Consider these headlines:
Man Dies Onstage While Performing
Man Dies Onstage While Doing What He Did Best
There Are Less Nice Ways To Go
Man Sings At His Own Funeral
All these headlines describe the bizarre situation that befell Col. Bruce Hampton last month. Though not a household name, Hampton was an
influential and seminal figure in the “jam band” scene. It’s a musical genre characterized by improvisation, extended playing, and a fusion of rock, jazz,
folk, and blues. A song might last five minutes, but could just as well go on for 10 minutes or more. Of course, the Grateful Dead are probably the best known
practitioners of such musical renderings.
Rock critic Robert Palmer called one of Hampton’s early bands “one of the more cockeyed rock groups” of the 60’s. New
York Times contributor Ben Ratliff, described Hampton as “a comic, bearish, Dadaist spieler with a deep Georgia accent, a Dali in the body of a Southern
wrestler”. Billy Bob Thornton who tapped Hampton for a role in Slingblade, thought so highly of him that he deemed him the “Eighth Wonder of the
World”. The documentary, Basically Frightened: The Musical Madness of Col. Bruce Hampton, Ret. is highly recommended.
But Hampton’s demise ironically started at a concert billed as “Hampton 70: A Celebration of Col. Bruce Hampton” on May 1,
in Atlanta. Attending and performing were Hampton acolytes and band members from Phish, Widespread Panic, Allman Brothers Band, REM and Blues Traveler. Also performing
was a 14 year old guitar prodigy and an 88 year old pianist who played for Billie Holiday. Hampton was able to make it to the end of the concert in which he sang an
encore. He fell to one knee, before collapsing onstage. It was not the first time Hampton collapsed onstage. In fact, many thought it was part of the act because
he was known to do just that in performance a la James Brown with his famous cape act. Hampton would not be revived this time. He had a history of heart trouble,
suffering a heart attack in 2006. And not to minimize his death but someone said you couldn’t script it any better. In fact Michael Stipe of REM claimed that
right before Hampton collapsed, he looked him in the eye and smiled. Was he saying goodbye? Perhaps.
Dying while performing isn’t as rare as you might think. There are several lists compiled on the internet that enumerates just such
morbid curiosity. In a situation eerily similar to Hampton’s, comedian/actor Dick Shawn collapsed and died on stage during a comedy routine in 1987. Shawn was
also known to move frenetically on stage. Falling down and collapsing were also considered part of his act. But after five minutes, the audience realized it was no act
and an ambulance was called. Before he died, Shawn talked about the end of the world.
But beyond these onstage deaths, many of us spend a lot of time contemplating our own demise. How would we like to go out? With a
whimper or a bang? If not a musical tribute, how about a culinary one? My Last Supper asks some of the world’s best chefs, “What would be your last meal on earth?”. Rachel Belle hosts a popular podcast called Your Last Meal in which she interviews various celebrities asking them about what their last meal would be.
Over the years, I have written about the ravages of cancer, alzheimer’s, murder, and other devices the Grim Reaper utilizes to take us from
this life. Dying on stage surrounded by the adoration and the love of family and friends…well we should all be so lucky. A friend of mine who is an avid golfer
has said many a time that when the time comes he wants to buy the farm right there on the 18th green, after making a 30 ft. putt. Yes indeed. Again not to minimize Bruce
Hampton’s death, but there are less nice ways to go. Being forced to watch North Korean propaganda films without popcorn and water and then being led into a steel cage
dominated by a hungry tiger…a birthday party, musical tribute, family reunion, memorial service all rolled into one…now that seems to be the way to go. Man sings
at his own funeral.