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June 17, 2013

SOUTHERN STYLE: The first time I’d ever seen Gregg Allman

I stood there in a crowd of thousands of people — mesmerized. His hair was like a white waterfall rippling down his back to his waist, like something impossibly magical, ephemeral and ethereal under the intensity of the lights. It shimmered and glinted throwing off a million little diamond pinpoints each time he moved his head, which was constantly.

I just sat down right there in the aisle, no one minded, they were as totally engrossed in the sight, and in the music, as I was.

I was nineteen. It was the first time I’d ever seen Gregg Allman...The date was March 17, 1973. A group of friends and I had driven down from Hartselle to Tuscaloosa to see the Allman Brothers in concert.  

I wasn’t prepared for the effect that the sight of that mane of blonde hair, and the music, of course, would have on me. It was amazing…

Most people who remember the Allman Brothers Band know their story, but this column is for those who came along after punk rock and headbanging “nails on the blackboard” stuff destroyed the true essence of rock music. These guys actually made music with their guitars — they didn’t destroy them for show — they pretty much made love to them on stage in front of crowds of adoring fans who knew every word, each cord, every riff.

Their music was pure and had a truth in it. Radio stations around here at that time didn’t play much music like that, partly because the songs were too long, with guitar solos that lasted several minutes. We had to discover it in places like television shows “In Concert” and “The Midnight Special” which aired late on Saturday nights.

This first time I heard “Midnight Rider” I was hooked. But it wasn’t the more familiar Allman Brothers songs that I learned to love later on, like “Ramblin Man” and “Melissa” that were my favorites. It was the ballads that I lay awake long into the night listening to over and over while I nursed a broken heart…songs like “These Days” and “All My Friends” got me through a lot of teenage angst.

There is just something about that lonesome voice in those songs that still touches me in that place in my heart reserved for my teenage years. It was almost as if there was a connection between his troubled past and mine, a thread that ran through the music, something that both scraped at, and soothed, the wounded souls that identified with the lyrics and the wistful, mournful voice that didn’t go with his baby face.

Many of those lyrics have proven to be so prophetic…like this line from “All My Friends”: Some day we'll find… should have relied on time.

If I’d have realized that one, it would have saved me a lot of heartache.

My friend Shirley has seen Gregg Allman twice in Birmingham in the last few years. “When he played at the BJCC, he started out with ‘Midnight Rider’,” she recalls. “The place went dark and they started showing Duane as if he was playing beside him and in the background, ‘From a brother to a brother’ — it was fabulous!”

“I paid $75 and I'd have paid $1,000 if I’d had to,” Shirley said.  

“This may be the last time I see him — he is frail, but he plays just the same,” said Shirley pensively.   

Rick Moore writes of Allman in a 2013 interview, “While The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart and other Brits made the blues fashionable, Allman was arguably the first, and best, white American male blues singer of the FM rock era. And he’s responsible for having written songs that are a part of the American consciousness on many different levels.”

Allman’s life has had its highs and lows, both metaphorically and quite literally. The death of his brother, Duane, and his subsequent battle with drugs has been chronicled in many places, so I won’t do it here, only to say that he has come out from the dark, wiser person willing to own up to his mistakes in a graceful and poetic way, which is what Gregg Allman has always been about.

We who have loved his music since the beginning have followed the pain in his lyrics which are etched in each line on his face, making them all the more meaningful because of the scars they left there.

I don’t know anyone who hasn’t lost someone by this stage in our lives — but with Gregg, it began early and hit hard. It caused him to almost derail his career several times, but like the true artist that he is, he has written and sung his way out of the shadowy places in his past, and seems much stronger in spirit for the falls he’s taken.

 Maybe it is survivor guilt that causes such talented people to crash and burn, maybe it’s having to go out on that empty stage alone, or even when surrounded by others, it may feel as if they are alone. So many great musicians have succumbed to the lure of drugs as a way to stop the pain of their loss…Elvis and his mother, Hank missing his dad, and Gregg without his brother…. the list goes on. But some did survive, in spite of themselves, and such is the beauty of second chances — or tenth or twelfth, in some cases. That talent is probably what kept them alive. And you have to admire the fact that they continued, even if it would have been easier to quit, even when the press lashed out at them and fans turned away…they stuck it out, and for that, they deserve our admiration. It couldn’t have been easy, living in a fishbowl, but they somehow managed to hold on to what they knew best — the music.

In “Queen of Hearts” Gregg sings the line “Ya see the fact is more or less, You're gamblin' with your own happiness” — and I’m sure that he has gambled that away more than once, but here he is, neither a martyr nor a mentor, just a guy willing to bring us his music again, willing to sit before an audience, many of whom have no memory of his troubled past, but who want to hear that voice, that music, that has endured through his trials and tribulations.

And I’ll be there again, fascinated at how the years melt away when the first chords of “These Days” fill the air in Heritage Park…

Songwriters: Jackson Browne (once Allman’s roommate)

 

Well I've been out walking

I don't do that much talking these days

These days, these days I seem to think a lot

About the things I forgot to do, for you

And all the times I had a chance to

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