They finally caught the midnight rider.
How big was the Allman Brothers Band? They HEADLINED the biggest rock festival to date, Watkins Glen, with 600,000 attendees. The Band opened, but their hits and impact were in the past, and out of steam they broke up just a few years later. The Dead? This was not the Dead of today, a legendary act known by all who were godhead, with a soulful guitar player who took you on aural trips…that was the ALLMAN BROTHERS!
That’s what I heard first, that’s what most people heard first. And the opening cut, “Revival,” was nothing like what ultimately made the band famous, it was tight, it was energetic, it exuded both confidence and a will to impress, but listening to it one knew not that southern rock would soon infiltrate not only the airwaves, but our consciousness. Yes, let’s state for the record right now, the Allmans were the progenitors of southern rock. They made it before Skynyrd or anyone else, they were the first with twin lead guitarists, we’d almost never seen two drummers, they came to play, and you certainly realized this when you heard the first side closer, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” when the guitars locked on and took you on a mellifluous journey that required no visuals, you could just lay your head back and close your eyes and dream.
But what pushed “Idlewild South” over the top, was “Midnight Rider.”
There was the picking, the percussion, the groove, the feeling like you were riding a horse, and then…
I don’t own the clothes I’m wearin’
And the road goes on forever
And I’ve got one more silver dollar
But I’m not gonna let ’em catch me, no
Not gonna let ’em catch the midnight rider
This wasn’t about fast cars and private planes, although their manager, Phil Walden ultimately owned an aircraft, but the MUSIC! That’s right, the road really did go on forever, from Florida to L.A. and back again, with a stop for Duane in Muscle Shoals in between. You either had a hit record or you played in the studio or live. The Allmans had no hits. So, Duane quit the studio and they ground it out on the road. In an era where people put out albums and then toured and then recorded again, but the Allmans were different, they kept playing and playing, they were convincing customers one by one, but with no help from either the press, which hated the south, or promotional shenanigans, it was purely the music.
And then came…
LIVE AT FILLMORE EAST
It was closing, New York’s most legendary venue. And the closing night band, the headliner, Bill Graham’s favorite, the best in the land according to him, was the…ALLMAN BROTHERS?
They had no hits, were barely known, it’d be like Jason Isbell being the headliner at Coachella. There was a radio simulcast, but most of the focus was on the appearance of the suddenly resurgent Beach Boys, and then, at the end of August, the album came out…
Wake up mama, turn your lamp down low
You only had to drop the needle.
WHAT WAS THAT? You were immediately grabbed by the throat, made to pay attention, you fired up a doobie, even though it was still two years until most knew that term, sat on the couch and listened through, all four sides, and one thing was for sure, no one said the package was TOO LONG!
How could this be, how could a band emerge so fully-formed? It would be like stumbling upon a Ferrari in 1910, you suddenly got it, what all the excitement was all about.
And as energetic as “Statesboro Blues” was, “Trouble No More” was just as energetic, but different. It was like going on a date with your crush, the girl you admired from afar, and finding not only was she just as beautiful without makeup but she had a 3-D personality. And you know how that goes, when you’re pinching yourself, it never lasts.
And it didn’t.
Duane Allman died.
Just one more mornin’
I had to wake up with the blues
We planned to see the band in Providence. You traveled to see your favorite bands, but not by plane, you loaded up in old American iron, Chevys and Fords, and drove for hours just to be in the auditorium, it wasn’t about being seen, but being in the same room with the magicmakers. It was a badge of honor, before you had any idea what the experience was like, long before MTV, when every show was a new adventure.
But the Allman zenith was still two years off. Atlantic put out a two album retrospective on Duane, the band soldiered on, but still so much of America was clueless, because to reach everybody you had to be on AM radio, but just like now, there are pockets of people who will keep you alive, huge pockets the press misses until an event like Watkins Glen.
So newly-minted fans went back and bought not only “Idlewild South,” but the initial LP, where it’s all there, even an abbreviated “Whipping Post,” it’s just that the production kept the band too contained, they were so busy getting it perfect that there was one percent missing, and that one percent is everything, it’s what pushed “Fillmore East” over the top.
AIN’T WASTIN’ TIME NO MORE
Well lord, lord Miss Sally, why all your cryin’
Been around here three long days, lookin’ like we’re dyin’
Go step yourself outside, look up at the stars above
Go on downtown baby, find somebody to love
The band was soldiering on, so we got onboard, we jumped on the truck carrying the giant peach and listened…
But the emotional cost… Now all the weight was on Gregg’s shoulders. Dickey stepped up, but that ultimately caused problems, but the band was even more successful.
You wanna know why you have so many friends named “Melissa”? That’s straight off “Eat A Peach.” Never underestimate the power of music, the power of a band.
It’s a Dickey song, written and sung, but it’s this number that made the band the biggest in the land, you could go nowhere without hearing this tune, to the point where you couldn’t push the radio button soon enough to end it.
If you didn’t live through the era you’ve got no idea what I’m talking about, no act today has this ubiquity, not a single one, just talk to the average person about Taylor Swift or Jay Z or Ed Sheeran and they’re flummoxed, but everyone knew ‘Ramblin’ Man.”
And a lot of women are named “Jessica” because of the instrumental on the second side of “Brothers and Sisters,” which dominated dorm room play all fall, but my favorite track on the LP is ‘Come and Go Blues.”
People say that you’re no good
But I wouldn’t cut you loose, baby, if I could
Bad boys with bad girls. Not everybody went to college, not everybody was on the fast track, life was about meaning as opposed to accomplishments, and our beacons, our instructors, were these bands, these acts. We looked to them for direction.
And on the heels of this great success with “Brothers and Sisters,” Gregg released his initial solo LP, a victory lap that swept up every woman in America, that touched every male’s soul, you see here was the coolest dude on the planet singing about his weary life, this twentysomething with long golden locks had seen more than we ever would in a lifetime and he was deigning to tell us about it, in a slowed-down version of “Midnight Rider” and the definitive version of Jackson Browne’s “These Days.”
I’M NO ANGEL
And then the band petered out. Made an ignored record, broke up, got back together, you never counted them out, but now we were in the video era and on to something new and then came this, from a survivor, a cut he didn’t write but that expressed his ethos perfectly, Gregg Allman was no angel, but he’d SURVIVED!
Kinda like Keith Richards, but an American, someone we could relate to, not a man who made a pact with the devil, but someone who’d lived the life, taken some chances, and had emerged on the other side.
There was the Cher episode. Which was incomprehensible, but when she complained he was passing out in his dinner plate, inside you laughed, she snagged him, but she hadn’t changed him, you couldn’t change Gregg Allman, the midnight rider.
He dated a famous porn star. Got married again, had children, and didn’t worry about you judging him, he just lived on, and then he had another hit!
My favorite cut on the “I’m No Angel” album, there’s a moment, after the break, when Gregg Allman reaches down deep and at the top of his lungs screams…ANYTHING GOES! It’s at 3:20 in the song if you wanna check it out, and it’s moments like these that are personal, that keep you going, putting one foot in front of the other, so when we were hanging out before the show…
Yes, I ain’t got no money, but I’m rich on personality, and that has allowed me to meet all my heroes, get e-mail from them, it thrills me, and about an hour before they took the stage at the Greek I was introduced to Gregg and I had to ask him, about that emotive explosion.
Now you’ve got to understand, they’re not like you and me.
First and foremost, he was wearing his boots, the original American rockers never got over the Beatles. And he’s towering above me, and he leans down to my ear, his long hair almost falling on my shoulder, and he starts whispering, telling a story, sotto voce, like we’re the only two people in the universe, like he’s gonna reveal a deep dark secret.
“I can’t hit that note every night. But there are certain evenings, when I’m sitting on the piano bench, and I reach over to hit a note and my left nut gets caught under my leg and I yell ANYTHING GOES!”
I swear to god, just like that, that’s about an exact quote.
And he backs off, stands straight, but gives me a poker face, and I’m not sure if he’s making fun of me, pulling my leg, putting me down, or initiating me into the ways of the road, making me an honorary insider, but one thing’s for sure, he was still COOL!
They’d been on Atlantic/Atco/Capricorn, jumped to Arista and Epic, everybody wanted to give the band a chance, everybody still believed, but the act didn’t truly recapture the magic until they made a record themselves, for their Peach label, “Hittin’ The Note,” which was a complete return to form, but had no impact.
This is rare. That the magic can be recaptured, check this number out, the whole damn album, to experience it.
PEAKIN’ AT THE BEACON
And when your record company has stolen all your money, that’s right, the Allmans got a judgment against Capricorn but could not collect, and no one is interested in your new recordings, what do you do?
You bury the hatchet and go on the road.
Suddenly the Allmans were available. Everywhere, on a regular basis, but nowhere as much as the Beacon, they owned it, figuratively if not literally, they were recapturing the Fillmore magic at James Dolan’s pleasure palace, and that meant no showiness, no over-the-top elements, just pure music.
One time I sat on stage, right behind Gregg, where you could see the tattoos on his arms as he tickled the ivories, supporting the band in front of him, despite the act carrying his name, being untenable without him, but he saw himself as just a musician, one of the group, but I remembered, we remembered.
Wait long enough and you can see your favorites up close and personal. That’s what’s weird, you’re lamenting their loss when they were just here, readily available. And it made me crazy that the crowd refused to listen to the quiet numbers, but Gregg could still sing and play. And when I was in the dressing room after the show he wanted to talk…
This is always surprising. You learn not to say hi if you’re not introduced. But then they know who you are and you express a few pleasantries, and then there are times you realize…they’re thrilled to find a friendly face, thrilled not to have to press the flesh and go through the motions, when they want to open up and converse.
And you’re flummoxed. Not sure exactly how to act. Whether to fawn, which is usually a mistake, talk about the world at large or put forth the questions that have always haunted you.
I went for the questions.
And this man with the pink skin and the white beard and quiet southern voice answered them all.
That’s the last time I saw him.
GOD REST HIS SOUL
So what have we learned?
That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.
These classic rockers have to stop dying.
But some are broke, some lived so hard their bodies have given out.
But one thing’s for sure, they lived.
It would be great if Gregg was still here, but no one can say he didn’t make the most of his 69 years on the planet. Sure, he could have made other choices, stopped the drugs and alcohol earlier, but when you’re testing limits, making it up as you go, sometimes you fall down the hole, but the amazing thing about Gregg is he always climbed out of it, until now.
He didn’t take his own life, didn’t die in an accident, he just lived hard and used himself up.
But he left a legacy. Of not only hits, but a whole way of life.
First and foremost he was a musician, whereas today it’s more about being a star. He paid his dues, he earned his success.
And he wrote these songs. It’s one thing to play in the band, quite another to improvise a solo, but to compose the changes and the lyrics, that’s what we marvel at, how did he come up with this stuff?
Duane’s death was a surprise.
Berry’s almost a fait accompli.
And then they kicked Dickey out of the band and Butch took his own life and now Gregg has succumbed, all that’s left is ashes, the Allman Brothers are no more, but the records live on.
And those records, they weren’t repeats of what came before, rather the Allman Brothers improvised upon what once was and created something brand new.
And Gregg’s life had many twists and turns, but he got bitten by the music bug and lifted himself out of the land of single parenthood to have an impact, to burn an impression upon a whole generation. And, like I said, he was never one of us, he had too much charisma, he was too cool.
He survived. All the death, all the bankruptcies, all the substance abuse, but now he’s gone, and we’re all feeling the loss.
You see, when done right, music is unique. It might be part of a genre, but you never mistake one great for another. You knew when you heard the Allman Brothers, you knew it was Gregg Allman when his voice came out of the speaker, and although you thought you knew him, you really never could, because he was different from you and me, and it’s these different people, these gods, these musicians, we look to enrich our lives. Not the techies, not the bankers, not social media sensations, but the players who sit down and overwhelm us with their talent, the sound they create.
“God Rest His Soul” is from the 1989 Allman Brothers boxed set “Dreams,” when that was still a thing, when you hungered for the outtakes, the alternative takes, long before Napster. And nothing I’ve written will tell you as much about Gregg Allman as much as listening to one cut, and the one cut I listen to most these days is “Come and Go Blues,” not the one from “Brothers and Sisters,” but from “Dreams.”
People say that you’re no good
Believe me, Gregg had haters, long before the internet, long before Twitter.
Don’t ask me why I stay here, I don’t know
When an act touches your soul you can never deny them, you still follow them, play their new tunes, you never forget, you stay attached.
Well maybe I’m a fool to care
We’re all fools, we baby boomers who refused to join corporate America and decided to make this music our life, we just wanted to be involved, closer to these musicians, Gregg Allman was bigger than Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or Warren Buffett could ever be.
Without your sweet love baby I would be nowhere
They needed us as much as we needed them, it was a mutual experience.
Here I’ll stay, locked in your web
We’d play the records and just the records over and over again, they were not a distraction, they were the main event.
‘Till that day I might find somebody else
We never did, find somebody else, that is. We liked other bands, but we never forgot you.
Well I seem to stay down on the ground
Baby I’m too far gone to turn around
This is me, this is you. Our records are our most treasured possessions, I’ve never sold my vinyl, not because it sounds better, but because I built that collection, that’s me, thumb through those records after I’m gone and you’ll get a good picture of who I am.
Oh, if only you would make up your mind
The great thing about Gregg Allman is his mind was made up, he knew where he was going, he stayed the course, refused to sell out and be someone else. Never got plastic surgery, never overexposed himself on game shows, he’d play along, but always reluctantly, because he knew his residence was behind his instrument, in a rehearsal room, on stage.
Take me where you go, you’re leaving me behind
Yes, I feel left behind. I’m sure you do too. I got the news and felt at loose ends. How can this be happening? Death is final, you mean he’s never coming back, I’m never gonna see him sing “Midnight Rider” one more time, how can that be, what am I supposed to do with myself now, now that I’ve dedicated my whole life to you and your ilk, I’m not ready to join that great band in the sky, but it seems they’ve got better players than we have down here.
Now they’ve got you.