Gregg Allman didn’t sell his soul to the devil. But if he had, the transaction would probably rate just a paragraph toward the back of his new memoir, “My Cross to Bear,” sandwiched between an ode to motorcycles and a two-sentence account of his fourth marriage.
The Southern blues-rocker, who’s played off and on with the Allman Brothers Band since 1969, has experienced many born-under-a-bad-sign moments. His story includes overdoses, emergency surgeries and rehab stints; six wives and five children (not necessarily from his marriages); and myriad suicides, murders and fatal crashes. As fans know well, older brother Duane died in a motorcycle wreck in 1971, and bassist Berry Oakley perished the same way at almost the same spot a year later. Cynics might say this is routine rock-bio stuff. The weird thing is that Allman seems to agree.
Credited to Allman and rock writer Alan Light, “My Cross to Bear” has a melodramatic title but a phlegmatic outlook. Duane Allman’s death was clearly important to his brother, as it was to a band that had just begun to attract a major following, in large part because of Duane’s guitar prowess. But the loss doesn’t register as particularly important in this just-the-facts telling that gives every event roughly the same emphasis.
It’s not even clear which burden is the singer-keyboardist’s “cross to bear.” The book’s title is simply a twist on “It’s Not My Cross to Bear,” a song Allman penned for the band’s 1969 debut. The autobiography could just as easily have been called “Midnight Rider” or “Ramblin’ Man” — except that the latter tune was written by Dickey Betts, the band’s other original guitarist, who’s not among Allman’s favorite people.
The author’s feeling about Betts, who quit in 2000 after being asked to leave the band temporarily to go into rehab, is characteristically numb: “Now I don’t feel any anger when I think of Dickey. I don’t feel much of anything. It’s over.”
It started for Allman in 1947, when he was born in Nashville. The Allmans are associated with Georgia, home of their longtime label, Capricorn. But Gregg and Duane spent their childhoods in Tennessee (where their father was murdered in a botched robbery in 1949) and Florida. Some of the Tennessee time was done in military school, where the rocker believes “they put saltpeter in the potatoes so nobody would get horny.” That’s an urban myth, but Allman is not the sort of guy who questions the nonsense clueless peers once told him.
Allman also lived in L.A. a few times, most famously during his marriage to Cher. She’s as California pop as Gregg is Southern blues, yet drugs, not musical differences, finished the union. It was the era, after all, when the band would enter its new private plane and find that “ ‘Welcome Allman Brothers’ was spelled out in cocaine on the bar.” Allman does allow that the album the briefly wed couple made was a miscalculation. Or, in his words, “That record sucked, man.”
Allman is a huge fan of African American music, and he’s proud that the Allman Brothers Band began with a black drummer — Jaimoe, one of three surviving members from the original lineup — in a region that disapproved of fraternization between blacks and whites. He recalls his surprise when his mother used the n-word to describe an R&B musician who the teenage Allman brothers had invited home to teach them some licks. He’s less friendly to gays and, as you might expect, massively conflicted about women.
Now 64, the musician has a new liver, a functioning career and a laid-back attitude. “I’m not a judgmental person,” he claims. Actually, “My Cross to Bear” is full of judgments, they’re just not delivered with any passion. Rather than transcend his grudges, Allman seems simply to have lost the energy to sustain them.
Jenkins is the co-author of “Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital.”
My cross to bear
By Gregg Allman with Alan Light
Morrow. 390 pp. $27.99