This story was originally published in 'Rolling Stone', July 9-23, 2009, Issue No. 1082/1083
Gregg Allman has two little dogs. He carries pictures of the dogs around on his phone, so he can show people when he's on the road, and at his home, just outside Savannah, Georgia, the dogs scamper between his legs when he answers the front door, tracing skittery figure eights. The dogs are miniature poodles. When Allman sits on his living-room couch, they jump into his lap and scramble over his stomach and up behind his head. Allman likes to pick up the younger dog, Otis, and tell him things like, "You're a little puppy! Your feeties are so hot!" Otis was a recent birthday present from a group of Allman's friends. They lured him to a local restaurant, telling him it would be a small affair, but when he arrived, 50 people surprised him and wheeled out a cake, and Otis was hiding behind it. When Allman shows people pictures of Otis, he likes to point out the odd tuft of fur below his eyes, which Allman calls "a mustache on the wrong side of his nose." When he flips to a butt shot, he says, "That's his other end there!" Otis' predecessor was a rescued Hurricane Katrina dog. Allman says she would go berserk whenever there was a storm. Then she was run over by a car. Allman still seems very sad about her death. He says that when you buy a dog, you're buying a lot of fun, but you're also buying a piece of heartache.
Gregg Allman used to be a heartbreaker. His bandmates called him "PB," for "pretty boy." He had long blond hair that spilled past his shoulders — in some photographs, almost down to his elbows — and soft, vulnerable features. Only his eyes were hard.
Now Allman is 61 years old. His band, the Allman Brothers, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Over the course of his life, Allman has ingested massive quantities of controlled substances. In the band's early days, when it was 11 guys in an Econoline van doing 250 dates a year, they always made sure to have a giant bag of "Mexican reds" (secobarbital, a depressant) and a two-gallon jug of Robitussin. Once, a chemistry student from the University of Florida got them a bunch of tablets of pure psilocybin — the hallucinogenic element of magic mushrooms — which they took every morning after breakfast for eight weeks. They called cocaine "vitamin C." During his brief marriage to Cher in the Seventies, Allman's alcohol and heroin problem was so out of control, he famously passed out, face-first, into a plate of spaghetti at a banquet. His idea of responsible drinking was to write out a booze-shot timetable for himself while touring. He estimates it worked out to about one shot every two hours, pretty much around the clock, which in theory would prevent him from getting the shakes but also would make sure he didn't get too drunk to play. Though, of course, he often broke the rules and had a shot or two between shots, which he'll admit made some of his live vocals "sound like you got two tongues in your mouth."
This afternoon, Allman is wearing a black T-shirt over dark jeans, with a faded denim button-down shirt over the T-shirt. With his tattoos (Queen of Hearts, Hopi fertility symbol, eye of Ra), long gray ponytail and leathery skin, he locks like an old carny, or like he should be hosting a reality-television show about souping up motorcycles. An old issue of Corvette magazine sits on the coffee table. Nearby there's a framed photo of Allman feeding ice cream to a tiger. Two enormous sailfish, stuffed and mounted, hang on the wall. (Allman got into deep-sea fishing when the Allman Brothers were broken up in the Eighties.) Allman's eyes are much gentler than they appear in those photos from the Seventies and Eighties. His round face, furred with a trim white beard, brings to mind that of an extremely contented Persian cat.
Still, after I arrive, one of the first things Allman says, wholly unprompted, is "It's been lonely times up here lately." His speaking voice is mild, melodicized by a delicate Southeastern drawl. Allman tells me his sixth marriage just broke up. He'd been planning to take a trip to Jamaica for his birthday, but he couldn't find anyone to go with him. He recently signed up with a classmates-finder website, to find out what his old schoolmates were up to.
Allman lives in a big house in a gated community. He designed much of the interior himself. He points up to the beams spanning the vaulted ceiling and explains that they're pre-Civil War, that they came out of an old church. From his living-room window, you can see live oaks and haunted-looking Spanish moss.
"I didn't ask but one of them to marry me," Allman says. He's talking about his wives again. "One out of six." He won't say which one was the one. "But you know," he says, "I told them all, except for this one, 'Ma'am, we are going to screw around and mess up a good thing.'" Then he mimics a female voice: "'But I want to think about the future … my biological clock.'" He returns to his own voice and says, "If I hear that shit one more time, I'll barf."
He starts to talk about his most recent ex, then stops himself. "When you think about it, it takes a fool to tell half a story," he says. "So as long as she's not here telling you her half, me telling you my half doesn't hold much water. 'Cause, of course, it's going to be pro-me." He pauses, then adds, "To tell you the truth, it's my sixth marriage — I'm starting to think it's me."
The Allman Brothers Band formed in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1969. Over the next two years, they cut three albums (The Allman Brothers Band, Idlewild South and At Fillmore East) and part of a fourth (Eat a Peach), all now considered classics. Then, in 1971, Gregg's brother, Duane, the band's virtuoso guitarist, was killed in a motorcycle accident in Macon, Georgia, where the group lived. He was 24. The band played his funeral, opening with the Elmore James song "The Sky Is Crying," in which the song's protagonist is standing in the rain, crying, and waiting for his baby, who probably won't be showing up. He thinks the rain looks like tears rolling down the street.
After his brother's death, Gregg's drug abuse accelerated. He has said that he "started getting heavy into drugs" (including shooting heroin) in the months after Duane's passing. Then, almost exactly one year from the day of Duane's death, bassist Berry Oakley was also killed in a motorcycle accident, only three blocks away from the street in Macon where Duane died. "It was so hard to get into anything after that second loss," Gregg admitted in a 1973 Rolling Stone cover story. "I even caught myself thinking that it's narrowing down, that maybe I'm next."
The Allmans cut only one more great album, 1973's Brothers and Sisters. They took lots of drugs, broke up ("Disco hit," recalls drummer Butch Trucks, "and nobody wanted to hear what we were doing, so we took the Eighties off"), re-formed in 1989 and became a formidable live group again and beloved stalwarts of the jam-band circuit. Their annual residency at New York's Beacon Theatre has become one of the most anticipated dates on the hippie liturgical calendar. The band's current lineup has only two original members besides Gregg — Trucks and drummer Jai "Jaimoe" Johanson — with most of the firepower at live shows coming from the younger guitarists Derek Trucks (Butch's guitar-prodigy nephew) and Warren Haynes.
Despite the brevity of his career, Duane Allman has been one of the most influential guitarists of the rock era. He wrote the famous opening riff on Derek and the Dominos' "Layla," and he was the main creative force behind the Allman Brothers, taking what might have been fairly standard blues rock and giving it the capaciousness of the jazz records he loved — Miles Davis, John Coltrane — as well as a Southern-roadhouse boogie. The other key element was Gregg's voice: a beautifully scarred blues howl, old beyond its years even when the singer was in his early 20s.
The group basically invented what has come to be known as Southern rock — only without the rebel-flag-waving redneck pride of later practitioners like Lynyrd Skynyrd. The Brothers were straight-up long-haired hippie freaks, an integrated band in a still largely segregated South, and though they're more often lumped into the jam-band circuit — and they do like to jam, sometimes endlessly — you can trace a straight line from the Allman Brothers to present-day Southern hipster favorites like the Drive-by Truckers, Kings of Leon and, most of all, My Morning Jacket.
A conversation with Gregg Allman generally does not proceed in a straight line. Something he says will remind him of something else, and he will follow that thought to another, until the original point becomes a forgotten phrase in a long improvisation. Allman's story about the first time he smoked weed begins in Manhattan, at a club in the West Village owned by a woman Allman fondly calls "the biggest dyke" in New York. Her place had dancing go-go boys — this was when the Village was still cool, when Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan lived in the neighborhood — and one night this waiter — this would've been '66, so the band was still called the Allman Joys — Gregg was 18 at the time — Jesus, he says — actually, funnily enough, after one of the gigs at the club — the band had a residency there — someone stole all of their equipment, right out of the trailer hitched to their '65 Chevy — and then the thieves locked up the trailer when they were done. "We said, 'Screw this, Yankeeville — we're going back down South!'" Allman recalls. And they did, to Birmingham, Alabama, where they got new equipment, which for some reason reminds Gregg of the time he was living out in L.A. by himself, trying to make it in the music business and failing and just about getting ready to put a gun to his head, when his brother called and said, "Man, I started this band.…" "But we're getting a little ahead of ourselves," Allman acknowledges, and I ask him about the weed again, and he says oh, right, so we went to the apartment of this waiter at the club — should've walked, the way the parking in New York is — they were staying at the Chelsea Hotel — incidentally, that's where Gregg got crabs for the first time — he'd always thought it was a joke, "crabs," thinking, "Blue crabs? Dungeness crabs? Crabs are delicious" — but then one night he was taking a bath at the Chelsea, and he noticed it looked like someone had poured salt and pepper over the top of the water, and he thought, "What the hell is this?" Then he picked up one of the little crabs with his fingers.
"Oh," Allman says, "then the depression hit."
Anyway: the waiter. He had very good reefer. They went back to his place and smoked joint after joint. Gregg said, "Man, my throat's dry, but I ain't what you'd call high." Then everybody started laughing very hard, so hard the waiter had to ask them to leave, because he didn't want to get evicted. So they went down to the car and Duane got behind the wheel and said, "What are these controls? What does this do?" And they all laughed some more. They couldn't stop laughing. And Duane drove in the middle of the street, going about eight miles per hour, and it took them almost an hour to find the Chelsea, which was only three blocks away.
"And, man, I tell you what," Allman says. "I have loved the stuff to this day. And I still smoke it. That's all I do — that's all I can do."
Allman has been working on his memoir — basically, recording long interviews with Kirk West, the Allman Brothers' longtime unofficial archivist. "The hardest thing about writing an autobiography," Allman says, "is the chronological order. Because I've had a very interesting life. And, I mean, every day — just about every day — shit happened."
To celebrate their 40th anniversary, the Allman Brothers played their annual string of dates at the Beacon Theatre in March. Different guests joined the band nearly every night, including Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, Buddy Guy, Bruce Willis, Kid Rock, Levon Helm and members of Phish and the Dead. The shows were dedicated to Duane Allman.
Gregg Allman, though younger, learned to play guitar before his brother. Duane was more interested in the used Harley he'd just bought, but then the Harley died, and he asked Gregg to teach him a few chords. The boys were living in Daytona Beach with their mother, Geraldine, an accountant; their father, Willis Allman, was murdered — by a hitchhiker he picked up — when Gregg was two years old.
"My brother," Allman says, "he used to kick my ass every day. I have knots on my head from as far back as when my mother took him off the bottle. We were a year and 18 days apart. You take a baby off their bottle and they're crazy. He wanted that bottle. And he would see me up in the crib with my bottle, where he couldn't reach it, but my arms or a leg would be sticking out, so he'd grab my finger and -" Allman makes a cracking noise. "I had marks all over my hands and feet. Teeth marks.
"Have you ever had a sunburn and had it swell up into a bubble?" Allman continues. "He had that kind of burn. I tan real good, but he had auburn hair and a blood-red beard. So we were climbing this huge oak tree that was at the end of our street. I went up first, and I stepped on his bubble and it popped. Oh, it hurt him.
"He hung me once. Well, one of his favorite things that he could do — and he knew how to do this before he went to the first grade — was make a perfect hangman's noose. We watched a lot of cowboy films. So he says, 'I want you to try this one on for size.' And I got it on me: 'OK, bro.' Because I idolized him. So he says, 'Wait right here. I'll be right back.' Then he comes running back and says, 'Mom made some cookies!' So he takes off running and I take off running right behind him, and that rope tightened up on me. I was blue as a goose. My grandmother got out there and took it off me. I was about to go, man."
"Duane was older," says Butch Trucks, "and when their dad was killed, he was old enough to be able to strike out on his own and learn to take care of himself — that's how he developed so much inner strength. Gregg was still a little too young. In many ways — and I'd known them before we started the band — in many ways, Duane was as much Gregg's father as he was his brother. Gregg looked to him like, 'Hey, bro, tell me where I'm going wrong.' And, believe me, Duane wasn't hesitant to tell him."
After catching a B.B. King show while on a trip to Nashville, the brothers decided to form a band. Gregg had switched to keyboards, inspired by jazz players like Jimmy Smith. After trying out and touring with various groups, including the Allman Joys, the brothers moved to L.A. and began recording as the Hour Glass. Their record label (Liberty) had them wearing period costumes (it was 1967 — think paisley), and they opened for the Doors at the Moulin Rouge on Sunset. "It scared the pure shit out of me," says Gregg, who gets stage fright to this day. He sang Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," and with the opening words, "I was booorn …," his voice cracked.
The band eventually broke up. Duane moved back East and became a much-sought session guitarist, playing on tracks for everyone from Wilson Pickett to Aretha Franklin. He eventually began playing in Jacksonville with Jaimoe Johanson, Berry Oakley, Butch Trucks and guitarist Dickey Betts.
"Duane started this all, no doubt," says Trucks. "He was this incredibly charismatic, almost messianic type of personality. He was more than a bandleader — he was a guy who could really change you. There are very, very few people you meet like that in your lifetime. If I hadn't met him, I'd be teaching school. I don't doubt that.
"I can still remember the day he reached in and flicked a switch in me that changed me from being a really nervous, introverted drummer to playing with confidence. Most people don't really have it in them to let it all hang out. That's why most people aren't professional musicians. They asked Mark Twain what it took to be successful, and he said, 'That's easy: All you have to be is ignorant and cocky.' You have to not be afraid, and at the time I was very afraid. So we were jamming one day, and it wasn't going anywhere, and Duane turned around and stared me in the eye and played this lick. It was like a challenge, like, 'Come on, motherfucker!' I backed off, and he did it again, and again, and after a while I got mad and I started hitting the drums like I was slapping him on the side of the head. And I forgot about the nervousness and that I was afraid, and the jam got going, and he pointed a finger at me and said, 'There you go.' And a light bulb went off. I made a decision then: 'I can play.'"
The band still needed a singer, though. Gregg, who had stayed behind in Southern California — he'd gone through a bad breakup and was living in a Venice Beach crash pad with, among others, a young Jackson Browne — headed back to Florida as soon as his brother called. When Gregg showed up at the rehearsal space, he was ready to prove himself. He knew Duane had been telling the other guys, "Boys, wait till my little brother gets here."
"Then I saw two full sets of drums," Gregg says, "and I thought, 'Train wreck. Train wreck.'"
But the band clicked, and soon the members moved to a hippie crash pad in Macon and began touring endlessly around the Southeast. "We knew the band was fucking good," Trucks recalls. "We'd all been in different bands trying to be stars, and they all sucked. This was finally a band where we really enjoyed playing. The record company took one look at Gregg and said, 'Get that guy out from behind the organ and stick a salami down his pants.' But we said, 'Screw it.' It was about the music."
Before he was murdered, Allman's father, Willis, had just returned from the Korean War, and he'd been having trouble adjusting to civilian life. "Now they call it posttraumatic syndrome," Gregg says. His father had been in the infantry, firing a howitzer. "Those get to be about 300 degrees, and forget about earplugs," Gregg says. "And you're shooting that all day? Hell, I reckon it would drive you nuts." Gregg's mom told him that she once cooked Willis his favorite meal (trout), and he walked into the kitchen, flipped the entire table over and left. Gregg's grandmother told him that, as much as she loved Willis, it was just as well he didn't grow up with his father, because his mental illness probably wasn't going to get any better. Willis wasn't talking to any psychiatrists. "That was back in the black-and-white days," Gregg says. "No color in the world."
Gregg went to military school and was drafted for the Vietnam War. He would have gone as a first lieutenant, but he famously avoided service by throwing a "foot-shooting party." He and Duane took a couple of hits of speed, drank a bunch of whiskey and invited some girls over. Duane painted a target on Gregg's left moccasin, and Gregg shot himself in the foot.
Allman's father's murderer received a 99-year sentence. One day, Allman began receiving letters from the Tennessee state prison. "I guess one day, someone came up to the guy and said, 'Look whose daddy you offed,'" Allman says. He still has the letters. "They were just real…mournful," he says. "He asked for my forgiveness and told me about his life. How he never had anything, and had abusive parents. People always ask me, 'Did you write him back?' And I say, 'The fuck no.' Finally, they stopped coming. A couple of them I didn't even read.
"Anyway — he got cancer and they let him out of prison and he died. I don't know." Allman pauses. "I never knew my father, I never knew this guy, I mean.…Many times, I remember being a kid and going over to a friend's house, and there'd be some big dude pushing him around. And I thought, 'Shit, I'm glad I ain't got one of those at home.'"
After Duane's death, the band decided to take six months off to regroup. But after a few weeks, Trucks says, "We were going too crazy. The grief was so intense, we had to let it out." The Allmans had already recorded about half of Eat a Peach with Duane. They returned to the studio and finished the album. The first line of the first song, "Ain't Wastin' Time No More" — one of the new songs, written by Gregg — is "Last Sunday morning, the sunshine felt like rain.…" Dickey Betts, the band's other guitarist, essentially took over as leader after Duane's death. He also wrote and sang the band's only Top 10 hit, the 1973 country-flavored "Ramblin' Man." Betts eventually left the group in an acrimonious split in 2000. He declined to be interviewed for this story. According to Trucks, "Dickey had some real demons that we worked with and put up with a lot. But his demons were just dragging us all down. And we all reached the point where we said, 'We cannot do this anymore.'" Betts was relieved of his duties via letter; the split became permanent after Betts sought arbitration against the band. He declined an invitation to play in the recent 40th-anniversary Beacon shows.
Around lunch time, Allman's fishing buddy Scott stops by with some Brunswick stew. Brunswick stew is an extremely tasty local delicacy, a sort of barbecue-succotash hybrid. Allman agrees this is a superior Brunswick stew, but he adds, "My mom's will blow your hat in the water." Allman's mother is still alive, age 92, in Daytona Beach.
Allman tells Scott that he just bought a new canopy bed. "I got to get her smell out, you know?" he says, referring to his ex-wife.
"She take the barber chairs?" Scott asks.
"No, I got 'em," Allman says. He pushes aside his plate and says that his recent battle with hepatitis C has affected his liver, so he has to eat smaller amounts.
Scott says, "So your liver's basically like a fuel filter?"
Allman says, "It is."
After lunch, Allman gives me a tour of his house and shows me his barber chairs — beautiful vintage chairs, set up in his bedroom. He suddenly pauses and asks, "You ever been in jail?"
"Uh, no," I say.
He points to a beige wall near his bedroom and says, "Every jail I been in is exactly this color."
Bad guys in old gangster movies always have a sentimental side. They love dogs, little children, their mothers. For years after his brother's death, Gregg Allman settled into the role of one of the great rock & roll villains — no Ike Turner, but still, he'd amassed an impressively unpleasant rap sheet. He was a drunk and a drug addict, widely known for his temper and for generally behaving like a prick. After being targeted by a grand jury in a Seventies cocaine sting, Allman testified against his close friend and valet, Scooter Herring, in order to save himself; afterward, the other members of the Allman Brothers refused to speak to Allman for years. He was married to Cher for nine days before she filed for divorce. (He pulled a knife on her during their Jamaican honeymoon. They later reconciled before finally splitting up in 1977.) In 1986, when he was nearly 40, he began dating 16-year-old Shannon Wilsey, who would later become the porn star Savannah; she killed herself when she was 23.
"My grandfather was alive when I got my first bad review," Allman says. "We played the Whisky a Go Go in Los Angeles. The writer put down, 'Although the singer sounded somewhat like a black man, he had a four-note range.'" Allman chuckles. "It killed me, man. I went to my grandpa and I said, 'Man, read this, Grandpa.' He says, 'Hey, Gregory.' He says, 'Man, everybody knew Jesse James.' He says, 'It's when they stop talking about you, that's when you worry.' He says, 'As long as they talking about you — good press, bad press? It's the same thing.'"
I ask if that made him feel better.
"It did," he says.
Age and sobriety have mellowed Allman. He has said that, other than weed, he's been clean since 1995. Not that his life has gotten any easier. Last year, in particular, was not a great one. Along with his marriage breaking up and his dog getting run over, Allman was being treated for hepatitis C. The band was forced to cancel its Beacon shows. He had to take hydrocortisone shots for 24 weeks. His hair started falling out in the shower. "That's when I flipped," Allman says. He says he might as well have been under house arrest. "I was too weak to hold the phone to my ear to talk to my mother," he says. He would watch television, but, he says, "What I really liked was getting read to." His favorite was Sherlock Holmes stories. "I have a book back there that has every single one of them."
Today, Allman has a pair of small, round Band-Aids on his forehead. "I just had two carcinomas cut off my head," he says. "Too much deep-sea fishing." He points to one of the Band-Aids. "This one right here was malignant," he says. "They cut a piece about as big as a pencil out of my head."
So far, 2009 is shaping up to be much better. The 40th-anniversary dates were a huge success, and Allman plans to be on the road through the fall, either with the Brothers or his own touring band. A few weeks after the Beacon shows, Allman joined Dave Matthews onstage at Madison Square Garden to perform the Allman Brothers' classic ballad "Melissa." They'd performed the song together once before, in Atlanta, a night Allman describes as "lemon-perfect."
Still, Allman has good and bad days. The second time we meet, in New York, he's in town to play a show. As I'm arriving at his hotel, his manager calls to warn me that "Gregory is tired and mellow today."
When Allman answers the door, his face looks puffy, and he's slurring his words a bit. He's wearing sweatpants, a black T-shirt, blue hotel slippers. At first, he thinks I'm from a magazine called Motocross.
A room-service guy shows up with coffee. Allman puts two sugars in his cup, tastes it, adds a third. He says he caught a cold from his son Devon Allman, whose band Honeytribe has been opening for Gregg. (Allman has four sons and two daughters.) "He flew over from Japan and caught something on the plane," Allman says. "The other night onstage, he coughs right in my fucking face. I said, "Thanks! That's my gift?'"
Honeytribe actually happened to be playing a tiny club show in Savannah the night of my first interview with Allman. He'd said he was planning on going to the show and that he'd see me there. He never showed up, though. I left shortly after the band covered "Midnight Rider."
It's the middle of the day; on the television is a CNBC financial show. Allman keeps glancing at the ticker. He's been monitoring the price of gold. "It's going to come up, right there in the corner," he says. "Cold, hard currency. That's what you need, now that Bush fucked up the dollar."
His voice sounds tired and nasal. He says he's been taking Airborne. "It's my OTC juju," he says, smiling. "All strictly over-the-counter now."
Allman began his career as a young man attempting to sing like an old man with the blues. Now, though he's not yet an old man, he has amassed more than his share of hard living. Death. Addiction. Lost years. The ends of friendships and marriages. But when I ask Allman about the layman's notion that you need to have the blues to play the blues, he shakes his head. "The blues ain't nothing but a good man feeling bad," he says, somewhat cryptically. Then he tells the story of the time, in the early Nineties, when he was laying down vocals for an Allman Brothers song called "Get on With Your Life." He was going through another divorce, and he couldn't make it through the number without tearing up. He says it was just like when you can't stop laughing at something, only he was crying. "It wasn't a good feeling at all," he says.
Eventually, Allman just said screw it and came back the next morning, when he cut the vocal without a problem. "Usually they think nighttime's the right time," Allman says. "That's not always true."
"When I see my dad sing, I know he's pulling from his life," Devon Allman says. "He just has this innate ability to draw on that despair."
"Before he started living this crazy life, he sang like a motherfucker," says Devon Allman. "Even when he was 20, that voice sounds like it's been through a million heartaches. So if you're going to be blessed with that voice at such a young age, I don't know. Maybe, eventually, you're going to go through this shit to earn it. When I see my dad sing, I know he's pulling from his life. He just has this innate ability to draw on that despair."
Allman also gets to talking about Cher. He tells me that she warned him about the difficulties of being a famous couple; she'd just broken up with Sonny Bono. Allman says he doesn't think he bit off more than he could chew with the relationship, but he definitely could've done without a lot of it. He says people were crawling up the gates of their house, and the gates were as high as the walls of this damn room.
Speaking of the gates, Allman once borrowed Cher's secretary's vintage Porsche, and coming home he accidentally crashed it. He'd figured those gates stop, eventually, like elevator doors, but it was like one of those squashers at the junkyard. Allman bailed out just in time. He had to walk into the house and ask the secretary, "Remember that Porsche you used to have?"
But that's not the point of the story. The point is, being under that kind of spotlight? That's what makes you get a lot of tattoos. I say I don't understand. Allman says a girl recently asked him why he had so many tattoos. She'd just had her breasts enlarged. Allman pointed at her chest and said, "Tattoos do just the opposite of what those do. Instead of attract, they kind of…" Then he put up a hand, signaling, "Stop right there."