Saturday, June 9, 2012

Bearing Witness: Gregg Allman’s My Cross To Bear

I was never much of an Allman Brothers fan. There were so many bands playing blues-based rock’n’roll that you had to draw the line somewhere. Oh, sure, I had a copy of the double live album At Fillmore East, like most of my friends. It was a mark of ‘cool.’ Duane Allman was the next guitar hero, and when he joined with Eric Clapton on the Derek & the Dominos' classic Layla album, I showed a bit more interest. There were just so many bands! And the Southern US had more than their share. Charlie Daniels, Marshall Tucker, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Wet Willie, to name a few. They each had a hit or two, many had twin lead guitars and a soulful singer, and they knew how to mix country with blues and come up with something new. But the Allman Brothers Band? No, I just filed their LPs away with the rest.

Gregg Allman is a survivor. His brother Duane was killed at age 24 in a motorcycle accident over 40 years ago.  Bassist Berry Oakley drove his motorcycle into oncoming traffic about a year later. Drug use took its toll on the band, and its crew, including singer and organist Gregg Allman, Duane’s younger brother. In his new autobiography, Gregg drops one word from one of the ABB’s songs for his title. The song was called “Not My Cross To Bear,” but reality has hit Allman hard, and when it comes to his life he now realizes it is My Cross To Bear (William Morrow, 2012). 

Rock star books are everywhere these days. Keith Richards and Steven Tyler made them big best sellers. The secret seems to be, just sit down and tell a journalist the whole sordid story. The writer will put capital letters on things and add punctuation, but essentially the book will be like one long interview without the clumsy questions.The problem with this way of writing has to do with how interesting your adventures have been. Or how much controversy your stories drum up. Keith Richards started quite a buzz when he dissed his long-time business/writing partner, Mick Jagger. Tyler just had to be himself, outrageous and a bit crazy, and the public lapped it up. I’m not sure the public is familiar enough with Gregg Allman for his drug, drink and dating tales to mean as much.

Allman begins well enough with the story of his father’s murder at the hands of a hitch-hiker who thought Allman Senior’s off-the-cuff comment about “Buddy” meant that Allman Senior could identify him, so he shot him in the back. This tragedy, when the brothers were two and three, led to military school and a working mother, and eventually a career in music that from Gregg lasted over forty years.

Gregg, Duane Allman, & Berry Oakley in October 1971
He spends half the book getting to the point where Duane dies, and the other half detailing the politics (both musical and sexual) that have haunted the rest of his life. He was married and divorced three times by the time he turned thirty, and after that he married and divorced another three. The most famous was his marriage to Cher, which lasted three years and produced a son (Elijah Blue). Many will recall the tabloid tales of excess that filled the papers at the grocery store. Gregg passed out in his plate of spaghetti which gave new meaning to being out for dinner! He doesn’t share that story here, but he does give us a few more. Page after page tells of his abuse of booze and drugs, his struggles to clean up, and then his inevitable next fall.

The Gregg Allman who is portrayed on these pages seems to be a decent guy who had to carry the torch for a brother who was an idol to a generation. Duane was idolized by Gregg as well. Gregg’s efforts to hold the Allman Brothers Band together, and the power struggles between him and guitarist Dickey Betts, provide some of the drama to keep readers turning the pages. The many break-ups and reunions of the band need a family tree to help the reader keep track. (There’s an on-line attempt at one here, and Pete Frame has one of his elegant, hand-drawn versions in his Even More Rock Family Trees, which no self respecting music lover should be without.) 

My Cross To Bear is clearly told in Gregg Allman’s own words, in fact apart from organizing the material you have to wonder what co-author Alan Light’s role was. Allman’s personality is easy-going with a strong sense of time and place. It worked for his most recent album, Low Country Blues, on which producer T Bone Burnett was able to capture a late-career highlight. Allman’s blues are as authentic as the originators whose songs he sings on that collection. They have been on my iPod since the album was released nearly two years ago. I finally became a fan with this album. The autobiography is a fine complement to the music, as important to the history of 20th Century music as Keith’s Life and Tyler’s Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? An intimate and informative look at this survivor’s life. 

 – David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

No comments:

Post a Comment