My Cross to Bear By Gregg Allman with Alan Light William Morrow. 390 pp. $27.99
Reviewed by Jon Caroulis
At the end of his autobiography, My Cross to Bear, Gregg Allman writes, "I wouldn't trade [my life] for nobody's, but I don't know if I'd do it again. If somebody offered me a second round, I think I'd have to pass on it."
Why would he turn down the chance to be a famous rock star all over again, with all that goes with it? Because of all that goes with it, because with every high there seemed to be a dozen lows, starting with the murder of his father when he was an infant, and including the loss of his brother Duane and bandmate bassist Berry Oakley in motorcycle accidents, his whirlwind marriage to Cher and subsequent divorce, and the damage drugs and alcohol did to his body.
The book at times has the feel of Allman simply talking into a tape recorder and transcribing the manuscript, which can create a feeling both candid and two-dimensional, but it does tell the story of one of America's most important rock-and-roll bands — from its humble beginnings to world fame, breakup and reunion, and all the personality clashes along the way.
If depth is lacking, detail is not. The Allman Brothers Band started touring by jamming its equipment into a van that had no heat; they and their roadies slept four to a hotel room. If they had $3 a day for food, it was a good week. The band traveled to New York for an appearance, but didn't have the money to travel back home unless they booked another gig. They went days (or longer) without showers, and lived in an abandoned building there because there was no money for a hotel.
But if it was a difficult time, it was also a creative time that produced songs such as "Midnight Rider," "Melissa," "Dreams," and "It's Not My Cross to Bear." During this time, too, Duane Allman was beginning to earn a reputation as the greatest slide guitarist ever. It never would have happened if he hadn't gotten a cold and his brother hadn't given him a bottle of cold medicine and an album (he used the glass bottle as the slide). Both became instrumental in Duane's picking up the format.
The band recorded two albums that didn't make much of an impression, but its third effort, 1971's At Fillmore East, became a mega-seller, and people wanted to hear more of this group and its new sound of "Southern rock." At Fillmore East is still one of the greatest live albums ever recorded. But Duane did not live to see its success; he died in a motorcycle accident just before his 25th birthday. His death left the band wallowing in a stupor of drinking and drugs; Oakley died almost a year later in a motorcycle accident (and Allman doesn't rule out suicide).
The one member who emerged from Duane's death more prominent was Dickey Betts, the group's "other" guitarist. Overshadowed by Duane's personality and virtuoso playing, Betts then stepped into the limelight by writing and singing great songs, and even becoming an accomplished slide player in his own right (which surprised Gregg Allman).
But he did not become a good leader. Allman calls him a bully, and other members of the group chafed at his barking.
As the band was ascending, Allman met and married Cher in 1975; the band broke up, and the press blamed her (but Allman says that's not the case).
The band reunited, broke up, then reunited again, adding new personnel; but for its hard-core fans, Gregg Allman and Dickey Betts were the band: They wrote and sang the songs. As long as you had those two, you had the Allman Brothers Band — until Allman and drummers Butch Trucks and Jai Johanny Johanson (Jaimoe), the other surviving original members, had had enough of Betts' erratic playing and behavior, and told him to clean up or leave the group. An arbitrator ruled in the trio's favor, and Betts claimed he was kicked out.
While Allman is candid about his drug use and drinking (he was stoned when he accepted the Grammys' Lifetime Achievement Award), his six marriages and divorces (he says he still stays in touch with Cher), he's not as candid about Betts' departure or his testimony in a drug case against one of the band's roadies, who supplied Allman with drugs. Given immunity, Allman testified, which led to the roadie's conviction (he was sentenced to 75 years in prison, but was paroled after 18 months). The rest of the band resented his testifying, and that led to the band's first breakup.
This is the first insider account of the group, and despite its lack of depth it is still a revealing look at the music business — the costs, both human and financial, are sometimes greater than the rewards.
Allman does convince you that he probably wouldn't want to do it over again.