Gregg Allman Talks Rehab, Relationships and the 'Train Wreck' That Almost Was The Allman Brothers Band
Ten minutes into his hourlong conversation with music journalist Alan Light on Tuesday night at Santa Monica’s Aero Theatre, Gregg Allman says, “Let’s talk about some happy stuff.” What he means is, let’s stop talking about the 17 times he went to rehab, the four surgeries he recently underwent to deal with liver damage and what it means to look your mortality in the eye after years of drug and alcohol abuse. “That’ll make everything stop so you can think about stuff,” Allman said. " ‘Cause you might not be here tomorrow.”
Allman, whose memoir My Cross to Bear (written with Light) came out May 1, has years of tragic, dark tales he has stored up. But here, in his conversation at the Aero, which is part of the series Live Talks LA, Allman is more interested in reminiscing about the happier times -- and the relationships that came as a result. The conversation turns to Los Angeles (“It looked nothing like it looks now; you could go far enough down Sunset where you’d actually hit some dirt roads”), Bill Graham (“the sultan of rock 'n' roll”) and, ultimately, how the musician came to join his brother Duane in a little group called The Allman Brothers Band.
“Who had ever heard of a band with two drummers?” Allman asks, his slow, Southern-tinged drawl allowing each tale from his past to linger. “I thought: train wreck.” This origin story is clearly familiar to the crowd, a collection of diehard Allman fans carrying vintage concert posters and old vinyl for the signing afterward. The musician isn’t telling anyone anything they don’t already know -- or can’t read in My Cross to Bear, a thick tome that digs deep into Allman’s experiences, culled from his journals. The interesting part is not necessarily the story but the person telling it.
Allman not only speaks slowly, he moves slowly. For someone who, as he puts it, “quit cigarettes, cocaine, heroin and alcohol” during his final stint in rehab, the iconic musician looks relatively well. His sense of humor, while subtle, remains. When asked during the audience Q&A portion to recount a memory of Nashville, Allman pointedly says, “I hit my first and last woman in Nashville.” After a few quiet chuckles, he adds, “I was in the fifth grade.”
The audience, whose questions during the Q&A tend toward the personal-anecdote side of the spectrum, generally seem to be there because they’ve been inspired by the music Allman has created over the years in the various incarnations of The Allman Brothers Band. So it’s always curious to see the conflation of that music with the person who has made it, and how that confluence is equally impactful to the fans. Somewhere, buried between tales of making 1971’s At Fillmore East and playing for the first time with Derek Trucks when the guitarist was only 9 years old, is the sense that Allman has an opinion about music itself.
Toward the end of the evening, Allman says he doesn’t want to call anyone out specifically but that he doesn’t understand the bands who play the same set list every night in the same way. He explains that, in every variation of his band, he’s interested in musicians who are driven by a desire to create and play music. When Light asks what it is about the current lineup of The Allman Brothers Band that has generated more longevity than its past incarnations, Allman’s answer is simple.
“We’ve always picked guys that have that something,” he says. “It’s that hungry look.” The musician pauses, then adds, “You can see it in their eyes, like: ‘If I don’t play something soon, I’ll jump out of my skin. I’d be more pleasant if I was playing something.’ ”
In the end, this is the sentiment that resonates loudest, even as fans clamor for personal details of Allman’s self-described “interesting” life. And in a room filled with fifty- and sixtysomethings, it’s unfortunate that younger music fans and players aren’t present to hear it. But now, as we watch the musicians who’ve followed Allman, we can always be looking for that hungry look and hoping we see it.