BOOK REVIEW: 'My Cross to Bear' by Gregg Allman With Alan Light

 

Some books cry out for their own soundtrack. Cue up The Allman Brothers Band's At Fillmore East and relive that seminal moment when the '60s gave way to the '70s in Gregg Allman's new memoir, My Cross to Bear (co-written with former Spin and Vibe editor Alan Light).

As narrator of his private life, Allman is uneven -- honest but not particularly insightful. (The story begins with the murder of his father in 1949, the victim of a carjacking gone wrong, when Gregg was 2 and his brother, Duane, was 3.) And he isn't especially adept at describing how he and his brother developed their signature musical style ("The more I did, the more I learned"). But as a chronicler of the band's exuberant rise and tragic dissolution, however, he is fabulous.

[pullquote]Allman beautifully re-creates the rock scene of the mid-'60s as the brothers' various bands move from regional clubs to national venues like the Fillmore. Along the way, they play with Dr. John (Allman was unimpressed), drink beers with The Marshall Tucker Band, hang out with Jackson Browne and spot Eric Clapton watching them play a free concert in Miami Beach.

The pictures he shares from this period reveal their own story. Only four photos chart the entire arc of the '60s: the brothers' first band, the Beatles-imitating Escorts in 1965, which morphed into the mod Allman Joys in 1966, then the psychedelic Hour Glass in 1967, and finally the long-haired/Southern rock Allman Brothers Band in 1969.

Tragedy famously struck on Oct. 29, 1971, when Duane died in a motorcycle crash in Macon, Ga. -- only two weeks after the band's third album, At Fillmore East, went gold.

Duane's death marked Allman as rock's Ted Kennedy, a guy whose whole life was shadowed by tragedy: Father murdered, brother dies, and eerily, less than 13 months later, the band's bassist, Berry Oakley, is killed in a motorcycle accident three blocks from the spot where Duane met his fate. Two girlfriends also commit suicide after Allman breaks up with them. My Cross to Bear, indeed.

The twin deaths of Duane and Oakley transform the band's story from interesting to legendary, haunting its glory years. Allman tells this part of the tale in a spare but moving dozen pages. While clearly shattered by Duane's death, he is frank about their relationship and resists the urge to romanticize the "What if Duane had lived?" alternative. He has empathy for Oakley, who some say grieved himself to death after Duane's accident: "I don't think he wanted to die; I just think he didn't want to live." Allman candidly admits regretting not doing more to help him.

Allman is less generous to the survivors, portraying founding guitarist Dickey Betts as a petty tyrant and Capricorn Records co-founder Phil Walden as a mediocre businessman who claimed undue credit for the band's early success. Allman captures how fame and money -- especially money -- corrupted relationships and eroded the simple joy of playing together. The unraveling of the band becomes as intriguing as its rise.

If Allman was a prickly bandmate, he was an even tougher romantic partner, marrying six times, most famously to Cher from 1975 to 1979. They were the first celebrity tabloid couple of the modern age. People magazine, launched in 1974, obsessively stalked the pair (Doonesbury in turn satirized the coverage). Allman doesn't offer special understanding into the relationship or the media spotlight, but the scars run deep. He goes out of his way to bash Cher as "not a very good singer" and their joint album as "just awful."

Allman's post-Cher years are less riveting. He was in and out of rehab and in and out of the band, which went through a half-dozen breakups and reunions. Drugs and alcohol took their toll. An old case of hepatitis C forced Allman to undergo a liver transplant in 2010, and the tour for this book has been delayed for health reasons.

The Gregg Allman who comes through in My Cross to Bear is faithful enough to show his warts, and that makes him strangely sympathetic, if not entirely likable. As he sings in his 1987 Gregg Allman Band hit: "I'm no angel … I've got scars upon my cheek/And I'm half crazy. Come on and love me, baby." Love him? Maybe not. Fascinated? Totally.

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