Thursday, March 6, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band


Among the bands who were making incredible music in the 1960s and 1970s, the Allman Brothers Band were unique in that they were the first legendary band to emerge from the American south, bursting onto the scene in 1969 with their combination of powerful studio albums and incendiary, lengthy live shows.  The combination of their unique line-up, with dual-lead guitars, dual-drummers, a melodic bassist, and a gutsy singer/organ player combined with their amalgam of blues, R&B, soul, and jazz (with a dash of folk and country thrown in) was a once-in-a-lifetime confluence that came together at the right time to give us the Brothers. Some of my earliest memories as a kid are of listening to their flawless At Fillmore East, Eat a Peach, and Brothers and Sisters albums on my dad's vinyl, and their run of records from 1969 to 1973 were among my greatest teachers when I was teaching myself how to play guitar. A personal thrill for me was finally seeing them live in 1998 when they played one of their numerous Boston shows. This is a band that has meant so much to so many people for so many years, and they're still going strong (although they've announced that they will be retiring after 2014). A band with an incredible forty-five year career surely has an interesting story to tell, and author Alan Paul gives us what he has subtitled "The Inside History" of the Allman Brothers Band with his new book, One Way Out.

***special thanks to Christy at St. Martin's Press for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

This book is called "The Inside History" and given the way the story of the ABB is told, this is an apt subtitle. Instead of a straight narrative told by the author, the band's story is told by the Brothers themselves, as well as those who were close to them throughout their career (including crew members, spouses, friends, producers, managers, etc). Alan Paul has conducted countless interviews with these people over the years, and through the words of the band and their extended ABB family, was able to put together the story of their entire career. The layout of the book is chronological and each chapter starts with a short paragraph from the author laying out that particular part of their career, followed by the words of the Brothers and their associates. Sprinkled throughout the book are photographs as well as interesting sidebars describing key pieces of the story, whether it be their communal house from the early days, some of their best-known songs, a particular musical element unique to the band, and so on. The entire book is laid out nicely and the flow and pacing are executed wonderfully. The book is as much a joy to read as the Brothers' music is to listen to.

The story naturally begins with the birth and childhood's of the two men for whom the band was named, Duane and Gregg Allman. There is a brief but detailed overview of their childhood and upbringing, as well as their early musical endeavors, which blossomed when they were teenagers, first as the Allman Joys and later as the Hour Glass, when they were bands trying to make it in the mid-to-late 1960s world of psychedelia and heavier rock music. Growing tired of this, the brothers split up physically, with Duane decamping to Muscle Shoals, Alabama for an intense period of renowned session work while Gregg stayed behind in California to try and make it as a solo artist.  Eventually tiring of the session work, Duane decided to put his own band together, bringing in various musicians whom he had encountered during those years who fit his vision. These included drummers Butch Trucks and Jaimoe, guitarist Dickey Betts, and bass player Berry Oakley. The band began jamming and found that they had excellent chemistry, but there was piece missing.  They had no singer, and Duane knew there was only one man to turn to to complete the line-up: his "baby brother." Gregg brought his deft and subtle organ playing and gutsy, soulful vocals to the band, not to mention batches of great original songs, adding the missing ingredient to the band's mix. The early days of the band are a study in hard work and dedication, where the band rehearsed constantly and played free, unannounced gigs in Atlanta's Piedmont Park and other places close to their new home base of Macon, Georgia before they caught the ear and attention of the newly formed Capricorn Records, who promptly signed them to a management and recording contract. Their first two records, while excellent, didn't make much of a dent on the charts but their relentless live performances all over the country created a buzz that spread by word-of-mouth, creating a huge and dedicated fanbase that would grow and stay with the band to the present day. Their third album, the classic At Fillmore East, was their breakthrough and is widely considered to be one of the greatest live albums of all time. However, at this point the success began to take its toll on the band, as had the years of grueling touring. Drugs and alcohol were personal bugbears for the various band and crew members although it never affected the music. However, tragedy began to cut the band down in heartbreaking fashion, with Duane being killed in a motorcycle crash in late 1971 and Berry dying in the same way nearly a year to the day later in 1972. While they'd released the classic Eat a Peach album (half of which featured Duane) in 1972 and gamely soldiered on as a five-man band, when Berry died there was serious concern as to whether they could carry on. Eventually regrouping by adding pianist Chuck Leavell and bassist Lamar Williams, they reached their commercial peak in 1973, releasing Brothers and Sisters, their only #1 album (featuring Berry Oakley on two of the songs) which contained their highest charting single, Ramblin' Man (which reached #2). By now the band was playing stadiums and making more money than they ever had, but internal tensions (mainly the power struggle between Gregg and Dickey resulting in the power vacuum left in the wake of Duane's death) and addictions tore the band apart, and after a final, lackluster album in 1975, they split up.

After some solo projects, a reunion in the late 1970s with new members on guitar, bass, and keyboards led to the band's nadir, with three critically and commercially panned albums and the low point of seeing their new keyboardist play keytar solos at center stage. Not helped by band tensions, they disbanded again until their twentieth anniversary in 1989. Rejuvenated by new guitarist Warren Haynes and new bass player Allen Woody (both of whom would go on to form Gov't Mule), the band entered into a second period of success that rivaled (but couldn't surpass) the original line-up, with excellent albums and acclaimed (and relentless) tours. When Haynes and Woody left to focus on Gov't Mule full time in 1997, bassist Oteil Burbridge was brought in, as were a couple of guitarists to fill the void. However, the continued tensions between Allman and Betts came to a head and in 2000, Betts was ejected from the band and replaced by Butch Trucks' nephew, Derek. Haynes returned to the fold and this current line-up of the band has kept the flame alive to the present. 
The legendary original line-up of the Allman Brothers Band, ca. 1971
The way the book is set up is more of an oral history of the band and because of that, the voices and spirits of the individual band members come through loud and clear. While there is the chance for the book to end up feeling like a bunch of interviews and articles pasted together in linear fashion in order to attempt telling the story (which was the case with the most recent biography on Blur that I reviewed last year), One Way Out never comes across that way.  It ends up feeling more as if you were sitting around a table with the guys listening to them discuss the band's history.  One thing that I really liked, and the author was very upfront about this his introduction, is where conflicting accounts of events were given by different people, all recollections were included in order to present everyone's viewpoint, which I feel was not only the best way to assure that the story be told as fairly and accurately as possible, but made for some interesting, revealing, and oftentimes humorous passages. In this vein, of particular note was the section dealing with Betts leaving the band in 2000, a situation that's always been shrouded in a bit of mystery as to what actually happened. With this book, it's finally explained in more detail; I won't give it away here and I'll let the reader discover the truth for themselves, but I feel that a clearer explanation of the entire ordeal was given.

An overarching theme that runs throughout the whole book is just how fragile and delicate the magical equilibrium of the original six-man lineup truly was. The presence of Berry Oakley and (especially) Duane Allman looms large over the personal and professional lives of the band members individually as well as the band in whole. It's easy to notice how much love and affection everyone who knew them had for those two men, and even all these years later it's clear that they're still missed.  In fact, through reading this book, it became starkly obvious that the balance was kept intact in the early years by Duane's calm, steady, and steely personality and the masterful way in which he dealt with all of the different personalities and egos in the band and their crew.  When he died, it was a severe body blow to the band, and when Berry Oakley, the other steadying influence within the band, died the following year, things fell apart fairly quickly. Not to place too much blame on Dickey Betts, because as he rightfully stated in the book, he was the main one who held it all together for so long beginning in 1973, but his approach to the band and his personality conflicts and incompatibilities with the others grew to be too much and ended up blowing the band apart more than once. Not only that, but throw in the fact that everyone was indulging in drugs and drink to varying degrees of excess and it's not hard to see why things came to a head (and to blows) more than once between 1973 and 2000.  Thankfully, throughout the book everyone is very candid when it comes to what happened with their drinking, drugging, violent outburts, and various other shenanigans, and while they don't glorify any of it, they don't shy away from taking responsibility for anything either and I respect all of the Brothers that much more for how honest they were.

As mentioned above, the words of the crew, managers, spouses (mainly Linda Oakley), and friends who have been there the whole time are given equal weight to those of the various band members, which is as it should be since the ABB have always presented themselves as an extended brotherhood of musicians and beyond that, a family. Remember, this is a band that had a full-sized pictures of their road crew as the back cover of their most famous album (At Fillmore East), and the words of the extended Allman Brothers family are just as important to the story, if not more so, especially in certain instances when they were the only witnesses to events (case in point, Berry Oakley's tragic death).  There is also extra information from producers, engineers, and session musicians, and one of my favorite sections was the one describing Duane's involvement with Derek and the Dominos, with words from Bobby Whitlock, Eric Clapton, and Tom Dowd shedding more light on the creation of the famous Layla album; I found this part really nice to read, especially since Clapton is a legend in his own right (and another personal favorite of mine).

What's always been true and is reinforced in this book is that the Allman Brothers Band has always first and foremost been about the music and that these are just ordinary, down-to-earth guys who happen to be fantastic musicians in a band together.  Alan Paul has done a wonderful job putting this book together and making it feel like a true history; it's more than just reading individual paragraphs from each person. The sidebar sections which go in depth into special aspects of their career, the numerous photographs, and the flow of the narrative make this book immensely engaging and enjoyable to read. The foreword by Butch Trucks and the afterword by Jaimoe are about as perfect a way to bookend the story as you could hope for.  Clearly this is the definitive biography of the Allman Brothers Band, but it's also a blueprint for how to write an effective biography of a band using their own words. In short, if you're a fan of the Brothers, you need this book.

MY RATING: 10/10

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