"If I fell over dead right now, I have led some kind of life."
That's Gregg Allman near the end of "My Cross to Bear," and after reading his autobiography, "My Cross to Bear," I have to agree with him.
Some kind of life indeed.
Gregg Allman is best known, of course, as the frontman for The Allman Brothers Band, and his story is inextricably linked to the band's. In the early Allman Brothers days, Gregg's big brother, Duane, was running the show. Duane was the one who kept everyone in line, who was the heart and soul of the music. Being leader was not a role Gregg wanted, nor was he especially well-suited to it. He was so shocked and saddened by his brother's sudden death in a motorcycle crash, that he was on an alcohol and drug-fueled autopilot for years.
Well, decades, really.
"My Cross to Bear" is full of amazing stories--some hilarious, some sad--and Gregg Allman never hesitates to blame himself where appropriate. He is also unflinchingly honest about his alcohol and drug abuse, which lasted decades and nearly killed him a number of times.
Allman was notoriously married to Cher back in the 1970's. He speaks candidly about life with her, as well as with his five other wives.
Mostly, though, this is a story about a musical career. I just read Eric Clapton's autobiography, and Clapton focused more on his abuses and--especially--his recovery than he did on his legendary music. Gregg Allman talks about his early days, learning to play along with Duane, about early appearances at school talent shows, and playing high school dances. He describes the hunger he and Duane felt just to play, to get as good as possible. They played in bar bands, then formed their own band, the Allman Joys. From there, it was off to L.A., then back to Florida to form The Allman Brothers Band.
It took me a chapter or so to get used to Gregg Allman's narrative voice. Where Clapton's autobiography was eloquent and relatively polite, Allman writes like you'd imagine he'd talk, his writing peppered with Southernisms and frequent profanity. That said, I also laughed a lot reading "My Cross to Bear." Allman is a hell of a storyteller, even when the stories are tough and cast him in a bad light.
As an autobiography, "My Cross to Bear" covers everything, from his childhood through being a grandfather. Told from a survivor's viewpoint, it gives the early recollections a bit more poignance: we know going in that the narrator lived through a chemical blur, and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
In fact, the book starts off with a story from the Hall of Fame induction. Gregg Allman was blotto the whole time, even more so on a subsequent "Late Night with David Letterman" appearance. Shortly after, he was carted off to a rehab in Pennsylvania.
Allman talks about his various stints in rehab, and about how he finally was able to kick drugs and alcohol. While Clapton is big on AA and The Twelve Steps, Gregg Allman's lone AA meeting ended up with three girls asking him for autographs. As he put it, "So much for Anonymous!" (Sometime later, Waylon Jennings told him, "All you need for an AA meeting is another drunk and a pot of coffee.") Sober several years now, Allman attributes his success to his growing faith in God.
One of the strong points in Allman's storytelling is that the book never bogs down in any one period. The Allman Brothers have been together for more than 40 years (with a couple of short-lived breakups). They've been hugely popular, and they've fallen out of favor. Gregg Allman has had some solo projects as well, to fill the gaps. It seems like he was always recording or touring either with the AllBros, or his own band, and we're along for the ride.
One highlight for me was reading about a certain Miami show back in the early 70's. The Allman Brothers Band was tearing it up onstage, when Gregg looked down and saw Eric Clapton sitting on the grass, intently watching the band. Allman talks about going back to Criteria Studios with Duane, and jamming with Clapton and his band. There was definite chemistry, and Gregg had a good time. Duane stayed behind, and became a member of Clapton's band Derek and the Dominoes.
In Clapton's book, he describes the meeting from the other point of view. Either way, they agree that they became friends and played well together.
Corroboration is always nice, especially since they were both wasted at the time.
As rock & roll autobiographies go, "My Cross to Bear" isn't earthshaking in its originality. It's not written in iambic pentameter, or with flowery, Fitzgeraldian prose. It doesn't raise any sort of bar, nor did I really want it to. This is simply a guy whose music I've always loved telling stories about his life and career, and nothing more is required.