Thursday, March 20, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Gregg Allman: My Cross to Bear


Having recently reviewed the new Allman Brothers Band biography and the definitive Duane Allman biography, it's only natural that I should round out looking behind the scenes of the band by reviewing Gregg Allman's memoir. Along with older brother Duane, Butch Trucks, Jaimoe, Berry Oakley, and Dickey Betts, Gregg was a founding member of the ABB in 1969, the only lead singer (apart from several songs written by Betts or Warren Haynes) the band has ever had, and has written the majority of the band's original material from the very beginning. Celebrating his 45th year with the band (currently on their final tour) in 2014, Gregg has led an interesting life full of ups and downs, and his story and experiences are the focal point for his book, My Cross to Bear.

***special thanks to Emily and Sharyn at Harper Collins for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

As Gregg puts it early on in the book, even though Duane was only a year older than him, it seemed like so much more because of how worldly the elder Allman brother was. From their births, they were attached at the hip and did everything together...I won't go into the story of their childhood (I've already gone over that in my review of Duane's biography, which also covered it in detail), but the experience of their father dying when they were so young and being raised by their mother made them even closer than perhaps brothers would normally be. While they certainly had their arguments and shenanigans like any other siblings (Duane even tried to hang Gregg from a tree once!), it is clear throughout the book that there is nothing but real affection and love that Gregg has toward his late brother. Some of the stories he tells about Duane are laugh-out-loud funny, and Gregg covers their childhood, their experiences being sent to a military academy (not once, but twice!), and their eventual move with their mother to Daytona, Florida, where they formed their first bands and began their joint musical adventures in a very engaging way. With candid self-awareness, Gregg explains how he has always been shier, more insecure, and more introverted than Duane, who was a natural leader just brimming with confidence and belief in himself and others. This is a dynamic that would continue throughout the ABB's career and would grow more pronounced (and problematic) after Duane's death.

Whereas the aforementioned books on Duane and the ABB deal with the stories of the man and the man (as does Gregg's book), in My Cross to Bear, Gregg gives a more personal and intimate account of events, not just describing what happened, but how he felt and his reactions to events. There are also numerous anecdotes, many of them quite funny, especially given Gregg's writing style. He holds nothing back, both in terms of his language as well as the content, and his honesty can be quite shocking in certain instances.  The passages dealing with his drug and alcohol use, his marriages, and the many women he bedded over the years are oftentimes uncomfortable to read, but his honesty is refreshing, as is his ability to admit his failings and put a positive spin on the fact that he's been able to change many of these destructive behaviors over the years. His anger and frustration at their pre-ABB experiences in the Allman Joys and the Hour Glass also show that he was keenly aware of how necessary those trials and tribulations were to developing his talent at singing and songwriting, which would later come to fruition with the band his brother put together in March 1969.

One of the most heartbreaking sections of this book is, understandably, the one that deals with Duane's death and Gregg's reaction to it. His description of their last ever conversation, where Duane asks Gregg if he took some of his cocaine while he (Duane) was sleeping, and Gregg denies it (when, in fact he had) is quite sad. It's especially poignant when Gregg states, quite simply, that the last words he ever said to his brother were a lie, while Duane's final words before hanging up the phone were "I sure do love ya, baybrah!" ("baybrah" was the way Duane affectionately drawled "baby bro" and was his name for Gregg). The subsequent description of how Gregg learned of Duane's accident, the scene at the hospital after he rushed there, and the ensuing funeral and emotional aftermath are very touching; this was a man who dearly loved his brother and felt lost, confused, angry, sad, and devastated over his loss.

After Duane's death and the death of Berry Oakley a year later (where Gregg gives a sad but fitting account of Berry's final year: "I don't think he wanted to die, but I don't think he wanted to live, either"), the ABB ironically became the biggest band in the country by the end of 1973. However, the slow disintegration of the band due to drugs, money, and Gregg's relocation to Los Angeles due to his blossoming relationship with Cher broke the band up in 1976. From here, he describes the various reformations and break-ups of the ABB until their final line-up was settled on in 2000, which endures to the present day. He is also very forthcoming and candid about his struggles with drug and alcohol addictions, not shying away from describing his lowest moments and his embarrassment at certain situations. However, it is nice to read about the eventual conquering of his demons and his sobriety over the last twenty years, especially because he readily admits that he had wanted to get clean as far back as the early 1970s but simply didn't have the willpower and emotional support to do so until he finally hit rock bottom in the mid-1990s. The final part of the book discused Gregg's reflection on his brush with death due to hepatitis C, his recovery, and his newly discovered faith in God and showed that he is at peace with himself, his family, and his life and was very heartwarming to read.

If I have one small complaint with the book, it's only that it seems to skip over quite large periods of his life. While I completely understand (and enjoy) the fact that this is not a book about the ABB, but rather about his life (most of which happens to occur within and around the framework of the ABB), after the disbanding of the first incarnation of the ABB in 1976, it seems as though the book moved rather quickly and glossed over some of the details. It would have been nice to have had a bit more of Gregg's perspective, or at least have had it gone a bit deeper, into things like Berry's death, the escalating problem that Dickey Betts became which led to his ouster in 2000, and a few other things but at the same time, I was still completely satisfied with this book after I finished it, and at 400 pages it's already packed with stories. Gregg's relaxed, conversational tone and unvarnished take on his life are no nonsense and refreshing and make you feel like you're sitting across from him, relaxing with a cold beer and listening to his story.

This is definitely one of the best rock music autobiographies I've read, and I'm not just saying that as a huge ABB fan. If you're an ABB fan, this is essential reading alongside the Duane and band biographies, and if you're even just a casual ABB fan, you will still enjoy this book and get a lot of out it. Apart from having a hand in making some of the best and most enduring music of the past fifty years, Gregg has had a long and interesting life and career in music that's well worth reading.

MY RATING: 9/10

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