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Duane Allman at 70: A Reflection

Alan Bryson By

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By yet another strange coincidence, associate editor Grover Lewis traveled with the band for a week during the final weeks of Duane Allman's life. A month later the magazine carried two stories about Duane Allman. In one, his band was introduced to the nation, and the other, with unplanned irony, covered his death and funeral. The feature article by Grover Lewis was headlined on the cover as: "Duane Allman's Final Days on the Road." This could have been an extraordinary opportunity to capture the band at this pivotal time in their history, and leave an insightful pen portrait of Duane Allman for posterity. Instead the article was an egregiously vindictive hit piece, cravenly published just a few weeks after Duane Allman's death. Given all that, the article, "Hitting the Note with the Allman Brothers Band" (Rolling Stone, November 25, 1971, Issue No. 96 ) requires serious examination.

Grover Lewis is known as one of the originators of the so-called "New Journalism" of the 1960s and 1970s. With undeniable literary flair and an acerbic combination of contempt, condescension, and venom, he snidely lanced the boil of Southern counter-culture he considered the Allman Brothers Band to be. In an insightful 2005 letter to the editor of the New York Times, Butch Trucks set the record straight with respect to Grover Lewis' article:

"In these 35 years of criticism I have read reviews and articles that run the gamut, but there has always been one article that stands above all the rest as being the single most meanspirited piece of fiction ever written about us. It is to journalism what an ant is to an aardvark. That is the Rolling Stone article about the Allman Brothers Band written by Grover Lewis..."

In hindsight, this encounter with the national press was very poorly handled by their management. At that point in time (decades before the Internet), being featured in Rolling Stone had enormous significance. As everyone knows, you can only make one first impression, and at this point the band members were neophytes in dealing with the national press. Their manager, Phil Walden, could have sought advice from Bill Graham about what to expect from Grover Lewis and how to deal with him. At a minimum, he should have ensured that the band was on board, and he should have prepared them.

Duane and Gregg appear to have been particularly hostile to the idea and behaved accordingly. Grover Lewis doesn't seem to have had a meaningful conversation with either of them, not even a brief one, and without Duane's blessing this was destined to end badly. Being joined at the hip with this journalistic appendage obviously represented "selling out" and the phony "star trip" Duane Allman despised. Although Lewis was given complete access to the touring brotherhood, it must have been excruciatingly awkward for him, like Mr. Jones in Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man":

"Well you walk into the room like a camel and then you frown You put your eyes in your pocket and your nose on the ground There ought to be a law against you coming around You should be made to wear earphones Cause something is happening and you don't know what it is do you, Mr. Jones? "

A contributing editor scorned is a potential publicity nightmare, and Grover Lewis had his revenge —he eviscerated the Allman Brothers Band. According to the editorial comment at the beginning of the article, it was submitted a week prior to Duane Allman's death. Thus, Lewis and his editor had a month to react to what had happened, but Lewis didn't allow tragedy to lessen his wrath.

The approach of his piece is readily apparent: come readers, climb up onto my cynical perch, snuggle up next to me under this smug blanket, and look down on this "hoard of Dixie greasers." Music was parenthetical to his chronicle, the "new journalism" focused on other priorities:

..." The Allmans are fast asleep, their mouths characteristically ajar. Duane, whose nickname is 'Skydog' but who resembles a skinny orange walrus instead, looks bowlegged even when he's sitting down." It's fitting that the article features an iconic photo of Duane and Gregg by Anne Leibovitz (which was also a popular poster in the 70s.) Contrary to Lewis's description, her photo captured both of them in the back of a car in a deep sleep with their mouths tightly closed. He felt the need to describe Dickey Betts as having a "bony chest" and wrote: "he has that kind of bony, back-country face that calls to mind the character Robert E. Lee Previtt in James Jones' From Here to Eternity."

A reader in 1971 might have imagined that someone that captious must be quite the physical specimen himself, perhaps a rugged Robert Redford type with a rapier wit. In an appreciation of Grover Lewis published in the L.A. Times on June 25, 1995, his fellow "new journalism" colleague Dave Hickey wrote:

"Since my old pal Grover Lewis no longer walks among us, let me begin by saying that, as a physical creature, by the standards of the culture, Grover was nobody's dream date. But he had an air about him, something likable and complicated. He had this lanky Texas stance, a big mouth with a big smile, and attired as he usually was, in boots, jeans and some goofy '40s shirt, faintly squiffed and glaring at you through those thick Coke-bottle glasses, he was a caricaturist's delight: all eyes, mouth, angles, sweetness and ferocious intelligence. Moreover, he was a Southern Boy to the end. "

Discovering that he was more geek than hunk wasn't nearly as surprising as the assertion he was "a Southern Boy to the end." Throughout the article he refers to himself as "fellow traveler" and misses no opportunity to depict his fellow travelers as backward "Gawgian" lowlifes and churls. In his letter to the New York Times Butch Trucks wrote: "In Lewis's article, all the dialogue among members of our group seemed to be taken directly from Faulkner. We are from the South. We did and still do have Southern accents. We are not stupid. The people in the article were creations of Grover Lewis. They did not exist in reality."

Rereading Lewis's article after all these decades, and reflecting on it light of his friend's description of him, it's not difficult to imagine what the source of his caustic treatment of the Allman Brothers Band might have been: A geeky teenager with talent and ambition graduates high school in 1950 ends up in San Francisco in the late 60s and 70s as a star reporter for Rolling Stone. In 1971 he could make or break people with the written word, and rock musicians treated him accordingly. By then he saw himself as cool and projected a cocksure attitude, but this constructed identity rested on a fragile foundation—below the surface the underlying insecurity and resentment remained. Unfortunately, Duane Allman's personality was kryptonite for Lewis's ego, and the star reporter was suddenly whisk back in time to his former geekdom. Not only did Duane Allman refuse to kiss his ass, when Grover Lewis mouthed off to him, Duane Allman threatened to kick his ass.

The unfortunate result was that his influential article became of revenge-of-the-geek piece. Butch Trucks echos that thought in his letter to the New York Times: "I am sure that our fellow traveler was used to bands falling all over themselves at having one of the great writers from Rolling Stone magazine around. He was somewhat taken aback by our lack of interest in his presence." That would explain his hostile treatment of the Allman Brothers Band, but his self loathing portrayal of Southerners is perplexing.

Dave Hickey's appreciation of Lewis turned out to be quite interesting reading. Grover Lewis had planned to write an autobiographical book entitled "Goodbye If You Call That Gone." Like Gregg and Duane, Grover Lewis had experienced tragedy as a child, as the opening for his proposed book revealed: "In the spring of 1943, my parents—Grover Lewis, a truck driver, and Opal Bailey Lewis, a hotel waitress—shot each other to death with a pawnshop pistol. For almost a year, Big Grover had stalked my mother, my four-year-old sister and me across backwater Texas, resisting Opal's decision to divorce him. When she finally did, and when he finally cornered her and pulled the trigger as he'd promise[sic] to do, she seized the gun and killed him, too."

Hickey notes the courage it took for Grover Lewis to reveal his own story: ..."he was handing every armchair psychologist we knew a false key to his heart, because, clearly, the crazy, loving, violent figure of Big Grover flickered behind half the people he had written about, behind all the bad guys, rough necks and broken poets, behind Robert Mitchum, Duane Allman, Lee Marvin, Lash LaRue, Art Pepper, John Houston and Sam Peckinpah, and Grover knew it. 'I can see it now, of course,' he said, 'how I would want to talk to somebody who was like Big Grover, who was bad and good, and sweet and violent. How I would want to speculate on how he might have survived, done well and been redeemed. That's a reasonable interest, I think, but it doesn't explain anything. That was just the assignment, you know, and I'm too good a reporter to let the assignment distort the story. I always got the story that was there. From all these people. The only difference Big Grover made, I think, was that I was really interested in those guys and predisposed to forgive them for their rough edges. That made better stories, I think.' "

Butch Trucks called Lewis's article mean spirited fiction, with inaccurate and incomplete quotes, and laughable dialog. Grover Lewis claimed: "I'm too good a reporter to let the assignment distort the story. I always got the story that was there. From all these people." Well, the "assignment" may not have distorted the story, but something certainly did. To me, his "story" of Duane Allman's final days on the road is a corrupting tale in which elements of the truth are tethered to a distorted reality clouded by the writer's personal agenda. It is presented as fact, but stylistically it reads like narrative fiction—actually quite good fiction. That makes it powerful, seductive, and pernicious.

He was essentially tagging along with the road crew, who regaled him with their own excesses and exploits. These are reported in detail and represents a significant portion of the "story." His intent seems to have been guilt by association. For example, he couldn't report on any salacious encounters between the band and groupies, so fellow traveler veered off the main road to report from the gutter: "Off to one side, Red Dog is whispering in the ear of the lone groupie who's shown up, a big-nosed redhead with deep acne scars. The girl listens expressionlessly, then finally nods yes to whatever, sucking on a joint as if it were the last sad drooping cock in the world."
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