Gregg Allman: Still Deferring to His Big Brother

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The Grateful Dead typically get credit for launching the jam band movement. And from a cultural perspective, (think college kids selling grilled cheeses out of their van in parking lots as they caravan across the country all summer) there’s something to that.

But musically, it wasn’t the Dead’s meandering, often aimless forays into psychedelic space-noise that launched a thousand Widespread Panics and Umphreys McGees. It was the Allman Brothers Band, and their tight, improvisational, Southern spin on blues and jazz.

And wouldn’t you know it, Gregg Allman himself agrees. In one of many unguarded moments peppering Allman’s new autobiography, My Cross to Bear, out today, he writes: “If somebody had asked me what I thought of [The Dead], I would have said, ‘I think that their music ain’t got no groove at all,’ and it didn’t.”

And when it comes to the Southern rock movement of the 1970s, he calls his own outfit “some Super Bowl motherfuckers compared to all them other bands.”

Perhaps inspired by the candor in Keith Richards’ autobiography, this is another refreshingly open look at at seminal musical life, in which opinions aren’t sanded down for publication. For Allman, Lynyrd Skynyrd “sure ended up appealing to a real redneck bunch of folks”; his ex-wife Cher is “not a very good singer”; and British blues “is like a parrot that lives in Greenland.”

In fact, Allman’s prose reads as if he dictated it into a tape recorder and someone transcribed it syllable for Southern syllable–it’s peppered with conversational interjections, like “I’m tellin’ ya” and “man.”

In many ways, this is a book that functions nearly as a dual biography: Gregg’s own of course, but also his big brother Duane’s. Until Duane’s untimely death at age 24, the two brothers led largely parallel lives, and no one knew the guitar hero better than his brother. In fact, the portion of the book following Duane’s death (nearly 200 pages) often feels like a glorified postscript, replacing blow-by-blow recollections with broad generalities that have a tendency to skip over whole years (and certainly whole albums).

If Hollywood were to option the book as a movie (and don’t be surprised if it does), the most poignant scenes would involve Duane:

  • the famous “foot-shootin’ party,” in which Duane caps himself in the foot to avoid going to Vietnam;
  • the phone call Duane placed to Gregg from across the country, to tell him he’s “got these two drummers … and a bass player from Chicago” and all they need is for him to to get back to Georgia to sing and play the Hammond organ (which Gregg had only played three times to that point);
  • and Gregg’s heart-wrenching revelation that the last conversation he ever had with his brother consisted of Duane accusing him of stealing a bit of cocaine, and Gregg lying to him and saying that he hadn’t done it.

Like Richards’s book, plenty of pages are devoted to drug use. In fact, after Duane’s passing, one of the band’s primary motivations for continuing on was that they were afraid that without music, they’d all become junkies and dealers. Sex gets plenty of attention, too: as a rare longhair in the Civil Rights-era South, the handsome author had no shortage of opportunities. And he seems to have taken every one. “My dick was like a damn oak tree all day,” he writes, as he fondly reminisces a three-way dalliance beside an old country road.

But as much luck as he possessed as a swordsman, karma came around during his six failed marriages, Cher being only the most famous. One of them, whom he doesn’t name, actually had him committed to a psych ward for eight days. The reason: “She had a dude across town, and she wanted to roll with it, baby–she just needed me out of the way for a few days at least, and this was the best she could come up with.”

Tied to the whipping post, indeed.

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