The Allman Brothers Band spent so much time around these parts in the late ’60s and early ’70s, it’s common to hear locals claim to having known them — or at least having seen them play. Some may even swear they smoked with Duane, or shot with Gregg — whatever. It certainly seems plausible. Gregg Allman’s new best-selling memoir, “My Cross to Bear,” details his drug use, sexual exploits and metamorphosis from awkward teen into one of the best blues-rockers of all time — and it gives credence to any Northeast Florida wannabe trying to boost his or her own starf*cker rep.
Allman’s book, produced with rock writer Alan Light (Spin, VIBE), is teeming with all the tragedies (his father was murdered, his brother Duane was killed in a motorcycle accident in Macon, Ga., he himself almost died from drug overdoses several times) and joys (phenomenal success as a founding member of a band with a unique sound, marriage to a pop megastar and a career reboot in his 60s) one would expect from the grand old man of the Southern-rock-jam-band-blues-group. Yet the often-riveting narration feels unfinished. You kept expecting to hear how Gregg felt about what he’d just described — getting his first guitar, getting his virginity taken, smoking weed for the first time — or at least hear his perspective as a survivor. But there aren’t many musings, just a reporting and a terse comment or two — like the many asides that reveal his obvious hatred for guitarist Dickey Betts, who was with the band from start to finish. When Betts discussed the breakup (the first one) in Rolling Stone in 1976, he’s quoted as having said, “I’ll never play onstage with Gregg Allman again.” Allman writes: “No problem, brother! I just wish we had held him to that.”
The band reformed many times, with diverse lineups, until finally regrouping as the Gregg Allman Band — without Betts. The two musicians had serious artistic differences, mostly due to Betts’ tyrannical ego and Allman’s clashing personality. Betts claimed he was “fired by fax,” but the document in question was, in essence, a letter of intervention from the band regarding Betts’ own out-of-control demons.
If the autobiography is light on reflection, it doesn’t skimp on photos. There’s a great one of the young brothers, chubby in their military school uniforms in 1957, and onstage, awkward in their matching jackets, high-schoolers frugging before them. There’s also the now-classic and darkly prophetic image of the two brothers Allman sporting those signature sideburns, shoulder-to-shoulder and nodding out in their tour bus at the height of their fame.
Most chapters open with a black-and-white shot of whichever iteration of the ABB follows, with the exception of Chapter 12, simply titled “Cher.” It was that union that launched the modern celebrity couples mania, with tabloids rabidly reporting their every move, warts and all. Still, they look pretty good together.
Lifetime Achievement Grammy winner Allman delivers his life lessons in a matter-of-fact, almost apathetic manner, including the terrible loss he (and the rock world at large) suffered when Duane died, his recovery from addiction and his ongoing battle with hepatitis C. Even his now-sober walk is reported without fanfare, though we do get the dirt about his heroin and alcohol addictions, his multiple marriages and miscellaneous progeny. (He’s the father of five, by five different women — four of his kids are musicians, the fifth is a nurse.)
Death figures prominently throughout, and not just that of his brother Duane. The book will introduce a new musician, roadie, manager or girlfriend, and then Allman will wrap up the discussion with that person’s death, recent or long ago, and how much he misses his friend. This particular man, in his sixth decade, is bound to have some folks in his life pass on, but even still, percentage seems remarkably high. All that death has surely taken a toll.
Of all the onerous woes Allman has racked up, it’s still not clear which particular one is his “cross to bear.” He regrets the millions of dollars just pissed away on drugs and other excesses, he regrets the legal troubles of various band members and roadies (though he doesn’t really cop much blame) and he regrets not having been more involved with his children.
It may be that Gregg Allman is carrying the burden of lost joy. When he and his brother Duane first began to make music together, the happy bond they forged was evident. As the trappings of fame and fortune began to take over, that joy vanished. It seems Allman has regained his bliss in his sobriety, which has a ripple effect into every aspect of his life now. He’s playing music with founding ABB members Butch Trucks and Jaimoe Johnson — with an annual standing gig at New York City’s Beacon Theatre, where The Allman Brothers Band first appeared in 1989 — he’s connecting with his kids, he’s doing book signings, he’s learned how to pray. Trouble no more, indeed.
Gregg Allman appears at a book-signing at 6 p.m. on May 31 at Books-A-Million, 1910 Wells Road, Orange Park. 215-2300.