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.
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.’”