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A few years back, Gregg Allman said in an interview that one thing was for sure, the book he was writing wouldn't have a song title. So when the publication of his memoir, My Cross To Bear (William Morrow, 2012) was announced, my initial reaction was somewhere between skepticism and ambivalence. Not only was the book a play on his song, "Not My Cross to Bear," but at least eight of the chapters were directly taken from song titles.
Beyond that, I wondered about the impact prolonged and excessive drug and alcohol abuse had on his long-term memory and on his capacity to have truly experienced reality as it happened. Still, there was room for optimism here, both Eric Clapton and Keith Richards, despite serious addictions, managed to pull off excellent memoirs. So notwithstanding my high regard of Allman's considerable musical legacy, my expectations for his memoir were tempered.
To my surprise, it is on par with both Clapton's and Richards' books. A great deal of credit is no doubt due to co-writer Alan Light for his editorial and organization skills in putting together such a smooth read. Equally important was the contribution of John Lynskey, editor of Hittin' The Note, the Allman Brothers Fan Club's quarterly magazine, who, according to Allman, supplied lots of information and jogged his memory about many career-related events. Even serious fans are apt to learn something from the details he flushed out.
For example, twenty years ago in an interview, Allman claimed to have hitchhiked from Los Angeles to Jacksonville, Florida to form Allman Brothers Band. In the memoir, he recounts paying gas money to a former bassist from the Allman Joys to drive him back, and even describes how Duane slammed the door in the guy's face after the cross country trip with Gregg.
A New York Times review seems to revel in Allman's sexploits:
"Women threw themselves at him, and he devoured them. He didn't have the heart to turn many away. One of the great virtues of My Cross to Bear, his slightly better-than-average rock memoir, is how frank Mr. Allman is about the perks of being a tall, blond, intricately bewhiskered white rock god in skinny jeans who can bellow the blues like a black man."
The review neglected two particularly important aspects of the book. First, is Allman's recounting of his musical back story. We get a lot of insight into what he was exposed to, and who he met along the way. For instance, in 1966 the virtually unknown Allman Joys were playing a club in New York City when Rolling Stones happened to come in. Duane Allman launched into "19th Nervous Breakdown," which, Gregg recalled, the Stones actually dug. In L.A. they hung out with Mike Bloomfield and the Electric Flag when they did gigs at the Cheetah Club. They also did gigs with Spirit, the Seeds, and Love, and opened for Buffalo Springfield at the Fillmore West. Gregg even hung out with Jim Morrisonthere is a lot more interesting musical trivia like that in the book.
Equally significant is the insight into Gregg and Duane's relationship. Over the years, from books, magazines, and interviews it seemed to me, and surely many other fans, that Duane Allman was a strong protective presence in Gregg Allman's life as they weathered the effects of a murdered father, years of military school, and the hard knocks of their early life on the road as struggling musicians. The book, however, reveals a complex sibling relationship and family dynamic. (In the book Allman breaks some exciting news about Galadrielle Allman, Daune's daughter. She is working on an extensive biography of her father.)
Gregg and Duane shared a deep dedication and drive to make music, and had an extremely close relationship, yet there were also unmistakable elements of abuse. Radio personality Howard Stern had some intriguing insights as he peppered Allman with questions for nearly an hour. He got Gregg to admit that Duane had intimidated and abused him (even punching him in the face) and that growing up he resented that his mother hadn't shielded him from the mistreatmentStern posited that his anger from that might have something to do with his history of substance abuse.
Stern also asked about the portion of the book when Gregg Allman recounts being less than impressed with seeing Jimi Hendrix live at the Atlanta Pop Festival: ..."in all honesty, I thought he could have done better. From what I've heard, he wasn't always all that much when he played live." Allman denied it and told Stern, "Not at all, you've got the wrong guy."
Allman's recollections of sound wizard Tom Dowd, music impresario Bill Graham, road crews, managers, and band mates are also important elements of the book. There's a great inside story of Duane and Clapton from Gregg, who was there for three days in the Miami studio at the Layla (Polydor, 1970) sessions.
As a songwriter and vocalist, I love jazz for the experience of being in the center of intense creativity. It is the most potent form of music for keeping the artist and the audience in the 'now. Being in the moment is essential for humans, and we need help in learning how to do that. As a songwriter, I need the depth of musicality that jazz voicings can give my stories. My songs seem light and whimsical, but the message is not.
I met my main collaborator, Mark Fitzgibbon, at one of his gigs. I needed to do my first original album, and his playing was masterful, robust, and beautiful. At the time, I didn't realize how suited we were as a team. We're onto our 4rth album together.
My advice to new listeners is to listen to a really clear and simple version of a song so you can then hear what the musicians are doing and enjoy their creativity and musicality. Also, you have to see jazz live to appreciate it fully. You'll never feel it the same way listening to a CD or online. You need the vibration to go through your body to really get it!
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