Thursday, May 8, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Please Be With Me: A Song For My Father Duane Allman




Some of the earliest musical memories of my life are of listening to the Allman Brothers Band. They are probably my dad's favorite band of all time and I can always remember hearing songs by them in the background when when I was very small and he'd play his records. Eat a Peach, At Fillmore East, and Brothers and Sisters were among some of the earliest albums I listened to on my own when I started going through my parents' vinyl as a kid; when I began my lifelong love of the guitar and started to teach myself to play, Allman Brothers Band records were, along with those from the Beatles, Stones, Who, Zeppelin, and others, my how-to primers on how to play. In particular, while I marveled at Duane and Dickey's lead playing and harmony lines, what really turned my head around was the expressive, almost vocal quality Duane Allman achieved with his slide playing. It's something that still hits me in the gut when I hear it all these years later. Learning about his tragic and senseless death when he was so young bummed me out to no end as a kid and even now, I shake my head and wonder "what if?" he survived that motorcycle accident and continued to make music.

To make a long story short, Duane Allman is in my personal pantheon of guitar legends and guitar heroes. But how do you relate to a legend whom you can't remember when he's also your father? That is the story that Duane's daughter Galadrielle tells in her first book, Please Be With Me: A Song For My Father Duane Allman.

***special thanks to Poonam at Random House for sending me a copy of the book to review!***

Any reader of this site will be aware that, as a lifelong fan of the ABB, I've reviewed a few books about them in recent weeks and months. The excellent band history One Way Out, Gregg's autobiography, and Duane's biography are all books I thoroughly enjoyed and recommend to any fan of the band.  However, what drew me to Galadrielle's book when I first heard about it was the fact that it wasn't just another biography of a legend, but a personal story of love, loss, and discovery. Galadrielle was the only child of Duane and Donna Allman, born in 1969 when the ABB were on the ascendant. Tragically, she was only two years old when he was suddenly gone, killed in a motorcycle accident at the all-too-young age of twenty four. From the beginning of the book, she poses the question: how do you spend your life as the child of a legend whom so many other people seem to know better than you do? And more than that, she asks how can you try to find out who the real man was when he is almost too perfect and revered a figure in death?


Galadrielle tells the story of her family, starting with her grandparents on both sides and how her mother and father came to meet. The entire book is not only a story of Duane and Donna, but a story of discovery and peeling back the layers of time and memory so that she may find out exactly who the father she cannot remember was as a man.  More than that, it gives her a chance to learn who she is and where she came from based on getting a clearer and fuller picture of her dad. Galadrielle intersperses the narrative of her family story with asides where she describes her recent conversations with her family and how they shared their memories with her, as well as her feelings upon hearing the stories, rummaging through old photos and scrapbooks, and visiting old haunts. The overall effect of her writing makes you feel as though you are there, back in time when the possibilities were endless and the world around and within the band was changing at a rapid pace.

Beginning with the childhoods of both of her parents, Allman traces their lives to the moment that they met in St. Louis and how they fell in love before settling together in Macon, Georgia during the heady times when Duane was assembling his new band, finally succeeding in fully realizing his musical vision. The excitement of those times is palpable, as is the uncertainty and risk the band, their families, and their crew were taking. Through Galadrielle's story, we're able to see how Duane cultivated his relationship with her mother at the same time he was blossoming into one of the top session guitarists in the country and working tirelessly to get the ABB off the ground. The intensely personal perspective of the story ensures that it's portrayed realistically: the excitement of sold out concerts and gold albums is tempered by grueling road trips all over the country in deplorable conditions, and while the men did love their women and children, they weren't faithful in the traditional sense. This is described in shocking detail at times; ditto for the copious amount of drugs that were going around at that period in the late 1960s/early 1970s.

Eventually, the hard work and dedication of this band of brothers began to pay off with high-profile gigs at the Fillmores, both East and West, and the establishment of lifelong and faithful fanbases in Boston, New York, San Francisco, Cincinnati, and other cities. However, the punishing lifestyle began to take its toll on the band, physically and mentally, and Galadrielle pulls no punches in describing the darkness and exhaustion that began to surround everyone, including her father.  Consuming copious amounts of cocaine and heroin, alcohol and pills, endless sex and STDs on the road, and the fracturing of her parents' relationship all began to happen around her when was only a toddler. The strain on Duane, who in addition to playing hundreds of shows with the ABB every year, was also continuing his session work and shouldered the leadership responsibility of the band, was immense and he began to treat Donna poorly, eventually leading to his taking up with another woman while Donna and Galadrielle left the Big House and Macon.

The most poignant and touching part of the book is, of course, that which deals with Duane's motorcycle crash and death. To read Galadrielle's own words about how she had to put off writing about it until she was emotionally ready to do so, even while she knew all along that she would eventually have to...it's hard not to shed a tear and feel a tugging at your heartstrings. His death and its aftermath affected everyone in the extended Allman Brothers family and it has continued to even all these decades later. I was also very pleased to see that she made a point of ensuring that Berry Oakley and his untimely death a year after Duane's was not overlooked (and of course, no true fan of the band would ever feel as much anyway...we know what Berry meant to the band, both with his playing and his personality). I nearly cried when I read how Donna felt that since Galadrielle wouldn't remember Duane, his passing wouldn't hurt her as bad. And reading about her struggles growing up with a famous father who was dead that she never really knew stayed with me a long time after I finished reading the book.

Where Please Be With Me excels beyond just being a great biography of Duane Allman is that it is also family history: Duane's, Gregg's, the Allman Brothers Band's, but most of all, Galadrielle's. It's a journey of discovery and enlightenment as she finds out who her father really was, warts and all. For all of the wonderful things she (and the world) know about him as a musician and person, there were also some very unseemly, dark, and unfortunate things lurking in the shadow, and I give her all the credit in the world for not only wanting to know the truth for herself, both the good and the bad, but for sharing it with we readers. In one instance, when she references a drunken radio interview Duane gave around Christmastime in 1970, I knew what his words would be were since I've read about (and listened to) that audio before. However, while I grimaced at his comments disparaging his wife and being "tied down" to women in general, I had never really thought about how it might feel to his daughter to hear these words come from her father. Imagine if your family's dirty secrets were available for the entire world; while he did say nice things about his child, his words about her mother were hurtful and I understood how it made Galadrielle feel through the way she wrote about it. The instances in this book where she takes the time to offer insight into the struggle to make a famous legend more human because he was her father is really deep and touching, and it is those threads interwoven throughout the fabric of the book which elevate it to a special place.

In addition to the content, what makes this book such a joy to read is the writing style of the author. She has a very evocative and florid style without being overly wordy and manages to create a sense of immersion in whatever scene she is writing about through her economy of prose and careful choice of words and sentence construction. Reading descriptions of Macon, The Big House, Rose Hill Cemetery, the horrid van the band toured in during the early days, and more...you feel as if you're there and can imagine the sights, sounds, smells, and feel of the moment. Beyond that, her words when describing personal emotions, insights, and events have a way of conveying more than simply the literal meaning of the words on the page. When she describes how she was in a thrift shop in Georgia looking at an old copy of Rolling Stone with her dad on the cover and the shop owner snatched it away from her, snapping "don't you know who that is? It's Duane Allman!" you understand exactly how it must have made her feel. Likewise when she describes going to buy cigarettes as a teenager in San Francisco as a teenager but was dissuaded by the looming presence of her father's image looking at her from a wall hanging inside. If this book were written by someone with lesser skill with words, it would still be a nice read, but the emotions, the joy and sorrow, and the descriptive power of Allman's words make it that much better. Finally, it is heartwarming to see how, in the process of searching for the truth of who her father was, she not only learned more about him and in doing so, grew closer to him, but was able to get to know friends and family better, most notably her uncle Gregg, who was Duane's brother, best friend, and musical partner.

Please Be With Me is the story of a legend, his music, and the daughter who never knew him that he left behind. It poses a question that I'm sure most of us never dream of considering: if one of your parents was world famous and died before you could remember them, how would you cope with the world's memory of them being so perfect? How would you grapple with trying to find out who they were as a human being, for better and worse? Because while they may have been a hero to millions the world over, to you they were simply "Dad." That is the journey at the heart of Please Be With Me and it is wonderful to be able to share in Galadrielle's story through her words.

MY RATING: 10/10


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