This is the true story of Gregg Allman, as told by someone who knows nothing about the real Gregg Allman.
I was a very small person in the early 1970s, which seemed fitting since I also was a very young person. I was a young, small person whose friends were composed of red, green, and blue dots rather than meat, bone, and fluids. Captain Kangaroo was my friend, and so was Sesame Street’s Grover. My first best friend was Mr. Rogers, with his kindness and calm demeanor. Those were important criteria when selecting friends, even those made from cathode rays.
Humor was an important criterion, too, even if I was too young to understand it. Fortunately television producers during the ’70s knew that I was too dumb to get their jokes, so they provided a laugh track to let me know when something was funny. This was the era of the variety shows, with their special musical guests and their rehashed vaudevillian bits. The number of variety shows during that period is dazzling–The Hudson Brothers, Donny and Marie, The Captain and Tennille, Flip Wilson, Jim Stafford, Carol Burnett, the Brady Bunch, Tony Orlando, the Keane Brothers, Sonny and Cher.
If Mr. Rogers was my cathode ray best friend, Sonny and Cher were the RGB family I wished I was a part of. Dad was silly and Mom was sassy. She always got the best of him, but that was okay. Sonny smiled and the laugh track laughed, and at the end of the night they held little Chastity together and sang “I Got You Babe” while they waved to the camera.
And then disaster struck. Cher divorced Sonny and the whole artifice came crumbling down. It was like tuning into Mr. Rogers, and after he changed into his sweater and sneakers he said to the camera, “Well, the Puerto Ricans have moved into the neighborhood. I’m getting out of here. Can you say ‘white flight,’ boys and girls?” Well, not exactly. There was no crazy racism involved, but still. Divorce? There had to be a reason, and within days we knew what it was: Cher married Gregg Allman.
Now, keep in mind that I’m all of 8 years-old when this is happening. Rock and roll to me was the handful of records passed down by my father and my aunt: a little Elvis, some Beatles, the Mamas and the Papas, Lee Dorsey’s “Ya Ya.” These were my idea of rockers. I didn’t know who Gregg Allman was or that his band had released five albums, three of which remain certified classics: Eat a Peach; Brothers and Sisters; and At Fillmore East. Nor did I know that he was probably still reeling from the tragic deaths of his brother, Duane, and his band mate, Berry Oakley. To me he was just the creepy hippie who broke up my favorite TV family. You’re not my real dad!
Allman probably didn’t know that he was crossing over into another kind of fame, either. He was high profile now–fodder for the gossip rags that attached themselves like lampreys to the belly of pop culture. What was the dirty hippie doing to America’s darling? Answers on page three. Rumors swirled: he beats her; he’s a drunk; he’s a junkie; he’s a womanizer; they’re divorcing; they’re reconciling; they’re divorcing; they’re reconciling. Greg Allman didn’t belong in suburban middle America, and he sure as hell didn’t need to be dragged through the tabloids while he was trying to piece his life back together post trauma. When the couple finally divorced in 1978 he was probably happy to be forgotten by the tabloid-reading housewives and their sons who were too stupid to tell pictures on a TV screen from actual friends.
I grew out of that, incidentally, eventually forming actual bonds with friends made from meat, bone, and fluids. One of those friends had a father whose musical tastes went well beyond Elvis, the Beatles, and the Mamas and the Papas. The first time I heard Led Zeppelin IV was courtesy of that old timer’s stacks. (He must have been at least thirty.) He owned a Paul Simon album, too, and Bette Midler’s The Divine Miss M. Those two didn’t do much for me.
The album I spun most often at that buddy’s house, though, was the Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East, specifically side four with its glorious, expansive version of “Whipping Post.” Damn, were these guys good. Was I the only one who knew that Gregg Allman had a career before Cher? What a shame that he was gone now, a career ruined by bad choices. Let this be a lesson to me, kid. Oh Lord I feel like I’m dying.
Honestly, I didn’t give Gregg Allman much thought after I stopped hanging out with that particular friend. It was time to put away childish things, and courtesy of his association with my variety show loving adolescence, Allman was relegated to my Island of Misfit Toys. I moved on to what Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam listened to in the late ’70s/early ’80s: KISS, Van Halen, AC/DC, the Nuge.
By the mid-’80s I was working in record stores, and eventually managing one. My store was just outside of Savannah on a highway whose name I’ve forgotten, but I remember that it ran to the beach. This detail comes courtesy of the men who would stop on their way back into town after days on the shrimp trawlers, their pockets bulging with hard earned dollars and their psyches itching to spend them. It was nothing for one of those guys to drop 300 dollars–and those are 1987 dollars–for no better reason than mine was the first store they entered once their feet were back on dry land.
My job was to find something to sell these guys, which could be challenging given that our floor space was dedicated primarily to Tiffany, Debbie Gibson, Robbie Neville, and rap 12-inch singles. We pushed Europe’s The Final Countdown when that came out, Boston’s Third Stage, Dwight Yoakam’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc. Etc. —anything the shrimpers might like.
And so when a promo copy of Gregg Allman’s new album arrived in the mail one afternoon, I gave it a spin. Sure he was washed up, but if there was something there for the shrimpers I was game. Besides, this was work: I could listen to my precious Husker Du on my own time. From that first spin, I was sold. I’m No Angel was no At Fillmore East, but it was an honest record. The title track seemed so personal that I was shocked when the liner notes revealed that Allman didn’t write it; in fact, it is one of four tracks on the album that Allman didn’t have a hand in writing. Another one of those four was co-written by Michael Bolton, who was not yet a cheap punchline.
All that year I pushed I’m No Angel when the shrimpers came in with their scruffy beards and their wads of cash. I don’t remember any of them saying no. A lot of them had Allman stories for me–tales of hanging out with Gregg and Duane 150 short miles up the road in Macon, or the band playing in their high school gym or whatever. “He’s such a cool guy.” “We partied all night.” “Nicest guy you’ll ever meet.” All of these stories were fascinating, and some of them were probably even true.
That album was more than just Gregg Allman’s comeback: It was his reintroduction into mass culture society, only this time based on his own merits. Kids watching MTV heard (and saw) “I’m No Angel” with no baggage–no tabloid stories, no weird variety show associations. They liked it enough to make it a top 50 single. Who knows–maybe Music Video Gregg Allman was some lonely kid’s first best friend.
Allman is gone now, died May 27, 2017. Sonny Bono is gone, too, and so are Mr. Rogers and Captain Kangaroo. Death is slowly erasing my childhood, but I still have my records and with them a world of ghosts dancing around my room at 33 and a third.
Anyway, that’s today’s story of Gregg Allman as told by someone who knows nothing about the real Gregg Allman. Ask me tomorrow and I’d probably tell you a completely different story. It might even be true.
Categories: From the Stacks