Rock ’n’ Roll with a Bullet

                                                                                             Beau Cabell / The Telegraph
They were old south Macon boys. One was a rock singer, the other a cop. Three nights after Christmas in 1998, they met head-on. They would embrace a year later, and one would say, 'I'm sorry.'

By Joe Kovac Jr.  / Originally published April 17, 2011 
The scar streaked across the rock singer’s belly. It was from where the surgeons saved his life. They patched his intestines, sewed him up and lent him another decade on this earth. Plenty of days to set things right.

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One of those days, the singer stopped by a food mart. For gas or cigarettes probably. The singer’s high school buddy owned the place. The singer was a regular customer. The two friends got to talking. The singer lifted up his shirt and showed his old pal the scar.

Not that the singer was proud of it because, brother, he was anything but. He was torn by what it meant he had done. But he was on the mend. Ready, you might say, to launch his personal comeback tour. To try and salvage the wretch that Ronald William Hammond had been.

Not that it was all awful. Ronnie Hammond had also been the lead singer for a band called the Atlanta Rhythm Section. With him belting vocals that vibed equal parts cane syrup and lounge smoke, a pair of their tunes, “So Into You” and “Imaginary Lover,” were top-10 hits in the late 1970s.

The group played shows with lineups that included Foreigner, Bob Seger, Genesis, Tom Petty and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Jimmy Carter invited them to play on the White House lawn.

By the time Christmas 1998 rolled around, the singer was divorced, clinically depressed and drunk, living alone in a box of a blue rental house a couple of blocks in back of the Fincher’s Barbecue on Houston Avenue in south Macon. On Dec. 28, after four days of vodka drinking, Ronnie Hammond slit his wrist with a steak knife. The police came and, before you knew it, with a framing hammer in one hand and an electric-guitar neck in the other, as if to say, “Please kill me,” he bolted toward one of them.

One shot dropped Ronnie Hammond.

The singer — who had sung the song “Do It or Die” hundreds, maybe thousands, of times — was on his way to dying. Or at very least fulfilling some of that ballad’s lyrical destiny:

Life is a gamble all along;
     Winners or losers do keep rollin’ on.
So go on and roll the dice;
We only live twice.

Notice that last line. Because danged if Ronnie Hammond didn’t survive and do that very thing.

* * *

Ronnie Hammond left the policeman no choice but to shoot him. So shoot Ronnie Hammond the policeman did. Square in the gut.

Down the singer went. He was 48 then, headed for a hospital, an operation or three and a world of regret. But not necessarily a lifetime of regret, mind you. He would live 12 years, two months and 14 days after that night. He died of heart failure last month. He was 60.

After Ronnie Hammond’s funeral, his old friend from the food mart, a fellow named Mike White, called The Telegraph thinking there might be a story somewhere in those final dozen years. White recalled a day eight or nine months after the shooting. It was the day Ronnie Hammond showed his scar. It so happened that the policeman who shot Ronnie Hammond was also a customer at Mike’s Corner Store.

“You know him?” Ronnie Hammond asked White.

“Yeah,” White said, “I’ve known him a good while.”

White and the policeman had grown up in south Macon. The policeman, whose name is Neal Smith, grew up off Pio Nono Avenue near where the Arby’s and the Ponderosa Steakhouse used to be.

The singer, the store owner and the policeman were all Willingham High men. Ronnie Hammond and White were in the class of ’69. Smith graduated in 1973.

Smith had heard of Ronnie Hammond back then. Next thing Smith knew, Smith was buying a ticket to see Ronnie Hammond and the Atlanta Rhythm Section open for Skynyrd at the Coliseum. ARS got plenty of local airplay with “Champagne Jam” and “Spooky,” some of Smith’s favorites.

Smith, who became a Macon cop in 1977, knew Mike White personally. From the Pio Nono furniture store where White was a salesman, and also from Archie’s Place, the watering hole across the road where on occasion they’d drink a beer.

White remembers the first time he saw the heart of the person Ronnie Hammond would become. They’d been outside one day at Willingham High. Some kid kept bugging Ronnie Hammond. The kid kept on and on, and finally Ronnie Hammond lost his cool. He put down his books, took off his jacket and fists flew. The boys brawled for a minute or two, to a draw as best White could tell. The instant it was over, Ronnie Hammond thrust out his palm. He wanted to shake the hand of the guy he’d just fought. They shook, and the moment stuck in Mike White’s mind.

“The cornerstone of living a life of peace,” he says now, “is being able to forgive people. It’s an important part of identifying who you are. When you unload that baggage, you don’t have to tote it.”

Ronnie Hammond surely lugged some of it to his grave. But he was more than man enough not to carry it all.

* * *

Ronnie Hammond wanted to know if Mike White could put him in touch with the policeman.

“I want to apologize to him,” White recalls the singer saying. “I want to sit down and talk to him and try to make it right, try to make it up to him. I want to let him know that I know that it was as traumatic for him as it was for me.”

Truth was, the near-deadly clash, the act itself anyway, hadn’t been all that upsetting for Sgt. Neal Smith. Sure, he says, “it’s just traumatic to be involved in something like that,” but it was, as they say, a clean shoot. Despondent man with hammer and guitar neck versus semiautomatic-armed lawman. The classic case of suicide by cop, or, rather, attempted suicide.

It had been about 8 o’clock at night when Smith was dispatched to Ronnie Hammond’s house on Mathis Street, a quarter mile or so east of Interstate 75 between Rocky Creek Road and Eisenhower Parkway.

“He was down and out that night and, you know, depressed from what I’ve been told,” Smith says. “I guess he thought he wanted to die. ... He and I hit head on.”

If anything shook up Smith that night, it was probably this: That he’d had to open fire on someone he’d admired. Had Smith been rushed by some nut trying to kill him after, say, robbing or hurting someone, Smith says he’d have done what he had to do and “never thought twice about it.”

Smith wonders how things would be now if his bullet had been the end of Ronnie Hammond. It crosses his mind just about every day. Again, not questioning what he did in the line of duty. But on a more spiritual level, somewhere along that ethereal plane where musicians and the people who dig them commune. Ronnie Hammond’s showdown with Smith forged a private bond.

“We had a connection there,” Smith says, “that I can’t explain.”

Smith was not keen on sharing any of this. He didn’t want anyone thinking ill of Ronnie Hammond because of what had gone down on one sad night of the singer’s life. And Smith himself didn’t want to come across as someone seeking glory by association.

He agreed to reminisce because the singer had died. Smith had been to his burial. And Smith had, in the years before the singer’s death, borne witness to Ronnie Hammond’s humble nature. And, when you got down to it, he had seen proof of Ronnie Hammond’s redemption.

* * *

In the autumn of 1999, Smith went to Mike’s Corner Store. As he was leaving, Mike White told him that Ronnie Hammond wanted to meet him.

“What for?” Smith said. “Why would he want to meet me?”

By then, Ronnie Hammond had been indicted on an aggravated assault charge for endangering Smith, but the charge was trimmed to disorderly conduct and the case went away.

“I think he wants to apologize,” White told Smith.

That'd be awkward, Smith thought, but he said he’d consider it.

A month or two passed and as the anniversary of the shooting approached, Smith saw where Ronnie Hammond was going to be singing a Christmas show at a local nightclub. Smith went. While he watched, Smith thought about what White had told him, how Ronnie Hammond wanted to meet him.

“I’m gonna make it happen,” Smith told himself.

He went to the stage door. Ronnie Hammond’s nephew was there. Smith told the nephew who he was and that he had heard Ronnie Hammond wanted to meet him.

“You’re not kidding?” the nephew said.

“No, I’m not kidding,” Smith said.

“Well, you’re right, he does want to meet you.”

Smith hung around the door. After the show, Smith could see Ronnie Hammond signing autographs in a back room. The nephew went over and whispered something in the singer’s ear. Then, for the second time in his life, Ronnie Hammond made a beeline for Sgt. Neal Smith. He stepped into a hallway and said, “Where is Neal?”

Smith raised his hand a little and said, “Right here.”

Ronnie Hammond wrapped his arms around Smith and hugged him.

“Man,” the singer said, “I’ve been wanting to talk to you.”

Smith recalls it as “odd, you know, for a police officer to be meeting someone he was involved in an incident like that with.”

The club was too noisy for them to really talk. They exchanged phone numbers.
A few days later, Smith got a call at home.

“Is this Neal?”

“Yes it is.”

“Hey, man, this is Ronnie.”

* * *

That phone call was weird and cool and unbelievable.

Here Smith was having a conversation with someone whose life he’d had a hand in nearly ending. Someone who, oh, by the way, had also been a rock star.

Ronnie Hammond had become Ronnie.

They agreed to meet at a southside Waffle House.

Ronnie got there first. Smith sat down across from him at a booth beside the cash register and ordered coffee. Smith had his hands on the table in front of him. After some small talk, Ronnie reached over and laid his hands on top of Smith’s. Ronnie looked him in the eyes and said, “I’m sorry.”

Ronnie wanted, maybe even needed, Smith to know he wasn’t a cold-hearted man, that their run-in on Mathis Street was not who Ronnie was.

Apology accepted.

Then, between Waffle House waitresses and diners descending on their table for Ronnie’s autograph, Smith told the singer, “I’m so glad you lived.”

* * *

Ronnie’s second life had already begun.

Smith has the evidence.

When the criminal case against Ronnie was disposed of, the police still had some of his belongings. Namely a framing hammer and a guitar neck that Ronnie had stripped off an old Fender. They had been the tools of his intended self-destruction. They were being stored in a police department vault. The guitar part still had Ronnie’s blood on it.

Smith went in one day to retrieve the items. Ronnie was with him. Ronnie wanted the hammer for sentimental reasons. A carpenter, he had framed houses with it. He gave the guitar neck to Smith.

Then Smith noticed that there was one more piece of evidence. He hadn’t known it existed but there it was the .40-caliber bullet, the slug, that had ripped through Ronnie.

Ronnie wanted it. Smith handed it over. Ronnie said he was going to have it gold plated and put on a necklace.

“I don’t know if he ever did,” Smith says.

In the coming years, several times a month, Ronnie called Smith on the phone.

“Just wanting to know how I was,” Smith says.

Smith quit being a cop in 2004. He retired and started doing contract work for the U.S. Marshals Service. Courthouse security, probation office security, that sort of thing. Not long after he started, a co-worker who knew of Smith’s connection with Ronnie wondered if it would be any trouble getting Ronnie to autograph his collection of Atlanta Rhythm Section vinyl LPs.

Ronnie wasn’t crazy about it. Still, he went down and signed the stuff. He also signed the guitar neck he had given Smith a few years earlier.

On the neck’s blond-wooden headstock, beneath the string-post holes, Ronnie wrote, “To my dear friend. We’ve come a long way!”

Beside that, at the end of the fingerboard, Ronnie scribbled something else, a trace of his transformation and the day it began.

“Dec. 28 1998,” he wrote, and above it, “Born Again.”

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