Gregg Allman is on a plane. He doesn’t know why and he doesn’t know where he is going, and before he can ask, he is knocked unconscious by a needle injected into him by someone he doesn’t know. He wakes to find himself in a psych ward, committed by his wife, he surmises, so that she can carry on an affair while he serves the mandatory time for evaluation under Georgia law. Allman leaves the hospital before his examination is completed, essentially escaping under the pretense of a studio engagement, yet later runs into the examining doctor at a record label Christmas party. Allman’s punchline is feigning ever having met the man. Such is just one of many encounters that illustrate and illuminate in Gregg Allman’s autobiography, My Cross to Bear.
The timeline that traces the (mostly) chronological escapades of the voice of the Allman Brothers Band begins in Nashville, Tennessee, and migrates to Daytona Beach, Florida, where, as teens, Allman and older brother Duane assemble the first of several cover bands. Littered with one-nighters and bit players, the road that leads them to the formation of the Allman Brothers Band includes an inevitable trip to Los Angeles. Hollywood, however, is not the panacea they had been promised, and instead, a virtual disease for the duo, who soon give way to their Southern roots and reunite in Florida in March of 1969.
Had Allman’s life in music stopped here, his likely career choice would have been dentistry and the clichéd tale of being almost famous would never have been told. Instead, it’s magic in Jacksonville, and bittersweet success on the horizon. The Allman Brothers Band, within four short years, would endure the death of its leader (Duane) and its founding bassist (Berry Oakley) to emerge as the biggest band in America, with a number-one album and sold-out concerts, including Watkins Glen in front of an estimated 600,000, and the story is just beginning.
Failed marriages, drug abuse, alcoholism, arrests, band break-ups, reunions, and Cher. It’s all here, and told in a fashion more reminiscent of a campfire conversation than a formal dissertation. Tellingly, Allman provides epilogues for all of the supporting characters in his life, despite stepping out of the linear storyline to do so, and tragically often ending with a summary of that person’s demise. Perhaps this is a subtle reminder to the reader and himself that after nearly 50 years in the music industry, through its most indulgent and reckless decades, Allman survives.
It isn’t without requisite pain for such a hard and harrowing journey. The death of his brother at such a young age shadows him daily. His relationship with former bandmate Dickey Betts never seems fully resolved, despite both Allman’s apparent relief at never having to work together again and the occasional acceptance of Betts’ transgressions. Perhaps Allman, in full disclosure of his own failings, understands the imperfections of others just as much as he has come to understand his own. He doesn’t boast of his exploits, though some of his dalliances with the ladies come close. Instead, he details his life plainly and directly, and like his many tattoos, his recounts of rock and roll excess are acknowledged as indelible reminders of a time and place, and state of mind, and he’s not Gregg Allman without them.
The music legend presented in this 378-page tome is repeatedly one swayed by trusting his first impressions. From women to band members, his instinct has delivered mixed results (he never thought he’d actually make it in music). This same instinct implies a belief that his audience not only will appreciate, but deserves his truth, despite pulling back the curtain on a potentially embarrassing history. Often, a celebrity tell-all memoir provides ammunition for the critics, and fans a window into a world better left closed, gratuitously including tales bent on generating tabloid headlines. In Allman’s case, there is a dignity in his candor, revealing a man carrying a lot of emotional weight, and not always is he up to the task. It is in this honesty that My Cross to Bear admirably and authentically tells all.