Allman has had a lot of pain, keeps rockin'
It has been said that hard living is part of the blues, that you can't really understand and really play the music until you've suffered. Pain is the secret sauce that helps turn a handful of old-as-dirt chord progressions into the blues.
That's the legend — and it probably can't be proved one way or another.
Gregg Allman, one-half of the titular Allman Brothers Band, certainly has his fair share of pain. His older brother, the brilliant guitarist Duane Allman, died in a motorcycle accident in 1971, as did the band's bassist, Berry Oakley, a year later.
Then came cocaine, heroin, alcohol. Health problems. Contracting Hepatitis C from a dirty tattoo needle. Transplants. Five children from six marriages (one to Cher).
“Back in the '70s, we were bad boys,” Allman says. “All that's over, but the tolerance remains. I had to bite the freakin' bullet. Sometimes, when people go through a lot of physical pain, it gives them a permanent attitude. I know this guy who had colon cancer. Nicest cat in the world, (then) he wouldn't speak to nobody, (mad) at the world, and died that way. So glad that didn't happen to me. I'm still my jovial self.”
While you don't need to destroy your life to play the blues, “it helps to be kissed by disappointment, hard breaks, heartache,” Allman says. “You can get a first-hand knowledge of just what the hell the blues is.”
Allman (singer/songwriter, keyboards) is sober now and has fully grown into a voice that sounded rugged and road-weary long before it was justified. He still leads the Allman Brothers Band, which includes original members Butch Trucks and “Jaimoe” Johanson, but Allman will be performing solo July 2 at the Byham Theater, Downtown. A movie also is being made about him, based on his autobiography “My Cross to Bear.”
Call it blues, or call it rock, or blues-rock. Just don't call it “Southern Rock.” The Nashville-born, Daytona Beach-raised Allman hates that term.
“That's a fact,” he says. “The way I see it, there are four kings of rock and roll, four designers. Elvis Aaron Presley, Tupelo, Mississippi. Little Richard, Macon, Georgia. Jerry Lee Lewis, Ferriday, Louisiana. Chuck Berry, St. Louis, Missouri. These four guys came out with the first ‘wop-bop-a-loo-bops.' Saying ‘Southern rock,' is like saying ‘rock rock.' It was born in the South.”
Hit records are fine, but they're just a byproduct of the Allman Brothers' ethos.
“The Allman Brothers never have been into record-selling. Our groove is always about playing live,” Allman says. “Perfect is all well and good, but excitement is another thing. It all comes down to entertainment.
“It's like a drag race — you want to see the fire and flames. And a couple of wrecks ain't too bad. All that loud noise and fuel burnin' — I love it. It's OK in the bottle, but better straight from the tap.”
So he talks like a grizzled, seen-it-all bluesman ought to, but pain — real, physical pain — always lurks beneath the surface.
“Finally got over them ... surgeries,” he says. “Some complications with a transplant — they had to cut off the bottom part of my lung. My chest cavity was filling with water. I've had 22 root canals, but I've never had no pain like this. They put this spreader in your ribcage — they have these meters that tell you when your bones will break, and they stop just short of that. Bone pain is the worst. They give you as much dope as they can — ‘By law, we can't give you more.' ”
Allman is so excited to finally be feeling good, that he's got just one thing on his mind.
“Last Christmas, I woke up and I didn't hurt anymore. I had a positive thought and just ran with it. My trainer came and I worked out, and felt so good. I called up my manager and said, ‘Book a tour now!' ”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.