Any one of Gregg Allman’s stories about his life could lure a reader into his new memoir, but the 64-year-old Allman begins My Cross to Bear with his biggest moment of shame, the induction of the Allman Brothers Band into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
“It should have been the greatest week of my life, but instead I hit an all-time low,” he writes. “The Allman Brothers Band, the band my brother started, the band with our name on it, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and I flat-out missed it. I was physically there, but otherwise I was out of it — mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I was drunk, man, just s — -faced drunk, the entire time. Welcome to the story of my life.”
Given such a forthright enticement, Allman has no trouble hooking readers with the unflinching details of his highs — musical and otherwise — and lows. He writes in a charming, Southern gentlemanly first-person voice with help from Rolling Stone scribe Alan Light and contributing author John Lynskey, a history and government teacher at a Miami high school who has chronicled the Allman Brothers over the years. My Cross to Bear is essential reading for Allman Brothers Band fans.
Lead singer, songwriter and keyboardist for the band since its formation in 1969, Allman never knew his father; he was only two when his dad was murdered by a hitchhiker. He lost his brother and bandmate Duane Allman, one of rock’s most revered guitarists, to a motorcycle accident in 1971 just as their band, guided by the production genius of the late Miami music legend Tom Dowd, was ascending to the A-list. His five marriages failed and one of them, to pop culture fixture Cher, made him People magazine fodder in the ‘70s.
He had to testify against his band’s roadie for selling drugs to him and was blasted as a “narc” by Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. He’s struggled with drug and alcohol addictions, battled hepatitis C and had a liver transplant. Just last week he had to delay his book tour to undergo heart tests at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville to address atrial fibrillation.
Allman doesn’t spend too much time explaining why his marriages failed and gives only cursory mentions to his five children. But the book’s detail-rich examination of key events in his music career gives My Cross to Bear its dramatic momentum and value.
The musician doesn’t skimp on dishing on the final acrimonious departure of founding member Dickey Betts from the band in 2000 or on his conflicted relationship as “baybrah” of Duane Allman. The book’s most indelible moments focus on the relationship between the two.
At times, the memories are hilarious. One morning when they were children, Gregg was already working his mother’s last nerve for some infraction or other. Big brother, sitting in a wet bathing suit on a hard flat chair and already understanding the theory of amplification, seized on the moment by breaking wind, “like a (expletive) moose” and framed baybrah.
“Duane was able to keep a straight face, and he went, ‘Gregory — at the table?’ My mother gave me one look and said, ‘Get up from the table and go to your room.’”
Other stories aren’t as amusing, such as when Allman reflects on his last memory of Duane. The two fought over cocaine. Allman writes that he gave Duane $100 to buy a gram, but he never got the drug. Incensed, Gregg stole into Duane’s house while he was sleeping the next morning, found his brother’s stash, “poured out about half a gram, and snorted it up.” As soon as Gregg returned home the phone rang and Duane was furious and asked if he had taken his coke. “The last thing I ever said to my brother was a f — — — lie, man. ‘No, I did not,’ I told him.”
Duane apologized. “‘I sure do love ya, baybrah,’ and he hung up. That was the last time I ever spoke to my brother… I have thought of that lie every day of my life, and I just keep recrucifying myself for it. I know that’s not what he would want — well, not for long, anyway. I know he lied to me about the blow in the first place, but the thing is, I never got the chance to tell him the truth.”
The book’s tone is so open and engaging, My Cross to Bear could appeal even to readers whose knowledge of the band begins and ends with “Ramblin’ Man”.
The latter category, Allman writes, would include ex-wife Cher, whom he met at one of his solo shows in 1975.
“Cher wasn’t hip to the Allman Brothers at all… she had heard ‘Ramblin’ Man,’ but everybody had heard that song,” he recalls. (Interesting trivia: Cher’s pop single “Half-Breed” denied the Allman Brothers their only chance for a No. 1 single on the Oct. 13, 1973 Billboard Hot 100 chart.) Nevertheless, Allman was smitten, even if he later confesses that she can’t sing. “God, she smelled like I would imagine a mermaid would smell … I’ve never smelled it since, and I’ll never forget it.”
The book’s unfussy style also increases its value in helping readers understand how these major league musicians persevere despite the pitfalls. Simple: “A player has got to play,” Allman writes after doctors warn him to take it easy post-transplant. “(I)f traveling and making music is what takes me, I can’t think of a better way to go.”