Please Call Home: Alan Paul Remembers Gregg Allman
“Check this out, man!” Gregg Allman leaned back in his chair and pulled his shirt up to reveal the giant scarring across his midsection.
“Ooh, boy! If they told me how much it hurt, I would have just said, ‘No, thanks; I’ll die!’”
Gregg let out a long laugh, pulled his shirt back down and took a sip of his Dunkin’ Donuts coffee that his longtime righthand man Chank Middleton handed him. He was joking about preferring to die over suffering the pain of the liver transplant, but everything about his mood that day screamed, “Happy to be alive!”
This was October 2010, in a New York hotel room, during one of his first interviews after the transplant that saved his life a few months earlier. We were there to talk about his upcoming solo album Low Country Blues. A night or two prior, he had made his first post-surgery appearance, singing a few songs during a T Bone Burnett revue, which he would do again that night at the Beacon Theatre.
“I’m glad I got that one of out the way!” he said. “I was as nervous as a whore in church, man.”
I chuckled at the description— I had heard Gregg use similarly colorful phrases over the years during our many interviews. He once explained the way “Midnight Rider” came to him in a flash of inspiration by noting, “It hit me like a sack of hoe handles.” Playing electric guitar was “like having a dragon on a leash.” Ray Charles, Little Milton and Bobby Bland were the three guys “who really blew up my skirt.” This was Gregg at his best: funny, charming, insightful, down-home.
He was in prime form that day, as he often was in quiet moments away from the stage. Before a show, Gregg could be a sullen, foreboding presence— all but emitting a force field that said “stay away.” This was surely a mix of wanting to get his game face on, being a private man who wanted to be left alone after a lifetime in the spotlight and a reflection of the stage fright that remarkably never vanished. A different person would emerge when he was comfortable: relaxing on a dressing-room couch, shaking out his ponytail postshow, reclining on a tour-bus sectional, chilling in a hotel room or holding court with old friends, especially beloved blues musicians.
At such times, Gregg likely had one of his little dogs curled up in his lap, with another maybe nipping at his feet as he scratched her ears. His wife might be cuddled up by his side or dozing nearby. He would often have a bottle of water or a cup of coffee in his hand and sometimes be holding a joint, especially in the earlier years of our acquaintance. A TV would often be playing a classic movie or the hot TV show of the moment because Gregg was a film and TV buff who could talk enthusiastically about Steven Spielberg’s genius or his frustration that Mulder and Scully “didn’t do it already” on The X-Files.
At times like this, Gregg Allman, rock star, was nowhere to be seen and I met Gregory, the guy Jaimoe talked about all the time. He might express some indignation that no one quite understood how hard he worked to master his craft. “People think I was born with my voice, that I just opened my mouth and it came out, but I went to great lengths to develop it,” he told me once. “I devoted my whole life to it because I really wanted to learn how to sing.”
Other times he might surprise you by explaining what big influences Tim Buckley, Stephen Stills and Jackson Browne were on his songwriting. “Shakespeare said, ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’ and people consider that profound; well, people like Jackson Browne have said things just as profound, to me. He really touched a soft side of me and made me want to be a songwriter and find new ways to express things.”
That last quote was from 1996, during a middle-of-the-night interview in a Chicago hotel room. That night, he spoke at length about the impact that rooming with Browne and seeing people like Buckley and Stills had on his development as a songwriter.
When Gregg was being reflective and honest, our conversations often turned to songwriting, folk music, and our blues and soul heroes—to the differences between the “small amps” of his solo band and the “big amps” of the Allman Brothers Band. There was always an undercurrent of frustration that his gentler side was obscured and overlooked in favor of the Allman Brothers’ blues swagger and the band’s split personality, communally formed by six members and democratic until the end. “It can get really fucking frustrating,” he told me in that same Chicago interview. “But it’s something in me; it’s part of my metabolism and my nervous system. I can’t be me without you.”
Few of these conversations occurred in the first five years I covered the band extensively, 1990-1995. During this time, Gregg was often a ghostly presence, who appeared behind his B-3 and vanished when the curtain came down. His on and off struggles with drug and alcohol addictions led him to be virtually nonexistent in the band’s telling of their story: Dickey Betts, Warren Haynes and Butch Trucks did most of the talking in those days. Gregg went to rehab in January ‘95, the day after the band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and, while his sobriety may not have been a straight line, he was a completely different person before and after that day, with a ton of support in the first decade or so from his wife Stacey. His last 22 years, when the real Gregory reemerged more and more often and he reclaimed his rightful place as an American treasure, were a blessing.
I knew for months that Gregg was fatally ill and I thought that I had “pregrieved,” that I was prepared for his passing, but the news hit me like a right cross. Gregg had dodged so many bullets that he seemed invincible. The finality was too much to bear. It was like hearing that George Washington had fallen off Mount Rushmore.