by Chuck Hicks
PopMatters Music Critic
“The vision was anti-industrial, anti-mechanical. It was mystical, just out of reach: a private self-revelation. It was the myth of the South, recast for a new generation”. — John Swenson on “Dreams”
When The Allman Brothers Band appeared in 1969, it featured one of the most provocative cover photographs of its time: an integrated group of Southern hipsters congregated on the massive, paint-peeled porch of a dilapidated antebellum mansion. The back cover photo was even more shocking: the same ragamuffins huddled in front of a niche, their bassist Berry Oakley dressed as Jesus elevated behind them, arms protectively outstretched like the ever-watchful Good Shepherd
Yet, these culturally- and spiritually-charged images barely hinted at the stunning cross-pollination of musical ideas that lay poised on the grooves of the Capricorn 33-1/3 vinyl recording. Though it initially sold poorly, The Allman Brothers Band was more than a landmark; it was a mountaintop on which the band transfigured the opposing forces of white and black, urban and rural, new and old into a glorious image of America’s most turbulent region. For the remainder of its career, the Allman Brothers Band would struggle to keep its precarious footing on the peak of post-Peace Generation music. Tragedy was inevitable.
The Road Goes on Forever is a perfect chronicle of the band’s gradual descent from its unsurpassable opening triumph. The wonderful thing is that, save for one track, all of the first album is included. Most bands strive for years to make a record as complete as The Allman Brothers Band, and certainly the individual members of the band had been honing their chops for years before its consummation. But the reader can go elsewhere to get the pre-histories. This is the story of trying to maintain perfection. Like every real story, it has an unhappy ending. But the beauty encountered along the way is greater than the final sunset. Subtitle it “A Tale of Six Men and Four Girls”, the meaning of which will become clear momentarily.
When the Allman Brothers Band set out to make its first record, the world was falling apart. The Beatles were in their death throes. Led Zeppelin had introduced its savage, Druidian form of the blues. American pop music was swamped in psychedelia. Motown had been Spector-ized, and jazz was disoriented by the cerebral experiments of Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. What the musical landscape needed was a revival, a movement that gathered up the fragments and gave meat to the poor in spirit. The Brothers weren’t just at the right place at the right time; they were from the right place. With the lone exception of Chicago-born Oakley, the Brothers (Duane and Gregg Allman, Dickie Betts, Butch Trucks, and Jai Johanny Johannson) were from the American South, the cradle of every popular musical form studied and embraced from Hamburg to Hiroshima. Blues, jazz, rock, gospel, country — all made up the seamless garment of the Brothers’ sound.
The album opens, ironically, with a cover of a modern British blues — the Spencer-Davis Group’s “Don’t Want You No More”. The song has all the flair and refinement of pre-prog Limey. The Brothers rip through it with nonchalance, then transition into their own homegrown blues, “It’s Not My Cross to Bear.” It is one of the great turnabouts captured on pop vinyl, a transition from the hip new to the slow-cooked old. The listener has to decide right away if it’s going to be Yorkshire pudding or grits with red-eye gravy. Once you get on this real blues train, there’s no heading back to Piccadilly; swinging London gives way to muggy Macon. It becomes immediately apparent that Gregg Allman, despite all his tabloid-cover goofiness, is one of the greatest blues vocalists of all time. Muddy Waters’ “Trouble No More” sizzles with Duane “Skydog” Allman’s legendary slide work, the first real taste of a medicine bottle gliding across steel strings.
But this is not merely grunged-up blues. “Dreams” (which this reviewer considers the Allman Brothers’ greatest song) is fully jazz-informed, particularly in the dual rhythm section of Johannson (‘Jaimoe’) and Trucks. The extended instrumental break — the first of many from this band — allows Duane Allman to wrap spiraling layers of slide around a tense but deliberate shuffle beat and Oakley’s tastefully subdued bass work. It was on this track the Brothers distinguished themselves from that other infamous “jam” band — the Grateful Dead. Whereas the Brothers defined the musical “road” with long bends and detours that effortlessly but faithfully retraced themselves, the Dead were muddled and aimless. The Brothers could always bring the listener back home, because there was always something worth coming back to. The Dead dropped you off in oblivion.
Idlewild South was the Brothers second album. It lacked the terse density of the eponymous debut, and it included the band’s first three-minute, radio-friendly hit, “Midnight Rider,” a song that divides the real fans from mere wave-catching groupies. If you want to offend the Brothers during a live show, yell for “Midnight Rider”. On the other hand, “Revival”, composed by second lead guitarist Betts, reveals its author’s uncanny ability to galvanize the band’s disparate influences into a coherent statement: country guitars welded to an irresistible swing beat. The Brothers get the funk out with “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin'” and cover Muddy’s “Hoochie Coochie Man”, but for the first time there’s a missed step; the latter sounds derivative.
The Fillmore East album is generally accepted as the greatest live recording in the history of rock music. Nowhere is that more evident than the reverential cover of T-Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday”, one of those “stand behind your lover and wrap your arms around her waist and sway slowly to the groove” numbers. This is followed by the controlled road rage of “Hot ‘Lanta,” with its memorable, classically informed coda. There is also the preferred, 13-minute version of “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed”, another Betts-penned jazz piece inspired by the Brothers’ frequent visits to Macon, Georgia’s Rose Hill cemetery. Legend has it that Betts made it with a girl on Elizabeth Reed’s grave. Meanwhile, the “Skydog” was transfixed by the diminutive statue on another young lady’s final resting place. “Little Martha”, the tender acoustic duet at the close of Eat a Peach, was Duane’s ode to dying childhood innocence.
In August of 1971, jazz saxophonist King Curtis was murdered in front of his home in Harlem. Duane Allman had been a good friend of the artist and performed at the funeral along with Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder. From that point onward, the elder Allman seemed fixated with death. He once confided to “little brother” Gregg that he had nowhere else to go musically, that he had exhausted the full range of his abilities. Evoking the imagery of the biblical Jonah, he is reported to have told his bandmates, “if something happens to me, y’all put me in a pine box and throw me in the river, and just keep playin'”. On October 29, 1971, in the midst of the Eat a Peach recording sessions, Duane was killed in a motorcycle crash in Macon. Two tracks on the album were devoted to dealing with Duane’s departure. “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” was Gregg’s premature statement of resolution. But the poignant “Melissa” (the third girl, if you’re counting) was more directly from the heart. It was a song Duane and Gregg had worked on as the Allman Joys, the combo that preceded the Allman Brothers Band. Gregg’s solemn re-working of the lyrics included this oblique reference to the blues legend Robert Johnson:
“Crossroads — will you ever let him go,
or will you hide the dead man’s ghost?
Lord, will he lie beneath the clay,
or will his spirit float away?
But I know that he won’t stay
Whoever or whatever “Melissa” represented, Gregg knew that she/it was gone, and so was Duane. Not one voice of protest was ever raised to this eloquent comparison of Duane Allman to the King of the Delta Blues.
And then there is “Jessica”. If one song that polarizes fans of the Brothers, it is this one. “Jessica” is the lengthy instrumental track from the controversial Brothers and Sisters LP, an album that for many marked the beginning of the end for the Allman Brothers Band. “Jessica” is a song plagued by too much familiarity. It has been played to death, especially on Southern AOR radio stations. It’s the kind of song that will appear during an afternoon drive through the country, with some angrily flipping the dial to another station while others crank it up and let the tears flow freely. With Duane gone, the Brothers opted not to replace him, and instead brought in jazz pianist Chuck Leavall to round out the band. Then, on Veteran’s day 1972, just a few blocks away from the site of Duane’s fatal accident, Berry Oakley was involved in a motorcycle crash that would take his life.
When Duane passed, the whole of the guitar chores fell on Dickie Betts. With Oakley gone, so did the leadership of the band. Hounded by nearly hopeless depression and addiction, Betts was at his breaking point when one day he noticed his toddler, Jessica, playing on the floor of his living room. Arrested by his daughter’s boundless energy, Betts began working out a new jam that would feature his characteristic repetitious, circling patterns on guitar. Leavall added some spirited piano work while Jaimoe and Trucks mixed and matched Latin rhythms. “Jessica” is a dangerous song to listen to while driving down the road — the kind that makes the foot grow heavy on the accelerator. But more than anything else, “Jessica” is a triumph of life out of death, a celebration of the eternal qualities of innocence and play.
After Brothers and Sisters the Allman Brothers Band became a mere caricature of itself. Internal squabbles, drug busts, betrayal, and divisive relationships left a skeleton of the band. Betts swore he would never play with Gregg Allman again; Jaimoe, Leavall and bassist Lamar Williams departed for a while to form Sea Level, a band that enjoyed only moderate success. After some grievous personal failures and reconciliations, the Brothers reunited in various forms, but those are outside the scope of this collection. Suffice to say that later incarnations of the Allman Brothers Band languished in the same bleary-eyed musical squalor inhabited by the Dead and Phish. On the unending road, the Brothers have long ceased to be the wayfaring strangers they once were, settling to be a living roadside relic, like the old Indian chief who poses for pictures with tourists. So mote it be. The best music to come from America’s greatest rock band has been captured forever. It’s here for all to revel in.
It is important to realize that the Allman Brothers Band was not merely the beginning of the “Southern rock” phenomenon. Lynyrd Skynyrd, Molly Hatchet, .38 Special, Blackfoot…what do these rednecks have to do with a band that epitomized the best America has to offer to the world’s music? Apart from geographical proximity, very little indeed. The Road Goes on Forever, though not as exhaustive as the Dreams box-set, contains all the definitive material from the band’s halcyon days. It is a compilation that I heartily recommend to my friends overseas (Japan, Korea, Russia, and Turkey) who want the real flavor of American music.
Suffice to say this is essential.