The Blue Man in the Blue House

Ronnie Hammond’s Second Chance  
By Joe Kovac Jr.  / Originally published March 21, 1999 
Robert Seay / The Telegraph

This is what happened in the blue house.

The Christmas cookies from the lady next door hadn't helped. The four days and four pints of vodka hadn't either. So the Wal-Mart steak knife was on the coffee table, and the rock 'n' roll singer was busy on the sofa setting his suicide to music.

He can't recall the tune coming from his guitar while the song in his head kept singing him to death.

"It just happened," he says. "You know?"

He and his girlfriend had split. Ronnie Hammond was alone. But the lead singer of the Atlanta Rhythm Section wasn't about to die that way. He had a friend over. On the last Monday evening of 1998, Ronnie Hammond played guitar and they talked: Ronnie Hammond's sad life in concert.

By then, 559 days of sobriety days that had, the year before, included the first non-alcoholic Christmas of Ronnie Hammond's adult life were a memory. Christmas Eve 1998 made sure of that.

The refrain of Ronnie Hammond's loneliness was, "Gosh, is this all there is?"

He had spent the holidays alone before. He was divorced. Twice. The first breakup, after 15 years and a son, left him with a TV set, some gold records and a quilt. The second, four years later in 1995, left him by himself again.

He was 48 and working on another marriage before he reintroduced himself to booze, and when he thought he'd run out of things to hold on to, Ronnie Hammond grabbed the steak knife. He drew its serrated blade across his left wrist just above where he wears his digital Timex. His friend freaked.

Ronnie Hammond sliced open a single slit.

"It was pretty spontaneous," he says. "I didn't think I had the courage to do it."

But at that moment, Ronnie Hammond was doing more bleeding than thinking. He still had the Wal-Mart steak knife in his hand.

He cut himself again.

* * *

This is what happened on the front steps of the blue house.

Ronnie William Hammond stood there bleeding.

He wasn't dying fast enough.

His friend had left, called the cops, and, in minutes, the cops had come. Ronnie Hammond had heard them and stepped outside the blue house on Mathis Street. He'd been living in the south Macon neighborhood for a month or so.

He'd grown up there, not far away on Houston Avenue, the grandson of a piano tuner.

Ronnie Hammond learned about hard work.

You don't spend the better part of three decades on the road and not know a thing or two about bumps.

You don't have dates like the 18th annual Conway, Ark., Toad Suck Daze, or gigs like the I-20 Speedway Jam on your upcoming work schedule as the current incarnation of the Atlanta Rhythm Section does and not know about making a living.

Which is why you have a tool belt on your end table. Ronnie Hammond wasn't above construction work. He'd made his way in this world with his voice, but he was about to leave it with his hammer. The man who once sang the lyrics
Tomorrow I might go as far as suicide,
but I will not let it bother me tonight
had gone and let whatever it was – whatever untreated chemical imbalance, whatever nothing-to-live-for ache, whatever rock-bottom riff, and whatever possesses a man who has sung songs people still listen to 25 years later cut two tracks in his forearm with a steak knife – bother him.

A cop got his attention.

From seven steps down and across the yard, Ronnie Hammond got his orders. The cop instructed him not to pick up anything, to do nothing but put his hands up and move toward Mathis Street.

Ronnie Hammond understood it as only a man who had been drinking vodka for four days and who was now bleeding could. He saw it as only a man seeing the cops with guns in front of his house three nights after Christmas could.

"So what you're telling me," he thought, "is if I put something in my hands and raise them above my head and move towards you, you're gonna kill me?"

Told that he heard correctly, Ronnie Hammond stepped back inside.

He was renting the place he'd been bleeding in. New to the neighborhood, his neighbors didn't know his trouble. He seemed friendly enough to them. The old lady next door didn't know about him being a big singer and all, she just figured a bachelor could use some butter cookies and fruitcake and chocolate balls to last him through the holidays.

Inside, Ronnie Hammond couldn't find the courage to do what he was about to do. Fact is, he never would find it. That would be the personal lesson suicide would teach him, that it doesn't take courage at all.

"It takes stupidity," he says.

He had been 11 when his father died. The last thing Ronnie Hammond wanted to do was take himself away from his own son of 17. He'd already done that seven years earlier. Pulling out of the driveway of his boy's newly broken home was the hardest thing Ronnie Hammond had ever done.

He decided that if he was to leave on this night, to go away forever, the police would have to take him. And he was taking his hammer with him.

Ronnie Hammond had framed houses off and on since 1985. His tool belt was just inside the front door. He grabbed the 28-ounce hammer in it.

On his way out, he made sure to carry his trusty guitar neck. He kept the wooden piece he'd stripped off an old electric Fender for protection.

Outside again, the singer spoke words he would not remember. But the police would. Ronnie Hammond told them something like, "You all gonna have to kill me. If you try to stop me, you better be prepared to die."

While he made his way down the steps toward one of the cops, Ronnie Hammond, a man with a hammer in one hand and a guitar part that looked like an ax held high in the other, was still bleeding.

He was about to bleed some more.

* * *

This is what happened on the front lawn of the blue house.

Ronnie Hammond lunged. “Instantaneously lunged” is how the cops would describe his advance on them.

For Ronnie Hammond, dying had come down to this: The cops had guns and he was giving them a chance to use them. Giving the cops no choice.

The slow blur of Ronnie Hammond's suicide began.

He saw a breath of fire. He heard a .40-caliber Glock breathe it.

Hit in the stomach, gut shot by a bullet that ripped from the right side of his belly button clean through and out near his left hip, he turned a flip. His eyes shut. Before they did, he saw an ambulance out at the street. The ambulance had come in case someone needed it. Somewhere along his march to getting himself shot, Ronnie Hammond figured he would.

Somewhere along the way to suicide, the man who wrote the song "Do It or Die" changed his mind about dying and about making another man do what his steak knife could not. But he forgot to bother telling that other man.

What he was going to do, at least what he suddenly planned to do, was walk up to that man and put down his hammer and his guitar neck and climb inside that ambulance.

Next thing he knew, though, his eyes were shut. He was shot. He was screaming. He was on his way to having 15 feet of his small intestine cut out, having his colon patched up, having his wrist repaired and his abdomen restrung.

He could scarcely believe it possible, but here his insides were more torn up than they'd been before he'd started bleeding.

* * *

This is what happened after a man stopped living in the blue house.

Ronnie Hammond kept living.

Lynyrd Skynyrd sent him flowers. Or tried to. He never got them because his hospital room was unlisted. He appreciated them just the same.

He was back to appreciating things. He was glad that friend of his had called the cops that night.

He lost 25 pounds. He gained an understanding.

He carried himself to group therapy.

"There are some people," he says, "who have some very, very debilitating mental problems."

He learned more about his own.

"You can't explain it," he says.

He has tried.

He still does.

"I couldn't pick myself up and get out of it," he says. "It's stupid. It makes no sense at all."

He takes something called Effexor. He spells it. The medicine helps. So do the Marlboros and the iced coffees. But healing hurts.

"I'm in a good place mentally," he says. "I'm just very, very, I won't say ashamed, but I'm very sorry for what pain I caused my family."

And those who are not family.

The woman he'd been engaged to has three children.

There he'd been, in his condition, proposing to become their stepfather.

Ronnie Hammond says when news of his outburst hit the news, "Their father had a fit."

Ronnie Hammond has since moved into his brother's apartment on Lake Tobesofkee.

"I've never been filthy rich," he says.

Most days, he sits on the patio of his brother's apartment. Mornings are quiet there. He can see ducks.

Sitting on the patio the other day, he flicked his cigarette ashes into an empty Claussen pickle jar. He sighed, took deep breaths. It is as if that cop's .40-caliber Glock somehow breathed life into him. He believes he was spared. He speaks of that night.

"The Lord had his hands all over me," he says. "To try to take my own life is an unforgivable sin."

And yet he asks for forgiveness.

He has asked his own son.

His son has answered.

"It'll take time, Dad."

* * *

This is what happened after the landlady put new carpet in the blue house.

Ronnie Hammond told her he was sorry. He'd left his blood inside her house. On the walls. On the floors. Bleeding from his wrist, he'd paced room to room.

The place was clean when he went back to say he was sorry, but it wasn't until later that Ronnie Hammond, a songwriter at heart, made the connection between himself and the landlady's boxy rental: “A blue house and a blue man.”

Someone else had moved into the blue house.

A deputy sheriff with a big black dog named Psycho.

Ronnie Hammond apologized to the neighbors for what he put them through.

Then he left the neighborhood for good, this time as quietly as he'd found it. This time in his black 1990 GMC pickup.

"My one luxury," he calls the decade-old truck.

It has a bumper sticker that reads "Don't blame us, we voted for Jeff Davis.”

The Southern rocker has himself studied the history of the Civil War. He reckons that what it came down to was the home folks fighting for their right to self-determination.

Ronnie Hammond knows he has a history, too. He has called his own shots and been shot at. He could still go to jail, or at least to court. The police and the prosecutors haven't decided if they'll try to make him. But Ronnie Hammond does not worry. Not now.

Instead, he again says he is sorry.

This time to the policeman.

"I apologize to that guy who did shoot me," he says. "To him and his family."

Still, Ronnie Hammond thinks that sorry will not necessarily be enough.

Because how does a man say "I'm sorry" to himself? How does a man undo disappointing himself? How might this man in particular live down the embarrassment of self-inflicted shame? Because this man used to be somebody.

Say he could take back the night of Dec. 28 and erase that bloody episode, make the pain of its memory go poof, make himself not be looked at as a fool, a failure.

What then of the woes that led to the vodka, the steak knife? Deleting that will take something more. The rest of his days, perhaps. Because Ronnie Hammond can't quit thinking about what has become of his talent. His voice. His gift. His art.

Though he knew remarkable success, he cannot help wondering what else, what other achievement, might have been. His is the inoperable ache of regret.

"I could have," he says, "done more with what I had to work with than I did."

Editor's note: This story is based on  preliminary police accounts, court documents and Ronnie Hammond's
                        recollection of the events of the night of Dec. 28, 1998.

 

1 comment:

Karla Collins said...

Thank you for this story. I saw Atlanta Rhythm Section in the 80s in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Sadly I found out Hammond died in 2011 today. Although his story is a sad one, sounds like he was back on the right road at the end. For that I am thankful. God bless his heart.