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Published: 2002/09/24
by Jesse Jarnow

Outside Looking Out (re-release)- Col. Bruce Hampton and the Late Bronze AgeIsles of Langerhan (re-release) – Col. Bruce Hampton and the Late Bronze Age

Terminus Records 0204-2

Terminus Records 0205-2

The albums Col. Bruce Hampton makes are, on some level, comedy. But they're
not comedy records in the sense that there's a series of quick one-liners
and punchlines. The comedy is something a little bit different, and might
not even be formally comedy at all. It's just that the concept of humor
seems the most relevant reference point. One can laugh at Hampton in
different ways.

One can laugh at him because he's so weird, and maybe pathetically clueless.
But then Hampton'll launch into some song with a title like "When In Doubt,
Go Completely Out… Or Do Something Completely Familiar" (featured on
Outside Looking Out) – which sounds like something from Brian Eno's
Oblique Strategies deck – which sorta drops the hints that Hampton has some
idea about what he's trying to do.

So, one laughs at Hampton because he's not sure how else to react. There is
clearly an intentionally funny quality about the music, but a lot of the
time it's kind of hard to figure out what's being made fun of. But one has
to laugh, or risk looking stupid. But, a lot of the time, the humor is so
abstract that it's impossible to articulate what about it is funny, even if
one really does get it. As a result, Hampton often gets pigeonholed
as an utter freak or some kind of visionary prophet.

It's not a coincidence that right around the time that Hampton was beginning
his greatest period of influence on Widespread Panic and the burgeoning
Aquarium Rescue Unit (whose alum now populate, among other bands, the Allman
Brothers and the Other Ones), he wrote a song called "Basically Frightened"
(featured, in part, on "Seven Men In A Bazooka", a bonus track on Outside
Looking Out). "Basically Frightened", in its way, is the blueprint for
Hampton's world and the joke — and maybe the thing that can allow one to
listen to Bruce Hampton and laugh for his own reasons.

In a recent version of the tune, released on the Code Talkers' Bootleg
Live! CD, Hampton sings, "I wake up in the morning and realize that this
is the only planet with chickens". Right there, that's it. That's Col. Bruce
in a nutshell. And if you don't think that's funny, then all of Bruce's word
play, all of his shrieks, won't ever make sense. It is often claimed that
Col. Bruce is legendary for "gargling peanut butter". What's funnier than
the act itself is that it's even possible for us to conceive of the
act of gargling peanut butter in the first place. It's funny that we even
have a word – gargle – to describe that weird action when somebody puts
something in his mouth and does that thing with his throat and tongue that
allows a liquid to bubble and jump and twitch on the tongue. There's a
word for that. That is funny.

It is that humor that's spread out across Hampton's two albums with the Late
Bronze Age — Outside Looking Out (1980) and Isles of
Langerhan (1982). Neither of them articulates this humor in nearly as
straightforward a manner as the Aquarium Rescue Unit. That's both a plus and
a minus, though. The ARU, as incredible as they were, always hinted at more
weirdness than they ever actually provided.

On the first page of the liner notes to Outside Looking Out is a
modest list titled "Some Tapes of the World": "Duct. Adhesive. Electrical.
Surgical. Recording." It goes on, cataloguing 31 different types of tape.
One thinks about the fact that this one word "tape" captures all of those
meanings. Then language begins to break down, Ideally, it's this kind of
breakdown in meaning that Hampton's music causes in the listener. Whether or
not it does, though, is another question. It's rare that Hampton actually
fills this void with his own meaning, which makes listening a frustrating

Honestly, I will probably not listen to either of these Late Bronze Age
reissues all too often, though I'm pleased as punch that they've been added
to the arsenal. There's something just not right about anything being out of
print in this day and age. With the exception of the first few months
following the release of Music To Eat, Hampton's 1971 debut with the
Hampton Grease Band, I don't think there's ever been a period of history in
which Bruce Hampton's entire catalogue has been available to the record
buying public. This lends a certain aura to the guy — the fact that a
certain part of his past always remains a mystery, some elusive chunk that's
gone missing.

No, I don't plan on delving into these discs too deeply. But I guess there's
a part of me that believes that, if one puts his mind to it, it's really
possible to open one's self up to any record that's put in front of him.
That is, with enough listening, it's well possible to glean an emotional
reaction from just about anything. As an experiment, Brian Eno once recorded
a few minutes of random street noise. He listened to the tape every day for
a year to see if, once he knew it, he would eventually begin to discern the
patterns of it and, eventually, relate to it as a piece of music. He got at
least as far as the former.

That's not just a namby-pamby way of saying that all records have the
potential to be equally good, just that – to some degree – it's really a
matter of commitment on the part of the listener. The fact of that
commitment really makes up a vital part of the listening experience. For
that to happen, a bunch of factors have to align in just the right way.
Hell, marketing has a lot to do with it. But it's also what being a fan
means. For all of these reasons, I keep getting suckered into listening to
Col. Bruce Hampton re-releases.

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