I’m writing these words a long way away from Jacksonville, Florida, where the Allman Brothers Band are to get a ‘historical marker’; a plaque put down at the house they all moved in together. There they got to being one of the greatest combos of the classic rock era, sprouting the louche, moustachioed, Les Pauled-up single flowering branch that was known as southern rock.
I’m writing from the outer hills of Melbourne, Australia to be exact. I’ve never been to Georgia or Florida, two of the united states that are associated with the Allman Brothers. But I’ve been there, like I’ve been to many other of those states, from within their songs.
Music can do that, move you through time and space in an instant, fill your mind with feverish dreams. Sometimes distorting and bending time, sometimes flashing scenes before your mind, scenes from other people’s lives that you take to be as good as your own. I could have done some ground research for these words and this story to better earth my words but the music I have always liked the most has just a little bit of earth and grit (and maybe a whiff of exhaust smoke) but is also capable of flight and fancy as well. So, I thought if I could keep it in this realm, this other-worldly place, it would actually be more authentic and purer.
Rock’n’roll was quicker and truer than the internet!
I would have first stared at the cover of The Allman Brothers at Fillmore East album in about 1974 in Mt Gambier, South Australia, a town that ran on its timber mills and surrounding dairy farms right at the bottom, inside haunch of the country. A wet, windy and green place. Raw. The front cover showed Gregg Allman laughing heartily with his head thrown back, though he never seemed that happy-go-lucky in his music. He specialised in moaning, grunting and casting a gloomy young man’s spell of blues. Though I was the young man. He would have been still in his 20s (the album was already three years old by the time I got to it) yet, like his contemporary, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, he inhabited this world-weary tone and voice that very convincingly intimated a world he was totally lost to, full of dangerous fates and dark shadows. There was always a haunting presence from the past. Always misunderstood and always a mean woman fooling with his mind.
At the time, it seemed that the Allman Brothers were a band like many others. They looked pretty regular, there were people in my town that could have walked out of that album cover. But to listen to them now is to marvel at their individual skills and their power and focus as a unit.
In some ways, Gregg could be compared with one other young, gifted player of the time: Steve Winwood, with the impossibly rich voice, the Hammond organ playing as well as guitar and the long jazz and R&B arrangements.
By 1974 the Allman brother called Duane had already left the world of men and women and so had bassplayer Berry Oakley. More ghosts and tragedy. More blues. The band seemed to have arrived like a crashing wave and were thrown onto the beach, with two of them unable to land and retreating back with the surging water.
Music from the vaults provided a double album follow-up called Eat a Peach and then they had to step into their own boots for real. Which they did with the album Brothers and Sisters, guitarist Dickie Betts belting out his classic Ramblin’ Man like a cowboy champ at the plate. They seemed like warlords at the feast. In my teens, in that country South Australian town, my friends and I drove through the spectacular boredom of our empty nights smoking weed and listening slack-brained to the still gorgeous groove of the epic song Dreams. I listen now and wait for the moment when Duane’s slide finds a perfect tone and sustained energy and he hovers there in arpeggiated pleasure before leaping up an octave.
We bought albums by anybody associated with them, specifically Tommy Talton and Cowboy. Gregg married Cher and they released Allman and Woman’s Two the Hard Way and the whole band went to the White House to wear cool threads on the lawn with Jimmy Carter. We read that people yelled “Whipping Post” into the void much like they did to Skynyrd with “Freebird!” and they do to those other Gods from the golden age of leather, the Blue Oyster Cult, with their cries of “more cowbell!”. Who are they? Moronic spectators is who! Fools! Parrots! Know-nothing clowns!
Then there were the drug busts and disgrace and the Brothers weren’t brothers no more. For a while.
Gregg seemed to live so far inside such a badass image he appeared in movies as someone not unlike the man he was supposed to be. He had been troubled and now he was trouble.
But he had led a charmed life. One producer and one studio for every album he made except the last. I like to hear of charmed lives, they are rare.
So the house they all found each other as a band is going to have a plaque put down. They will finally be earthed in Florida, where they always recorded and where Gregg lived. I can see pictures of it through the internet. The magic box. It looks like a crazy museum a fellow used to have in his garage back in Mt Gambier, South Australia. My favourite kinds of museums are 100 per cent country. Folk lore and myth lying side by side with matchboxes and bottle tops.
A good try at earthing the Midnight Riders.
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