Friday, May 04, 2012

A Brother's Tale

I met Gregg Allman in 1978 on a steamy day in Macon, Georgia, at an event that he mentions briefly in his new autobiography, My Cross To Bear. The day marked the first time The Allman Brothers Band had played together since its acrimonious breakup two years earlier (all the surviving original members had played together with guitarist Dickey Betts' band a week earlier in New York City's Central Park).

I had been a fan of the band since I heard their debut album in 1970, so I knew their story well. But, by the time I encountered him that summer, Allman had become a cipher—unsmiling, and hidden behind opaque shades and a curtain of long blond hair. He mumbled something I didn't catch when we were introduced, then turned his silence back on the people he had been standing with.

He'd been pilloried and ridiculed in the nascent People magazine during his marriage to Cher, and even made fun of in the comic strip Doonesbury. Since the death of his brother Duane in 1971, he'd become better known for his drug and alcohol abuse than his music, but even before his brother died Gregg had been so withdrawn and single-minded about what he did onstage that he seemed like some sort of savant. In interviews, he came off as cagey and a bit naive. Surely, there was more to him than that, but by the late '70s it was an open question.

I greeted the news that he was publishing a set of memoirs with interest... and trepidation. Even if you allowed that his memory might not be clouded by his years of substance abuse—and Keith Richards' autobiography proved that anything is possible—there was the fear that the book might either be bitter retribution for the years when he was the early butt of the celebrity media or a shallow remembrance of the band's triumphs.

What a joy it is, then, to read—or, in my case, listen to—a beautifully told, insightful and uplifting story of a man's life. For one thing, he is as funny as hell. Even the story of finding one of his wives having sex with an acquaintance is told with wry humour. As it turns out, his apparent caginess is actually shyness, and what passes for naivety is really the sign of a sensitive soul who refuses to dwell on negative feelings about six ex-wives or people, like former manager Phil Walden, who did him wrong. While he writes compellingly about the bond between the original members of the ABB, he's brutally honest about how those bonds have been stressed over the past four decades, and isn't one to peddle trite phrases about brotherhood. Gregg Allman has always been about music first and foremost, and when people don't act in the best interest of making music, he says so. If he was exhibiting reticence at the time I met him it was because he still wasn't sure if the others in the band were willing to recommit without reservation to finding the magic they'd once had onstage, and set aside the trappings of rock stardom that had derailed them in 1976, at the height of their fame.

In that regard, he reflects a statement his brother once made: "This ain't no fashion show. In this band, you better come to play."

Duane's sentiment was borne from hard years on the road, when the teenaged Allmans struggled to create their own music, and then to get a chance to perform it. In the mid-'60s, the star-making machinery of the Hollywood pop music scene had almost waylaid both their musical careers and their sibling friendship, and Gregg shows his early strength when he sacrifices his own ambitions, returning to Los Angeles as a solo artist in 1968 so Duane could remain in his beloved South. Duane's side of the story has only been told second hand, but apparently he reacted with anger, thinking his brother was selling out.

The relationship of the two—born little more than a year apart—was complex; Duane was a reckless, charismatic leader, who always knew just how to push his little brother's buttons. But Duane was also a brilliant, driven musician—a distinctive virtuoso at the age of 22—who had a clear vision for what it took to create an exciting hybrid of rock, blues and improvised music. He drove everyone around him mercilessly, and most of all Gregg.

He drives him still, haunting Gregg with the memory of their last conversation on the morning of October 29, 1971, when a cocaine deal led Gregg into a lie. That afternoon, Duane was pinned beneath his Harley Davidson on a Macon street. He died of massive internal injuries. Gregg writes: "The last thing I ever said to my brother was a fucking lie, man.... I have thought about that every single day of my life since then. I told him that lie, and he told me that he was sorry and that he loved me. I was so dumbfounded, I couldn't say nothing back to him."

In that moment, and numerous others in My Cross To Bear, your heart breaks for this man, and you clearly see the kind of weight that he has carried, dragging him often into chemical means of escape. This is a fearless, unself-pitying picture of a man.

It's a story you have to live through a lot to tell, but that alone won't give you the tools to tell it. To do that you need to be able to reach the part of yourself where it's a relief to share something like you've been hurt so bad that you feel like you've been tied to a whipping post.