Words by: Tony Hume
“You’re a Capricorn and you play strings.”
This was the first sentence Col. Bruce Hampton ever said to me. It was 1998. My friend Lisa Camphire and I had just watched him perform in Orlando at The Social, or Sapphire Supper Club or whatever it was called at the time.
I am a Capricorn, and I did in fact play the guitar. This little magic trick was one of many in the arsenal of Col. Bruce Hampton (Ret.). Later I would witness hits and misses with this trick, most often to some baffled waiter or waitress over a meal.
Nineteen years later, in 2007, I had stopped playing live music, moved to Miami to be with my now wife, Megan Hume, and went back to school. My close friend Glenn Goldstein, an Atlanta-area resident, revamped the Hard Truckers speaker cabinet company and had befriended Bruce. Ready for complete career re-direction, Glenn pushed the notion of maybe me helping Bruce out on the road, and yadda yadda I played road manager for him from 2007 to 2009.
Colonel’s musical project at this point was called Col. Bruce & The Quark Alliance. It consisted of Kris Dale on bass, Jeff Caldwell on guitar, later replaced by Perry Osborne, and Mark Letalien on drums, later replaced by Duane Trucks who had decided it was his turn to be OUTstructed in the ways of the Colonel and moved to Atlanta from Jacksonville. The very first time I met this band, Bruce introduced me in delight, finger pointing and shaking as, “The guy who’s gonna take us right to the middle!” If I’m ever sad again I will say this out loud and laugh.
The Quark Alliance, by the way, is another in a long line of amazing band names: Hampton Grease Band, Late Bronze Age, New Ice Age, Aquarium Rescue Unit, The Fiji Mariners, The Codetalkers, and a personal favorite band name The Pharaoh Gummitt or if you were not from the deep south, you would just say “federal government.”
Bruce, for decades now, has always been akin to a minor league baseball coach. He’s found young capable players, put them together on stage, and let them learn the ropes of playing live music. Bruce would always tell me, with a smile “I’ve toured for so long that I’ve made all the mistakes so others don’t have to.” Experience. Bruce never lacked in experience, as there were not many situations surrounding music he had not already gone through. He used to always tell me “There are no real shortcuts, you have to show up and put your time in.”
Back to the whole “you’re a Capricorn” thing … Horoscopes were real to Bruce. He based his days upon them. Mercury always seemed to be in retrograde and was always the reason for any cosmic shit going down. He was interested in it, so he studied it, and retained it. He memorized all of the signs of the horoscope, and all the associated traits within each, and could pull these definitions, if you will, out from his brain, at will. By something you said, a way you reacted, a smile or frown, a wall or open armed hug, Bruce could look within you and without you and 8 times out of 10 … on the days he was really firing … be absolutely correct in guessing your sign. Now, knowing all of the traits of the individual signs also means you’ve memorized the date ranges of each sign, thus being able to seemingly out of the blue tell you your birthday. Everyone who ever met Bruce has a similar story: “He guessed my birthday within one day.” The traits of your astrological sign tend to be pretty spot on for people, if you don’t believe me, you can look it up.
I’m a Capricorn, and shared a birthday with Capricorn Records founder Phil Walden, also a Capricorn. Phil Walden and Capricorn Records was the musical center of Macon, Georgia from the 1970s through the 1990s. Not to discredit Little Richard, Otis Redding, or The Allman Brothers Band as it was in fact Duane Allman who took such a liking to Bruce that he got him his first record deal.
We Capricorns apparently, make “Good managers, good leaders, and are genuinely outwardly gregarious,” or so Bruce told me. My personality aside, I do believe this was one of the main reasons he agreed to hire me.
Bruce played his first show in the late-1960s, making music, and stylized shouting vocals on tracks and stages for over five decades. He had the ear, the heart, and the soul to be in music. His intention was pure. A wide array of artists like Bobby “Blue” Bland, Sun Ra and Krzysztof Penderecki were sources of deep inspiration, and he carried those soulful and “out there” influences with him in every musical configuration he aligned.
Among other amazing feats and skills from our favorite parlor musician uncle was an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball. His years of expertise ran from the creation of the game through the 1980s. I did not share this same knowledge, so our baseball talks were not those of legend.
Similar to birthdays and astrological signs, from the years spent in the van with the Aquarium Rescue Unit literally traversing the country many times over, Bruce acquired, through photographic memory and repetition, all the distances between any city within the United States. Back before smartphones and GPS units and even MapQuest, we had these oversized glossy covered “books” called a Travel Atlas, with detailed maps of each state and a listing of the mileage between major cities in the back of the book as reference. This became a game in the van to pass time during my tenure.
Tony: “Des Moines, Iowa to Butte, Montana”
Correct Answer: 1265
Tony: “Eugene, Oregon to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee”
Bruce: [cackle laugh] “Twenny Figh Twenny Too” (2522)
Correct Answer: 2575
That, and he could tell you what roads to take, what turns to take, and could name every little highway on the route. Nowadays we have to swipe our GPS on our phones to tell us the next steps in our route. We are spoiled and we know less.
Another favorite trait of his, for me, was what he called “Military Like Precision,” or showing up to a venue at exactly the time of day he said before we would leave. And it was never a rounded time to the nearest even number … it was never 5:30, it was 5:22. It was never 12:00 p.m. it was 12:03.
Even looking back at a text from Bruce on April 3:
I’m at Dan Thai. 12:05. Every Tues w Zambie.
Bruce would always answer the phone. He preferred it over text. He was a great texter, and often left classics in one or two words. His fat fingers often provided mistypes that were both humorous and genius. “Always answer the phone, ‘cause someday it may stop ringing.”
He always made time for people. In my time, as long as there was a chair, or a stool, or a couch, or a van seat, he’d hold court and share tales and laughter, ask questions, learn and study the ways of his fans and friends, and genuinely be engaging. He always made you feel like you were king or queen of the world.
Bruce’s past is built upon reality, truths, and a hefty dose of “mythocrisy,” or the fabricating of small details. (“The stained soul cringes at the small details in the mirrors of embarrassment.”) For instance, when creating a new business card for myself during my days with Bruce, we decided upon “Tony Hume & Associates,” which is hilarious to me because there were no associates. That business card lists offices and telephone numbers in Glasgow, Paris and Munich. That was the playful mythocrisy he loved.
Let me talk tour managers for a second, seeing as how I was one in a long long line of people who played that role. When I first met with Bruce to talk about possibly accepting this position, he was very straight forward when he told me that this role, “Doesn’t pay a lot of money, but everyone who’s done it has gone on to do other things in music.” Bruce claimed, “The first guy ended up being Miles Davis’s personal manager for 25 years.” My favorite tale is a young Andre Charles was also a “roadie type guy” for Bruce “for a week.” Andre Charles would later change his name to RuPaul, perhaps you’ve heard of him or seen him on TV?
Nicknames were given to his guys. (This is as many as “Curfew” could tell me) Gregory Hodges became “The Wolf” then moved over to play bass, Kevin Ponton became “The Sheet,” Jim Bostic became “Clearance,” Matt Reynolds became “Curfew” (now 11 years as the tour manager for Dark Star Orchestra), Mark Alspaugh became “Installer,” (long time Bill Kreutzmann tech and festival audio master) and me, well … Bruce said “Tony Hume?! That’s a fake name. That sounds like the prime minister of England.” During one short three-day period I almost became “Ascot,” but Tony Hume proved to be a made up enough name so I got to keep it. Sometimes the line between truth and mythocrisy is a slippery one.
My final thought and tribute is the most important take away of knowledge and perception from Col. Bruce Hampton. The definition of music. To Col. Bruce Hampton, music is simply:
Time, Tone, Intention, Space and Vomit. This is my interpretation:
Time: You’ve got to put in the time, nothing comes fast and free. To play in-the- pocket means you’re keeping good time. “Early is on time. On time is late.” Remember “military like precision” from earlier? Always arrive early (on time) and never round to the nearest easy number. “We’ll be there at 12:05.” Bruce always had time for a friend.
Tone: Anyone can play three chords on a guitar, or octaves on a bass, but the tone in which you are emitting converted electromagnetic waves into sound waves as the final product to the listener’s ears makes the player. Is your tone noticed as your tone? Not Jimi Hendrix’s tone, or Stevie Ray Vaughn’s tone, but YOUR TONE! Also, the tone in which you speak to people, or about people.
Intention: What is the purpose of you playing music? To get chicks? To look cool? To make a lot of money? Pfft. Your intention needs to be pure, there needs to be something stuck inside you, or needing to use you as a portal for release. Going on stage for false pretenses will ultimately show to the crowd and yourself.
Space: Well, it is “the place” (thank you, Sun Ra). Music doesn’t need to be how many notes can fit in this place. A conversation doesn’t need to always be talking. There needs to be time to breathe, a place for space. It’s often the notes that aren’t played that are the most important. Take B.B. King. B.B. could knock you on your ass with one note, and the space before and after it was patient and exciting, and when that one note hit, you knew it was B.B.
Vomit: I feel the others are guidelines for doing what we do, but vomit is perfectly Colonel. Your song is trucking along just fine, it’s in perfect tune, with space, and the right intention, played with the right tone, and no mistakes are being made, the vocals are just perfect … well that’s too easy, too simple, too boring. It needs some vomit. A cacophony of notes played out of time and out tune but always falls back on the “one” and always seems just right. Vomit can, and will change your life.
Rev. Jeff Mosier (who does my favorite Colonel imitation in the universe) shared his thoughts with the world recently (he and Colonel were very close) and Jeff chose “gratitude” – the quality or feeling of being grateful or thankful. All the present grief we are all experiencing will slowly start to dissipate as we face a life without the Colonel, and we will all be left feeling grateful we occupied the same time and space as he.
How profoundly different our lives would be for not having the man to guide the soundtrack of our lives? How profoundly different our musical tastes and modern day guitar heroes would be to us without “vomit!”?
I am grateful to have shared time with you, Bruce, to have worked for you, to have looked out for you, and to have become your friend. I miss van rides and insightful random questions asked through a smile and a laugh, like, “How old were you when you knew who you were?” Or being serious, but making it sound like a joke in telling me, “Not to waste blinks” (don’t use the turn signal too much).
I will miss sharing meals. I will miss text conversations, and I will miss you answering the phone with the name of the city you think I’m presently in. I will miss your smile, your laughter, your mind, and your vomit.
I love you, Bruce. Thank you for everything.