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Col. Bruce to the rescue

A wild ride to Zambiland and back with the dean of the Atlanta rock scene

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You want to talk failure?

Col. Bruce Hampton may well be the single most important figure in the history of rock music in Atlanta. And

HEAVY GREASE: Col. Bruce (playing the sax) with the Hampton Grease Band. - BILL FIBBEN
  • Bill Fibben
  • HEAVY GREASE: Col. Bruce (playing the sax) with the Hampton Grease Band.
yet he will talk about failure until he throws up his hands in defeat and succumbs to a fit of laughter. He talks about his first band in high school, and how he'd get onstage and jump around like a madman, and about how he got so crazed during one school dance that the chaperones turned the lights on and told everyone -- especially the band -- to go home.

You want failure? He helped form the first significant rock group in Atlanta, the Hampton Grease Band, in 1968. Before long, they were playing free concerts in Piedmont Park with the Allman Brothers Band and eventually signed a deal with Columbia Records. Their first, and only, album -- 1971's Music to Eat -- became infamously known as the label's second-worst-selling release in history -- just above a spoken-word yoga record.

Failure? Try living out of your car during the 1980s because your music isn't earning you a living, even when one of your albums is being lauded on the front page of the arts section of the New York Times. Col. Bruce added it up once -- he made approximately $28,000 ... the entire decade.

The Colonel shares those experiences because he wants to remind me that we all fail. In fact, he encourages failure. Failure is not only a teacher; it denotes that something meaningful was attempted. His eyes are piercing, and his voice reassuring.

"It's OK to fail, man," he says, "if you're reaching for the impossible."

COL. BRUCE HAMPTON isn't so much a person as he is an experience. On the night we meet, we sit at a barroom dining table and things are a little quiet before one of his musicians pipes up and asks, "Have you guessed his birthday yet?"

The Colonel feigns exasperation. "Well, now you've gone and ruined it," he replies. He borrows my pen and scribbles on a piece of paper that he then turns over. He asks me to pick two numbers between one and 10. I pick three and seven.

His voice is deep and melodic, and it rises and falls with dramatic pauses. He tells me to imagine I've found a key in the parking lot. Is it old or new? (Old.) What kind of key is it? (Skeleton.) With a flourish, he turns over the piece of paper and holds it up. Everyone at the table reads in unison what he'd written: three, seven, old, skeleton.

They break into laughter. I know it's a parlor trick. I once tailed a guy known as "Mystery," one of the world's greatest pick-up artists, and he used it on women all the time. Mystery said the most common answers are seven, then three. So I played along with the Colonel.

But a few minutes later, Col. Bruce turns back to me. His eyes are suddenly big, huge -- and when they're like this it's almost scary because it's like a cartoon character going bug-eyed -- and he points at me and exclaims, "Libra!"

He's wrong, but he's almost right: My birthday is one day removed from Libra. "No?" he says. "I know, Scorpio! Oct. 24!" This time, I'm simply stunned. How did he do that?

The Colonel has just taken me through the rite of initiation into his world -- a place where what's out is in, what's in is out, and everything else is what it isn't. Where, when you come to a fork in the road, you take it.

It's a place he calls Zambiland. Welcome to it.

SUNLIGHT SUDDENLY SPRINGS into the darkened bar as the side door swings back. A foot steps in to prop it open. A hand pushes through a heavy Vox amplifier. The Colonel's thick mop of silvery hair appears behind it, and he finally steps inside lugging a guitar and a carry-on bag.

He is a bear of a man -- 6 feet tall and stout -- and he walks with a limp because of a bad back. He's dressed as though he inherited Oscar Madison's wardrobe, oblivious that his blue, plaid shirt is only partially tucked into his brown slacks.

Tonight, he and a group of musicians will perform in the Atlanta Room, a small space downstairs at Smith's Olde Bar. If 50 people came in, most of them would have to stand. But this gig really has nothing to do with the size of the crowd. Col. Bruce is working himself back into shape after a heart attack and angioplasty last spring.

"It changes you 100 percent. Your values become really valuable. Time is quick now," says the man who once co-wrote a song called "Time Is Free," still a concert staple. "It's made me realize how fragile life is."

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