Friday, July 6, 2012

Recommended Reading - My Cross to Bear

I got the new Gregg Allman autobiography, My Cross to Bear for Father's Day, and have been reading it steadily ever since.  I've followed The Allman Brothers Band off and on since I began seriously listening to music.  Unfortunately, by that time, the band was on its downside after numerous battles over drugs, money, jealousy, and creative differences.  The only things I really remembered was Allman's whirlwind romance with Cher and the band's late 70's comeback, which fizzled out after a couple of years following two mediocre recordings and the public's changes in musical styles and tastes.  I really had no idea about the band's beginnings and how close they came to becoming the greatest rock band of all time.....for a while, they could have been the greatest.

The Allman Brothers Band's original lineup - Seated (L to R) Duane Allman, Dickey Betts, Butch Trucks. Standing (L to R) Jaimoe, Gregg Allman, Berry Oakley

The Allmans' brand of rock was a heady mix.  The members came from a wide variety of music, individually playing rock, pop, country, folk, blues, and jazz at one time or another.  All of these influences were given room to breathe in their music, but it was most definitely the blues that played the biggest part in the band's beginnings.  Blues standards like "Stormy Monday," "One Way Out," "Trouble No More," and "You Don't Love Me" were, and continue to be, a big part of their repertoire.  These guys got the blues....they understood them, moreso than most, probably owing in part to their being raised in the south, the birthplace of the blues....the blues just come naturally to most folks down here. They listened to the big AM stations down here, like WLAC out of Nashville, where the blues was played on a regular basis.

Their lineup was unusual for the time in that it featured two lead guitarists (Duane Allman and Dickey Betts), two drummers (Butch Trucks and Jaimoe), a monster bass player (Berry Oakley), and a keyboard player who also happened to be an incredible singer (Gregg Allman).

Duane Allman rapidly developed into one of the best guitarist ever and it was his musical vision that guided the band in its earliest days, and still does, to an extent.  He loved blues and soul music (playing on numerous sessions backing artists like Wilson Pickett, Boz Scaggs, John Hammond, and Aretha Franklin), and was turned on to jazz by Jaimoe.  He and Gregg had played and recorded in a couple of bands in the mid to late 60's, but Duane chafed at the demands of the record companies, who wanted more of the 60's pop and rock that saturated the music charts at the time.  By the time he made his way back south, he had a pretty good idea what he wanted, but wasn't sure about who was going to help him do it.  In time, though, it all fell together, and one of the greatest blues/rock bands ever got started.

My Cross to Bear covers the history of the band fairly extensively.  This tale has been told several times by others, but Gregg is able to present all of this from a first-hand perspective.  From their earliest beginnings, Duane and Gregg had a serious sibling rivalry, but a deep and abiding love for each other.  Gregg actually took up the guitar first, but Duane soon followed suit and became so good so fast that he soon equaled and then surpassed Gregg.  The book follows the brothers through their frustrated days with the Allman Joys and Hour Glass and finally to the formation of Duane's dream band, and those early days that ended too soon.

Of course, you can't talk about the Allmans without mentioning the drugs, the women, and the excesses that they enjoyed.  Gregg doesn't spare many details about any of this.  He also doesn't cut himself much slack either....he was as deeply into it, maybe deeper, as anybody else in the band.  There are dozens of anecdotes from this time period.  Sometimes they're hilarious, sometimes they're sad (Gregg's last conversation with Duane will tear a hole in your heart), but they're always compelling reading.

After Duane's death in 1971 and Oakley's in 1972, the band enjoyed their greatest success, but the wheels were beginning to come off for the group, and personalities began to clash (let's just say Gregg and Dickey Betts won't be attending many parties together).  Mixed in with all of this is Gregg's train wreck of a relationship with Cher, his own solo career, continued drug use and abuse, a major drug trial, money problems, and several break-ups and reunions with the band.  Eventually, the band called things off again in 1982.

Allman and Betts launched solo careers and released albums in the late 80's, even touring together occasionally.  The band reconciled in 1989, with guitarist Warren Haynes joining up.  Allman speaks highly of the new group, particularly Warren Haynes, with whom he would bond as a songwriter, and bass player Allen Woody, who he became close friends with.  In 2000, Betts was dismissed from the band for "personal and professional reasons."  Gregg Allman had finally sobered up in the mid 90's, as had most of the other band members, but Betts did not do so and became increasingly difficult to work with.  Woody died in 2000, of unknown causes.  Since that time, guitarist Derek Trucks has replaced Betts and teamed with Haynes to form a powerhouse combination on guitar that's nearly on a level with those early days, and the band has enjoyed continued success.

The Allman Brothers Band (2009 Edition) - Gregg Allman (front), Back row, L to R, Jaimoe, Otiel Burbridge, Derek Trucks, Warren Haynes, Mark Quinones, Butch Trucks

The remainder of My Cross to Bear focuses on Allman's recovery from his addictions, his attempts to reconcile with his children, his new-found faith, and his medical issues.  Allman was diagnosed with hepatitis C (apparently from a tattoo needle years earlier) and eventually required a liver transplant.  Though he's recovered, it has forced him to cut back on his touring and appearances.  Last year, he released Low Country Blues, a set of blues standards and obscurities recorded prior to his surgery, which was basically his first straight blues recording.  He sounded as good as ever.

Probably the best thing about the book is Allman's candor in discussing these stories and anecdotes.  He doesn't shy from pointing the finger of blame where it belongs, even when it's pointed directly at him.  He takes responsibility for his actions concerning drugs, women, and even business, which makes it easier to accept when he does call things like he sees them regarding others, like Betts, Cher, Capricorn head Phil Walden, and many others.  Even when he does call others out, he still manages to speak highly of them in other cases.  He acknowledges Betts' woodshedding and hard work pulling the band together in the aftermath of Duane's death when no one was sure what would happen, Walden's efforts at helping the band achieve popularity, and even admits that Cher didn't deserve the troubles he put her through with his drug problems (though he still says she can't sing).

Also, you see a side of him that you might not see otherwise, particularly concerning his brother.  It's clear that he still hurts from the loss, even some forty years later.  These brothers shared a musical bond, but also a brotherly bond that was even deeper.

It's always interesting to wonder what would have happened to the group had Allman and Oakley not died....would they have drifted more to the rock side of blues/rock, or the blues side?  Personally, I think they would have stayed more toward blues and jazz than rock. Duane Allman seemed to be leaning toward the jazz side with his free flowing improvisation on guitar, but his brother's vocal talents would have also reflected a blues and soul side as well.  Had Duane not passed away, I have a feeling that we would have never heard a song like "Ramblin' Man," which ironically became the group's biggest radio hit, on one of their albums, and Betts might not have ever been able to expand his songwriting and talents within the band.  It's interesting to speculate about what might have been, but unfortunately that's all it will ever be...speculation.

In the meantime, if you're a fan of blues/rock, Southern rock, or the Allman Brothers, I highly recommend Gregg Allman's My Cross to Bear.  It provides a never-before-seen look at one of the best blues, rock, and soul singers currently performing.

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