Friday, March 14, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Skydog: The Duane Allman Story

When one thinks of the greatest guitarists of all time, Duane Allman is usually mentioned in the same breath as Clapton, Page, Hendrix, Townshend, and others, and rightfully so. His mastery of the instrument across a variety of genres and his revolutionary electric slide playing ensured Duane his place in music history long before his all-too-tragic death at the young age of 24. In addition to the music that made him famous as a founder and bandleader of the Allman Brothers Band in 1969, he was also renowned as a top session guitarist in Muscle Shoals and contributed to the legendary album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos. With the recent interest in the Allman Brothers Band at a high due to an excellent new biography of the band (which I reviewed very recently) as well as their final tour having just commenced a week ago, it seems an appropriate time to explore the life behind one of the individuals who formed and led the band during its best period and emerged as one of the greatest guitarists who ever lived.

***special thanks to Wes at Backbeat Books for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

Whereas the new Allman Brothers Band biography obviously focused on the band as a whole and its constituent members, Skydog is (again, obviously) a book dedicated solely to the life and career of Duane. While there is some overlap of details between the two books, mainly as pertaining to the formation of the ABB and Duane's time in the band before his death, Skydog goes into much more detail and back story and looks at the man behind the music and how his life and experiences made him who he was.

Starting with Duane's birth in 1946, the book traces his and Gregg's childhood in Nashville, where they were both born and living with their parents before their father Willis, a WWII veteran, was murdered by a fellow veteran who robbed him at gunpoint while Willis and his friend were giving the man a ride home after a night out playing cards. Their mother eventually sent the boys to live with their grandparents for a while, where they both were bitten by the guitar bug and entranced by the blues and R&B radio stations they listened to. After a stint at a military academy that they both passionately hated, the Allmans moved to Daytona, Florida, where the boys would finish the rest of their school days. By this point, Duane had surpassed Gregg on the guitar and was spending so much time at home practicing that he simply dropped out of school to focus on the instrument full time! As with so many teenagers in the early 1960s who were captivated by the Beatles, Duane and Gregg formed a band, first called The Escorts before settling on the Allman Joys. They gigged in the Florida area and built up enough of a good reputation to even open for the Beach Boys at a concert in Daytona Beach in 1965. Eventually attempting to tour with the Allman Joys, the band made it out to California, where they were signed by Liberty Records and renamed the Hour Glass. While they were a top live draw during the psychedelic era of the 1960s, playing incendiary shows opening for bands such as the Doors, Janis Joplin, and Jefferson Airplane, their studio output was quite poor in quality due to the fact that they had no input into what they recorded. Growing disgusted with the scene, Duane and the rest of the band went back home while Gregg stayed to try and make a career as a solo musician. It was during this time that Duane worked his way into the studios in and around Muscle Shoals and became one of the top session guitarists of the late 1960s, playing on a variety of hit records including Wilson Pickett's cover of the Beatles' "Hey Jude."

Eventually, Duane convinced Rick Hall, owner of the famous FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, to let him record a solo album.  However, during this period, Duane had grander visions of putting together a band the way he wanted to, and from his frequent travels around the American southeast, he brought into the fold fellow band founders Jaimoe, Butch Trucks (whom he'd known since 1966), Dickey Betts, and Berry Oakley. However, they couldn't settle on a singer until Duane insisted they call his "baby brother" Gregg and convinced him to join the lineup. The rest, as they say, is history, and I won't go into too much more detail in this review since the career of the Allman Brothers has been covered in detail in Alan Paul's excellent new biography that I've already reviewed.  However, where Skydog excels is in examining Duane individually in more detail during these years. His prodigious use of drugs and alcohol is documented, as well as his attitude to his music (which is admirable) and the wife and daughter that he abandoned (which is deplorable). In particular, reading the transcript of his drunken radio interview from late 1970 where he describes in a quite callous manner his thoughts toward his ex-wife Donna and baby daughter Galadrielle is quite unsettling. It's interesting, though, that his generally reckless approach to life was noted as early on as in high school by his classmates, many of whom didn't think he would live past thirty. Sadly, they were right.



While the Allman Brothers Band's golden era of 1969-71 was covered in the aforementioned One Way Out, Skydog digs deeper to show that Duane still maintained his ridiculously hectic pace of playing on studio sessions in the middle of the grueling schedule of recording sessions and tour dates with the ABB. Throw into the mix the fact that he played on one of the greatest albums of all time in Derek and the Dominos' Layla album and jazz albums by friends King Curtis and Herbie Mann, and it's staggering to realize just how much music Duane packed into such a short life. Even toward the end of his life, he was constantly on the go (apart from a short stint in rehab to try and kick his heroin addiction). His tragic and senseless death from a motorcycle crash in late October 1971 is all the more heartbreaking because it was so preventable: had Duane not been wearing his helmet with the chinstrap unclasped and had he not tried to pass the truck turning in front of him, he would have survived. The remainder of the book gives a brief but detailed history of the remainder of the band's career up to 2009. The various appendices are also interesting: a discography, a "where-are-they-now" of his friends and former pre-ABB bandmates, all of whom share their memories of Duane, and a final section chronicling the various guitars Duane used throughout his life.

Overall, this book is really good and enjoyable. It was well written and the pacing was excellent. If I have one complaint, and really it's the only one, I felt that perhaps it didn't dig down quite deep enough. While it didn't seem as if the author was writing superficially about Duane, there were certain sections where I felt the story was just begging for more detail, case in point: Duane's personal relationships with women, including the wife and baby daughter he left behind. While Poe spent some time telling us how cold and callous Duane was in discussing the situation on the radio, it would have been nice to have had more background into how they met, what the relationship was like, what led to him leaving, and so on. Perhaps this information wasn't available to the author, but I think much of it is (as I've read bits and pieces from other sources) and even a short discussion would have been preferable to completely skipping over it. This is just one example of several.

A message carved into the side of a Mississippi highway in 1973
It's certainly difficult to write a book about someones life, especially someone who died so young and such a long time ago. However, Duane managed to pack so much activity into his brief time on this earth and he left us so much incredible music that there is more than enough with which to fill a book. Randy Poe does an excellent job at capturing the spirit of the man and gives an accurate and compelling portrait of his life, warts and all. Duane was by no means perfect and he was haunted by his demons, but all of this just goes to show that regardless of status and talent, we are all human and all have the capacity to touch lives through what we do if we work hard enough and passionately enough. Skydog is a fascinating and enjoyable story of a man who spread the religion of his music and his brotherhood to as many people as he could during his short life, and it's a story that reminds us to maximize our talents and to treat every day as if it could be our last. Duane certainly did this, and thankfully he left a lot of great music for us to enjoy and ensure that he will never be forgotten.

MY RATING: 8/10

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