“The most enjoyable thing about playing in my band is that there is only one cook in the kitchen”
Six years before he died, I was chatting – well, exchanging email questions and answers – with Gregg Allman.
After some prodigious health battles, the Allman Brothers Band singer-keyboardist was on tour again (under his name with an eight-piece backing band) and expressing a not-uncommon attitude about life on the road, especially for a musician in his mid-60s after a lifetime of doing it. For Allman, living daily with dualism.
“I hate it,” he told me. “I tell people I’ll never retire from playing; it’s the traveling that will make me quit! I love playing music; it’s my life’s blood, man, and that’s what keeps me out on the road.”
What did he do in his free time?
Lots. “I love to ride motorcycles, always have,” he said. “I really enjoy deep-sea fishing as well; there is tremendous tarpon fishing right off the coast of Savannah, where I live. A lot of people may not know this, but I also dabble in painting. I have a room in my home with these big windows that look out over all these old oak trees. It’s just a beautiful setting, man, so I’ll go up there and paint for a while; it really relaxes me and lets me clear my head.”
Allman played hundreds and hundreds of gigs over the years, of course, with the Allman Brothers Band (in its multiple configurations) and solo, leading his own group. Allman’s last gig was at the Laid Back Festival in Denver, Sept. 25 2016. It was an acoustic set. He played guitar and sang and did so with guitarist Scott Sharrard. Their last tune, well, according to Setlist.fm was “Whipping Post.” He died the next spring from complications of liver cancer, and he’ll be five years gone on May 27.
VIDEO: Gregg Allman live 12/11/81
I saw the Allman Brothers Band a few times, never with his brother Duane, however. Duane crashed his motorcycle Oct. 29, 1971 and died before the Allmans ever got up my way, which at the time was central Maine. His death forced his shier younger brother into the spotlight, one he shared with and guitarist Dickey Betts. Much unbrotherly bad blood was spilled over the years. In fact, the very tenuous nation of the ABB’s fabled “brotherhood” was severely put to the test, if not shredded, in Gregg’s 2012 autobiography, My Cross to Bear.
I wrote this about a 1981 show at Boston Garden: The Allman Brothers Band are the proud, bluesy standard-bearer of the Southern rock genre. The band plays boogie and blues – dual emphasis, thank you. At their best they’re like a river system, with many tributaries diverging from the mighty main branch. Guitarists Dickey Betts and Dan Toler and keyboardist Gregg Allman weave intricate, expressive leads around each other. There’s a strong center as well; the bass work of Dave Goldflies and the percussion of Butch Trucks and Dave Toler is both fluid and taut.
“Jessica,” which started their set, and “Blue Sky” were bucolic, country- blues trips, with Betts’ trebly, sustain-and- sting blues playing creating a gentle magic. “Can’t Take It with You When You Go” and “One More Silver Dollar” were showcases for Allman’s voice – crying songs of gruff blues power.
The Allman Brothers Band shows definite weaknesses. They excelled on their longer, older material and came up short on more concise newer songs, suggesting the band is at a creative lull. “Whipping Post,” was, in fact, cut to under 10 minutes, apparently to make room for newer songs like the too glossy, too poppy “Straight from the Heart.” But the expected climaxes, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” and – even though it was truncated – “Whipping Post,” remained exquisite. The sound was excellent and the band built gracefully to a peak, charged off, built to another, soared, paused – and then screamed out with glorious, full instrumental force.
So, there we were in 2017, Allman and I doing this email interview. Why email? It could have been for a variety of reasons: Saving your voice for one. In his book, Allman wrote, “I know how many nights in a row I can play and how many nights in a row I can sing.”
But, there was also this: He could dodge questions he didn’t care to answer for whatever reason. I emailed questions to Allman’s publicist who relayed them to Allman and then the publicist emailed answers back to me.
Email interviews are a strange beast. On the questioner’s part, there’s difficulty because it’s hard to convey nuance and tone in cold hard type. (Is humor intended? Does the question sound harsh or playful?) And, most importantly, you can’t roll with an answer and move along a track that could prove revealing or conversationally informant. Your questions are set in stone, as the answers soon will be.
As I composed the questions, I listened (again) to the Allman Brothers Band’s music, his solo material and, perhaps crucially, read My Cross to Bear. It didn’t seem like Allman – who penned “Melissa,” “Midnight Rider” and “Whipping Post” for the ABB – had held back much. Sex, drugs, crime, debauchery, intra-band strife, the reality and illusion of brotherhood, countless groupies, six marriages (including Cher), multiple band breakups and personnel changes. So, the door was open. Or so I thought. And, frankly, he was not bad at all with what he answered.
But here’s what Allman would not discuss:
* The fate of Midnight Rider, the Allman biopic, based on his book, where, in February, crew member Sarah Jones was hit by a freight train and killed. (Her parents have filed a civil suit against Allman and the film-makers.) Others were severely injured. It looks unlikely that they will resume filming. The people helming the movie were Randall Miller and Jody Slavin, who gave us the truly awful CBGB.
* The convoluted, sad, angry situation with Betts, whose alcoholism, egotism and diminished playing ability led to his exit. There was the irony of him writing the band’s big radio hit, “Ramblin’ Man,” and his attempted takeover of the group on the Brothers and Sisters album. Explaining why the “brotherhood” that people saw in the band wasn’t always, or often, the truth offstage.
* Allman’s theory for why he kept going back to the comfort zone of heroin. And the catalyst that made him turn his life around – to finally kick dope and booze – and ultimately embrace religion, and become an Episcopalian. The liver transplant in 2010 that saved his life.
* The fact that the Allman Brothers Band was going to close up shop for good at its longtime favorite venue, New York’s Beacon Theatre in the fall. What Allman will miss. What he won’t.
* Even the celebratory all-star concert he did with T Bone Burnett, The Speaking Clock, three years ago in Boston at the Orpheum with Elton John, Elvis Costello, Leon Russell and others. A welcome back after the transplant.
* And, of course, Cher.
But here’s what we did exchange.
With My Cross to Bear, what kind of feedback did you get? You reveal a lot – the sex and drugs, the feuds, the triumphs, the casualties. Did you have any trepidation about letting it fly? Did you hold much, or anything, back?
Allman: Man, the feedback was great; I mean, No. 2 on the “New York Times” bestseller list? I never in my wildest dreams imagined that. You know, once we really started working on it, I just put it all out there. I had been working on my memoirs off and on for like 20 years, so when we got serious about publishing the book with Harper Collins, I decided to include everything, good and bad. Now, the editors and the legal department had their say on a couple of things, but by and large, it’s all in there.
Certainly, one theme of the book (and your life) is that you could have gone down at numerous times and somehow persevered. Was it blind luck, good genes, some common sense that kicked in when you least expected it?
Perseverance. That is the word, right there. All those times I’d go into rehab, and then I’d end up using again. It was frustrating, man, but something deep inside told me not to quit, and I finally got clean, and stayed clean. Same thing goes for my career; the early-’80s were just awful for me, man. I played terrible gigs in the middle of nowhere for no one, and for no money, but I didn’t quit – I wouldn’t quit, because music means everything to me.
There’s a belief – and a strong one – that the current-day Allman Brothers Band lineup has equaled (or come very close to equaling) the lineup with your brother Duane and the others back in the day. So many people of my generation were raised on the Fillmore East album, especially, so that’s pretty high praise. No one sees it as an Allman Brothers Band tribute or anything like that; it’s the real deal. Your thoughts on that?
The last 15 years or so with the current line-up have been great, they really have. We’ve had nights that I’ll never forget; hell, we’ve had entire runs that I’ll never forget. The 2009 Beacon Theatre run, which was dedicated to my brother, had moments where we played things I hadn’t heard in 40 years. I’m proud of what this line-up has done, no doubt.
This is a solo show, with a band. You’ve done these gigs throughout the Allman Brothers Band’s days going back to 1973 and released numerous solo albums too, starting with Laid Back. What do you enjoy about the gigs and records under your own name?
The most enjoyable thing about playing in my band is that there is only one cook in the kitchen; it makes things a lot easier. We’ve also added a three-piece horn section and I just love that, because it brings a real sway to our sound, man. I think we have a nice balance to the set list that makes for a good-old, kick ass time for the fans. We’ve got a fair number of Allman Brothers songs to go along with songs from my solo career, some real killer cover tunes, and some newer songs as well. Now, I’ve re-arranged some of the Allman Brothers songs to better suit my band; “Whipping Post” has a completely different groove to it, and “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’” is a showcase for the horn section, so there is something for everyone to enjoy. If we can make people forget about their problems for two hours and they can leave feeling a little bit better, then I’m happy.
When you were arguing for the inclusion of the song “Queen of Hearts” on Brothers and Sisters and were told no, how did that impact you?
That rejection was one of the best things that ever happened to me, because it launched my solo career, right then and there. I went into the studio and started working on what would become Laid Back,
which is one of the highlights of my career and my pride and joy. Laid Back is still my baby, 40 years later, and that album never would have been made if I hadn’t been told “Queen of Hearts” didn’t really say anything.
Do you get as much joy playing for an appreciative audience as you once did? Does that change over time?
It actually means more to me now, because I’ll see three generations of a family come to a show together, and that warms my heart, man. When my music can be a common ground for grandparents and grandkids, what more can I ask? I also get a kick when a young lady in her 20s tells me her mother named her Melissa because of my song. Now that’s cool, brother.