A brother’s death brought ’emotional challenge’ and pain to Gregg Allman’s life of music
Music journalist Alan Light has covered the gamut of superstar musicians during his career as a writer for Rolling Stone magazine and The New York Times, the editor-in-chief of Spin and Vibe magazines, and, more recently, as a correspondent for NPR and the co-host of the radio show “Debatable” on SiriusXM.
In 2012, he also released a memoir with one of the founding members of the Allman Brothers Band, Gregg Allman, who passed away on Saturday at the age of 69.
The book, “My Cross to Bear,” which was co-authored with Allman, delves into the band’s history, its place as a vanguard of rock and roll, and the troubles and lessons that came along with that success, including the tragic 1971 death of Allman’s brother and bandmate Duane Allman.
Light spoke to the PBS NewsHour on what he learned about Allman’s life and the musical career that spanned more than 40 years.
What did you learn from working on the memoir with Gregg Allman?
I sort of will never know what it is that the book, that the project, represented to him. I had worked with him some before that and he was a pretty reluctant interview. He is not someone who likes to talk about himself. Maybe he was just doing too many interviews over too many years. It was not something that he looked forward to doing. So I really needed to be convinced that he really wanted to do the book and he knew what it was going to entail and what it was going to require. And that … he was fully committed to it, everything was on the table, he talked very openly and really gave a sense of wanting to get this story in full and get it out there right.
So for my purposes, it was great. Anything that I feared about his own — whatever it was, his reticence or shyness or what — kind of fell away and he gave the book everything you need it.
There were lot of directions you could have gone with the book. What struck you the most about him as a person and a musician?
I think that this recurrence of tragedy in his life, from his Dad being murdered when he was two years old, to losing so many of his bandmates — there was a quality of Gregg that really was sort of haunted by all of that. It all felt very present, especially the relationship with his brother. You really got the sense that not a few hours in a day went by that he wasn’t thinking about Duane. It was something that he called on sort of constantly in conversation and in his thoughts.
There was all the emotional challenge that comes with that. The emotional challenge of going out with the Allman Brothers Band every night when you’re the surviving Allman brother. And obviously it’s never not in your thoughts. But there’s also a side of that I think he drew on for power and for focus, a reminder of why he was doing this. He was always very adamant that the band was Duane’s vision. It was he who had the idea for what the group was going to sound like, and who was going to be there and how they were going to create this thing. So there was a part of him that felt like it was his responsibility to live out Duane’s vision. And as hard and difficult that was, it was kind of what the job was.
The first thing that I think of really is this sense of, I don’t know what you call it, this awareness and this presence of his past, and these tragedies in his past. In his house, there were letters, notes from Duane to him that were framed and on the wall. That stuff was very much in the foreground of his mind, it’s what he talked about, it’s clear that’s what he thought about. That’s what it is that I think of first.
The time that I spent with him, it started from when he was still quite sick coming off his liver transplant. He got better over the time we were working on the book, he was getting stronger and stronger each time. The guy had walked through so many fires. He was the survivor when so many had fallen and I think there was some survivor’s guilt that came with that. I think there was some sense of purpose that came with that. He walked through so many fires that we started to feel like he was unstoppable. But this was a guy who had already been given some extra lives. Even he, I think, remained surprised he was the one still standing, with the gratitude and regrets that come with that.
The Allman Brothers Band was known for its live performances and as an incredible jam band, something Gregg Allman helped carry on for more than 40 years. What kept him going?
He drew on lots of different kinds of music. He talked about how seeing Otis Redding was what changed his life and Duane’s life and put them on this path to becoming musicians. And he talked about the folk singers that he loved. This guy was in a very pure way a blues singer, with what his life had given him. There was a depth and a resonance to the soul of his singing that connected him in a very real way with what the foundation of the blues was. And so as experimental, as exploratory as the band could get – there was obviously the jam band element to them – it was grounded in the power of his voice and his delivery, and his emotional clarity and pain was at the center of that.
There was a part of him that was competitive in a way, too. As much as people would talk about them as a Southern rock band, as a jam band, he was who he was. But there was also a part of him that knew that he had better players than everybody else did. They were capable of something, and they were capable of connecting to an audience in a way that none of the bands that were talked about as their peers were able to do.
The band has been widely cast as helping to create this idea of Southern rock. But I understand Gregg didn’t necessarily care for that term. Is the idea of the genre of Southern rock a fair description for the Allman Brothers?
It’s accurate as far as it goes. It was rock ‘n’ roll with the Southern sensibility of their music, of the blues, of country music, of some of the other traditions of the region that you can hear in there. But I think he thought of them much more as a blues band that played jazz, to really improvise like jazz players more than what became the kind of solidified version of Southern rock.
The sort of party boogie side of a lot of the Southern bands, that wasn’t what he thought the Allman Brothers were doing, that wasn’t what he thought they were about. He wasn’t disdainful of it, but I think he felt like just because those bands come from that same part of the country, and were assigned to the some of the same labels, doesn’t mean they were doing the same thing.
How do you think Gregg Allman and the band will be remembered years from now?
What you’re left with are the songs, some extraordinary songs, both as compositions and as performances. Those will live for a long, long time. Even if what they were doing didn’t precisely fit into the “Southern rock” category or the “jam band” category, there’s no question that they helped pave the way for multiple major movements in the development of rock ‘n’ roll. When you talk about a legacy, there’s a whole lot of players doing different things and playing the Allman brothers as inspiration. That’s how it moves down the line.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.