Col. Bruce Hampton (1947-2017)

by admin  24th May 2017 Comments [0]

By Alan Bisbort

 

The first time I saw Bruce Hampton, he was standing on the tiny stage at a suburban Atlanta “teen scene” venue reading the contents off the side of can of spray paint. This was in 1968. A sweaty, short-haired guy in a button-down-collared shirt with the build of a middle linebacker, Hampton looked out of place accompanied by two guitarists, a bassist and drummer all with hair so long you could not see their faces and all of whom were playing as loud as fire engine sirens. Needless to add, I had never seen anything like it in my 15 years on this planet. Nor had the handful of other brave teens whose parents had dropped them off at the alcohol-free club in the shopping mall. A much larger crowd of teenyboppers were milling about in the parking lot outside, having been driven from the room by the psychedelic noise created by the Hampton Grease Band. Years later I learned this was just one of the many ill-advised gigs the band’s manager had secured for them prior to their signing a record deal with Columbia, which released their one and only album, the epic double-LP package Music to Eat.  (On which was a cut called “Spray Paint”).

Not too long after that, the band—Hampton on vocals and dada vibes, guitarists Harold Kelling and Glenn Phillips, bassist Mike Holbrook and drummer Jerry Fields—began appearing at free shows in Piedmont Park, the downtown Atlanta hangout for hippies, druggies, bikers and most of the runaways in the southeastern US. Soon enough, on the strength of these monumental free gigs, the Hampton Grease Band would wow hundreds of thousands of “freaks” at the two Atlanta Pop Festivals and regularly share bills with Jimi Hendrix, the Allman Brothers Band, Grateful Dead and even Captain Beefheart & his Magic Band. Bruce was, in fact, a Southern-fried version of Don Van Vliet, with a warming touch of Sun Ra. To my fragile eggshell mind, Hampton, and his band, provided an epiphany of sorts—showing me that music could go beyond mere recitation of clichéd boogie lyrics and shoddy playing and take you to places you never expected to go.

The Hampton Grease Band carried on for a few years, then members drifted off to pursue their own musical muses. Phillips and Kelling went on to form their own bands (a live recording by Phillips’ band was favorably reviewed in UT #44). Over the next four decades, Hampton added the honorific “Colonel” to his name and recorded a few solo albums (including the unsurpassably strange One Ruined Life of a Bronze Tourist) and became a major force in the jam band subculture that flourished under the banner of H.O.R.D.E. He fronted several bands of his own, including the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Fiji Mariners and Codetalkers, and served as a mentor to many young, gifted players who’ve since gone on to productive musical careers.

In the 1990s, during one of his passes through Washington DC, where I then lived, Hampton contacted me through a mutual friend and I spent a day museum-hopping with Bruce and members of his band, one of the highlights of my 17 years in the nation’s capital. He was generous, funny, kind and subject to conversational turns on a dime. No wonder Billy Bob Thornton called Hampton (who appeared in his film Sling Blade) “the eighth wonder of the world.” Listening to Hampton on album (other than the indispensable Music to Eat) was not quite the same as seeing him live. I once saw him play a gig with a golf club in his hands, practicing his swing while his band jammed, and every so often going to the microphone to pronounce the word “hose.” Every concert was different, unpredictable, strange and beautiful.

Early in May, a veritable who’s who of Southern rock gathered for a sold-out 70th birthday celebration for Col. Bruce Hampton at Atlanta’s historic Fox Theater. At the end of the show, during the final encore (of “Turn on Your Lovelight”), Hampton collapsed on stage and died minutes later at a nearby hospital. The mourning could be heard all the way to New England, where I live now. Both of my sisters, who live in Atlanta, called to bring me the news, then high school friends I hadn’t heard from in years began contacting me. Eventually, the strangeness of Col. Hampton’s demise gave the story “legs” in print and on the Internet, propelling it even into the staid pages of the Wall Street Journal—providing Hampton more notoriety in death than he ever had in life. The consensus seems to be that he could not have had a more fitting exit, dying on stage like that.

For me, though, it’s just sad. Part of it is, no doubt, tied up with losing that personal connection to my youth, but so many musicians I admired have died before this and the sadness didn’t linger like this. With Hampton’s death, it’s as if a musical force were shut off, like a faucet or a hose. I had no delusions that he still had some musical masterpieces locked inside his fertile cranium. No, it’s clear now that HE was the masterpiece.

 


Swim Through the Darkness: My Search for Craig Smith & the Mystery of Maitreya Kali

by admin  28th Jul 2016 Comments [1103]

Published by Feral House on September 16, 2016.

Craig Smith was a 1960s golden boy – good looking, charismatic, outgoing; a preternaturally gifted musician and songwriter whose songs were recorded by some of the biggest names in entertainment – Andy Williams, Glen Campbell, the Monkees. Starting out his career on the Andy Williams Show as a member of the Good Time Singers, Smith next teamed up with Chris Ducey in the duo Chris & Craig, then the Penny Arkade, a talented group mentored and produced by Mike Nesmith of the Monkees. Smith’s future success seemed assured, until an unexpected turn of events plunged him into a terrifying darkness. Clean-cut Craig Smith became Maitreya Kali, the self-proclaimed psychedelic Messiah. He laid out his poignant, disturbing schizophrenic vision on a sprawling self-released double-album before disappearing completely. Author Mike Stax spent fifteen years piecing together the mystery of Maitreya Kali, uncovering one of the strangest and most tragic untold stories of the 1960s and ‘70s.

 

Available now from Feral House, Amazon, Ugly Things Webstore and at all good book sellers.


The Sweet Pretty Things (are in bed now, of course…)

by admin  2nd Dec 2015 Comments [199]

By Mike Stax

In the autumn months of 2014, the future of the Pretty Things hung in the balance. Phil May was in a London hospital having been diagnosed with COPD and emphysema. Doctors warned him that if he didn’t make drastic changes to his lifestyle he’d be dead within a few months.

That was then. This is now. One year later, in the autumn of 2015, Phil has turned his life around and is in fighting form again. Not only is he back onstage and on the road with the Pretty Things, this summer the band released one of the best albums of their more than half-century career. A huge part of this miraculous turnaround is down to the support of his band mates, friends, family, and you Pretty Things fans, many of whom wrote to Phil personally via UT with words of encouragement and support, and some tough love. When I saw Phil in London earlier this year, he told me how moved he was by all of your letters, how he read and re-read them and found sustenance in them. He appreciated how many of you didn’t pull any punches. He quoted one from memory: “Don’t you dare die on us, you fucker, we need you around.” Yes we do.

If you needed another reminder why, look no further than The Sweet Pretty Things (are in bed now, of course…), their new album on Repertoire Records. (The title quotes the opening line of Bob Dylan’s “Tombstone Blues,” a song his Royal Bobness wrote and recorded shortly after the famous 1965 UK tour during which he hung out with members of the Pretty Things.)

The album was recorded quickly and simply, on analogue equipment, using vintage instruments and amps, and with only minimal overdubs. Even some of the lead vocals were cut live along with the basic tracks. The result is a collection of songs that sounds warm, organic, and at times almost effortless. It’s also very much a collaborative effort. All of the band members as well as manager/producer Mark St John contribute to the songwriting, including the two junior members, bass player George Woosey (who co-wrote three songs) and drummer Jack Greenwood, whose skills are showcased on the instrumental jam “Greenwood Tree.”

“The Same Sun,” written by Dick Taylor and Mark St John, opens the album, and in another, kinder era would’ve also been the hit single that preceded it. Taylor’s winding guitar melody, mirrored by the vocals, soon imprints itself into your cranial hard drive, along with a great chorus hook: “The sun / The sun is in the sky / The same sun / But seen through different eyes.” With its strong SF Sorrow vibe, this one has all the makings of a new Pretty Things classic, and has already become a favorite in their live shows.

“And I Do”—written by Woosey, May, and St John—is archetypal modern-day Pretties. Phil spits out the lyrics with a vinegary vehemence on the verses, propelled by a wiry blues guitar riff, giving way to a more resigned tone on the melodic, harmonized choruses. A pair of cover versions follows. First they revisit the Byrds’ “Renaissance Fair,” a staple of their live set in 1968-69, highlighted here by some chiming guitar work by Taylor and Frank Holland, then they ambush with a storming version of the late-period Seeds obscurity, “You Took Me By Surprise.” Phil’s lascivious howl elevates the song tremendously, and the band rocks out with a hard rock ferocity reminiscent of the Harvest-era favorite “Cold Stone.” This is followed by a spirited take on “Turn My Head,” a song first written and recorded in 1967, but passed over for release at the time.

“Dark Days”—written by Phil May and Frankie Holland—is one of the album’s highlights. A tense, foreboding monolith of a song, cloaked in all kinds of doomy atmospherics, it’s underpinned by a dense, menacing riff of the kind Led Zeppelin once specialized in. Phil digs deep, getting right inside the lyrics and conjuring an especially powerful and affecting vocal performance, supported by some strong harmonies, beautiful interweaving guitars and swirling Mellotron.

It’s followed by “Greenwood Tree,” which I mentioned earlier, a psychedelic instrumental jam that had originally segued out of “Renaissance Fair.” Dick and Frankie lay down some searing lead guitar work before it breaks off into an extended drum solo that manages not to overstay its welcome (the whole track clocks in at 4:16). This clears a path for the excellent “Hell, Here and Nowhere,” written by George Woosey, an acoustic-based piece with some wonderful three- and four-part harmonies, harking back to the some of the more mellow tracks on Parachute and Freeway Madness.

“In the Soukh” is also superb, an atmospheric, Eastern-flavored instrumental by Dick Taylor with a great, coiling guitar riff, reverberating Bo Diddley beat drums, and monastic chanting. The overall effect is not unlike the Yardbirds “Hot House of Omagarashid.”

The album closes out with another standout, “Dirty Song,” a dark, sensual, bluesy number with a terrific, insistent guitar riff, and another soulful, immaculately phrased vocal from Phil. Once again the group’s massed, wordless backups add greatly to the overall mood of the number.

Is there another band working today, more than fifty years into their story, still making music this powerful and relevant? No, there isn’t. Only the sweet Pretty Things. Long may they reign. (MS)

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