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.

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