The Colonel: Bruce Hampton Is Still Out There…Way Out There
An hour or so later, during lunch at a cheap Mexican joint in “Alpine” Helen, the nearby kitschy Bavarian-themed town, Hampton is still at it with the trivia, baseball and football mostly. Then, he tries to guess my birthday (I’ve heard of this stunt, Hampton the uncanny), and he comes damn close.
“Libra,” he says. Correct.
“Sept. 30, same as Trey Anastasio,” he says, nailing the Phish guitarist’s birthday, but missing mine by four days. He gets it right on the second guess, although, by now I’m pretty sure he’s not guessing and it sort of freaks me out.
He and Bell have a long history, so there are stories, shared acquaintances, tales of Frank Zappa and Jimmy Herring and Billy Bob Thornton, crazy shit, alien shit, flying objects in the sky and indescribable sounds in the dark, stages falling in on themselves, myths that follow Hampton around like trusted shadows.
At some point during that lunch I thought, “I’ve got to write this guy’s story.”
It took me another two years to ask Hampton’s permission because, quite honestly, I was a little scared of him and the prospect of trying to make sense of him.
But two years is nothing. It took Johnny Sandlin a lot longer to get over his Hampton phobia.
“I’d heard all these crazy stories and had this horrible impression that he was more of a clown than a musician, so I went to see him and the Hampton Grease Band at Chastain Park with that impression lodged in my head,” Sandlin says. “So I was kind of afraid of him for about 20 years. I didn’t reconcile that until 1991, around the time I was working with Widespread Panic, but before I worked with Bruce on the Aquarium Rescue Unit’s first album.
“We became good friends, and I discovered what an amazing talent he is. Bruce may not be the greatest player, but he knows great music and understands it.”
Hampton is a facilitator of genius, surrounding himself with exceptional free-range musicians and letting them run slightly wild. It’s a controlled kind of frenzy that is, by moments, some of the most brilliant stuff you’ve heard, something that lives between blues and jazz and rock.
“He has a great heart and soul, and he somehow finds the best musicians alive and brings them together,” Sandlin says. “But you know, they wouldn’t be as great without him.”
That’s what they all say, the guys who have played with Hampton. He infects their brains, stabs their hearts from behind, pushing them to places they didn’t know existed.
“I thought I could improvise,” says Jimmy Herring, who really launched his career with ARU, went on to play with the Dead, and now plays lead guitar for Widespread Panic.
“But Bruce had his own view of improvisation, and it was different from mine. In his world, improvisation isn’t stringing together a bunch of licks you practiced at home. That’s something you have a preconception of. True improvisation, in his world, means you are totally at the mercy of the moment, totally responsive to the moment.”
In Hampton’s world, improvisation can incite an audience to dance, gape, cheer, or vomit. Doesn’t matter, as long as it’s honest, as long as it’s real, like his voice. There is no bullshit in that booming voice from the center of the Earth, and he doesn’t like bullshit from the artists around him, regardless of how well they can play an instrument.
“Good musicians are one out of a hundred,” he says. “Good guitarists are a dime a dozen. That doesn’t mean they can play music. A great example is a guy that scores a lot of points but his basketball team can’t win a championship. There’s got to be chemistry.
“I’ll get cats in the band and they’re fast as hell, play fast really well, and I go, ‘do you eat fast? Do you drive fast? Do you fuck fast? Do you talk fast? Why are you playing fast?’ Music is communication. It’s tension and release, and most people never know that.”
So, who have been the best musicians Hampton has seen or played with in 50 years of looking and listening? Hubert Sumlin, he says, Ike Stubblefield, Vassar Clements among others.
“Clements knew the fast break was coming, he knew where not to be and where to be, and he’s not what you would have called the greatest violinist ever, but he’s certainly one of the top 10 musicians who ever lived, in my opinion.
“He didn’t have overwhelming knowledge of music, but by God, you know, it’s like the size of your dick. If it’s three inches long and pleases a woman, it works. If it’s nine inches and you can’t get her off, what’s the point.”
Hampton can’t prance on stage like he used to, can’t do most of the physical stuff, and doesn’t do so much of the comedy/spoken word stuff that was usually more dissonant than any of the songs. These days, at 66, about 40 weeks a year, it is purely music, and his voice remains powerful, something that seems to have been pulled from the throat of Muscle Shoals, ageless, booming, and probably black.
“First time I met him, I didn’t really meet him, but I heard him,” says Bill Kreutzmann, remembering a show in Las Vegas at the Hard Rock Cafe. “Bruce’s band was opening for my band, and that was a mistake, because they were incredible.
“I was backstage listening, and they’re playing their hearts out, and I’m listening to Bruce and that voice, thinking, ‘God, that is one of the most badass black bands I’ve ever heard.’”
That story gets back to Hampton, the heavyset white guy, who probably wishes he could be James Brown or Hubert Sumlin or Howlin’ Wolf, and he looks up at me and says, “Kreutzmann said that? Damn, that’s the best compliment I’ve ever heard.”