By W. Perry Hall, Contributing Writer
“My Cross to Bear”
William Morrow, 2012
In a pivotal scene in Cameron Crowe’s movie “Almost Famous,” Lester Bangs, a famous rock critic played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, scolds 15-year-old William Miller for making friends with the rock band Stillwater. Miller is the fictional alter ego of Crowe, who toured with The Allman Brothers Band — which largely inspired the fictional Stillwater — as a teen in late 1973 to write an article for Rolling Stone magazine, when the band was at the top of the rock world.
Teenaged Miller admits being friends with the band made him feel cool, to which Bangs replies: “I met you. You are not cool … while women will always be a problem for us, most of the great art in the world is about that very same problem. Good-looking people don’t have any spine. Their art never lasts. They get the girls, but we’re smarter.”
Though Gregg Allman, who died May 27, got more than his share of “foxy ladies,” most rock fans would strongly disagree with anyone claiming Allman’s art won’t last. His “Midnight Rider” and “Whipping Post” are two of the most covered songs in rock music and staples for many club bands.
The live “At Fillmore East” version of “Whipping Post” (which Allman wrote in the middle of the night with burnt matchsticks on an ironing board cover) has one of the most memorable openings in any musical genre, with maybe the most recognized bass intro … followed by one, then the other of dual lead guitars pealing in from Duane Allman and Dickey Betts … then Gregg’s Hammond organ and his gritty voice sliding in with “I’ve been run down / I’ve been lied to.” In 2002, Rolling Stone lauded this as “the finest live performance ever” recorded.
Allman’s 2012 memoir, “My Cross to Bear,” has its share of tragedies. Gregg and Duane, his 18-months-older brother, grew up without their father, who was murdered in a carjacking. The book’s first half covers the early years until Duane’s premature death at 24 from a motorcycle accident in Macon, Georgia.
Allman sketches a vivid portrait of Duane, named second greatest guitarist of all time by Rolling Stone in 2003, in part due to his signature slide guitar playing that famously cries like a wounded angel on Derek & the Dominos’ “Layla,” most notably on the outro into the piano exit. Allman looked up to Duane, who was more driven and confident of his musical talents.
Allman tells his tale in a candid, casual tone like an affable throwback hippie who neither pulls punches nor aggrandizes his remarkable life. He is forthright and fascinating on the rise and fall of this quintessential rock band, as he is on his experiences with “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll,” rock’s early mantra.
Allman’s bandmates pegged him early with the moniker “Coyotus Maximus,” likely a fitting nickname for a tall young man with long blond hair and a “cute little accent,” who transformed onstage into a rock god belting out blues rock, many say, like a black man. Allman recalls, without seeming to boast or providing graphic details, how some nights he would have a woman in each of four or five different rooms, and “for a while there I was with at least three women a week — at least three.”
Allman covers his marriage to Cher from 1975 to 1979 without addressing how it was being half of the first modern celebrity tabloid couple. He regrets his absence as a father to his five children. He wished at least one had been raised in the South, noting “not one of my kids has got a Southern accent. Ain’t that a bitch?”
Decadence didn’t stop at promiscuity. As Allman describes, at one time all the band members were addicted to heroin. The band’s tour bus was stopped twice in Alabama in the early 1970s, the second time in Grove Hill when Allman made the mistake of throwing a bag of heroin out the window.
Once they kicked heroin, they proceeded to cocaine and booze. On first entering their newly purchased Boeing 730, “Welcome Allman Bros.” was written on the bar in cocaine.
Allman struggled mightily with substance abuse, making 18 trips to rehab. He got serious about sobriety the morning after showing up soused at the 1995 ceremony inducting the band into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He claimed to be sober since.
Addressing his power struggle after Duane’s death with lead guitarist Dickey Betts, who he depicts as a callous, controlling jerk, Allman said he had a bad vibe from the beginning when Betts showed up to practices wearing ruffled shirts. Yet, “Dickey ain’t no devil. He’s just a mixed-up guy.”
Allman was proud Jaimoe, an African-American drummer from Ocean Springs, was one of The Allman Brothers Band’s founding members in 1969, with racial tensions still prevalent in the South. Allman and other members of the band rejected the label “Southern rock,” particularly after it became synonymous with uncouth rednecks flying rebel flags at Lynyrd Skynyrd concerts.
The Allman Brothers Band’s music was an unprecedented mix of blues, jazz, soul and psychedelic rock. As ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons wrote for Rolling Stone, the band “defined the best of every music from the American South in that time. They were the best of all of us … [and] went beyond race and ego.”
This book is outstanding as rock memoirs go, primarily due to Allman’s incredible candor and his compelling insight into the music and behind the scenes. He tells his story without beefs or flourishes, showing the sort of spiritual serenity he says he got when he finally got clean, without closing the door on “all the hell I caused other people” or moralizing about his sobriety.
Allman concludes “My Cross to Bear” with a prescient epitaph: “If I died today, I have had me a blast,” but “I don’t know if I’d do it again.”