The Living Bubba
In 1997, Drive-By Truckers played Bubbapalooza for the first time. An annual festival at Atlanta’s immortal Star Community Bar in Little Five Points, Bubbapalooza was a three-night showcase for a tragedy-laden little movement called “The Redneck Underground.” The movement was named and originally led by a performance artist named Deacon Lunchbox, who’s rising star was cut way too short by a horrific van accident that also claimed the life of half of Atlanta’s fantastic, The Jody Grind. Surviving members Kelly Hogan and Bill Taft went on to become vital members of the Atlanta and Chicago music communities in the years to come. Bubbapalooza itself was the brainchild of doomed Cabbagetown guitarist and songwriter Gregory Dean Smalley.
In 1995, I had been employed as a sound guy for a small club in Athens, Ga. called The High Hat Club. I was a fan of one of Greg’s bands, The Diggers. They were everything I needed at the time—rude and loud and very belligerent. If Greg were to cover “Shoot Out the Lights,” he’d probably introduce it as a song “by my favorite wife beater.” Towards the end of many a night, Greg ended up on stage butt-naked. He wasn’t a particularly handsome man before he got sick. Unfortunately, by ’95, Greg was dying of AIDS. He responded to his death sentence by joining several more bands and playing constantly, sometimes several nights a week.
On any given night, I’d head to work at 9pm to sound check whatever band was playing. On the other hand, if Greg was playing, I always headed in an hour early to make sure I had everything in proper order for him. If this f---er could get up there and play in that condition, he certainly wasn’t going to have to wait around for me to get my shit together. Most of the times he played there, he was fronting a rag-tag outfit called Gregory Dean and the Bubbamatics. They played a mixture of Greg’s songs from various bands he’d been in, a few songs by some of his friends (including Scott Miller), a few rambunctious country covers by the likes of Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash, a blistering version of Georgia Satellites’ “Six Years Gone” and a bluegrass version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stump From the Sun” (sic).
Some of his antics were silly and seemed ridiculous, except that Greg had only weeks to live. He was a true believer. His songs cooked under their seemingly funny surface to reveal the same ageless longings that have earmarked great rock ’n’ roll songs since the beginning of the form. He would sound check, then head upstairs to High Hat’s cramped little office, where he would rest until showtime. Some nights, it would take him what seemed like an eternity to climb those stairs, and he would seem totally drained by the time he reached the top. I’d take him a joint I brought from home, in case he wanted it, and he was all too happy to light it up.
We’d sit there and have a little idle chatter. We weren’t close friends by any stretch; I hardly knew him before that time. I was, however, blown away by his conviction and what he was doing. It made me question and eventually reaffirm my own convictions and beliefs. Usually we just talked about surface stuff. The time he opened for Hellhounds, how he loved the Georgia Satellites and hated Gram Parsons. Greg was very opinionated and relished a good disagreement. It sometimes felt like he was giving you the flinch test. He’d tell an offhand joke about his condition and then measure our response. He didn’t want pity and by his very actions he commanded respect.
Some nights, he’d place a barstool on stage behind where he stood to prop him up for the set. When he wasn’t singing, he would lean back on that barstool and play his ass off. He would lean forward semi-upright and sing in that raggedy voice and crack nasty jokes between songs, occasionally looking like he was about to fall off the stool and drop dead on stage, but he stayed on his feet and never went down. As the terrible disease progressed, he got worse and worse. But the shows stayed consistently rock solid.
These were not packed houses, mind you. Some nights there wouldn’t be but eight or nine people in the audience. That wasn’t the point. The point was the playing. The Rock. By that time, it was what he was living for. It was the point of his existence.
I need to reiterate that I didn’t really know Greg well—not his hopes or dreams, not his family. I only knew a few of his friends and I was just getting to know them. And they weren’t all that informative. Greg did seem prone to self-mytholization (who ain’t), and, whether intentional or not (again, I don’t really know), his larger-than-life persona combined with his tiny physical stature made him the kind of man myths revolve around. On top of all this, he loved a good story and would certainly not hesitate to exaggerate if it enhanced the entertainment value. He was, as I said, a true entertainer and was constantly performing—whether it was on stage or in that tiny office.
I didn’t know either of Greg’s wives, and have still never met his son. I know he loved him, because folks who knew him better said so, and I certainly never saw any hint of a guy who would ever feel otherwise. But I was just a hired soundman with a beer and a joint. I was the guy you tell to turn up your monitor, someone who you might talk about a rock record with. Not someone you confide in or share your personal feelings with. Greg wasn’t that type anyway, and he just didn’t know me that well.
The next to last time he ever played the High Hat, he was feeling a little better and was “on” as shit. He played one of the most amazing rock shows I have ever seen in a small club (and Lord knows that’s where the best rock shows live). He and his band were all obviously having a great time. I was thrilled I’d thought to bring my boombox so I could at least get a good room tape of the show. Unfortunately, the boombox was very old and decided to crap out and eat my tape that night, so the show only lives in my memory (which is probably alright anyway).
Three weeks later he returned, but it was all different then. He looked 90 years old, and his weight had fallen to well below 100 pounds. Death was definitely closing in on him and he knew it. As we were smoking upstairs, he suddenly looked me square in the eyes and said, “You know, I’m dying, man.” “Yeah,” I said. There wasn’t really anything else to say, but I guess he just needed to verbally acknowledge it.
I did manage to get that night’s show on tape, and it’s one of my prize possessions. Technically, it wasn’t nearly the equal of the one that got away. The show was, however, even more miraculous, given his deteriorating condition. After the show, Greg went ahead and booked the band for another show the next month. He also asked me if I wanted to open for him at a show in Atlanta.
Later, after Greg’s death, another member of “The Redneck Underground,” Redneck Greece compiled a CD of Greg’s songs (Bubbapalooza Volume 2). Most were covered by other people, as Greg didn’t get to record nearly enough during his too short life. They did use one of my “boombox recordings” (Smalley’s gnarly “State of Co-Dependency”) from that evening.
I was still in the process of putting together my band, Drive-By Truckers (our first show was still three months away), and I was picking up gigs whenever and wherever I could with a band called The Possibilities. They had been together for years by that time, and would sometimes, as a side project, back me up on my own songs under the name The Lot Lizards. (Lot Lizard is trucker slang for a prostitute who sometimes frequents truck stops and rest areas, providing her service for lonely truckers).
The show was at a small dive called Dottie’s and it was my first time ever playing in Atlanta with a band. Greg was playing that night with Redneck Greece under the name Small Greece. It turned out to be his last live performance. We played a hard rocking set and were quite well received. Small Greece was excellent. There was a better crowd than any of the High Hat shows and Greg, although not feeling well, was in better spirits.
During a rambunctious cover of a Waylon Jennings song (forgive me for not remembering which one), Greg had a coughing fit and had to skip a verse. Annoyed, at the end of the song, Greg snarled into the microphone “Sorry about that second verse but I didn’t wear a rubber.”
You could hear a pin drop in the crowded club that moment. But Greg just laughed then launched into another rocker. Unapologetic and unflinching. Anyone else’s awkward discomfort was not his concern. He had the meanness and a job to do. He didn’t have time for that shit. He only had a little bit of time left and he had a lot he still wanted to do.
A few days later, my band and I were invited to play Bubbbapalooza. Greg had arranged it. I called him to thank him, but his wife answered the phone. She said that Greg was very sick and was back in the hospital. This time he probably wouldn’t be coming out. I felt bitch-slapped and went out to walk my dog. While out in the field behind my house, a song hit me and I ran back inside to write it down before it slipped away. I wrote it in about the same length of time it takes to play it live.
The LIVING BUBBA
I wake up tired and I wake up pissed Wonder how I ended up like this Wonder why things happen like they do But I don’t wonder long cause I got a show to do.
I’m sick at my stomach from the AZT Broke at my bank cause that shit ain’t free But I’m here to stay at least another week or two And I can’t die now cause I got a show to do.
Don’t give me no pity don’t give me no grief Wait till I die for sympathy Just help me with that amp and a guitar or two I can’t die now cause I got a show to do Don’t give me no preaching no self-serving I ain’t no angel but nobody’s deserving I can dance on my own grave, thank you But I can’t die now cause I got another show
Some people keep saying I won’t last long Cause I got my bands, I got my songs Liquor, beer, and nicotine to help me along I’m drunk and stubborn as they come Chain smoking, guitar picking till I’m gone gone gone
I ain’t got no political agenda Ain’t got no message for the youth of America Except wear a rubber and be careful who you screw And come see me next Friday cause I got another show
Some people stop living long before they die Work a dead-end job just to scrape on by But I keep living just to bend that note in two And I can’t die now cause I got another show
(For Gregory Dean Smalley)
Greg passed away a few days later. He went home and died at his mother’s house. Many of his closest friends were there by his side holding him in their arms. Only hours before he passed he was playing his guitar and watching “Raising Arizona.” A couple of days later, the show he had booked at the High Hat became a memorial show in his honor. It was packed with friends as well as folks who had never seen him in his lifetime. Redneck read a letter from his son Raymond (then about 9 or 10 years old) and everyone had tears rolling down their faces. There was much partying and much good rock played that night. Somewhere, he was smiling and making shit-eating remarks about how much better he was already drawing in death.
We played Bubbapalooza that May 25th at 6pm in front of about a dozen people. It was The Lot Lizard’s last gig. I already had the lineup together for my new band, but alas, fate had to jump in one more time. Late that night, my good friend and soon to be band-mate Chris Quillen was killed in a car accident.
Over the course of the next year, Drive-By Truckers did some recording, picked up as many shows as we could and began building a following, particularly in Atlanta at Dottie’s and The Star Bar. I was, at first, hesitant to play “The Living Bubba” live, as I really didn’t know Greg all that well and felt I had no right to write anything so personal (from his point of view, no less). But I did confide it to a few close mutual friends who were always very complimentary and all said I should play it for Greg’s Mama.
In May of 1997, we played Bubbapalooza in front of a packed house that included “Mama” (as everyone affectionately called her). As we began “The Living Bubba” she walked up to the front of the stage and stared me square in the eyes as I sang Greg’s song. When it was over, she walked up on stage, threw her arms around me and said “You done my boy right.” No review or compliment that my band or me ever get will ever equal that. - Patterson Hood - May 29, 2003