”Without a warning you broke my heart, takin’ it baby, tore it apart, and you left me standin’ in the dark.”
I dreamed about Col. Bruce Hampton for years before we ever met in person. The man had a way of making a profound impression, etching himself into one’s consciousness so swiftly and surely that the world felt slightly altered after each encounter. And he could produce this effect from a distance. Case in point, the first time I saw the Aquarium Rescue Unit on the 1992 H.O.R.D.E. Tour, all robes and detuned instruments shaped and shattered by a Southern shaman with a grin that spoke of deep, fierce knowledge most of us weren’t privy to and never would be. That face, that man, lived on in my subconscious for a decade before I came to be face to face with him backstage at a festival.
“You’ve been in my head for years,” were the first words I spoke. Hampton smiled and said, “I get that a lot.” I asked if it would be okay if I told him about a recurring dream that starred him. He said, “I’d be offended if you didn’t tell me.” The dream opens late night at a massive music festival like a Woodstock or Bonnaroo, and into a main stage crowd appears Col. Bruce, stark naked and riding a unicorn. He hops off, points at his ride, and exclaims in a prophetic roar, “It’s real.” The dream always ends right there.
Bruce’s eyes widened slightly, he shook my hand, and said, “I believe we’re going to be friends,” and then proceeded to guess my birthday down to the year and day along with a fairly insightful astrological map of the time of my arrival. It was a freaky circus trick Col. Bruce pulled with a lot of people, especially when he first met them, and his batting average was eerie enough that one wondered where he was getting his info on complete strangers. More of that deep knowledge one supposes.
Hampton’s willingness to engage, to peel back layers, to find the connecting sinew and creaking disunity of things was ever-present, a warm current one could swim in as long as time and one’s constitution allowed. To have his ear, to feel his attention, and bask in the way his jittery-brilliant mind zoomed history, music, and the universe into freshly angled focus was a gift. It might only be a minute or two or it might be hours but it never felt anything less than special to be in Col. Bruce’s presence, and I’m certain this feeling is shared by nearly everyone fortunate enough to meet him and even more so those who shared a friendship or creative relationship, even if at times it could be maddening to follow the thread of his roaming imagination and always-askew perspective.
A friend who also knew Hampton remarked this morning that his sudden death last night after collapsing at the end of his 70th Birthday Celebration concert was the “most Col. Bruce way to go out.” Making music, surrounded by many of his closest pals and allies, a theatre packed with loving, adoring fans, and then shuffling off to the great by & by. It’s goddamn poetic in a sad but not tragic way. It’s the kind of bold punctuation a grand, expressly strange life like Hampton lived should have. For a man more subdued than many might expect it’s a touch extravagant but utterly unintentional, an accident with reverberating significance, which befits the Colonel’s philosophy.
Thing is he’s not gone. Not really. Not where we can’t feel him and act on what he stirs in us. Like the space dust from the Big Bang, Col. Bruce Hampton was a catalyst for evolution, a mischievous spark with a killer moustache that turned kindling into a blaze. A quick perusal of the musicians who view him as a sonic sensei alone tells the truth of his enzymatic energy but there are also the countless lives like mine he touched in some way and helped shift towards a better, bolder path.
Virtually everyone who met him, everyone who counted him a friend, has a Col. Bruce story or maybe a hundred. I’ll share one of my own as a hopeful blow against the darkness of a world without Bruce in it in the hope it triggers your own remembrances to share – endless curious tales to further embiggen a well-deserved mythology.
For three years running I got to spend extended time with the Colonel on Jam Cruise. I was covering the floating festival for JamBase and had to write up the previous day early the next morning to be posted online. From the first day I sat on the pool deck, bleary from my long night of amped up merrymaking, Bruce would join me. I never asked him but he just showed up that first morning. He called our table we always sat at our office, and we’d receive visitors and talk about our adventures, politics, mathematics or whatever seemed right in the moment. The whole time I’d peck away at my reports but haltingly, happily drawn in by the ceaseless array of folks who wanted a minute with Hampton. They weren’t there to see me and that was fine because my perch gave me a front row seat for all Col. Bruce imparted to others – sly advice on a musical bridge, relationship advice, helpful insights from old gods, tales from his rich years on earth (and there were always a bunch you’d never heard before like the time he impersonated Howlin’ Wolf with a particularly gullible public radio DJ).
It was during these morning writing-chat sessions that I started calling him “Cosmic Bluesman,” a descriptor he seemed to like. His take on the blues made think he’d learned on the banks of rivers in Asgard rather than Mississippi despite all his licks and moans being legit as hell. He just seemed tapped into a tributary only he knew how to find. In telling him this I started quoting the “Wondrous Boat Ride” speech from Willie Wonka And The Chocolate Factory and he stopped me to ask, “Do you know the whole speech?” I told him I did and he said it would come in handy later. As with many things Bruce said, I had no idea what he meant but trusted he was right.
Two nights later he was the ringleader for the Jam Room, where musicians take over a ship’s bar and roam where they like for as long as the vibe is strong. Late in the proceedings, sunrise not far off, during a heavy, blues-basted jam that had me drifting hard with my eyes closed right next to the stage, I felt a hand rouse me and opened my eyes to find Bruce inches from my face.
“Time for you to take us on that boat ride.”
Let’s be clear, I’m the guy skulking in the shadows taking notes about what people do onstage. I have almost zero urge to even be on a stage unless it’s to get a close up view of the players from the soundboard. Col. Bruce was well aware of my performance phobia but saying no to him was very hard and always felt like the wrong move despite how awkward or out-of-norm what he was asking me to do. So, I took the mic in hand and delivered my best rendition of Gene Wilder’s nautical monologue.
“There’s no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going. There’s no knowing where we’re rowing or which way the river’s flowing.”
Instead of being a fearful, out of body/watching yourself do something experience it turned into a rite of incarnation, a realization I could do this thing if I willed it and trusted in the people around me. It was maybe two minutes in the material world but the impact of him calling me up, calling something within me out into the light, was special in bolstering, lingering ways. He had this way of seeing parts of others that even they’d missed in all their introspection and striving. He’d reach out with that mighty palm at the end of his mind – a phrase from Wallace Stevens I was delighted to introduce him to (one was always delighted to bring Bruce a shiny thing he’d not encountered before) – and pull these hitherto unknown elements out of us. And if I close my eyes, I can still feel him reaching out, pulling us towards people and places we’d never find without him. We honor him and his life by continuing to let him shake us up in the best of ways.
”Turn on your love light let it shine on me. Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”