The Allman Brothers don't talk to each other much these days. It's not that they're nursing grudges from decades ago, or that they're in imminent danger of a fistfight over a backhanded remark. It's just that after thirty long years together, they've learned that the secret of surviving as a band is to keep a safe distance.
They socialize now and then, in select groups: Guitarist Dickey Betts and drummer Butch Trucks sometimes play golf together on the road, and every year or two Betts will have a cookout for the whole band at his house in Florida. But for the most part, they keep to themselves. When they need to make a decision, manager Bert Holman will poll them individually. He even mediates the encores, checking with Betts and organist Gregg Allman after two sets to see who has the energy left to sing a couple of songs.
So when the Allman Brothers Band arrives at the Riverbend Amphitheater in Cincinnati to play another show in the fading light of a long summer evening, seven musicians pull up in three separate buses. Allman's allows dogs but no smoking, Betts' allows dogs and smoking, and the third carries the group's three drummers.
They amble around the stage, displaying no effort to make a dramatic entrance for this crowd of 6,000; about 5,000 of them have been alive for less than the three decades that the Allman Brothers have been a band. Drummer Jaimoe, wearing an ABB T-shirt, sandals and a ludicrous pair of yellow-and-black-striped socks, does a few rolls on his kit. His young daughter scampers around the side of the stage. Allman drinks tea to prepare his throat for singing and cocks an ear disapprovingly to the music coming out of the PA. "What is this bullshit they're playing?" he grumbles. "Sounds like country. There needs to be six-foot fucking blues, to get the audience in the fucking groove."
At 8:15 P.M. on the nose, they start playing "Don't Want You No More," and it becomes immediately clear that although they may not speak much offstage, their conversation onstage is eloquent and profound.
Allman spends most of the show behind his vintage Hammond organ, singing the blues with the husky abandon of somebody who's lived them. After he finishes a chorus, he often grabs the microphone with his left hand and pushes it away. This gesture signals that we are about to witness some extended improvisational guitar. Mind-expanding guitar solos are what the crowd has come to hear, and it gets plenty of them as the fifty-six-year-old Betts and the twenty-year-old Derek Trucks (Butch's nephew) trade licks, tell stories and write epic poems in the key of A, while a hallucinogenic light show flashes behind them. It's all anchored by the steady, flowing groove of the band's three percussionists (Butch Trucks, Jaimoe and Marc Quinones) and Allman's subtle work on the organ.
The encore, like the set list, is ever-changing, but tonight it is simple: The Allman Brothers play their two most famous songs. First Betts sings "Ramblin' Man," the country song from 1973 that was the ABB's biggest chart single. The melody is as joyful as ever, and Betts' weather-beaten voice underlines the song's advocacy of the road. Then bassist Oteil Burbridge plays an ominous, thunderous riff that turns back on itself like a staircase to nowhere, and the band throws itself into the concert favorite "Whipping Post." It is pure no-way-out bluesman doom; Allman moans, "Oh Lord, I feel like I'm dying."
If you were looking for a band from central casting to embody the story of American rock & roll, you'd want to call the Allman Brothers. They're from the South, where the music was born, and have always been an interracial band. They combined country and blues — just as the music's inventors did — and then added some jazz. They embraced the community aesthetic that hippie rock aspired to, and later they also were full-fledged participants in the excesses of cocaine, limousines and, in the body of Cher, showbiz. Naturally, they got screwed financially. But despite losing their resident genius to an early death — another essential component of the rock myth — they persisted and are now celebrating their thirtieth anniversary by making some of the best music of their career. Perhaps that's the only part of their saga that doesn't fit the template: Improbably, there's a happy ending.
Like many American musical stories, the Allman Brothers' tale begins in Nashville. Willis Allman fought in World War II — storming Normandy — and returned to his young bride, Geraldine, after the war. He got a job as an Army recruiter, and they quickly produced two sons: Duane, born November 20th, 1946, and Gregg, born December 8th, 1947. But in 1949, the day after Christmas, Willis was robbed and killed by another veteran. They had just met that day, over a game of shuffleboard.
Geraldine, now eighty-two years old and known to the band as Mama A, needed to support her family, so she went to school to become a CPA. She remembers that Duane's drive emerged early: "You might say he was born to lead. Some people are. Gregg is a lover, and laid-back — he'd rather have a leader. One summer, when they were preschoolers, they had a lemonade stand, Duane and Gregg and one little neighborhood boy. So when I got home, they were telling me about it. Gregg says he got to pour the lemonade. And the other little boy says he could hand it to the customer. So I said, 'Duane, what did you do?' And he says, 'Oh, I'm the appetizing manager.'"
When Gregg and Duane got a little older, Mama A sent them to the Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon, Tennessee. The brothers hated it, but it did provide them with their first musical training: They both took lessons in piano and then trumpet, and joined the academy's marching band. In 1957, Mama A graduated from accounting school, pulled her sons out of the academy and moved the family to Daytona Beach, Florida; the brothers felt like they had ascended from purgatory into the heavenly kingdom.
The family had a dog named Boots. Inevitably he got old and infirm, and had to be taken away and put to sleep. Young Gregg couldn't grieve for his father, because he had never known him, but he could weep for Boots. "That really had an effect on me," he says. "I thought, 'Well, the hell with caring about something.'"
In the summer of 1960, when Duane was thirteen, he got a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and was soon speeding all over Daytona Beach. That same summer, Gregg got a paper route for one reason: He wanted enough money to buy a guitar. Come fall, he had twenty-one dollars; with a ninety-five-cent donation from Mama A, he had his very own Sears Silvertone. Gregg played the guitar nonstop; Duane was busy riding his bike around town. But pretty soon Duane started skipping school, staying home to play his baby brother's guitar. They started fighting over it, and both got better guitars as birthday presents that year. Gregg found that the music provided solace for his grief over Boots; it was a comfort he would need to turn to many times in the years ahead.
Duane dropped out of school after ninth grade and had plenty of time for guitar practice. The brothers played with local bands like the Untils, the House Rockers and the Nightcrawlers, crossing Daytona Beach's color line; they would invite friends over when Mama A was at work, and play guitar and drink beer all day.
In an effort to keep Gregg on the straight and narrow, Mama A sent him back to military school, but the summer before his senior year, he and Duane formed the band that would be known as the Allman Joys. Gregg couldn't bear thinking about the good times his brother was having without him in Daytona Beach, so after twelve days of school he headed home. He remembers, "I went into the commandant in my full dress uniform and said, 'Sir, if you see me getting smaller, it's because I'm leaving.'" That year's buzz cut was the last time Gregg has ever worn his hair short.
Gregg was considering going to college to become a dental surgeon. "I let them run free with their choices of what they would do with their lives," says Mama A. "But I told them they would either go to school or they would work. So they chose the music."
"Hell, I had some adventure in my soul," Gregg chortles. "I figured I'd go out and play the chitlin circuit for a year — the places that had the chicken wire up so the beer bottles wouldn't hit you. I knew we weren't going to make any money. But perhaps we'd meet some fine-looking women."
It was 1965. As the eldest son in a fatherless family, Duane was exempt from the Vietnam draft; Gregg was not. So Duane came up with a plan: The night before Gregg's physical, they would have a "foot-shootin' party." Girls were invited; whiskey was drunk; a bull's-eye was painted on Gregg's moccasin. Gregg called for an ambulance and then went outside. Guests said later that you could hear the sirens before you could hear the report of the pistol. The bullet grazed his foot; the next day Gregg showed up at the induction center on crutches. He was classified 4-F.
In the summer of 1967, a young drummer named Butch Trucks met the Allman Joys. Trucks had gone to college to become a minister but left after three months to be a hippie. He played in a band called the 31st of February; they headed up to Daytona, which is where he met the Allmans. "Duane was a ball of fire," he remembers. "He walked into a room, everybody stopped and looked. If you're lucky, you meet one guy like him in your lifetime. Gregg was just a pretty boy. He had blond hair, and the girls were hanging all over him."
The Allman Joys hit the road; Gregg switched from guitar to Hammond organ so that they could better replicate the Top Forty hits of the day. The band evolved into Hour Glass and headed to L.A., where they signed a record deal. They released two mediocre albums and broke up in 1968. The brothers argued about where they should go next and angrily parted ways. Gregg stayed in California, but Duane went back East.
"He knew right where he was going," Gregg says. "He was going to Muscle Shoals, and he wasn't going to call before he came. He was like that. He was gonna go and get the damn job. Why call?"
Duane showed up at the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama; by 1968, it was already famous for the records it had made with Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin, among others. With his solos on the Hour Glass records as his calling card, Duane played on a Wilson Pickett session and suggested that they cover "Hey Jude." Pickett snapped that he wouldn't be recording a song about "no Jew." Duane prevailed and contributed a majestic solo on the fade-out; the resulting single went to Number Twenty-three. Duane left the session with a steady job at Muscle Shoals and the approval of Pickett, who dubbed him Skyman.
Jaimoe, Born July 8th, 1944, is the Allman Brothers Band's most eccentric figure and its greatest philosopher. "He's like Yoda," says Burbridge. "The Force is strong in him." When I meet the Jedi drummer in his Cincinnati hotel room, he is wearing only a pair of green athletic shorts. His large potbelly protrudes over the waistband. "We've got three drummers up there," he says. "That's so much power, it can be overbearing." Jaimoe says that sometimes he won't play his bass drum for an entire show, just to change the band's chemistry. Or he'll step away from the drums for a song and go listen in the audience. He takes the same nonlinear approach to conversation — a story about his childhood might be prefaced with a ten-minute discourse on water aerobics — but it's well worth the effort to hear what he has to say.
Originally known as Jai Johanny Johanson, he grew up in Gulfport, Mississippi, where he spent his adolescence trying to decide between his dreams of being a pro athlete and being a jazz drummer. He saw Louis Armstrong play in New Orleans, and that settled it: He hit the road in 1965 with R&B singer Ted Taylor. A year later, he remembers, he was playing in Otis Redding's road band:
I couldn't play in that Otis band — it was way too loud. And I couldn't play rock & roll like I can now. But Otis was a great cat. He was funny, he was serious. If you see Muhammad Ali, you see Otis — he was a riot, man.
I remember when Otis wanted to write or rehearse some stuff, he would go out to his farm. The band would come out, and he'd have a big barbecue. We were out there, and I had all my jazz records with me. I found the stereo, and Coltrane was blasting all over the yard. I guess Otis took about as much of it as he could. He told me, "Jai Johanny, all you're doing is playing that jazz. If you can't play none of my goddamn records, I'm not going to let you play my record player anymore."
I played with Otis from December of '66 to April of '67. When that tour was over, I was getting ready to go to Europe with him. But I didn't have any identification, because I had lost my wallet. So I didn't go to Europe. When Otis died [five months later, in a plane crash], so many people called me, because they thought I was on that plane.
Jaimoe played with Percy Sledge for a while, and then Joe Tex. He had decided to move to New York and really pursue jazz. And then a friend called to tell him about Skyman: "He's a skinny white boy with red hair. And, Jai, I ain't never heard nobody play the guitar like that." Late one night soon after that, Jaimoe got out of bed to go to the bathroom; as he was falling back to sleep, he heard Wilson Pickett's "Hey Jude" on the radio and knew it had to be Skyman.
When Jaimoe heard that Jerry Wexler of Atlantic Records was a supporter of Duane's, "the dollar signs went off in my head, and I got on the bus." One very long Trailways ride later, he was in Alabama, shaking hands with Skyman.
Jaimoe moved into Duane's place by the river, where they would hang out and listen to records. Jaimoe turned Duane on to John Coltrane; Duane exposed him to Buffalo Springfield and Dylan's John Wesley Harding. After Jaimoe had been in Alabama for six weeks, Duane decided that his sideman days were over. Jaimoe relates, "Duane said, 'Man, I'm tired of doing this shit. Pack up your drums. We're leaving.'" They went down to Jacksonville, Florida, to steal away a bassist Duane knew, Berry Oakley, who'd been touring with bubblegum singer Tommy Roe but had been born in Chicago and was steeped in the blues. While in Jacksonville, they stayed with old Allman friend Butch Trucks. There were rock jams in the local park every Sunday afternoon, so Duane and Jaimoe joined in.
On Sunday, March 23rd, 1969, they stayed home to jam instead of going into the sunshine, and a group was born. Duane and Jaimoe were there, and Trucks, and Oakley and guitarist Dickey Betts from Oakley's band, the Second Coming. They played for three hours straight, seamlessly flowing from slow blues to up-tempo shuffles, reading each other's cues perfectly. When it ended, everyone in the room had chills; Duane stood in front of the door and told the others, "Anybody in this room who's not going to play in my band, you've got to fight your way out."
Betts' father played fiddle, guitar and mandolin on weekends; during the week, he was a carpenter. Dad taught his son Forrest Richard Betts (born December 12th, 1943, in West Palm Beach, Florida) to play mandolin but wouldn't show him his woodworking secrets. "You got too much talent," he said. "If you don't want to play music, I want you to be a doctor or an attorney." Dickey Betts graduated from weekend country-music jams with his family to the electric guitar, striving to copy Chuck Berry licks. At seventeen, he got his first professional gig: touring with the Swinging Saints, who played on the midway of a circus, twelve times a day. Betts learned carny talk and then came home and falsified his birth certificate so he could play in nightclubs — which he did for the next eight years.
The quintet moved up to Macon, Georgia, because that was where their manager, Phil Walden (previously the manager of Otis Redding), was based. He signed them to management contracts and to recording contracts with his new label, Capricorn Records, a conflict of interest that would cause many gallstones later on.
"We rehearsed for a month," Betts says. "And Oakley keeps coming to me. He says, 'Dickey, our band is ten times better than our singing. We need Gregg. Duane won't call him.' So I'd go talk to Duane, Berry'd go talk to Duane, Butch'd go talk to Duane. Everyone's pulling on Duane's coat. Finally Duane says, 'All right, damn it.'" Betts cackles at the memory.
Gregg was living in L.A. Among his roommates was a young Jackson Browne. "They didn't call them roommates then," Gregg says. "We had crash pads, you know? His folks lived down in Long Beach, and he was a struggling artist just like us. All I know is he hung around there a lot." While Gregg was in L.A., he wrote a bunch of songs that would enter the Brothers' repertoire, among them "Dreams," "It's Not My Cross to Bear" and "Melissa." When Duane called him, he followed his big brother's lead and went back East — with his soulful vocals, the tentatively named Allman Band was now the Allman Brothers Band.
Butch Trucks greets me at the door of his hotel room. His hair is white; his voice is a soft Southern drawl. He invites me in and offers me some superb white wine. On the coffee table is a copy of Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy, which Trucks has been reading as part of his continual program for self-improvement; when he drives around Florida in the winter, he listens to college lectures on audiotape in his car. There's also a laptop, which he uses mostly for playing EverQuest, the online swords-and-sorcery game. He's been known to show up late for the bus to a show because he's busy whacking orcs. He demonstrates the game's 3-D graphics and his fifteenth-level ranger character, and then tells me about the band's early days in Macon:
Our roadies, Twiggs and Red Dog, were both Vietnam vets, and our only real source of income was from their VA checks. They pooled the money, and it came to three bucks a day apiece. And that was to buy cigarettes, drugs, food — you name it. So a buck thirty-five at the H and H Restaurant, that was the meal for the day. And then there would be enough left for a pack of cigarettes, and we could pool some money and get a bottle of wine. Mama Louise at the H and H ran a tab on us for a long time.
We wrote "Elizabeth Reed." We'd learned a few songs in Jacksonville: "Whipping Post," "Trouble No More," "Don't Want You No More." And we'd played one gig at the College Discotheque and made thirty-two dollars. Sent our roadies out and bought two cases of Ripple. I remember before the night was over one of the roadies was out of his mind, chasing this girl around the club with his dick in his hand. She's screaming, and he's saying, "C'mere, honey!"
After about four weeks, we said, "We gotta go play for somebody." So we piled into this Ford Econoline van, drove up to Atlanta and drove around Piedmont Park until we found a nice spot, with some flat concrete and some power not far from it. We didn't say shit to anybody. We just set up the gear, plugged in and started playing. Within the hour, there's a couple of thousand people.
The next week in this underground newspaper, "The Great Speckled Bird," there's this article about the Allman Brothers, and all of a sudden, we became the band of the revolution, you know? So we started going back every Sunday. Within a month, we'd have five or six bands show up, and 10,000 people every Sunday. All for free. The cops never did a thing. They were really trying to get along with the hippies, and I think they said, "Well, as long as they're playing music, let's leave them alone."
Duane went back to Muscle Shoals for one last session when he was invited to play on Boz Scaggs' debut album (produced by Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann S. Wenner). The album's highlight was the thirteen-minute blues "Loan Me a Dime." It was recorded at the last minute, to make use of the horn players who had come down from Memphis for some overdubs. This spontaneous move had some problems, since the horns needed to be kept separate from the other instruments so that sound wouldn't bleed into their microphones. Says Scaggs, "We arrived at the solution of putting Duane in this bathroom that was barely big enough to turn around in. He sat up on top of the toilet contraption, and he let at it." The resulting solo was one of his best.
The band was living in one house in Macon, at 309 College Street, dubbed the Hippie Crash Pad. Sometimes they would have a "dead-bird feast," when they would clean up the back yard, barbecue chicken, ingest some hallucinogens and watch the backyard pond, which was full of fornicating frogs.
In the fall of 1969, they recorded and released The Allman Brothers Band. It contained such staples of their repertoire as "Whipping Post," but it didn't stand up to the band's live show. The various players' love for rock, blues, country and jazz resulted in a potent brew, allowing for lots of improvisation. Duane got the most attention, for his molten-gold solos, but the heart of the band was its two drummers. Trucks provided a steady, locked-in backbeat, which let Jaimoe handle accents and texture. The band toured constantly, slowly building a following.
Duane, whose nickname had mutated to Skydog, was the leader, bolstering the confidence of Trucks or Betts when they seemed hesitant and hectoring his little brother when he got out of line. Oakley was the one most in love with the idea of the band as a hippie commune or a family, and he always tried to take care of everybody. Gregg was the band's lady-killer, nicknamed PB — for "pretty boy." He was also the member with the most anxiety about performing and would sometimes vomit before a show.
In 1970, producer Tom Dowd was walking down the street in Macon, on his way to visit Phil Walden, when he heard a band rehearsing that made him late for his appointment. At Walden's office, he asked who was making that joyful noise. On discovering that it was the Allmans, he exclaimed, "Get them out of there! They're hot as a pistol! Get them in the studio!" Two days later, he began recording them and continued in short sessions between live dates. The excellent resulting album, Idlewild South, was named after the ranch where Betts lived and the band sometimes rehearsed. It contained the love-is-everywhere anthem "Revival," Gregg's acoustic blues "Midnight Rider" and "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed," an elegant Betts instrumental.
The Allmans kept touring and kept consuming whatever drugs they could get their hands on. They referred to cocaine as vitamin C. They ingested such vast quantities of psychedelic mushrooms that the mushroom became a band logo: Each member got one tattooed on his upper calf. (Jaimoe found the tattoo so painful, he stopped after the outline was done.) Sometimes a few of them would take speed and have a "fuckathon" with six or eight groupies.
After Idlewild South was completed, Dowd's next sessions were in Miami with Eric Clapton, working on Derek and the Dominoes' Layla. Clapton was an admirer of Duane's, mostly on the strength of his work on "Hey Jude"; Duane considered Clapton one of his heroes. And so when the Allman Brothers played Miami, Dowd escorted Clapton to the concert. Dowd remembers, "As we snuck into this place to be seated, Duane was playing a solo. He opened his eyes and stopped dead in his tracks. Dickey looks at Duane, who's looking down with his mouth open, so Dickey starts playing a solo to cover for Duane, not knowing what his problem is."
After the show, both bands repaired to the studio, where they hung out and jammed. Clapton and Duane quickly achieved a rapport, playing each other licks, comparing strings, trading instruments. Duane showed Clapton how he played slide: with an empty bottle of Coricidin (a cold medication) on his ring finger. That weekend, Clapton invited Duane to the studio to play on a couple of tracks. After they cut "Tell the Truth" and "Key to the Highway," Clapton asked him to play on the whole record; they completed the double album in ten days.
"Duane walked in and set those guys on fire," says Trucks. "They were all so fucked up: They were all snorting coke, doing smack, drunk. They had all these great musicians, but nothing, no fire." Trucks was watching on the day "Layla" was recorded and says Allman transformed the tune, speeding it up and adding its famous introductory riff. "He set fire to whoever he was working with," says Trucks. "And that's what he did to us. I mean, he was very much a messiah type."
In October 1970, while the band was visiting Nashville, everybody ate some opium. Duane had a second helping. The next morning, they couldn't wake him up; when they took him to the hospital, the doctors told them there was little hope. Oakley started crying, and praying: "Please, just give him one more year." About an hour later, Duane started to get better.
Idlewild South sold respectably, but the Allman Brothers knew that their real strength was onstage. So they took the logical step: They booked the Fillmore East in New York for two nights — March 12th and 13th, 1971 — to cut a live album. The double album from that weekend, At Fillmore East, was the Allman Brothers' first gold record and remains their best work. It's a demonstration of how tight they had become after two years of touring and how loose they were willing to unwind. They were playing jazz music for rock fans; they were also creating a blueprint for all the Southern-rock bands that would follow. Duane's solos made a strong case that he was America's finest living lead guitarist. Dowd says that for all the relaxed-fit atmosphere of the music, the album was highly organized and premeditated. After completing a night's work around 2 A.M., they would head up to the Atlantic studios with Dowd and listen to the playback for hours, thinking about which songs they needed to do again and which ones they had nailed.
Ten days after the Fillmore shows, while touring the South, the band paused to refresh itself at a truck stop in Jackson, Alabama. A cop there made the keen-eyed observation that they were a bunch of longhaired hippies and searched them: They were charged with possession of heroin, marijuana and PCP, and all spent the night in jail. "I can remember it like it was an hour ago," says Gregg. "Incarceration — I just couldn't do it. If I had to go to jail for three years, I'd probably come out of there crazy." They plea-bargained the charges down to disturbing the peace. That October, Phil Walden set up visits for the band at a heroin-detox center in New York. Some of the members flew up, including Duane and Gregg; none found it useful.
On October 28th, 1971, Duane returned to Macon from New York; the following day there was a birthday party for Berry Oakley's wife, Big Linda. After the party, around 5:30 P.M., Duane got on his Harley for the trip home. Candace Oakley, Berry's sister, trailed behind in her car, going down Hillcrest Avenue. She watched as Duane passed slow cars and zipped through the yellow light at Inverness. At Bartlett Avenue, there was a Chevy flatbed truck making a wide turn. Duane tried to veer around it — but the truck unexpectedly stopped. Candace saw Duane clip the truck, saw his helmet fly off, saw him fall off the Harley, saw the Harley fly into the air and land on top of him. Candace had to go to three houses before she could find someone who would let her use the phone. An ambulance took Duane to the hospital, but he had sustained massive internal injuries; at 8:40 P.M., he was pronounced dead. He was twenty-four years old.
"Duane always used to say, 'I'll be the first one to go in this band,'" swears Jaimoe. "I remember this shit coming up three or four times." At the funeral, the remaining members of the band did a somber set for 300 mourners, starting with "The Sky Is Crying." Duane's tombstone was inscribed with the guitar tablature for "Little Martha," a wistful instrumental he had written shortly before his death.
The band had lost its brightest light and its messianic leader; the apostles tried to figure out what he would have wanted them to do. The consensus was that he would have wanted them to keep going. So they hit the road as a five-piece band, still playing 300 gigs a year, with Betts forced into the uncomfortable position of playing Duane's solos. Gregg had lost his brother and his rudder, but perhaps Oakley took the loss hardest. "He was just too fragile a character," says Trucks. "It was a big hole in his heart. The rest of us did a better job of moving on, but Berry was never able to fill that in."
In February 1972, the Allmans released Eat a Peach. It was their second double album in a row, with two-thirds of the material drawn from the Fillmore shows. But it included some lovely new material, including Gregg's ballad "Melissa" and Betts' love song "Blue Sky," which featured his first vocals on an ABB album.
Morbid rumor had it that the record's title was a reference to Duane's crash; the truck he crashed into, the story went, had been carrying peaches. The truth was much more interesting. Walden's original nomination for the title was The Kind We Grow in Dixie; Trucks saw the mocked-up cover and told him it sucked. But he remembered something Duane had said in an interview just before he died: "Every time I'm in Georgia, I eat a peach for peace."
A few years ago, Trucks was reading T.S. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" for the first time. Toward the end of this poem about a man afraid to embrace life was a line that pinned Trucks' ears back: "Do I dare to eat a peach?" Trucks asked Gregg whether Duane had read Eliot; the answer was yes. Trucks mulls, "Duane never finished high school, but he was one of the more educated people I knew. He said, 'Damn, I'm smarter than these people,' so he went and got the books."
The Allman Brothers needed another musician to fill out their sound. Many of their songs are built around twin melody lines, but asking another guitarist to step into Duane's shoes seemed morbid and unfair, so they recruited pianist Chuck Leavell from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and began work on a new album, Brothers and Sisters.
On November 11th, 1972, Berry Oakley was driving around town on his Triumph motorcycle, recruiting musicians to jam with him that night at a local club, under the name the Berry Oakley Jive-Ass Revue, Featuring the Rowdy Roadies and the Shady Ladies. Oakley was slightly intoxicated and not very smooth on a bike; he took a turn too wide and plowed into the middle of an oncoming bus. He was three blocks from the site of Duane's accident, which had happened a year and two weeks earlier.
Then something remarkable happened: Oakley stood up. Perhaps death and misfortune would not dog every single step of the Allman Brothers Band. Oakley had a nosebleed, but it soon stopped, so he caught a ride home. When he got there, however, he became incoherent and was taken to the hospital. It turned out he had fractured his skull and was hemorrhaging violently. He died forty-five minutes later.
"He just was not a happy man that last year," says Trucks. "When he died, it was almost a relief." Oakley was buried right next to Duane. At his funeral, the Allman Brothers trudged out to play another memorial set, gobsmacked by grief, unable to believe they were watching a rerun of the same horrific TV show.
After a concert in Seattle, Dickey Betts invites me onto his tour bus. Beneath his cowboy had and above his American Indian T-shirt, there is a lined face with careful eyes. As a general rule, he is happy to let others do the talking. We chat about his hobbies of fishing and golf; sometimes he partners with retired baseball star Carlton Fisk. Asked about his shirt, he unwraps a pack of Marlboro reds and talks about how there's some Cherokee on his father's side of the family. Dickey's organized some fund-raisers for American Indian causes; when he married his third wife, Sandy Bluesky, the ceremony was officiated by a Creek medicine man who instructed Betts to kill a duck. Sandy's role was to prepare it for the wedding dinner. Betts dutifully headed off into the woods; an hour later, the wedding guests heard shots as he found his duck. "She never cooked the duck, though," he says, laughing. "I did my part."
Asked about Berry Oakley, Betts leans forward, and his drawl accelerates as he eulogizes his friend:
He was so original with his bass playing. I mean, there's never been a bass player, before or since, who wants to sound like him — because his sound is god-awful. He would play a Fender bass, with a giant amp on full treble: It was rattly-ass sounding. If you're not Berry Oakley, it sounds like shit. If you asked him who his influence was, he would jokingly say, "James Burton." You know who James Burton is? Ricky Nelson's lead guitar player, remember, who had that really rattly string sound.
But from that perspective on bass, he did things. When he first heard "Whipping Post," for instance, he said, "Let me sleep on this tonight." And I lived with him at the time — he stayed in his room all night, and I could hear him working on it. That whole growly-ass 11/4 intro, that was Oakley.
I'm a dumb-ass guitar player, you know? But I was smart enough to listen to people who had ideas, like Berry. And he organized all of our free concerts. And he argued and argued and argued to keep ticket prices down: "Our people can't afford these horrendous ticket prices." He kept us calm. He was the guy who would say, "Now, you know, let's be cool." He was a great, great influence on the band.
The Allmans replaced Oakley with Lamar Williams, a childhood pal of Jaimoe's. They completed the very fine Brothers and Sisters, which brought Betts even further to the forefront of the group with another ecstatic instrumental, "Jessica," and his song "Ramblin' Man." Betts says he writes most of his instrumentals driving around in his truck; when passengers ask him why he doesn't play the radio, he tells them that he has a radio in his head. But "Ramblin' Man" was written at 3 A.M. while sitting at the kitchen table in the Oakleys' house. It was inspired by a hillbilly friend of his who built barbed-wire fences down in Florida. Whenever he saw Betts, he would greet him, "Hey, Dickey? How you been doing? Playing your music and doing the best you can?" The single became the band's biggest hit, going to Number Two (kept from the top by Cher's "Half-Breed"). "Ramblin' Man" was the last song Oakley ever recorded.
Contrary to popular belief, Woodstock wasn't the largest concert of its time; it wasn't even the largest in upstate New York. The biggest crowd to see a rock show in the Seventies was the 600,000 at the Watkins Glen Summer Jam on July 28th, 1973, lodging it in the Guinness Book of World Records. At sound check, Trucks looked out on the audience, stretched out on hill after hill as far as the eye could see. He could have reflected on this temporary community or allowed himself a moment of pride. But what he actually thought was this: "Goddamn, what if they all start moving this way?" "I made sure I knew where the helicopter was," he says.
According to Trucks, the day was remarkably peaceful, without even a fistfight. The Grateful Dead played for five hours, the Band played for three and the Allman Brothers for another three. Then, at 2 A.M., just in case any of the audience members hadn't quite gotten their fill, the three bands jammed for another ninety minutes. Says Trucks, "It's one of the only times I can remember where the jam didn't work because the drugs didn't mix. The Band were all drunk. The Dead were all tripping. And we were all full of coke. So we tried to jam, but there was just no common ground."
The Allmans' consumption of drugs, including heroin, only increased. They kept touring; by now, they were playing stadiums. Trucks complains, "We got further and further away from the music. We got more and more into the limousines and the cocaine and the booze and chicks — and all that other stupid shit. It reached a point where we were the Number One band in the country, and we didn't work for a year. We just sat on our asses getting fucked up."
The Allmans began 1975 in Macon, embarking on their first album in two years, Win, Lose, or Draw. They recorded a crisp cover of Muddy Waters' "Can't Lose What You Never Had," and then the sessions fell apart. They argued about whether to pursue a jazzier sound. Betts' marriage was on the rocks. Trucks kept driving drunk and was eventually put on probation. Jaimoe was in a car crash, had a serious back injury and needed heavy painkillers. Allman gave up and skipped town for L.A.
His first night there, he went to see blues belter Etta James and ended up sitting in. He agreed to come back the following night; that time the audience included David Geffen and his girlfriend, Cher. The next night, Cher showed up without Geffen. A smitten Allman asked her out.
They had a disastrous first date; Allman sucked on her fingers and tried to kiss her, and Cher fled. Against her better judgment, she agreed to a second date. Allman took her dancing, and they started to connect. "Pulling words out of Gregg Allman is like . . . forget it," she told Playboy that year. "Things started to mellow when he found out that I was a person — that a chick was not just a dummy. For him up till then, they'd had only two uses: make the bed and make it in the bed."
On June 30th, 1975, five days after Cher's divorce from Sonny Bono was finalized, Cher and Allman went to Las Vegas and got married at Caesar's Palace. It was her second marriage and his third.
They went to Jamaica for the honeymoon, but after a few days Allman picked a fight with Cher, pulling a knife so that she would leave and he could score some heroin. After nine days of marriage, Cher filed for divorce. Allman entered rehab, and a week after Cher had filed they reconciled.
Somehow, the band managed to finish the soggy, pasted-together Win, Lose, or Draw and went on tour, performing some fund-raisers for Jimmy Carter along the way, each member arriving at each show in his own limousine. Allman's marriage wasn't stopping his drug abuse and womanizing; realizing the relationship wasn't working, he filed for divorce in November 1975. When Cher discovered she was pregnant a month later, they reconciled once more.
By 1976, Allman was waking up with a morning snort of cocaine, some of it pure pharmaceutical cocaine obtained by his sidekick and valet, Scooter Herring. He was scoring it from Joe Fuchs, a Macon pharmacist who staged a robbery of his drugstore and made some extra money selling off what had been "stolen."
What Allman didn't know was that both Fuchs and Herring were involved with the Dixie mafia, the Southern version of organized crime. The Macon ringleader was one J.C. Hawkins. In 1976, a federal investigation into corruption at the Macon Police Department led to the drug trade and the Hawkins gang. It also inevitably led to Allman as one of the main consumers of drugs in Macon.
Fuchs turned state's witness and wore a wire to gather more evidence against Hawkins. Allman was targeted by the grand jury and cut the Monica Lewinsky deal: immunity from prosecution in return for what he knew about Fuchs and Herring. The government was leaning on Herring, trying to build a case against Hawkins. But Herring resisted: Not only was he worried about further exposing Allman and his circle of drug buddies, he was afraid that Hawkins might kill him. So Herring volunteered to take the heat; in the odd vicissitudes of our legal system, this meant standing trial for dealing drugs to Gregg Allman. What's more, because of his immunity agreement, Allman would be testifying against his friend.
The trial began on June 22nd, 1976, and took only three days; Herring was sentenced to seventy-five years in prison (later reduced to thirty months on appeal). The other members of the band were livid: From where they stood, Allman had betrayed the brotherhood of the band. "There is no way we can work with Gregg again. Ever," Betts told Rolling Stone at the time. "[Scooter's] the patsy," said Trucks.
The rest of the band made their loathing of Allman abundantly clear at the time, but today they want to emphasize that they now sympathize with the untenable position he was in. "Gregg was made out to be a fink in the papers," says Trucks, "and we reacted accordingly." That they read about their band mate's legal travails in the newspaper instead of calling him on the phone is a good indication of how far apart they had all grown.
The trial was the final straw for the Allman Brothers Band, or maybe even an excuse to end something that had stopped being fun a long time before. They broke up. Says Jaimoe, "Gregg became a whipping boy for everything that had mounted up from the time of Duane's death."
The Allman Brothers might have parted ways with a sense of relief and a determination to enjoy their respective retirements, except for an unpleasant discovery: They were broke. Trucks says, "We were a young band in love with our music, and we had a guy [manager Phil Walden] who was going to take care of the business. That's what he did. He took care of all the business." Trucks laughs hollowly.
Trucks says, "We were the Number One band in the country through the Seventies. We sold 30 million records. I think the biggest year I ever had, I made $300,000. And when we split up, not only did I not have anything, I was in debt up to my ass. I was living in a trailer." Phil Walden, acting as both manager and record company, had kept the royalty rates artificially low. When the Allmans started doing audits, they found they were still owed money. (Walden declines to comment on any aspect of his history with the band.) Betts filed the first lawsuit, which freed him to record a solo album on Arista. With its flagship band broken up, Capricorn was having financial problems of its own. In 1976, the label released another live double ABB album, Wipe the Windows, Check the Oil, Dollar Gas, this one a grab bag of recent performances.
Allman and Cher made a 1977 album, Two the Hard Way, under the name Allman and Woman; in an act of kindness and good taste, the American record-buying public completely ignored it. When Allman passed out at an awards banquet, his face landing in a plate of spaghetti, Cher decided enough was enough. She filed for divorce in 1977; this time there was no reconciliation.
Allman packed up and went back to Macon, where he tried to reassemble the Allman Brothers Band. It took a full year for the group members to overcome their doubts and their commitments to solo projects; Chuck Leavell and Lamar Williams stayed with their band, Sea Level. The ABB recorded an uneven album, Enlightened Rogues; released in March 1979, it took its name from an old Duane description of the band.
In the summer of 1979, with creditors closing in on all sides, Capricorn finally melted in the heat. It was done in by a combination of mismanagement and its reliance on a steady diet of Southern rock when the public taste had switched to disco. On October 21st, the label filed for bankruptcy. Walden would eventually emerge with a net worth of $7 million, but the Allmans' royalties were lost forever.
The Brothers struggled on, making two more albums for Arista, in 1980 and 1981, that they would just as soon forget: Reach for the Sky and Brothers of the Road. They complain that the label kept trying to turn them into Led Zeppelin. Southern rock had become a cliché. The band was instructed not to wear cowboy hats onstage. In January 1982, the Allmans broke up, a move that met with shrugs of apathy both inside and outside the group.
The story could end there; it does for many bands. Those who were once Brothers went their separate ways in the Eighties. Trucks built a recording studio. Lamar Williams died of lung cancer in 1983, maybe caused by exposure to Agent Orange during his time in Vietnam. Allman recorded a couple of solo albums, toured clubs and had a Top Forty hit with "I'm No Angel" in 1987. Allman and Betts lived five miles away from each other in Florida but would go years without seeing each other. Sometimes, when Trucks was in the shower, he would look down at his calf and notice the mushroom tattoo there, the band's symbol, its bond. Memories would wash over him.
By 1988, Southern blues-rock had rehabilitated its reputation somewhat, through the efforts of performers like Robert Cray, Stevie Ray Vaughan and even the Georgia Satellites. Epic Records called Betts and asked him to put together a twin-guitar band; if he really wanted, he could even wear his cowboy hat. Betts released Pattern Disruptive, and then the label asked him what he would think about the Allman Brothers Band getting back together.
The exceptional four-CD box Dreams, released in 1989, had reminded the world of the heights of the Allmans' triumphs before they collapsed. And everyone in the band had bills to pay and no money saved for retirement. Surely they were mature enough to collaborate again. So they cautiously reunited, uncertain of whether they could count on Allman to show up in any condition to work. They couldn't, it turned out, but they proceeded anyway, recording Seven Turns in 1990 and Shades of Two Worlds in 1991. They added young salsa drummer Marc Quinones on percussion, Warren Haynes on second guitar and Allen Woody on bass; Chuck Leavell was invited to return but opted to play piano with the Rolling Stones instead.
Both albums showed the Allman Brothers playing together, not thinking too hard and demonstrating their strengths. Allman would weave in and out of sobriety, so the band worked around it. Trucks says, "Gregg would straighten up, then Dickey'd fall off. I used to say, 'Man, this would be a great organization if we could ever start firing on all cylinders at once.'" Despite these struggles, the Allmans had discovered a remarkable thing: People still wanted to hear them play. They took a one-year-at-a-time attitude, and for the last ten years have kept deciding that it would be fun to do one more year. The crowds kept growing and the ABB kept collecting accolades: induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, a Grammy for a live version of "Jessica" in 1996.
When Jerry Garcia died in 1995, the Allman Brothers got an instant transfusion of Deadheads who wanted to hear lysergic guitar solos against a backdrop of two drummers and songs that shift easily from jazz to country. The Allman Brothers' summer tour became a bona fide event. And the last few years, they've been playing better than at any time since Duane died, because, finally, everyone got straight.
Onstage, Gregg Allman looks large and hulking, as if Nick Nolte had stepped behind the organ to do a set. But sitting in his Seattle hotel room, his face is softer, his manner gentle. His sleeves are rolled up, revealing a mosaic of tattoos. His doting fiancée, Stacey, goes down the hall to get us water and Snapple, and he tells me of his love of Errol Flynn movies and for all generations of Star Trek: "I don't want to give the impression I sit home and watch TV all the time, but I am a serious Trekkie. I like Six of Nine, or whatever her name is," he says, laughing. "Huge jugs and a great ass, man."
Asked what he thinks Duane would have done if he had lived, he says, "I don't know if he would've done the next four or five records with the band. He might have gone his own way, like Clapton did with Blind Faith and Cream, jumping around. I was wondering the other day if the band would still be around if Duane was still here. . . . I don't know." If Duane hadn't gotten involved in music, he thinks he would have maybe ended up working in Silicon Valley or drinking himself to death.
Allman makes it clear that he doesn't enjoy doing interviews: He's fidgety the whole time, and he politely escorts me out of his room precisely thirty minutes after our conversation begins. We spend some of the time talking about his battle with addiction. He has abandoned all his vices, including — to the surprise of everyone around him — cigarettes. His efforts to quit drinking included AA, but he found the anonymity it promised lacking when people kept asking him for autographs after meetings.
I've been clean . . . we're approaching three years now. I'm so glad it's over with. I went up to 251 pounds. I mean, I have a big motorcycle, and they have a picture of me on it, and it looks like I need a bigger one — the biggest one they make. I was drinking a quart and a half of vodka a day, and that bloats you so much. You smell bad. I don't care if you take a bath in lilacs, you sweat out all this vodka because it's coming through you so fast.
Another one of the bad things about drinking: The songs you write are all the same. You'll wake up the next day with an aching head, and you do not want to read what the hell you have written down. Or, for God's sake, if you had a tape recorder, the first thing you want to do is get something recorded over that tape. Onstage, you think you're just kicking ass. But if you listen to two nights, one when you're sober and one when you weren't, the music'll be about the same, but it's like someone took a rheostat and turned you down just a little bit. You're counting off the songs, but you're slower than everyone else. I made myself listen to two or three whole gigs. I knew they were bad before putting them on, but not that bad. It makes you just want to cut your throat. And the damn cocaine — cocaine'll make you play too slow, heroin'll make you play too fast. Figure that out. I am so lucky to be here. I thought I was bulletproof. Now, just being alive, it's like Christmas every day.
In 1997, Haynes and Woody left the band to focus on their own psychedelic power trio, Gov't Mule. They were replaced by bassist Oteil Burbridge (previously of the Aquarium Rescue Unit) and guitarist Jack Pearson. Two years later, despite his live prowess, Pearson left the ABB. His replacement was Trucks' nephew Derek, lanky, laconic and all of twenty years old.
Derek is also a fireball on guitar who's been a professional musician since age eleven. He used to bristle when people compared his playing to Duane Allman's; now he just shrugs and acknowledges him as an important influence. "Some of my favorite songs of theirs to play on is the stuff that Duane soloed on," he says. "When it comes time to play those solos, there seems to be an intense energy remaining there." And when Derek plays slide, he wears a vintage Coricidin bottle on his ring finger, just like Duane.
There hasn't been a new ABB record in five years; Betts says, "We're having a little dispute with our record company." The Allmans think they've demonstrated their renewed viability and merit better terms than they got from Epic ten years ago. And although some new songs like "Good Times" and "J.J.'s Alley" have been in the live set for some time now, they can wait to record them until the contract gets settled. They're also displeased with Polygram, which owns the rights to their Seventies recordings: It reopened the Capricorn imprint and assigned the ABB catalog to it. Given the Allmans' righteous anger over how Capricorn screwed them the first time around, they see this as not just an unwelcome surprise but a grave insult.
A month after the Cincinnati concert, the Allman Brothers are playing in Oregon. Seven musicians arrive in three buses at Portland Meadows. Rainstorms are predicted, and as the band mills around on the side of the stage, the crowd appears to number only about 500.
Allman is straightening and tucking in his black button-down shirt. Betts is seated, carefully folding a bright blue kerchief. Butch Trucks and I are leaning on a large equipment case and chatting; he tells me how his wife worried that, at age fifty-two, he might be due for a midlife crisis. He gently explained to her that he was unlikely to regret having missed out on opportunities for debauchery in his youth. I comment on the size of the crowd and ask Butch whether he thinks it's because of the weather. He stares at me disbelievingly. "Well, no," he says, in the tones one usually reserves for a dim child. "It's because of a lack of popularity in Portland." The Allmans' following is strongest in the Northeast (especially Boston and New York), California and the South. If they ever want to semi-retire, Butch says, they could cut their annual three-month summer tour down to one month and focus on those areas.
Showtime: The three junior members of the band have inserted their earplugs; the veterans don't bother. The crowd has swollen to about 2,000, still not huge but large enough to roar when the Allmans stroll onstage and begin the 1990 instrumental "True Gravity." On an evening like this, the band plays for itself, trying to be honest to the groove. Sometimes Burbridge will catch two of the original members smiling at each other after a spontaneous moment of beauty, and he feels grateful that he was there to share it. Tonight, the Allman Brothers play lovely acoustic versions of "Seven Turns" and "Melissa," and then follow them up with back-to-back instrumentals, "Jessica" and "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed." Betts is in exceptional form, finding new things to say in songs he wrote decades ago, spurring the rest of the band to a fever pitch.
Then the group plays "End of the Line," and the abstract video images on the backdrop change to footage of Duane Allman soloing on his guitar. One thing makes it absolutely clear that this vision of Duane is a ghost: his facial hair, red mutton chops that look like they made up twenty percent of his body weight. Then Duane's image is superimposed on the band's, so it looks as if he's standing between Betts and Derek Trucks, jamming with them. Since every night they play inside a musical world that he helped create, this isn't far from the truth. If only for one song, the Allman Brothers Band has two brothers again.
After the show, Gregg Allman reminisces about how his brother would have probably ended up spending the Eighties playing in small clubs, just like him. "It made me really remember who I was. I had to tote that organ a few times. It weighs the same as a heartache, but if you want to play badly enough, you'll carry the damn thing."
The same as a heartache?
Allman cracks a smile. "No, the same as a Harley — 406 pounds. Nothing weighs as much as a heartache."
If you could go back thirty years, and you knew everything that was going to happen with this band, both the good things and the tragedies, would you go down that road again?
Allman snorts. "Well, at that age, it would be pretty overwhelming to receive all that information at once." Then he pauses and weighs the balance of his life, the festivals and the funerals, and decides on the path he's already taken. "But, yeah. Once music gets you, you'll go wherever it takes to play. Yeah." He walks off into the night, heading for his dogs-but-no-smoking bus.