Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Gregg Allman "My Cross to Bear"

There’s an issue that cuts to the core of the should I read this question that invariably pops up when you sight news that someone whose music you’ve devoured over the years has “penned” an autobiography. In most cases, if you’ve been on board for a while you already know most of the story, or at least most of that part of the story that the subject/author has allowed to slip out. When you look at something like My Cross to Bear and you already know about the origins of the Allman Brothers Band, the deaths of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley, Gregg’s flirtation with Hollywood celebrity (his marriage to Cher), the drug busts, bouts with drugs and alcohol, liver transplants yada, yada, yada, you start to wonder whether there’s much more to tell.

Consciously or not, Allman sets out to give the reader the impression that there is by starting the tale towards the end, with the ABB’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, which came at the end of a five day binge. I was out of it — mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I was drunk, man, just s---faced drunk, the entire time. Welcome to the story of my life. 

With the prospect of rock’n’roll excess writ large, things continue much as you’d anticipate, beginning in Nashville and a fatherless childhood (his father, a D-Day veteran was shot in the back and killed by a stranger he’d offered a lift home from a bar when Gregg was two). In those circumstances you’d guess little brothers (Baybruh was Duane’s nickname for him) tend to see elder male siblings as quasi-father figures and two stints in military school as a young boy are the sort of thing that’d tend to strengthen the bond.

From there it’s off to Daytona Beach, Florida, where the teenage Allmans assemble the first of several cover bands, leading up to the Escorts (1965, the Beatles-imitation), the mod Allman Joys (1966, mod-influenced) and the Hour Glass (1967, psychedelic) on the way to the jam on 26 March 1969 that signalled the birth of the Allman Brothers Band. Over the preceding couple of years they’d moved from Florida to California by way of Georgia and when California failed to work out Duane had picked up session work at Muscle Shoals, recalling his brother from Los Angeles when he had the makings of a decent band.

If the jam hadn’t worked out, the odds are, according to Allman, that he’d have ended up studying medicine or dentistry, which suggests there’s the odd brain cell lurking below Gregg’s minimalist on-stage patter.

Gregg had been the first to pick up a guitar (visiting family in Tennessee one summer) after an R&B show featuring Otis Redding, but it was soon obvious that the older Allman could play circles around his sibling. Baybruh did more than get one of the great guitarists started. With Duane suffering from a cold Gregg left a bottle of Coricidin and the first Taj Mahal album outside his brother’s door on the morning of his twenty-second birthday. The Coricidin bottle became Duane’s preferred slide and by the evening he was sort-of able to play along with Jesse Ed Davis on Statesboro Blues.

Within four years of that first jam the Allman Brothers Band was, for all practical purposes, the biggest band in the USA, headlining with The Band and the Grateful Dead at Watkins Glen in front of an estimated crowd of six hundred thousand, but success came at a price.

Given the closeness of the fraternal relationship you might have expected a detailed discussion of the circumstances surrounding Duane’s death in a motorcycle accident on 29 October 1971, barely a fortnight after Live At Fillmore East went gold. There’s a chapter devoted to the accident, but little that would count as new information apart from the revelation that there’d been an incident on the morning of the accident involving Duane’s cocaine stash and a subsequent phone call that meant Gregg’s last words to his brother were a lie, something that haunted him for years and could probably be seen as the cause of later drug and alcohol issues if they hadn’t been there already.

Cocaine got him through the funeral, but the two of them had already tried heroin, and the pair’s recreational use before Duane’s death had been significant (and noticeable enough) to have them pulled aside for a warning from Atlantic Records’ Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler, who’d seen plenty of artists’ careers take a nosedive due to the effects of addiction.

A few months before Duane’s death he’d aimed to keep Gregg away from the draft (and, more than likely, service in Vietnam) by having him shoot himself in the foot while drunk, which might have been understandable, but also definitely points towards a propensity on both parts for impulsive risk taking behaviours. Having noted that, one also notes Gregg doesn’t try to gild the lily or make excuses for a lengthy spell of drug and alcohol abuse.

Just over a year after the accident that took Duane out of the picture, ABB bassist died in similar circumstances. Popular mythology suggests Oakley grieved himself to death, but Gregg suggests that, rather than wanting to die I just think he didn't want to live, though he admits he could have done more to help him.

With two out of six original members gone it’s ironic that the next couple of years provided the Allman Brothers Band a commercial heyday based around the emerging songwriting talent of Dickie Betts, which turned out to be, at least with Rambling Man and Blue Sky, something quite distinct from the hard core electric blues and jazz-inspired jamming that was the band’s original trademark.

Success is almost invariably a two-edged sword. While the band as a whole, and Allman in particular, got their spell of fame and fortune in the wake of Fillmore East, Eat a Peach and Brothers and Sisters and scored a couple of hit singles in the form of the Dickey Betts-penned Blue Sky and Ramblin’ Man, these things invariably come with a cost, and in Allman’s case the price tag included multiple marriages, subsequent divorces, addictions and health issues that culminated in a 2010 liver transplant as a consequence of hepatitis C (allegedly coming from an unsanitary tattoo needle).

Allman is fairly frank about both sides of the coin. Women threw themselves at him, and as a notional southern gentleman he probably would have thought it was bad manners to turn them away. When Allmans graduated to chartered jet status and boarded the Boeing 720, someone had written Welcome Allman Bros in cocaine on the bar.

From there the tabloid headline side of things gets the regulation airing, the marriage to Cher (the third of six wives, who smelled like I would imagine a mermaid would smell), hobnobbing with the likes of Jimmy Carter and the drugs busts (he was spared from one in 1976 in return for testimony against the road manager who’d bought the drugs for him and it broke up the band).

 There are helpful survival tips for would-be rockers for young players (When you know you’re going to scream, you lay your head back, which spreads your vocal cords real wide, and when the scream comes out, it barely nicks your vocal cords) and he’s tried to protect his hearing by staying stage right, out of the line of fire. He’d been stage right for most of the Allmans’ existence, but that issue would have been well to the fore in the years leading up to the dismissal of guitarist Dickey Betts, who ain’t no devil. He’s just a mixed-up guy.

Betts is portrayed as a petty tyrant, who’d become the de facto leader of the band after Duane’s death and Gregg’s substance issues seem to have pushed him into the role. Betts’ own substance issues took hold in the years leading up to his ousting from the band in 2000. According to Allman, he and founder drummers Butch Trucks and Jaimoe intended the move as an opportunity for Dickey to clean up and would have welcomed the reformed guitarist back into the fold. With the subsequent inclusion of Warren Haynes into the fold as effectively, musical director, and the emergence of Derek Trucks, who Allman sees as his brother reincarnated, however, that was probably never a serious possibility.

Those points, for me, at least, cover the major points in the story (or at least the ones that are of most interest to Yours Truly), but there’s plenty of detail and reminiscence to flesh out the tale. Innumerable admissions to rehab centres, half a dozen marriages, two dissolutions of the Allman Brothers Band, drug and alcohol issues, personality clashes and creative decay within the outfit and assorted suicides, murders and accidents on the periphery, hepatitis C and a liver transplant, it’s (seemingly) all there, though you can’t help feeling a couple of matters are skipped over rather lightly.

If he’s inclined to do that while exploring the musical gumbo that the Allman Brothers Band whipped up in their heyday and continue to work right up to the present, you can’t really blame him. An interracial sextet coming out of the Deep South is remarkable in itself, the commercial success they achieved in the early seventies unprecedented, and the subsequent turmoil and travails, with the benefit of hindsight, rather unremarkable.

It’s not as if the ABB was the only band torn apart by substances and creative issues in the wake of fame and considerable fortune. What is remarkable, and one’s inclined to suspect co-author Alan Light deserves some of the credit here, is the sharp focus Allman gives to most of the reminiscence.

Though there are places where he could have gone into much more detail what’s there is delivered without apology and the result is a close to three-dimensional portrayal of the interaction of musical talent, fragile emotions and, predictably, rock and roll excess. It’s an interesting read for those who are familiar with the background and the public story, and a cautionary tale for those who might not be.

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