A Southern Music Legend’s Perfect Exit
By Chuck Reece
“Come have lunch with us next Wednesday. You’ll have fun.”
My friend Charles Driebe gave me that same invitation often over the last couple of years. Charles was a regular at the table on Wednesdays at 12:22 p.m., when Col. Bruce Hampton would gather with an ever-shifting group of buddies for Chinese food.
Finally, a week ago Wednesday, I made up my mind to go. I waited in the parking lot of the Northern China Eatery until Charles arrived, perfectly punctual at 12:22 p.m. We walked inside to find Hampton already at a table with two other friends. The Colonel stood up, walked toward me hand outstretched, and said, “Hey. I’m Bruce.” We shook, and I said, “I’m Chuck.” He emitted no hint of the aloofness of stardom, and to him, I suppose, I was just some guy Charles had brought to lunch.
But inside, I trembled. I had just met a man who pierced a hole in my brain 40 years ago, when I was 16.
One day in 1977, my friend Dan pulled a two-album set with a psychedelic-looking cover from his record crates. Dan was barely old enough to have attended one of the Allman Brothers Band’s legendary free concerts in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park. He told me was he was gonna play me the only album, by then out of print, from the band he had seen open for the Allmans. He put on side one of the Hampton Grease Band’s “Music to Eat.” What I heard … well, it made me feel like somebody had sawed off the top of my head and poured in large quantities of Things Teenage Country Boys Didn’t Understand.
Forty years later, there I was — in a basement Chinese restaurant — shaking hands with the man who did that to me. We sat down, and I just listened for a while, letting their conversation continue. Talk turned to the big concert coming up on Monday at the Fox Theatre, where three or four generations of musicians the Colonel had influenced would perform with him to celebrate his 70th birthday.
Charles asked, “Who’s doing ‘Halifax’?”
“Halifax,” if, like most folks, you've never heard it, is the first song on “Music to Eat.” It is 19 minutes and 36 bewildering seconds of tremendous invention and weirdness. Charles chuckled, as if to say nobody would attempt “Halifax.”
Bruce allowed he didn’t know who was doing it, adding, “I can’t even remember the first line of it.”
That’s when I finally opened my mouth and quoted the Colonel's 46-year-old lyrics back to him: “Wouldn’t you like to come to Halifax? Air masses moving eastwardly.” That line had been burned into my frontal cortex for 40 years. Bruce lit up, patted me on the shoulder, said, “Yeah!” Then, he replied with the second couplet: “The land is fertile / It’s filled with lime.”
Just like that, I suddenly felt I had a new friend. After the potstickers and fish were gone, and all the baseball and music trivia had been discussed, the five of us parted ways. Driving away, I thought about returning the following Wednesday, because company that good is hard to find.
Six mornings later, I awoke to the news that Col. Bruce Hampton had collapsed onstage in the middle of his big show’s final song, a rollicking version of Bobby Blue Bland’s “Turn on Your Love Light,” and had died a little later in a hospital two blocks down Peachtree Street.
This Wednesday, I looked at my watch at 12:22 p.m. and found myself missing a man I’d met only once.
In the days between my lunch with Col. Bruce and his death, I listened to “Music to Eat” for the first time in a long time. I listened to it straight through several times. I wanted to figure out again how this album, universally acknowledged as one of the strangest ever recorded, had lodged itself so firmly in my head.
My conclusion was this:
On “Music to Eat,” Hampton and his mates had created a place of true, unadulterated, joyous freedom that gave license to damned near every Southern musician who followed. Bruce's Halifax wasn't a city in Nova Scotia; it was a place where you could do whatever you pleased. "Music to Eat" made it OK for our musicians to rearrange things however they pleased, to allow themselves to follow their artistic muses to the strangest places they could find. On that album, Hampton created surreal chaos and then shrieked above it, “LAWD works in mysterious WAYS!” That line helped the young country boys like me relate. The familiar reference point — from church, of course — hooked us. Meanwhile, the record kept doing its work, warping our psyches forever.
All the obituary headlines this week spoke of Bruce as the patriarch of the “jam-band scene.” But going back to “Music to Eat” told me another truth: Bruce transcended genre. He contained multitudes. “Music to Eat,” it its way, contained the templates for much of the Southern music that came after. Not just the freewheeling romps of bands like Widespread Panic, but also the adventurous punk and pop of R.E.M. and the B-52’s.
It was a big theory, and I wanted to test it, so I called Peter Buck of R.E.M. He and his longtime bandmate Mike Mills had been a part of Hampton’s birthday show.
When I was a freshman at the University of Georgia, Buck and I spent hours talking music as he sat behind the counter at Athens’ Wuxtry Records. But in our conversation yesterday, I learned something I’d never known — that Buck, who is about four years older than me, had seen the Hampton Grease Band in 1971, the year “Music to Eat” was released. He was only 14 years old.
“For a 14-year-old kid, it was kind of incomprehensible,” Buck told me. The show was at some sort of “youth club” in Marietta, Georgia, and Buck remembered that “mostly, the reaction was terror, and most of the kids left.” Buck, of course, stuck it out till the end and went backstage to introduce himself.
Ten years later, when R.E.M. began its rise to stardom, Buck found Hampton serving as “kind of an avuncular presence” across both the Athens and Atlanta music scenes.
"He consciously mentored all these young people — Oteil Burbridge and Jimmy Herring and people like that," Peter told me. "But he didn’t just teach them chord changes. He taught improvisation, how to live in the moment, how to listen to other people, how to not follow the rules. That’s more life coaching than it is music coaching. He taught them a way to look at the world through music.
“It wasn’t just jam-band stuff,” Buck said. “I mean, freedom crosses all borders, and one of the things he taught me is that to perform, all you have to do is be. I wanted to talk to you to represent the fact that the Colonel went beyond all those ghettos people tried to put him in.”
I asked Buck if he’d been on stage Monday night at the end, and he told me he had not, because he had an early Tuesday-morning flight. Before Buck left for his hotel for a few hours' sleep, midway through Monday’s show, he and the Colonel chatted.
“I said, ‘You know, Colonel, having your band and your ideas in my life has meant so much to me.' I got to say a real goodbye, and I walked out the door. Because I left early, I got to say goodbye and let him know exactly what he’d meant to me over the years.”
I know the fact — that the Colonel died in the hospital — but I am wired to prefer the fancy (and Bruce himself is at least partly responsible for that).
In my fancy, I like to think that Col. Bruce floated off the Fox stage, up past the Atlanta skyline, and into the air masses. He is moving eastwardly, toward his mythical Halifax, where all music is possible.