The statistics are stunning: 18 rehab treatments, six marriages, four kids, one prolonged bout with hepatitis C and a liver transplant. The miracle is not that Gregg Allman is still playing after 40-plus years. The miracle is that he’s still alive.
In Allman’s new memoir, “My Cross to Bear,” he chronicles a tough childhood, mostly in Nashville. His dad, a World War II veteran who was part of the Normandy invasion on D-Day, made it home only to be murdered by a drunk after a night of clubbing. Gregg was only 2 years old when he and his brother, Duane, who would later start the Allman Brothers, were packed off by their mother to the Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon, Tenn., where they later formed a band that was appropriately called the Misfits.
The craziness continued when Gregg literally shot himself in the foot to get out of the military draft. Some people forget that the Allmans were not fans of the Vietnam War. In fact, the original title of their “Eat a Peach” album was “Eat a Peach for Peace.”
The Allman Brothers Band was conceived by Duane (he was a year older than Gregg), who had the vision of two guitarists and two drummers, including Jaimoe, an African-American from Gulfport, Miss. It was very rare for a band from the Deep South to be biracial at the time.
Their dues-paying was intense. The group froze while driving across the country in the winter to San Francisco to check out the hippie explosion of the late ’60s. They were so broke that they didn’t have the money to pay the toll across the Golden Gate Bridge (they had to panhandle to get it). They eventually became a hit with famed San Francisco promoter Bill Graham, who put them on bills at the Fillmore West and later at Fillmore East in New York. The band’s Southern rock sound further came into focus when they played an incredible 306 gigs in 1970. Duane starred on guitar, while Gregg played keyboards, sang and wrote such early classics as “Melissa” and “Whipping Post.”
But Allman’s life was shattered by the 1971 motorcycle-accident death of Duane, who is presented in worshipful terms in Allman’s book. Gregg was haunted by his brother’s passing, and that colors the rest of his life, especially his many failed marriages. Gregg became a gruff, grizzled soul (the language of the memoir can get extremely coarse), and the band endured another tragedy with the motorcycle death of bassist Berry Oakley a year later. Oakley was said to have been so depressed by Duane’s death that his own accident may have been a suicide.
You have to feel sympathy for Gregg from then on, despite his gruffness. His six marriages seemed to stand no chance, thanks to his prodigious escapes into drugs and alcohol (he drank a fifth of vodka per day for years). But to his credit, Gregg knows he was lucky to pull out of it all alive. He finally quit drugs and alcohol not by succeeding at rehab centers (despite repeated efforts) or through Alcoholics Anonymous, but by hiring two male nurses to work 12-hour shifts at his home to help him go cold turkey. He also confesses that one reason for his drinking was that he felt like a failure next to Duane. Gregg has now become a serious soul; he believes in God and attends an Episcopal church. His never becomes a sappy story, however, because Allman is too brutally honest for that.
You also have to like his humility in writing that he has been “the least accomplished musician” in his band. That’s not something you hear too often from bandleaders. “I didn’t think I was Elvis. I didn’t think I was going to be another Mick Jagger — none of that,” he notes. “I just enjoyed playing music. … Every time I’d learn something new, it would be like a rejuvenation.”
As he concludes, “Music is my life’s blood … and I love to play music for people who appreciate it. And when it’s all said and done, I’ll go to my grave and my brother will greet me, saying, ‘Nice work little brother — you did all right.’ ”
The Allman Brothers Band perform at the Bank of America Pavilion Tues. Aug. 7 and Weds. Aug. 8.