Over the weekend I finished reading, My Cross to Bear, the recently released memoir of Gregg Allman, the surviving Allman Brother who has carried on the name for The Allman Brothers Band as well as releasing his own solo albums, and touring with The Gregg Allman Band. And there is so much more to his story. There were three marriages before he was 30. Six in total. One to Cher - and one of music's all-time low points when they released an album together as Allman and Woman.
I knew a lot of the Gregg Allman story beforehand - I'm an Allman Brothers fan and, just over a year ago now, I interviewed Gregg as part of the promo-rounds for his "comeback"/return to form album, Low Country Blues. So I studied up a little more then.
As a fan I was ticking off the moments in the book - his fling with acting included a favourite film of mine, Rush (with a soundtrack by Eric Clapton). So Rush gets a few paragraphs. One of several "comeback" albums from The Allman Brothers Band was 1990's Seven Turns - a favourite of mine from when I was a teenager, discovering the band's old albums alongside its latest releases. So that was in the book too. Another tick. At one point Allman writes about how when he did the rounds discussing Low Country Blues there were calls for him to tour Australia and New Zealand and he has always been keen to visit New Zealand for the fishing (he's a mad-keen fisherman). I smiled at that point, remembering having a discussion with Allman about his fishing and various spots he could visit in New Zealand if he made it here.
But what I got from this book - from its opening pages to the very end - was a great feeling of passion for music, the spirit and energy of rock'n'roll, the love for and vibe of the blues. And honesty. Gregg Allman has faced plenty of demons - and he ticks those off here (in both senses of the word) running through his vices, the darkness, the stupidity of many of his actions.
At the heart of the book - there's that music, always, superb music from a great band - is the sadness of him (and the band) losing his brother Duane. At such a young age too. Duane had already accomplished a great deal, with session work and the early bands that he and Gregg had worked in before forming The Allman Brothers.
As the band pondered carrying on after Duane's death there was, in a way, nothing to ponder. It was necessary. The records they had just released were runaway hits - the band that had been on the verge of making it big was now a main-event player. The reputation was cemented - that classic At Fillmore East and its follow-up, Eat a Peach were the last albums to feature Duane's contributions to the band. Peach was completed after his death. And then Brothers and Sisters was released.
The band was now a superstar group. Dickey Betts had stepped up as a writer, taking the band in a new direction with Ramblin' Man and the instrumental Jessica (known now, to most, as the Top Gear theme). The record was a huge hit.
With that came prodigious drug habits, in-band fights, the silent (and not so silent) power struggle between Betts and Allman over leadership of the group and Gregg's search for happiness - looking for it at the bottom of any bottle, at the end of whatever line was spread on a mixing desk, in bed/s with so many women...
But none of this is told to boast. It's not quite a cautionary tale either, simply a record of the time - and a reflection of that (different) time; a rock star admitting to a rock star life and world. You, as the reader, can put whatever value judgment on it that you like. But these are the facts of Gregg Allman's life as he remembers them.
I loved the book. It was deeply satisfying; on a level that so many rock-star autobiographies never quite reach.
I went into the book a fan - and I came out even more of a fan.
When I was 10 years old I saw and heard a snippet of Duane Allman's guitar playing - the band in support, this machine churning behind him, propelling this ferocious, blistering, amazing sound. It was, at that time, quite unlike anything I'd heard. And I was aware of Cream and Clapton, Santana and a few of the Allmans' contemporaries. But there was a feeling of exaltation here, something quite otherworldly - and I'm talking about 15-30 seconds of audio and video-clip. It made that much of an impression.
It took me a few more years to actually find the song - via the Frank Zappa version of Whipping Post, which I like, too. But, eventually, I found the performance (of Whipping Post). Now it's here on YouTube to dial up any old time. And I do. Often. I still play Live at Fillmore East; I still play Eat a Peach and Brothers and Sisters. I still listen to The Allman Brothers Band. But through it all, through the played-out searing lines of Layla and on through some of Duane's sessions (here's a great one with John Hammond) it is this clip that conveys the spirit of transcendence that I feel from this band; that draws me to the sound.
Gregg was (is) a great singer, musician and writer. The colourful life, some smart choices, some woeful - that's all back-story. It might be the reason that many will reach for this book - and that would be fair enough. But the music is not an accessory here, nor was it a prop to create the lifestyle. The music is the thing.
The music is the real deal. And I felt that in the book - and then again when I returned to the (actual) music.
And that was the best part of reading this book. That's always the best part of reading any great music biography. Being reminded. Being turned on (or turned on again) to a sound. And a feel. The pulse, the groove, the flow.
My Cross to Bear is the best music biography I've read in a long time, certainly the best this year - and one I'd recommend to anyone interested in music books. If you're an Allman Brothers fan it's a no-brainer, but I'd like to think that if you only have a casual interest in the band, or in fact are completely unfamiliar, then there's plenty here not only to turn you on to the sound and style: there's wisdom and passion here - there's an extraordinary life that's been lived hard. And there's survival. Even if only just. There's humility, frustration, and again, honesty.
There's also, at every point, the tragedy of a man losing his brother - one of music's true taken-before-their-time legend-in-the-making types. A hero. A master. And it's palpable, visceral. It's felt on nearly every page. Just as the music is. It gets to you. It cuts through. And that was, for me, what was so great about reading this book. It's written with a heavy heart, a weary head and a closet of skeletons to air.
I also had to pinch myself, almost, when I got to the end of it. Remembering that I had been so lucky to have a really rewarding chat with this person; something very special for me.
So are you a Gregg Allman/Allman Brothers Band fan? And will you read My Cross to Bear? Or have you read it already? What did you think? And what's the best music biography you've read this year?
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