Reviewing Hayden Carruth’s collection of autobiographical fragments Reluctantly, a Booklist critic was convinced that “men and women of letters… write the best autobiographies. Such authors present the philosophical, psychological, and emotional realities of their lives, demonstrating that the examined life is, if not the life most worth living, then the life most worth reading and thinking about.” Autobiographies by the frequently unlettered men and women of popular music often present a life that has not been examined until very recently, sometimes not until the suggestion of a book has been made, and then through the fog of an abuse-compromised memory. Musicians, even songwriters, rarely display the care for language or the patience for research needed to present an accurate, involving story; rock autobiographies can feel slight, forced, and either sensationalized or lacking in narrative drive. They often leave it to others to examine their lives and bring to a reader the philosophical, psychological, and emotional realities that make these fascinating figures who they are.
After the resounding success of Keith Richards’s Life (2010), and Patti Smith’s Just Kids (2010), the fall of 2012 brought a harvest of long-awaited life stories. Rod Stewart, Rick Springfield, Neil Young, John Taylor, Peter Criss, and Pete Townshend all published theirs, while major biographies of Leonard Cohen, James Brown, Mick Jagger, The Smiths, and Bruce Springsteen made it out by Christmas. Most rock books fall short of achieving “essential reading” status, but My Cross to Bear by Gregg Allman comes close. With the help of co-writer Alan Light, Gregory Lenoir Allman follows a four-point outline common to the genre; he provides entertaining evidence of ignorance, indulgence, isolation, and illumination with a memory as fuzzy as one of his brother’s guitar pedals.
Duane “Skydog” Allman was America’s first guitar hero, our answer to the Pages, Becks, and Claptons of the British Blues Invasion. What Duane had in mind for the Allman Brothers Band, formed with brother Gregg in 1969 after the disintegration of two earlier bands, was “a revitalized rhythm and blues band” combining elements of blues, rock, and jazz into an exploratory, ecstatic music featuring two guitars playing “all this harmony.” More importantly, Duane valued harmony within the band itself. “The word ‘band’,” writes Gregg, “means a bunch of guys working together for the same goal,” and the Allman Brothers defined that. Gregg’s discovery of the fragile temporality of such togetherness threw him for years after Duane’s death in 1971: threw him from opiates to cocaine to alcohol; threw him into inter-band turmoil, break-ups, and reunions; threw him into an intermittent solo career with its own apex and nadir; and finally, threw him into a new Allman Brothers Band that continues to live up to Duane’s vision. It is, in fact, the repeated use of the phrase “my brother” that gives Allman’s book its poignancy. “I didn’t learn to grieve until my brother had been dead for ten years, maybe longer,” he writes. “They ought to have a mandatory class in school to teach kids how to deal with loss, because sooner or later, somebody dear to them leaves this earth.”
Gregory’s ignorance of how to deal with loss is only the most moving example of the theme of ignorance in Cross. He confesses ignorance of the hazards of heroin use (“No one ever used the word ‘heroin.’ The only word that was ever said was ‘doojee.’”); he falls victim to the classic songwriter’s ignorance of publishing rights, so that a so-called producer ends up owning some of Gregg’s music (including the beloved ballad “Melissa”) which “he had nothing to do with for a grand total of $600”; and then he is ignorant of what to do with money once he has plenty of it: “Having money really was something I had to learn. And it was tough. I blew a million before I saved a nickel.”
You can imagine the indulgence this involves. The entire band and their road crew were deep into “doojee” by the time their breakthrough album, At Fillmore East (1971), made them one of America’s most-loved musical brotherhoods. “We played for each other, we played to each other, and we played off each other, which is what the Allman Brothers is all about.” But playing inebriated eventually makes such sublime interaction impossible. And personal proclivities can pull a brotherhood apart: Allman describes a desperate search for companionship both in and out of marriages that eventually has him living in Hollywood, overdubbing his vocals on tapes the rest of the band sends from Macon.
My Cross To Bear captures isolation with one of the funniest lines in any rock book: “When the Allman Brothers got that goddamn plane, it was the beginning of the end.” This Boeing 720 came to symbolize the excess that was souring the band’s harmony.
The truth is, we
couldn’t… stand each other; with each day on the road, the separation grew
between us. We didn’t talk, we didn’t hang, we didn’t do nothing together.
Everyone had their own limo, everyone stayed in their own suite. Rehearsals
slowed down to almost never, and sound checks became a thing of the past. It
happened little by little, where you don’t even notice that it’s happening,
until it’s wrapped all around you, and then the realization hits you like a ton
So did the bill. Gregg describes their “epicurean attitude” of eat, drink, get laid, get high, and play music as typical of the day, but when the tour for the band’s most successful album—Brothers and Sisters in 1973—came to an end and “that check arrived, forget about it. That’s when the Allman Brothers broke up, right then and there.” By then, the sense of isolation had spread to the band’s audience, and not until 1990 would a subsequent regrouping of the band reconnect with their old fans and all those harmonies resound. Gregg considers the 2003 album Hittin’ the Note to be “the best thing we’ve cut since my brother was around.” The reason is simple: “For the first time in as long as I could remember we were a group who all liked each other.”
As important as these themes can be, most readers come to rock books seeking the revelatory: that story detailing how key players met, what inspired a great song, the poor judgment that led to the right decision. Cross is full of such revelations, and Allman’s laid-back, off-hand style tosses them out with the same casual determination with which he would fold after a disappointing hand of poker. That one of America’s finest slide guitarists came to the instrument as the result of mishandling a horse in Los Angeles is indeed a striking disclosure.
Gregory had warned his brother to walk the shod horse across the asphalt to the meadow, “or he’ll slip and bust both your asses.” But Duane balked at taking any direction from his little brother, so he mounted and took off and—sure enough—ended up with his arm in a sling for six weeks. He blamed Gregg for the accident and refused to speak to him during his convalescence. Then he caught “a raging cold,” making things worse. In an attempt to make amends, the younger Allman wrapped up a bottle of Coricidin and the just-released first album by Taj Mahal, put them on Duane’s doormat, knocked, and ran. Several hours later Duane, inspired by Jesse Ed Davis’s playing on the album, called his brother and demanded he come over at once. What Gregg found was an empty Coricidin bottle with the label washed off encasing Duane’s ring finger as he played along with “Statesboro Blues.” So the Allman Brothers Band’s signature song came from a Southern blues boy turned on to the slide by a Native American musician in California. Wow.
“Sounding good was what mattered, and my brother really believed that.” Such devotion to the music itself meant that Gregg could fend off requests from managers and others to “get out there and stand up with a microphone and be a frontman” as well as expectations that he abide by Southern norms where “race relations” were concerned. With the inclusion of Jai Johanny “Jaimo” Johanson on drums, the Allman Brothers Band became the first integrated combo to gain success, and they went up against plenty of consternation if not outright hostility. Writing about the time he and Duane were kids in Florida, Gregg realizes that devotion to the music was already there: “If a musician could play, we didn’t look at his skin.” The boys were confused by racism in the South; even their mother confounded them by demanding that a black musician be ejected from their home. Gregg soon came to the countercultural conclusion that “there are good and bad people, there are heartful and heartless people, and they come in any color.”
That Gregory is one of those “heartful people” becomes endearingly clear throughout Cross, so that by the time he submits to his final rehabilitation attempt (his eleventh or twelfth, he is not sure) the reader is as ready as he is “to be set free from that shit.” Brother Gregory is a lovely cat, as Duane would say, and throughout the book the singer tries to be “as good a person as [his] brother.” “He set the pattern for my life to follow,” Gregg writes; but he goes far beyond that pattern. When Duane died he was still drinking and drugging. Despite his unwavering advocacy for the band, Duane remained impulsive and reckless. Whatever hardship Duane endured during his short life, it is clear by the end of Cross that it was nothing compared to what his “babybrah” had gone through.
Illumination follows. Gregg has been able to find “some sort of spirituality”; he can say “[both] music and my Maker… serve as anchors,” a confession Duane could not have made. Growing up, the boys “didn’t really believe in God, but didn’t really not believe in him either.” Now, attending an Episcopal church in Daytona, Gregg can see the purpose and reason behind what he does best: “I help make people happy, and I think in the eyes of God, that’s pretty damn good. I think he wants his children to be happy—that’s why he made music.”
J. D. Buhl used to stay up late with his radio down low, waiting for KFMG in Des Moines, Iowa, to play the Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post.” He’d just turned thirteen when Skydog died.