Gregg Allman opens up about Duane, Cher and drugs in new memoir

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Gregg Allman thinks about his late brother Duane every day. And once in a while, he can feel his presence.

“I can tell when he’s there, man,” Mr. Allman said. “I’m not going to get all cosmic on you. But listen, he’s there.”

The untimely death of the game-changing rock ‘n’ roll guitarist is a central theme in Gregg Allman’s life and a big part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member’s new memoir, “My Cross to Bear.”

It’s one of the “three big heavies” the normally reticent Mr. Allman tackles openly in the new book, released this month. He also takes on his problems with drug addiction, his often rocky relationships with women (including ex-wife Cher) and his seven divorces, and the early days of the Allman Brothers Band.

The 64-year-old says the book, written in a sometimes salty conversational style with music journalist Alan Light, represents his most honest and open discussion of his life. Mr. Allman isn’t inclined to overshare, and both he and Mr. Light said in phone interviews they were concerned about how the talks at the heart of the book would go.

“I think everybody knows this isn’t Steven Tyler,” Mr. Light said. “This is somebody who’s more private in some ways for reasons that are easy to understand given his life.”

Mr. Allman began assembling notes for a memoir back in the 1980s and worked at it sporadically over the years. Mr. Light drew on previous transcripts and filled out the book with extensive interviews late last summer.

They sat down on a balcony overlooking centuries-old oak trees at Mr. Allman’s home near Savannah, Ga. Mr. Allman found the setting comforting and shared much more deeply than he thought he would, actually finding the process rewarding.

“It really helped me, it really did,” Mr. Allman said. “After it was over I was like, ‘Phew, man, who put that 20-pound weight up on my shoulder anyway?’ “

Mr. Allman’s been carrying all that weight for decades. Duane Allman, a pioneering slide guitar player whose legacy still vibrates in rock ‘n’ roll and the blues, was the force who kept driving the Allman brothers toward worldwide fame as The Allman Brothers Band. He died in a motorcycle accident in 1971 just as the band was breaking out. Asked if he ever shared his feelings about his brother so deeply and so publicly, Mr. Allman said: “Never. Never.”

Mr. Allman said it was Duane who pushed him to leave their boyhood home of Daytona Beach, Fla., and go on the road.

“I left home the day after I graduated from high school because I knew we weren’t going to make any dough to pay the rent in music,” Mr. Allman said. “The Beatles had just come out, and there was serious, serious dudes out there. And the competition, I mean, they were good players, too. My brother said, ‘They ain’t as good as us, baby!’ He would coax me along every step of the way. I would just love to hear one concert if he was still here.”

The Allmans would go on to reach incredible heights in the burgeoning scene, partying at the vanguard of excess while defining a sound that still excites millions of fans. Their songs “Whipping Post” and “Midnight Rider” became part of rock ‘n’ roll’s DNA, and their live album “At Fillmore East,” on which they lit Blind Willie McTell’s “Statesboro Blues” on fire, still defines the live album.

Mr. Allman details how his entire band and crew fell under the spell of drugs, from early experimentation with speed and cocaine to addictions to heroin. But unlike many of their contemporaries, the group got together and resolved to kick the habit with varying degrees of success.

Still, the excesses led to Mr. Allman’s contraction of Hepatitis C and eventually a 2010 liver transplant that’s changed — and extended — his life.

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