metal coils carrying rapid pulses of electricity. After that, I went over the images with a neurologist, a funny guy who said (of course), “we looked inside your head but we couldn’t find anything.”

So yeah, it was interesting, and a little scary – but not nearly as scary as it would be a few weeks later, when I actually needed the thing to look at my broken brain.

Bye Bye, Bill, With Love

When other people were afraid to touch my son Joe, for fear of breaking him, Bill Cochran picked him up and danced with him near an outdoor stage in a rural mountain valley, two Deadheads blissfully tasting the locally grown live music.

Bill was in Sautee with his family, wife Kathryn and daughter Annabelle. This was the kind of vacation they were used to – traveling to music festivals. I liked them immediately. This was an early 2000’s version of getting on the bus.

Both fellas, Joe and Bill, had come to this place on the road, between the proverbial ‘dawn and the dark of night’ by different routes. Joe was four or five at the time, and had just recently become a Deadhead. We’d rented The Grateful Dead Movie from Netflix, and he lit on the concert/documentary film like a moth to a porchlight, watched it three times before we mailed it back a few days later. Mom and Dad were paying attention. We bought him some GD CDs, and he was hooked. We all were.

For Bill, it started as a kid, when he was 12 or 13. On trips to Atlanta, while his mother shopped he’d walk to Piedmont Park, where the Allman Brothers and the Hampton Grease Band (featuring Bruce Hampton before he became known as ‘Col. Bruce Hampton, Ret.’) used to play. “The bus came by and I climbed aboard and it’s been an ongoing story,” Bill said about eight years ago, when he and Tommy Deadwyler and I had backstage passes for Widespread Panic in Myrtle Beach.

The other day, Bill took his permanent backstage pass, finally giving in to cancer. He’d beaten the cell-fucking sonofabitch decades ago, which means he finished with a 1-1 record against cancer. But Bill had an astonishing winning percentage in the so-called game of life. He experienced so much in his nearly 62 rotations around the sun.

He was a terrific writer, an entrepreneur, a salesman, a bartender, a father. He absorbed every drop of what he could from life, discarding the divisive bullshit, holding love close. He loved music, and his poems often sounded like songs. I think if we could see a physical manifestation of Bill at this moment, he’d be doing a victory dance. At any rate, he definitely won me over that day at the Sautee Jamboree, when he asked if he could dance with my son.

I imagine him being greeted in the ethereal backstage by Bruce Hampton, with a pinky handshake. While he was on Earth, Col. Bruce had a number of special powers, one of which was his ability to correctly guess birthdays. I’m not so sure it was guessing. He could usually tell your birthday upon first meeting you, when he felt like it. And I can clearly remember when Bruce finally “guessed” Bill’s birthday.

They’d known each other for years. Bill had seen and met Bruce bunches of times, at venues across the country, but Bruce had never guessed Bill’s birthday – never tried. One night, the stars aligned. I happened to be at Smith’s Olde Bar, on the spur of the moment, to see Bruce’s band (it was either late Pharaoh Gummit or early Madrid Express) play at a fundraising event. I was both delighted and not surprised to see Bill there – all the way from St. Simon’s, also on the spur of the moment. So we hung out all night.

Before Bruce went on, the three of us were sitting in a booth downstairs when Bill asks, “why haven’t you guessed my birthday yet? Can you do it now?” Bruce said, “it doesn’t work like that, not when you ask me. It has to come to me.” Later in the evening, backstage, it came to him. Bruce pointed to Bill and said, “Bill Cochran, you’re a Leo … August 21.” Nailed it.

Bill was there last May, in 2017, at Hampton 70: A Celebration of Col. Bruce Hampton in the Fox Theatre, when Bruce collapsed on stage during the encore, and died. As Bruce was being carried away from the Fox Theatre on an ambulance gurney, Bill saw a feint light emitting from Bruce’s shirt pocket – his cell phone, probably. Later, Bill said, “it was God texting Bruce.”

Not very long after that, Bill was on his way to a job interview in Athens. 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.

Bill had a knack of being in the right place at the right time, then leveraging that energy into the greatest adventures for himself and those fortunate to be around him. In fact, I probably owe my life to Bill. Here’s the short version:

Me and Bill and his nephew-in-law Glenn hitched a ride with what seemed like a harmless neo-hippie couple following a Widespread Panic show a few years back. We were in the Alpharetta outback, miles from our hotel, the shakedown having been shut down rather early by the local constables.

The very pregnant woman behind the wheel said, as we squeezed into the car, “the problem with being pregnant is I can’t do as much acid as I’d like.”

We took her at her word and climbed in, Glenn and I into the backseat, next to a not-yet-used baby seat, and Bill huddled in a fetal position under the hatchback. We hadn’t gone a few yards when Bill said, “stop the car and let us out.” Turns out, there were guns in the back, loose and sliding around and poking Bill. The hippie woman kept driving, not in the direction of our hotel.

“Stop the fucking car and let us out,” Bill said. “I’m being poked by guns back here!”

The husband dude in the front passenger seat shouted, “I know my second amendment rights!”

Finally, she pulled over and we sprang out and took off. Bill and Glenn had bought some merchandise, and Bill had a bottle of moonshine – all of it left in the car. “They were going to rob and kill us,” Bill insisted as we hurried off. “I just saved your lives.” I’m not one to argue.

Last weekend, as the expiration date in Bill’s DNA inched closer, Tommy and I drove down to the hospice center in Brunswick to spring him for a little while, hustle him off to the beach, “where my soul resides,” Bill said, the three of us knowing it would be our last time together, this side of the curtain. Bill was heavily medicated and exhausted but fully present.

Saturday night, as we prepared to go out for dinner, changing out of our stinking clothes, Bill needed a clean shirt, but the t-shirt in his overnight bag was a pain to get over his head, because pretty much everything hurt. He wanted something looser, easier to put on. “Something like this,” I asked, tugging at my red, black, and gray polo shirt. “Yes, that one,” he said.

We spent most of Saturday night watching YouTube videos of recent Dead and Company shows – Bill had wanted to take his daughter, Annabelle, to the Atlanta show. Even though he was getting tired by 10 p.m., and in a heavy chemical haze, Bill felt the music. His head nodded rhythmically, he tapped one foot. When Bruce Hampton played, he opened his eyes and smiled, held a hand up. We sat there in the condo with the sea noise and the rock and roll until Bill was ready for bed.

Tommy, who has been Bill’s guardian angel these last few months, monitored our friend’s every need – medication, and so forth. He tucked Bill into bed. After we all said goodnight, Tommy sat on the bedside a few moments, his hand on Bill’s chest. It stopped moving, like he was holding his breath, or …

“Jerry, he’s gone,” Tommy called, sounding a little panicked.

We both expected that Bill might not last the weekend, so neither of us would have been surprised if he’d decided to take flight right then. And on a certain level, I think we both would have been relieved. But still, this is Tommy’s oldest friend, his big brother. They’d been part of each other’s lives for almost 50 years. For Tommy, most of the important lessons about being a man in this life came from Bill.

“He’s gone,” Tommy cried, turning on the bathroom light to illuminate the room. I nearly choked.

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.

Depression: The Invisible Bullet

Anthony Bourdain had the best job — world-traveling storyteller and eater. And he was really, really great at it. And he took his life. Depression is as real as a bullet. This is something I wrote a few years ago (with a few recent additions) in the wake of another “successful” man’s untimely death. Sometimes, it’s a struggle. If there’s a bottom line to the essay, maybe it’s this: There isn’t one way out, there are many ways forward, and there are people and services and other things that can help you find the way!

Robin Williams did a lot of stuff that I’ll never forget, but there’s one standup bit that my wife and I have consistently borrowed over the past 30 years. It’s the one where he puts Mr. Phallus on the witness stand and asks him what he remembers about the night in question. Mr. Phallus answers, “Let’s see, it was light, it was dark, it was light, it was dark.”

Today it’s dark. Really, really dark. Today, nearly four years after Mr. Williams took his own life, we learn about the suicide of another seemingly unstoppable human force, Anthony Bourdain.

I didn’t know either man, and I rarely get choked up when a celebrity shuffles off for his backstage pass. But in Williams’ case, I was not ashamed to be part of the mob that said, “this one got to me.” And in Bourdain’s case, I’m left shaking my head, mumbling to myself, “dude had the best job in the world … why?”

Well, for one thing, life and death isn’t all about the work that you do or love.

Anyway, I can understand a little of what these men must have been going through, I think. Depression is the soul’s dark implosion; hope, will and desire sucked dry of momentum; no reason to live, no reason to try, microwaves of pain constricting and expanding in a nasty mockery of rhythm, and the nagging persistence of a beating heart to mark the endless hours. Or something like that. I’ve pulled over when the convulsions of depression rendered driving impossible, when I wanted to cry or scream, or die where I sat, alone, forgotten and hopeless.

I’ve also suffered a rotator cuff injury patting myself on the back for finding whatever courage or common sense it took to get back on the highway and show up for whatever I was driving to.

So, about 15 years ago I wrote a magazine story titled, ‘Down Time: The High Cost of Depression.’ It was written by a breadwinner, a husband and father whose infant son had recently been diagnosed with cerebral palsy – his little boy, who seemed to be facing insurmountable, unfair challenges.

It was written by a man taking some sudden sharp turns in his life, a guy who loved and loves his family with a gut-punching fury, a self-pitying, miserable man who felt well suited to approach the subject of depression with a measure of understanding.

The story focused some on the financial toll depression had on businesses, and some on the personal struggles of a few big shots, CEOs and the like, and these dudes shared their serious-shit depression stories.

“I felt enveloped by a darkness. I was going down, down, down, down. It was like being in a deep well that I couldn’t climb out of,” Tom Johnson, the former head of CNN and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, told me. He described times when the anxiety was so smothering, he sought refuge in the safe place under his desk. Hey, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

Turns out, depression is a great equalizer – CEOs and regular shmoes stand side-by-side and front-to-back in the Prozac line. According to the experts I interviewed at the time, environment (the stress of raising a child with profound disabilities, or a demanding job, for example) accounts for about 60 percent of the risk for major depression, and genetics (dad was depressed, so you might be, too) about 40 percent. Those are risk factors. It’s not the job’s or the kid’s or your old man’s fault that you’re bummed out. Basically, it’s your biochemistry, which doesn’t always react to those factors in a healthy way.

The lions of industry that spoke with me faced their depressions with different arsenals. Drugs, therapy, even shock treatment were part of their assorted proverbial toolboxes. They all agreed on one thing. There was (and still is, God help me) a stigma associated with depression. “Even in today’s enlightened society, you tell someone you’re going to a psychiatrist or taking an antidepressant pill, and you are sort of singled out,” said J.B. Fuqua, an Atlanta businessman and philanthropist who died in 2006.

Boy, was he right on. A lot of so-called enlightened people still have a hard time accepting the validity of the vice-like choke hold that depression can have on a person – even if they’ve experienced it themselves (depression doesn’t come with the automatic power of empathy, unfortunately).

That article from long ago ends with a contention from Johnson that treatment – drugs, therapy, whatever – isn’t necessarily a cure. “Sometimes, you just have to make a change,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to get away from whatever is pulling you down.”

It only occurred to years later, when I dug up the old article, what a chilling statement that is. Johnson didn’t mean it that way. He meant, distance yourself from the thing that is destroying you. For Tom Johnson, it meant leaving CNN. But for Robin Williams, and way too many others, it means leaving everything. For them, the sound of their own breathing was something to escape.

I’ve heard people say – people I otherwise respect – that ‘hope’ is for the lazy, that ‘hoping’ is a passive way to avoid the responsibility of actually ‘doing.’ That is misanthropic bullshit. Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul.” For a lot of people, hope is the thing that keeps them going. Hope is the breath of life.

It’s difficult to fathom (especially for a scribe who has, from time to time, pursued the “big gig”)  how someone as seemingly self-assured and fulfilled as Anthony Bourdain could be so far down, there was no climbing back.

And while I understand that Robin Williams already was battling incurable Parkinson’s disease, it’s still heartbreaking to think that someone as gifted and beloved as he was, an artist who unleashed such a positive spirit and energy on the world, can be totally incapable of drawing hope or support from the big love surrounding him. This powerful, positive presence in the universe was utterly hopeless. And if it could happen to him …

Well, that’s why it got to me.

Bruce Brought the Joyful Noise

We were idling at the traffic light on Peachtree Street where it crosses 10th, three talkative men in quiet darkness, while Atlanta’s glass and concrete and light glittered around and above us. Joe Zambie had just called from the hospital.

“He’s gone,” Joe said in a rickety voice we could hear over the blue tooth, and then a deep breath, and then, “Bruce is gone.”

Jim Basile was driving with Johnny Knapp in the passenger seat and me in the back. It was a little after 1 a.m., May 1st having bled into May 2nd.

The words, “oh no,” came from Johnny, a painful rasp sucked out of him like an atmosphere, and we floated down Peachtree in self-contained outer space, yanked into the numbing void by the gravitational pull of Col. Bruce Hampton, who collapsed on stage an hour or two earlier that night.

“Our friend is gone,” Joe said, an amplified and inarguable tone of finality.

zambi bruce

Bruce was the class clown of rock and roll, a shy extrovert, a conjurer and performance artist with the manic energy of a pinball, a bandleader and musician who delivered the greatest swansong in the history of live music when he collapsed during the encore of his 70th birthday celebration concert at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta a year ago. It was easily the ultimate surreal moment of a surreal life, and certainly the most dramatic ending in a long history of rock and roll drama; tragic and triumphant and real and raw, too perfect to be plausible, and a complete emotional drain.

Hampton 70: A Celebration of Col. Bruce Hampton was going to be a night to remember no matter what happened. The concert was arranged as a rotation of different lineups. Bruce came on early and left after a few songs. Then a series of all-star groupings came and went, musical dream teams honoring Bruce, who blazed a global trail and helped make some of them rich and/or famous and/or infamous.

After several hours of these rotating super groups, Bruce returned to the stage with a lineup that included Johnny on piano (he needed help getting on stage in his wheelchair), old Aquarium Rescue Unit bandmates Jimmy Herring, Jeff Sipe, and Jeff Mosier; John Bell and Dave Schools of Widespread Panic; Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi; and Jon Fishman of Phish, among others.

Johnny improvised a “Happy Birthday” moment as the set began. “It’s his birthday and I was surprised that nobody sang to him yet on stage, so I took the initiative,” Johnny said later. He plunked out the song and pointed up at his friend, and Bruce sat on the stool with a guitar, grinning like a fool.

Later, after playing I’m So Glad (the Delta blues number by Skip James), the band left the stage. Johnny was wheeled off, and the techs came on to make preparations for a hellzapoppin’ finale featuring an eclectic electric lineup – an updated version of Bruce’s old Zambiland Orchestra. This lineup included most of the artists who had played that evening.

The last song of the night was Turn on Your Love Light, one of Bruce’s favorites. He always preferred the Bobby Bland version of the song to all others, and even gave it his version of the guttural Bland growl.

During that number, Bruce turned his back to the audience and motioned to 14-year-old guitar wunderkind, Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, to step up and take a solo. Then, he dropped to his knees, arms in front of him, as if paying homage to the young guitarist, as if Taz was just blowing him away – the kind of stunt Col. Bruce had been pulling for ages with other musicians who’d blown him away.

Denny Walley was among the musicians standing closest to Bruce when he went down. Walley, former guitarist and collaborator with Frank Zappa and Capt. Beefheart, remembered, “The guys who have played with him a lot more than I have, they’d seen his antics, so when he went down in front of Taz, and the other guys were laughing, I laughed, too. Then I stepped forward, between the two monitors and saw Bruce’s face, and it looked like he was sleeping like a baby.”

Bruce didn’t get up. Instead, he soared. There’s a picture that someone took during the show’s final moments, one of the last pictures taken of Bruce while he was alive. You can see a ghostly radiance surrounding him, “maybe it’s his spirit leaving him,” Johnny Knapp said. That’s what Johnny thinks, that it was Bruce’s spirit, or soul, leaving town.

It was the most extraordinary event of Walley’s life. “It was totally life changing,” he said. “I have never seen someone die before, and I knew Bruce said more than once that he’d rather die on stage doing what he loves, and I guess that would be my first pick, too. But, it blew my mind. I was in shock probably for a month. To go from that high moment, that ecstatic moment, with 4,600 people on their feet, to … well, you know. It’s overwhelming to think about.”

It is. So I’ll continue here without thinking:

Shortly before he went back on stage for the last time, Bruce stood near Johnny, his pal, his hero, a New York musician who’d battled polio and had a long and distinguished career playing jazz and society music. Bruce, who had fostered so many young musicians on their way to something bigger, had become Knapp’s chief artistic benefactor, embellishing on the piano player’s already remarkable career. “He played with Louis Armstrong in barns where they piled horseshit in the corner to keep flies away from the band,” he said during one of the weekly lunches at an IHOP in the Atlanta suburbs.

The lunches had been every other week, arranged by Hampton and Graham to bring exposure and friends to the aging piano player. But after Johnny’s wife, Dee, died in February 2015, Bruce increased the lunch schedule to every Tuesday, and the group – almost all of them Atlanta-area musicians – kept showing up.

Anyway, Johnny and Jim waited there in the wings at the Fox while the band started the encore set, and the expiration clock in Bruce’s DNA secretly counted down to zero. He stood near Johnny’s wheelchair, and Johnny said to Bruce, “thanks, Bruce, you’ve made me so happy tonight.”

Bruce said, “Thank you. You make me happy every day.”

Johnny said, “Well, you’ve got five minutes. An encore, then it’s over.”

Bruce said, “Johnny, I’ll be glad when it’s over.”

A few days later, when he could talk about it without crying, Johnny said, “And here I thought we were talking about the concert. Maybe we weren’t.”


Several days after Hampton 70, the Madrid Express played their regular Thursday night show at the Vista Room, and the place was packed with supportive, mourning fans. While some of the musicians from the Fox show blended back into their routines – touring, recording, and so on – many of the Atlanta locals showed up at the Vista Room to jam with Tyler Neal, the young singer and finger-picking guitarist who’d taken on the herculean task of serving as the band’s de facto leader.

They kept the Thursday thing going a while longer, a month or so. “It was something we had to do, something Bruce would have done,” said Neal. “It was Thursday night. There were times when we could really feel him with us.”

Walley went for a few Thursday shows. He went that first Thursday after Bruce died, when the band was lifted by a wave of energy, feeding on the crowd’s emotion. But as the weeks rolled on, the crowds diminished, and the energy changed, lives moving on, in different directions.

“I went that first Thursday to support the band, to help keep Bruce’s spirit alive,” Walley said. “I went back that second time and had to leave after the first set. It was too much and I couldn’t handle it without Bruce there. I really loved the fact that Tyler and the guys were trying to keep it going, but without Bruce … it’s hard to explain.”

This kind of thing was not without precedent in the Bruce Hampton universe. He was a band’s leader and its creativity glue – not a mentor as much as a facilitator of genius who scouted, then surrounded himself with exceptional free-range talent, and let it run slightly wild, a controlled kind of frenzy that resulted in some of the most brilliant music you’ve heard, a diaphanous sonic thread effortlessly connecting blues to jazz to rock and other places.

When you lose that glue, that connective human tissue, that otherness that Bruce Hampton gave his bands – when you lose that, you often lose the band. About two months after Bruce’s death, the Madrid Express stopped playing regularly as a unit, reuniting for the occasional gig honoring the Colonel. Otherwise, these artists had their own projects, other opportunities to pursue or create.

They had to move on, with intention. It’s what Bruce would have expected. It’s what Bruce would have done. It’s what he did.

Jimmy Herring remembers the slow, quiet, and certain death of the original Aquarium Rescue Unit, which soldiered on for several more years after Bruce, who’d assembled and guided the band, up and quit.

“I’ll never forget this one gig,” Herring recalled. “There was this girl standing near the stage, watching us. It was months after Bruce had left. She said, ‘What happened to that joyful noise?’ I told her, ‘the joyful noise has left the band.’”

Hank Aaron Goes Deep

This story about Hank Aaron was originally published eight years ago in a magazine that used to pay my salary. I’m waving this slightly edited version in front of your faces right now, on April 8, 2018, because it’s been 44 years since No. 44 broke the Babe’s record. 


Hank Aaron was baseball’s humble virtuoso. Consistent as sunrise, he set an unmatched standard of sustained excellence as a player, breezed into the Hall of Fame and into the Atlanta Braves front office, started a business empire and a philanthropic foundation, had a Major League hitting award named in his honor, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, settled gracefully into his position as an elder statesman of the game, and into the collective American mindset as one of the greatest players of all time.

Aaron, the quiet superstar radiating organic poise, never sought the spotlight, though it eventually found him. But just in case anyone was watching, he always made being Hank Aaron a full-time job.

“You have to carry your dignity a little bit further than the field, you know,” Aaron says, as if you really should know this. “Just because you’ve taken the uniform off doesn’t mean you stop being a professional. You try to live your life and play the game in such a way that others would want to emulate.”

If Aaron sounds like a Boy Scout, he comes by it honestly – he was one. And he says his scouting experience, while growing up in heavily segregated Mobile, Ala., “was the greatest thing that happened to me as a kid, and it taught me the rules and regulations of life,” while his parents – Herbert and Estella – instilled in young Henry an adherence to the golden rule.

“That’s what they expected from me, that’s the way they wanted their kids to be,” says Aaron. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Of course that never applied to pitchers, whose favorite nicknames for Aaron were “Bad Henry,” and “The Hammer.”

In athletic mannerism and grace he seemed most similar to Joe DiMaggio who, like Aaron, was an outfielder who could hit for power and average. But Aaron took his cues from Jackie Robinson, whom he considers his role model.

Aaron was a young teen when he first saw Robinson play in an exhibition game, and remembers evenings spent around the radio whenever Robinson’s Brooklyn Dodgers were on the air.

“Here was the first African American in the big leagues, someone the black community could really look up to,” Aaron says. “And he really set the example of what it takes to be a professional athlete – beyond hitting home runs and base hits. It wasn’t in what he said, but the way he carried himself.

“You start idolizing someone, you watch their every move. The way they walk, the way they talk, the way they carry themselves. He didn’t have to say anything to me, because I was paying attention.”

Good thing Robinson didn’t say anything, because Aaron – the man who stood up to vicious racism and death threats while chasing Babe Ruth’s home run record – says he probably would have been tongue-tied and paralyzed with fear. Robinson was to Aaron what Aaron became to legions of baby boomer ball fans – an idol.



So when the Georgia Historical Society announced that Aaron (along with Ted Turner) would be named a Georgia Trustee this year (2010), the tribute was particularly sweet because the society was simultaneously recognizing Robinson as its Georgia Days Honoree.

“It’s difficult to put into words what this honor means to me,” Aaron says. “Not only because I grew up in the South and have spent most of my life in Georgia, but also because of what Jackie Robinson meant to me, as a baseball player and a role model. This is something I’m very proud of.”

As a player Aaron was the coolest of customers, his easy tranquility disguising an intense focus and passion to succeed. To some observers, he looked as likely to take a nap in the batter’s box as he was to commit violent abuse on a baseball, which he did with alarming regularity.

His career might best be viewed from a distance, from a vantage point of years. Aaron didn’t hit moon shots like Mickey Mantle, didn’t lose his hat running down fly balls like Willie Mays – he didn’t play in New York. He wasn’t flashy. But he was rock solid and relentless, more durable than Mantle or Mays.

He also hit for a higher average than they did, collected more base hits, was probably their equal in the field, drove in more runs than anyone who ever played, and on April 8, 1974 passed Babe Ruth as the all-time home run leader when he belted No. 715 in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium against the Los Angeles Dodgers and their starter, lefty Al Downing (who had been the first black pitcher in New York Yankees history).

“What a marvelous moment for baseball,” said Vin Scully, voice of the Dodgers, calling the game for a national audience. “What a marvelous moment for Atlanta and the state of Georgia. What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the deep South for breaking the record of an all-time baseball idol.”

He broke into baseball as a teenager with the Mobile Black Bears, a semipro barnstorming team, and moved up to the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro American League before being signed by the Milwaukee Braves, making his Major League debut with them in 1954. Aaron moved with the club to Atlanta in 1966, returning to the South as an established superstar. He was a Milwaukee Brewer when he hit his last home run, No. 755, in his final season, 1976.

On a cold December day, two months before his 76th birthday, he patiently guides a visitor through the maze of Atlanta Braves administrative offices at Turner Field, walking with the aching gait of a retired guy who rarely missed a day of work in 23 years of demanding, physical competition against strong, fast, often rough men.

“Things were a little different in those days,” Aaron says, smiling. “Especially the pitchers. Take a guy like Bob Gibson. He was not only dominating, he was scary. And tough. I saw him hit guys when he knew full well that he was going to bat the next inning – and that he would probably get thrown at.

“The great ones – like Gibson, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Juan Marichal – had a real toughness about them. When they got into the sixth or seventh inning with a one-run lead, there was no way they would leave the game. Lot of guys today, by the sixth inning they’re looking for somebody to come in to relieve them.”

Aaron relished the one-on-one confrontation with pitchers and he’s proud of his accomplishments with a bat, but only if you ask him even then, in an understated way, because he had to face some savage racial punches while rewriting the record book, and much external baggage came with his records and it left some scars.

The chase for Ruth’s record was brutal. While players and most fans, especially in Atlanta, cheered Aaron’s run at history, he received piles of hate mail from anonymous racists who did not want a black man holding baseball’s most cherished record.

“I think that home run was one of the greatest moments in baseball history, one of the great thrills of my life and a great thrill for the black community. But it was not easy,” says Aaron, mellowed by time, understating the pressure. “There were people, a lot of them, who simply were not ready for me to break that record, because of my skin color.”

In 2007, Barry Bonds, who was under investigation for using performance-enhancing drugs, passed Aaron’s home run record.

“It was bound to happen,” Aaron says. “I held it for a long time and enjoyed it. But just as I passed Babe Ruth and Bonds passed me, somebody’s gonna come along and pass him. That’s the nature of it. Records are made to be broken.”

Of all his baseball accomplishments, Aaron is most proud of the fact that he was able to play at the highest level for almost all of his 23 years in the Major Leagues.

“That’s the kind of record you achieve with the help of others,” he says. “In baseball, for me, that meant great teammates, guys like Eddie Mathews hitting in front of you or behind you in the batting order, protecting you.

“Even before I started playing, when I was still chasing my dream to play in the Majors, had it not been for other people helping, reaching out, I never would have made it, in spite of my ability. Plain and simple, anyone who has meant something to this country, who has done something great, had someone else giving them a hand along the way.”



And that’s what Aaron wanted to do when he retired as a player – well, that and get into business. He had a great run with his BMW dealerships and sold them just before the economic bust, still runs a thriving restaurant company and sits on numerous corporate boards, including the Atlanta Braves.

In the mid 1990s, he and his wife Billye started the Hank Aaron Chasing the Dream Foundation. The foundation became fully active and heftily funded in 1999, when the Aarons threw Hank a 65th birthday bash and fundraising event. President Bill Clinton was among the dignitaries who helped raise $1 million for the foundation, which helps underprivileged children participate in activities they otherwise can’t afford, like music and sports. Major League Baseball and Boys and Girls Clubs have partnered with Aaron’s foundation to create a college scholarship fund also – they’ll give out 44 each year (Aaron wore No. 44).

Aaron, who was vice president of player development for years in the Braves organization, now has an untitled post that allows him to pursue his philanthropic passions, like helping to increase the number of African Americans in baseball by promoting the game to kids.

He counts ambassadors, presidents and CEOs as his friends – they all want to meet him. He’s comfortable with his life, modest in spite of his many awards and honors and accomplishments – he and Mays have become interchangeable in the “greatest living player” appellation. But his eye, as always, is on a bigger picture.

The foundation, his work with kids, it’s all about achieving their dreams, he says. Not his. He already chased his down.

“I love baseball, it’s given me so much, but that’s my world, and it isn’t everything,” he says. “I’d prefer people said, ‘Hank Aaron helped people,’ rather than ‘Hank Aaron hit that home run in the ninth inning’ – which is all right, too. It’s fine.

“But it means more to me when someone says, ‘Thanks to Mr. Aaron, I know how to play the harp,’ or ‘I know how to dance,’ or whatever it is they dream of doing. See, that’s what life is made of.”