Gregg Allman: My Cross to Bear
Gregg Allman w/ Alan Light
Hardback; 380 pages
The most vibrant interludes in guitarist and singer Gregg Allman's autobiography are those where he talks about songwriting. His accounts of exchanging and refining ideas, by himself or collaboratively, carries a level of engagement hard to find elsewhere in the 380 plus pages. Little wonder Allman values the gift of songwriting, and does so with a fervor that outshines his description of the spirituality he's come to embrace in his later years: it is his true voice.
Accordingly, it's altogether surprising to hear the varied tones with which Allman recounts his life during My Cross to Bear. The man's usual manner of speaking, other than through his songs, is a lazy Southern drawl. But, like the ambiguity of the book's titledoes he or does he not accept his burden?the voices and inflections the surviving Allman Brother adopts alternately illuminate and camouflage the character portraits he draws, and the themes he consciously (and perhaps unconsciously) explores.
Given how distant Allman sometimes sounds, it's almost as if there is no more or less to his life than what an outsider might hear about in the media. Yet as the book progresses, suspense grows, predicated on what seems like nothing less than a death wish on the part of the author. Still, when that suspense rises closest to the surface, as in Allman's account of his jury testimony against an aide by which he alienated his bandmates, he is so matter of fact about the consequences of his actions, that his debt of gratitude to guardian angels, as expressed later in the book, sounds fatuous.
Likewise, the progression of Allman's story in general: the drama of his health is, not surprisingly, the exception to that rule, but even those harrowing experiences draw little more rise out of him, than his wonderment at the deterioration of the Allman Brothers band: wasting a small fortune on its final big tour of the mid-1970s occurred just a little over two years after his brother's death in the fall of 1971. That followed the subsequent success of Eat A Peach (Capricorn, 1972) as well as the tragic death of bassist Berry Oakley in a motorcycle accident spookily similar to brother Duane's.
An even greater grasp of mainstream success, triggered by Dickey Betts' song "Ramblin' Man" as an across the board hit, comes with the Brothers and Sisters (Capricorn, 1973) album; it was soon after his and Allman's solo careers begin to drain the momentum of the band. It's not long after that story that Allman's derogatory comments about his brother's original guitar partner become more frequent. So much so that Betts' ousting from the band in 2000 would seem a fait accompli if not for Allman's contention that he, and fellow founding member drummers Butch Trucks and Jaimoe, nee Jai Johanny Johanson, intended only for their estranged brother to clean up before returning to the fold.
The early segments of My Cross to Bear, when Allman is describing his childhood, are like the gathering of ideas he references when he first started planning to write the book. He fumbles for memories while simultaneously trying to grasp their significance. Given the pain of a father slain when he was an infant, it's understandable the real import of his early life may be too painful for him to confront.
In Allman's tales of making music and forming bands, the speech pattern adopts a swagger, like that of the best music he made with the Allman Brothers. His pride in the band is as clear as his own self-doubt and therein lies the key to Gregg his life path, at least to any reader who has followed him as a musician throughout his career: the sorrow he's borne, as a child without a father and, subsequently, a grown man robbed of his father figure, brother Duane, has fueled his art and undermined hopes of tranquility.
As tales of sexual escapades alternate with increasingly frequent flashes of substance consumption, extended intervals reflecting on the bond within the band and the music they created appear, if not quite in passing, then in proportion to the time Allman spends on stage. He displays little sense that the actions of the off-time affected the music, implicitly offering the theory that creativity has a life of its own, at least up to a point, and that the time spent with his bandmates, even when they were not playing, contributed positively to the music when they were playing.
Clichés aside, the turmoil of Allman's two stints in military school as a young boy, his own count of eleven attempts at rehabilitation and occasionally violent personal relationships, no doubt add to the authenticity of his feel for the blues and R&B. That produced a voice aged beyond its years plus a well of feeling that deepened with experience, and turned original songs such as "Dreams" and "Whipping Post" into vivid autobiography. It also cost him the serenity he's sought so much of his adult life.
Allman seems to know full well events might have transpired differently had he been, in line with his name as the surviving Allman Brother, more assertive of his point of view. Yet it's in keeping with his low profile of preferenceas depicted in the famous
To be fair, Allman offers all the affection and admiration that's due for those he feels deserve it and it's those individuals, such as original ABB drummer Jaimoe, Haynes and lifelong mentor Floyd Miles, with whom he feels an unspoken connection. Likewise, his multiple marriages are predicated on an intuition of a sort that he ultimately learns to mistrust, but not until after the celebrity debacle of his relationship with Cherwhere celebrity turned to notorietyand the more positive development of relationships with offspring he hardly knew as children.
It's little surprise, then, that there's a lack of clarity in the denouement, such as it is, of My Cross to Bear. No doubt Allman is honest in his acceptance of the limits imposed by his age and physical infirmities, but his declaration that his life's "been a blast" sounds like he's trying to convince himself of something he doesn't quite believe. Likewise, after repeated allusions to financial mismanagement, or lack of it, during the period ABB began to taste success, he comes across self-serving, not to mention somewhat self-deceiving, in his recitation of a letter of gratitude to Phil Walden, the late owner and operator of Capricorn Records and the Allmans' manager. (Allman's reticence to name Kirk West as the curator of the Big House Museum is odd to say the least: "one of our long-time tour personnel" does not quite make it.)
But then dichotomy is Allman's life in microcosm. He's been a man at war with himself to the point of emotional paralysis, freed only by the power of the music he has made, in the form of songs he's written, recordings he's made and performances he's given. He strongly intimates such intervals are exactly those for which he is grateful to have survived and, in fact, constitute ample reward for the hardships he's endured. In a product of one of those moments of inspiration, a tune called "Old Before My Time," from The Allman Brothers' Hittin' The Note (Sanctuary, 2003), Allman vividly combines knowing reflection and world-weary acceptance. Such clearheaded perspective may be fleeting during My Cross to Bear, but Gregg Allman's concerted effort to be open cannot be denied.