I’m writing these words from a long way away. In Melbourne, Australia to be exact. I’ve never been to Georgia or Florida, two of the states associated with The Allman Brothers Band. But I’ve been there through their songs. Music can do that: move you through time and space in an instant, fill your mind with feverish dreams, sometimes distorting and bending time, sometimes flashing scenes before your mind, scenes from other peoples’ lives that you take to be as good as your own.
I could have done some ground research for this story to better earth my words, but the music that moves me the most has just a little bit of earth and grit (maybe a whiff of exhaust smoke, too) but is also capable of flight and fancy. So I thought if I could keep it in this realm, this otherworldly place, it would actually be more authentic and pure.
Rock ’n’ roll was quicker and truer than the internet. I would have first stared at the cover of The Allmans’ At Fillmore East LP in 1974, in Mt. Gambier, South Australia, a town that ran on its timber mills and surrounding dairy farms. It’s right at the bottom, inside haunch of the country. A wet, windy and green place. Raw. On the album cover, Gregg Allman is laughing heartily with his head thrown back. He never seemed that happy-go-lucky in his music. He specialized in moaning, grunting and casting a gloomy young man’s spell of blues. (I was the young man.) He would have been still in his 20s—the album was already three years old by the time I got to it—yet, like his contemporary, Robert Plant, he broadcast in a world-weary voice that very convincingly communicated a fate to which he was totally lost, a universe full of danger and dark shadows.
Otherwise, The Allman Brothers were a band like any other. They looked pretty regular. There were blokes in my town that could have walked out of that album cover. But to listen to them now is to marvel at their individual skills and their collective power and focus.
In some ways, Gregg could be compared with another player of the time: Steve Winwood, with the impossibly rich voice, the Hammond organ and the long jazz and R&B arrangements.
By 1974 the Allman Brother called Duane had already left the world of men and women, as had bass player Berry Oakley. More ghosts and tragedy. More blues. The band seemed to have arrived like a crashing wave, thrown onto the beach. Two of them, unable to land, retreated back with the surging water.
They followed up Fillmore with a double album called Eat a Peach. Then they had to step into their own boots for real. Which they did with Brothers and Sisters. Guitarist Dickie Betts belting out his classic “Ramblin’ Man” like a cowboy champ at the plate. They were warlords at the feast.
In my teens, in that remote South Australian town, my friends and I drove through the spectacular boredom of our empty nights, smoking weed and listening slack-brained to the still-gorgeous groove of the epic “Dreams.” I listen now and wait for the moment when Duane’s slide finds the perfect tone and sustained energy. He hovers there in arpeggiated pleasure before leaping up an octave.
We bought albums by anybody associated with The Allman Brothers Band, specifically Tommy Talton and Cowboy. Gregg married Cher, and they recorded an album as Allman and Woman. The whole band went to the White House to wear cool threads on the lawn with Jimmy Carter.
We read that audiences demanded “Whipping Post” at Allman’s gigs, artlessly shouting the song title into the void much like they hassled Skynyrd with verbal ejaculations of “Freebird.” Much like they goaded those other Gods from the Golden Age of Leather, Blue Oyster Cult, with cries of “More cowbell!” Who are they? Moronic spectators, that’s who! Fools! Parrots! Know-nothing clowns!
Then there were the drug busts and the disgrace and the Brothers weren’t brothers no more. For a while.
Gregg lived deep inside his badass image. He appeared in movies as someone not unlike the man he was supposed to be. He had been troubled, and so he became trouble. But he had led a charmed life. One producer and one studio for every album he made except the last. I like to hear about charmed lives; they are rare.
So the “Gray House”—the Jacksonville residence in which they all found each other, as a band—is going to have a plaque put down. They will finally be earthed in Florida, where they always recorded and where Gregg lived. I can see pictures of the current homeowner, Dennis Price, and the historical marker through the internet. The magic box. Price’s garage looks like a crazy museum a fellow used to have in his garage back in Mount Gambier. My favorite type of museum is 100 percent country. Folklore and myth splayed side by side with matchboxes and bottle tops.
A good try at earthing the Midnight Riders.
Dave Graney is an Australian pop star and author.