Here's to Gregg Allman, Southern Rock Superhero
Fox Theater, Atlanta, May 20, 1974; Tom Hill / Getty

Here's to Gregg Allman, Southern Rock Superhero

Despite a long battle with substance abuse, the blues rock legend helped invent a new form of rock 'n' roll that would change the shape of music forever.
May 30, 2017, 3:45pm

When someone close to us dies, two tragedies occur. The first, of course, is the death of our loved one, which always feels crushing and arbitrary regardless of its banal inevitability for all of us. The second is the tragedy of being left behind––being forced to relearn how to live, to continue on when all you want to do is give up. Loss changes relationships, social dynamics. You start to see who your real friends are, not just who put up with you out of loyalty to your better half. You might repeat their old mistakes, or maybe make some new ones now that they're not around to temper your worst impulses. Loss is hell, and maybe the only thing worse than being lost is being the one who's losing.

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Gregg Allman, who died over the weekend at the age of 69, was the one who was left behind. When he and his older brother Duane were two and three, respectively, his father was murdered by a man he'd met playing shuffleboard. When Gregg was 23, Duane––who was by then also his bandleader, musical inspiration, and best friend––died in a motorcycle crash at age 24 on the way home from rehab, just months after their group sold enough records to not have to eat beans for breakfast anymore. In between the first death and the second, Gregg taught his brother to play guitar, his brother developed into the best player in the south, and the Allman boys moved out west in search of rock and roll stardom but found a record industry whose gears damn near ground their bones into dust. The label people in Los Angeles thought Duane and Gregg could be the next Keith and Mick—something they had no interest in—and by the time they got spat out Duane was working as a sideman in Muscle Shoals while Gregg was down and out in Los Angeles, living with Jackson Browne and using burnt matches to write songs on an ironing board. Down in Alabama, even more label people had decided that Duane was now the next Jimi Hendrix, but he had designs on being the first Duane Allman. He linked up with Otis Redding's old drummer, physically trapped his favorite musicians in a room until they agreed to be in his band, and then called up his brother and begged him to come back east.

The new group, now dubbed The Allman Brothers Band, shacked up together in a house in Macon, Georgia, jamming and tripping and tripping and jamming, cementing their bonds both musical and chemical by each getting a magic mushroom––their preferred intoxicant, though really anything would do––tattooed on his ankle. They made an album and played the southern club circuit, Duane cut a record with Eric Clapton in three days, they made another album and did a run at the Fillmore East. They were supposed to open for Johnny Winter; after the first night it was clear that Johnny would be spending the rest of the dates opening up for them. Duane emerged as the hero of the Allmans, while Gregg was the organist and lead singer who got so scared to play live that he often threw up beforehand. But it was his keyboard playing that provided the base from which Duane and fellow guitarist Dicky Betts could embark on their frenetic dueling solos, and his voice often matched the intensity and emotional release provided by the guitars. And then Duane died, and everything changed.

Suddenly, Gregg was the least important member of the band that bore his name. He pitched his song "Queen of Hearts" for Brothers and Sisters––the group's first full album without Duane––but the band, now steered largely by Betts, wasn't having it. So, as The Allman Brothers wrestled with Brothers and Sisters and bassist Berry Oakley fell into a downward spiral that ended with him fatally crashing his motorcycle mere blocks from where Duane died a year before, Gregg booked some studio time, and recorded a whole solo album behind his band's back. On that record, Laid Back, he restrained his fiery singing and reinvented himself as a southern-rock Billie Holiday, backed by a ramshackle wall of sound consisting of him and whoever happened to be in the studio at the time. It's Gregg's definitive auteurial statement, a blue-eyed soul classic that came out of left field and almost didn't make it out into the world. He hated his first draft of the record and nearly set the recordings on fire, only to be stopped at the last second by producer Johnny Sandlin. But amid loss, Gregg Allman had found his voice. Laid Back ended up being miles better than Brothers and Sisters, and to celebrate its success Gregg embarked on a tour with Cowboy, his late brother's favorite band, playing backup.

There might have been rock bands from the south before the Allman Brothers, but before the Allman Brothers, there was no such thing as Southern Rock. Their music incorporated elements of rock and jazz, soul and blues, country and psychedelic rock. Records such as Eat a Peach and At Fillmore East serve as the missing link between Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Grateful Dead; Howlin Wolf and Electric Light Orchestra, Miles Davis's Bitches Brew and those banjo guys in the movie Deliverance. In later years, the band shifted sideways and started playing the jam band circuit, but for better or worse, that's where the money was. Capitalism is a fucked up system, and it can make even the greatest artists make decisions that jeopardize their future legacies in order to pay off their past debts.

While the Allmans of the 2000s were certainly a force to be reckoned with––their late-career dates at the Beacon Theatre in New York are legendary––it's important to remember them as they emerged, not as what they became. Duane and Gregg Allman came of age in Daytona Beach, Florida, at a time when young people across the south wanted nothing to do with the segregation and racism that defined the social framework of their parents' generation. In Daytona, Duane and Gregg hung out in black record stores and gigged with black musicians against their mother's orders; as a session player in Muscle Shoals, Duane backed such icons as Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, and Percy Sledge; in Macon, Gregg often killed time in between sessions by hanging out in black barbershops. Unlike Lynyrd Skynyrd, the band to which they are most often compared, the Allmans––a proudly multi-racial group from the start––never flirted with Confederate imagery as a misguided symbol of southern rebellion against a wider world. Instead, they were southerners rebelling against the society that raised them.

If The Allman Brothers Band's songs sound a bit cliche or even hokey now, that's only because of how foundational they were for the next 50 years of music that came after them. The ponderous, meandering jams of the Allmans' early live performances––always more Coltrane than Carlos Santana––set the tone for generations of artists who used the blues as a base from which to spring in unexpected directions. Just months after the release of the first Allman Brothers record, Black Sabbath would draw from the same well but make things darker, heavier, and even more repetitive, accidentally inventing heavy metal in a stoned haze, and you can hear shades of The Allman Brothers' warped psychedelia in Sabbath descendents such as Kyuss and Destruction Unit. And it's no coincidence that the Allmans' second and OutKast's final albums each contain the word "Idlewild" in the title. Each group, their headquarters separated by a stretch of Georgia highway and a couple decades, managed to capture what it means to be alive in the American south––the sweat, the swampy mysticism, the struggle of living in the shadows of histories and traditions that you disavow but cannot escape.

As the 70s descended into self-indulgent chaos, Allman fell into the typical rockstar extracurriculars: drugs, booze, sex, album covers that looked like this. He married Cher, who put up with his addictions and infidelities while the couple became a tabloid fixture. At the time, he was doing so much cocaine down in Macon that when the Feds tried to bust the "Dixie Mafia" for making it snow in the south, what they ended up with was a case against Gregg Allman's personal dealer. Allman flipped on his dealer in exchange for immunity; the next year, Cher left him after he passed out face-first in a plate of spaghetti.

Gregg Allman spent the first half of the next decade living with his mom in Sarasota, Florida, drinking a bottle of vodka a day and gigging around town, convinced the cops were out to get him for jamming under the influence. "It made me really remember who I was," he told Rolling Stone in 1999. "I had to tote that organ a few times. It weighs the same as a heartache, but if you want to play badly enough, you'll carry the damn thing." He bounced back, scoring a late-career hit in 1987 with "I'm No Angel," and rejoined the Allmans in the 90s just in time to ride the wave of the jam band revival. He got clean for good in 1995, and after the band rid itself of the dictatorial presence of guitarist Dicky Betts, they found renewed potency in the dual lead guitars of Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks, nephew of drummer Butch. Gregg put out Low Country Blues, produced by T Bone Burnett, in 2011; the album was the highest-charting of his career. The Allmans played their final show in 2014. Their closing encore consisted of a performance of "Whipping Post," the song that Gregg had written on his ironing board with burnt matches 45 years earlier, followed by their rework of Muddy Waters' "Trouble No More," and that was that.

The author Denis Johnson died just days before Gregg Allman, at nearly the same age and after having survived nearly as intense a spate of boozing and drugging. He, too, witnessed the death of the hippie dream and its subsequent sublimation into excess amorality, and much of his work dealt with the type of people the Allman Brothers Band had once been––restless junkies and world-weary lowlifes, finding flashes of beauty amid the turmoil around them. After Johnson's death, I began revisiting his work, and when Allman passed not long after, I found myself unconsciously searching for what one might have to say about the other. I became infatuated with a passage from Johnson's story "Homeless and High," which in its own way perfectly encapsulates the energy that Gregg Allman, both alone and with The Allman Brothers band, brought to his best work:

And that's how, on the Ave, we drank up the dregs of the 60s. We didn't feel desperate but, rather, unfettered: there was a sense that we'd broken the bonds of mindless materialism and hypocritical conformity and were now just naturally floundering around until the new shape of human freedom manifested itself. Actually, I think we were all just depressed, at the very least. Probably some of us were out-and-out psycho. And the drugs weren't helping.

Gregg Allman, the one who stayed behind, took new drugs and shattered old paradigms, only to find himself no better off than he was when he started out. But with every loss, every bottom, and every setback, he did what came most naturally: he sang the blues.

Drew Millard is a writer based in North Carolina. Follow him on Twitter.