Tom Lawson has succeeded in doing something where many other before him tried and failed. He recently completed a documentary about Col. Bruce Hampton—the legendary Atlanta musician who began his career in the late ‘60s as a contemporary of the Allman Brothers and Frank Zappa, and whose ‘80s and ‘90s ensembles inspired and spawned a whole new generation of musicians and bands, including Widespread Panic, Phish, and the Derek Trucks Band.
Basically Frightened: the Musical Madness of Col. Bruce Hampton is Lawson’s first film. And his path to making it was a circuitous one—fitting, perhaps, of its subject.
But from the opening – when actor Billy Bob Thornton declares that “Bruce is the Eighth Wonder of the World;” Capricorn Records founder Phil Walden allows that Hampton “may well be the Vincent Van Gogh of rock and roll music,” and the Col. Himself suddenly appears, wild-eyed and wailing like a theremin – the combination of wise-hearted interviews and rare footage come together to profile a rare artist who is still creating performances filled with what writer Stanley Booth calls “the magic of awareness.”
Lawson grew up in Montgomery, Ala., and went to college at Tulane in New Orleans. “That’s where I really fell in love with music,” he said. “In 1990, I was at Tipitina’s when I first saw Col. Bruce with the Aquarium Rescue Unit. That’s also when I first saw Phish and Widespread Panic.”
After graduation, Lawson moved to Washington, where he worked for a U.S. Senator, and later moved to Atlanta, where he became a lobbyist. But, he said, “I suddenly realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. My passion was music.”
Lawson moved to New York City and enrolled in the New York Film Academy for an intensive one-year course in movie making. And he worked for Christopher and Geoffrey Hanson, who made the Widespread Panic documentary, The Earth Will Swallow You.
During that time, Lawson became better acquainted with Hampton and finally decided it was high time to make a film about him. But searching out footage covering four decades, shooting new interviews, and editing it all into a coherent whole ended up taking the better part of four years.
“It’s been a long process,” said Lawson, “but it’s been a hell of a lot of fun. And no one we asked to do an interview turned us down. That’s a pretty amazing thing. Everybody just loves and respects Bruce so much, it’s been a blessing to do this as a first project.”
Though Lawson said he “wanted to make a true documentary,” it’s clear that Basically Frightened is also a tribute, made more poignant by Hampton’s recent health problems. Members of Hampton’s myriad groups – the Hampton Grease Band, the Aquarium Rescue Unit, and the Codetalkers – as well as other musicians, offer up stories and tall tales of playing and traveling together and learning things that go way beyond ordinary music, into some mystical realm of spirit and devotion.
Of course, bringing the eccentric career of Bruce Hampton into focus isn’t an easy task. Better known these days as a sort of seer and father figure to bands such as Phish and Widespread Panic, Col. Bruce, as he’s called by friends and fans, came to life as a musical persona as part of the avant-garde Hampton Grease Band in a wild, late ‘60s scene, where he shared stages with the likes of Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon.
Since then, Hampton has melded blues, jazz, rock and even bluegrass into a free flowing, in-out form that is as much about performance art as music. He’s also been a wrestling manager and an actor, appearing in Billy Bob Thornton’s Sling Blade.
A conversation with Hampton is always an occasion for mental gymnastics. And topic can abruptly hopscotch from baseball to country music to some of his heroes: musicians, Sun Ra, John Lee Hooker, and Hank Williams Sr.; wrestler, Freddie Blassie; and mysterious preacher, Prophet Omega.
In the spring of 2006, Hampton underwent angioplasty on several coronary arteries. The surgery probably saved his life. But he credits the love of his new wife, Sarah, and the lifestyle changes she’s helped him make with speeding his recovery. And lately, he’s been building up his strength playing with a loose-knit new group, doing gigs around Atlanta and around the Southeast, as well as a handful of dates with his long-running band, the Aquarium Rescue Unit.
How are you feeling?
Really great. I can play about two times a week, as long as I get to bed by midnight. And I don’t travel too much or too far. Before, I never quit. I was always on the go – 200-300 dates on the road every year. You can’t do that once you turn 50. I’ve been on the road for the past 40 years – going to bed at four a.m. and eating horrible food. Now I’m eating well and breathing, and jus taking care of myself. I’m taking it easy for the next 20 years.
Basically Frightened goes back to beginning of the Hampton Grease Band. Do you remember what you were thinking about music then?
I was just trying ot grab on and learn everything I could. I was so bad – not that I’m good now. I don’t know if I’ve ever helped a band or hurt a band. I know I’m always the weakest member in it. And if I’m not the weakest member, we’re in a lot of trouble. I remember back when I was just trying to learn. I would play every record of every genre, until I was sick of listening. I played everything form blues to Latin to folk, and all I would do is listen and listen.
What did you hear that made you want to pursue a life in music?
I’m still trying to find what makes the essence of music. And it’s not the notes. It’s that mystery. No one will ever figure it out. Stevie wonder can take a breath and it can be inspiring. And the Topeka Symphony can play perfectly and it’s the worst thing you’ve ever heard. Essence is what makes music great. But I don’t know how to put it into words. I guess back when I was 15 or 16, it was the most foreign thing to me. I hated music. I quit playing piano to go play baseball. The only thing that was saving me was real rock and roll – Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and that stuff. In the late ‘50s, I started hearing things like John Lee Hooker that just saved my life.
So Hooker is in the pantheon?
I met Hooker 20 or 30 times, and I still put him in the top 20 songwriters of the last century—along with Hank Sr. and Gershwin—Hooker hangs right with them. The greatest guitar player that ever lived, probably. That early stuff—nobody can play that.
The documentary touches on your wrestling days, and I know professional wrestler Freddie Blassie has been a big influence on your performance.
I thought he was the greatest actor who ever lived. I got to meet him several times and we got to be good friends. This guy took Muhammad Ali and showed him about show business—taught him how to market himself. My God, it’s a shame Blassie didn’t do movies. But maybe it wouldn’t have translated.
You really paid some dues; you had a long period of trying to keep things together.
I had no other choice in the matter. I’ve done other things in my life and I’ve liked them for about two days. I like everything for about two days for perspective. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t do this. It’s a blessing and a curse. When you do this, it’s such a passionate business. And everyone becomes hypersensitive. When you’re in a band, it’s worse than a baseball team.
What’s the weirdest job you ever had?
I worked cleaning cornmeal off of a 40-foot ceiling at three in the morning. That was hell. Iwo Jima would have been easier. You’ve got a scraper and the cornmeal has been there for centuries and your skin has welts all over it from the meal. That was the worst.
Many Atlanta fans fondly remember those legendary Monday night gigs in the ‘80s, when you played at the Little Five Points Pub.
We were crazy. We’d play eight hours straight. I remember once we were loading equipment and the sun was coming up. We were charging 89 cents at the door. And one night we had 836 people come through. We played until 6 a.m. and it was still packed. It was madness. And it wasn’t even a full moon. Music is tension and release. This was constant release.
Some longtime fans were a bit puzzled when you helped found the H.O.R.D.E tour and became so closely associated with the so-called “jam band” scene.
They asked me how was it done in the ‘60s. I said, “Well four or five band would get together and we’d get 1000 people instead of 100.” And it just worked.
But in a way it was also a big transition for you, in terms of getting your music out there, wasn’t it?
It was. I’ve always tried to jiggle the middle. I wanted to make a living and I wanted to make every kind of music I possibly could, from pop to the avant-garde. And it’s been a dream come true. A famous producer came to me and said, “You’re the only person I’ve seen make a living out of this. You either get rich, you die, or you quit.” I said, “That’s true—40 years of making a living.” I’ve had years where I’ve lived in a car, and good years where I’ve had a car.
Nowadays, you’re known as a bandleader. Did you ever expect to be playing that role?
I always wanted to be a bass player, and play in the back of the band. I’m basically shy.
You’re not a bandleader in the way Sun Ra was? You’re not schooling these guys?
I’m just trying to get them in touch with themselves. And I’ll say, “Play a C note here.” But I’ll also say, “You can play a D instead of a C.” I give them freedom, but with freedom of course comes extraordinary discipline. I’m not like Leonard Bernstein. I’m not a leader. I’m an organizer, somewhat. Maybe the ringleader. But I hate leaders. Damn, I hate them. I never tell people what to do. I don’t want anybody who’s not going to be themself.
You talk about the four Ts. My favorite of the four is “threat of vomit.” But I’m guessing the other three—tone, taste, and timing—are just as important.
Critical. Music is the station between the sound before something erupts. My basic thing is to follow the melody and to listen. And not many people do that anymore. Use extreme taste, but at the same time destroy it. Life is 15% chaos and I was 15% chaos onstage. I want it to be orderly until it’s time to have chaos. And if you don’t know when chaos is coming, it’s terrible. Just don’t have chaos on top of chaos. Feel it. Feel the instinct for when it’s time to destroy it. To bring it down. And that’s a hard thing to do.
So it’s all about the flow?
You want the music to play you. It’s scary when people play music. I don’t like good music. I want the music to play everyone else. Don’t let the musician play music. Let the music play you. Get your butt out of the way and let it take over and things will happen. If you’re playing it, it’s death to me eventually. You’re not letting the flow come through.
In the film, people talk a lot about your spiritual side. What do you think they mean?
I don’t know. We’re all life giving forces and negative energy drains. I gave up perfection when I was three years old. I think the way towards joy is to love what you do.
Billy Bob Thornton said that you taught him to not think about certain negative things.
That’s a long story. That’s the end of an eight-hour conversation. Nobody gets out alive in this game. I know Sun Ra said he was going to come back in the Tuileries in Paris. And he died in 1992. He’s probably the only one who’s going to get to come back.
What did you learn from the Prophet Omega?
He’s everything. Omega is it. Without him, we’re not anything. With him, we’re not much.
In the past few months, you’ve done gigs with the Hampton Grease Band, the Aquarium Rescue Unit and the Codetalkers. And now you have a new band you’ve been playing with in Atlanta.
That’s weird, isn’t it? It was not planned. We’re going to do 30 dates in the next year with Aquarium Rescue and I’ll probably do 50 with my own group.
What’s the new group called?
The Quark Alliance. It’s one thing I’m good at – naming groups. I give myself an A. I get an F in photography. I’m the worst photographer there is.
What do you give yourself in songwriting?
D or C – on a good day. My stuff is just songs so we can improvise. I write whimsical songs so we can go into hell.
Do you think you’re a better vocalist now?
I was originally so terrible. I had nowhere to go but up. There was no one worse than me singing. The singers I like are not good singers. Look at Cash or Dylan—they’re not even close to anything. But nobody sings better than Cash. He hits a note and it’s so off key, but there’s no one better. He hits an emotional chord and that lasts forever. In 100 years, he and Hooker will be around—they’re timeless.