His father was murdered by a hitchhiker. The last thing he ever said to his brother Duane was a lie and it’s haunted him his whole life. One wife would leave for days on end. Another wife would get stoned on cocaine all the time. Yet another wife was simply “a crazy bitch.” Still, another was Cher (plenty of good stories there). His last marriage lasted almost a decade. Six in all. Just recently, the 65-year-old became engaged to the 24-year-old Shannon Williams.
Gregg Allman’s autobiography My Cross To Bear, co-written with Alan Light and published by William Morrow, doesn’t flinch from tales of degradation, sexual misadventures and drug use. In fact, after reading this book, I was somewhat shocked to realize that the Allman Brothers were among the biggest bands of drug addicts in rock ‘n’ roll.
He starts innocently enough with his mom working for the National Auto Parts Association, receiving a delivery. The truck driver was Elvis Presley. You can feel his love for his brother. Duane Allman (1946-1971), who loved to read J.R.R. Tolkien and Kurt Vonnegut, played a mean game of chess and is still revered by generations of guitarists.
In the early days, “we would rehearse every day in the club,” he writes, “go have lunch, rehearse some more, go home and take a shower, then go to the gig. Sometimes we would rehearse after we got home from the gig too, just get out the acoustics and play. The next day, we’d go have breakfast, go rehearse, and do it all over again. We rehearsed constantly.”
Times got real tough for the brothers on the road as a cover band and they almost broke up in St. Louis. “We were freezing to death, and we were filthy,” he writes. “I wanted some pussy, but I was too nasty to get any. I didn’t have money, I was as hungry as a son of a bitch, and I had to sell the motorcycle…”
He talks fondly of friends in the business like Jackson Browne and the late Tim Buckley (1947-1975), and less fondly of Capricorn Records head Phil Walden, who took all their publishing rights so they didn’t even own their own songs. He even criticizes Duane for knuckling under, signing such an unfair contract and insisting Gregg do too…just because Walden would give ‘em enough money upfront to eat and buy drugs while getting rich off ‘em.
He writes of the power of the music and how unbelievably uplifting it was to play. The Allman Brothers would play for free anywhere, anytime, for anybody, and did so at great expense—just for the thrill of it all. He goes on at length about the various hallucinogens and the derivation of their mushroom logo. Heroin, of course, is the king drug. (“You’ve never been high until you’ve been high on heroin.”)
Once the money starts rolling in, Gregg “blew a million before I saved a nickel.”
Then Duane dies. The funeral has the Allman Brothers, stoned to the gills on coke, performing behind the corpse of Duane resting in the coffin.
Then bassist Berry Oakley dies.
Dickey Betts then tries to take over and in the process, turns into a belligerent, obnoxious dictatorial drunk whose playing at shows gets sloppier and louder to the point of total embarrassment.
As the money multiplies, the hatred within the band gets exponentially more intense. The spending becomes ridiculous: “We had 30 roadies…our roadies had roadies. We had a guy whose only job was to open limo doors for us…The truth is, we couldn’t fucking stand each other…We didn’t talk, we didn’t hang, we didn’t do nothing together. Everyone had their own limo, everyone stayed in their own suite. Rehearsals slowed down to almost never, and sound checks became a thing of the past…We all retreated into our own little worlds.”
Add to this toxic mix Gregg turning state’s evidence against his personal assistant Scooter Herring (the guy who went out and bought him all his drugs) and you’ve got one stone cold ugly scene. Gregg explains his motivations in clear, precise and persuasive prose (he had no choice). Still, it proved to be the incident that broke up the band for many years.
My Cross To Bear is one fascinating trip through the excesses of rock stardom. By the time Gregg gets sober, his list of medical problems is so huge, one wonders how he could possibly still be alive.