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Exclusive: Preview Galadrielle Allman’s ‘Please Be With Me: A Song For My Father, Duane Allman’

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Duane Allman

Duane Allman holding baby Galadrielle, Macon, Georgia 1969 (Courtesy of Galadrielle Allman)

By Brian Ives

About a year ago, Radio.com spoke to Galadrielle Allman about Skydog, the box set celebrating the career of her father, the legendary founder of the Allman Brothers Band, Duane Allman. During the interview, she mentioned that she was on a deadline to finish a book about her father, saying, “I’ve learned more about him in the last four years than I ever knew before… I learned that he had a remarkable work ethic. He had a fire in his belly to keep getting better.  He loved to be challenged by the people around him. That’s inspiring even if you’re not a musician.”

That book — Please Be With Me: A Song For My Father, Duane Allman — is in stores today. It’s a moving story about her dad, who died at the young age of 24 ,and doubles as a history of the Allmans told from the perspective someone who was only two at the time of Duane Allman’s death.

Here’s an excerpt from the book’s introduction. Trust us, it’s heartbreaking before chapter one even begins:

Please Be With Me cover

My father is killed in the first paragraph of every article ever written about him. His life story is told backward, always beginning at the end: in the road, his motorcycle down, his body broken. People linger over the wreckage as if it says something meaningful about his life. Duane is most often described as a rock star, although he did not live long enough to know how famous he would become. His brief, brilliant life has become mythic, a cautionary tale and a cliché: Live fast, die young.

Duane Allman’s story is more than a tragedy; it is a true romance. He fell in love with his guitar and gave his heart away. At fifteen years old, he often stayed up all night, bent over on the couch, his fingers wandering the frets of his guitar in the dark. His mother would come home late from the restaurant where she worked and find him playing with reddened fingertips and a crick in his neck, deaf to the sound of the front door. She’d go to sleep and wake in the morning to find him in the exact posture he had been in the night before, still playing. When she asked him what he was doing, pushing himself so hard, he said, “Mama, I’m searching for my sound. I’d go hungry to play this guitar.”

The sound he found helped change the way the world perceived the South. White southern boys were most known for backward thinking and racist cruelty. My father’s guitar sang out idealistic, astounding music that tipped that notion over. The Allman Brothers Band made every southerner with a radio proud of himself. Their music described a world of tough towns and darkened woods, men laughing down the length of beer-soaked bars or sitting alone in their rooms, waiting by their telephones. You can hear them yearning in their songs, and growling out their defiance, refusing to be chained. The Allman Brothers took the blues, the root of all American music, and electrified it in a way no American band ever had with an integrated band in the segregated South. It was revolutionary.

Duane played guitar so beautifully the world came to him. Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, King Curtis, Boz Scaggs. Famous recording artists sought out this young man to record at FAME Studios and Muscle Shoals Sound in Muscle Shoals, Alabama; Atlantic Records in New York; and Criteria Studios in Miami. His remarkable talent brought him the opportunity to build a band of his own, and he formed a group of players that matched his skill and his commitment to playing, note for note. They raised the bar for one another, each honing his skill against the other, blade against stone. The powerful chemistry between the Brothers came together so fast it seemed magical and destined.

The Allman Brothers Band became known for their epic live performances, six men synched up and improvising in the jazz style. No two shows were the same. Success came to them very quickly. Inside of three years, a private jet replaced their tour bus, which had replaced the Winnebago and their first Econoline van. Dive bars and public parks where they played for free overflowed into beautiful old theaters, until stadiums were packed with thousands of fans. They built their following, playing hundreds of shows from the Fillmore in San Francisco to the Fillmore East in New York City. They called traveling from one coast to the other their commute, no joke. Drugs, decadence, and a growing darkness came along, tucked into their pockets. The Allman Brothers Band was the number-one band in America in 1972, and by then my father was already gone.

According to Rolling Stone magazine, Duane Allman is remembered as one of the greatest rock guitarists of all time, second only to Jimi Hendrix. Just a few short years into his remarkable career, after creating several of the best-loved rock-and-roll albums ever recorded, he was killed in a motorcycle accident at the intersection of Hillcrest Avenue and Bartlett Street in Macon, Georgia, on October 29, 1971. He was twenty-four years old and I was two. We never had the chance to know each other.

The band continued on without my father, and my mom took me to Allman Brothers concerts every year when I was a kid. We went with groups of women and children, all related in some way to the band. Our mothers made the annual pilgrimage to return us to our nomadic tribe, the band of men we had long since parted from, through death, divorce, or distance.
The Brothers played stadiums in the seventies, massive domes of concrete rising like dark castles on the outskirts of town. My mother carried me through the back doors, which were guarded like a fortress by burly guards in satin tour jackets, their arms crossed in front of their chests. She would stick her backstage pass to her blue-jeaned thigh and sail through the gauntlet with a mention of our names. In every city, backstage was the same—a rabbit warren of hallways leading to small gray rooms glowing with fluorescent light. Mom switched me from one hip to the other, then sat my squirming self on a metal folding chair. We waited for what seemed like hours for the band to arrive, picking at trays of cold cuts and digging our hands into iced buckets full of drinks. We kids gobbled handfuls of M&M’s and chased each other around the tight passageways until someone settled us down. Clusters of people dressed in wild finery waited in the hallways: young blondes in hot pants, grizzled guys in leather vests, and moguls in threepiece suits. You could feel how much everyone wanted into the rooms where we waited alone.

The band would finally arrive, gliding out of their limousines after being driven a few short blocks from their hotel. They were protected from their shouting fans by sawhorse barricades while their road manager steered them quickly through the back door with a hand on their backs. Sometimes the musicians greeted us with kisses and called out our names. Other times they gazed watery-eyed over our heads and disappeared quickly behind closed doors. We never knew which way it would be, warm or cold. I came to accept either possibility, and learned to look for Red Dog, the legendary roadie, who lit up like a firecracker whenever he saw me. He carried me with one wiry arm while he strutted from one side of the stage to the other, taking care of business with a joint dangling from his lip. He kissed my cheeks and called me princess.

He told me I looked just like my daddy, and got tears in his eyes. I loved his wild red curls and gruff, scratchy drawl. He may have been a badass, but he was also a prince.

Once the music started, we were told not to cross the lines of white gaff tape dividing the black floor of the stage from the wings, and never to walk behind the drums. The first note played changed the very air into a charged blast of electric love. A wave of joy came over the bodies pressed against the stage; you could feel it, like heat. I danced beside the dusty black curtains, twirling my skirt and galloping in place like a pony.

The amps were so loud that after a few songs my limbs grew heavy and all I wanted was sleep. The complex cry of guitars and rumbling drums spread a fever through my little body. I’d crawl behind a road case to hide, or reach up for any known adult and beg to be held. On rare occasions I was carried into the crowd, a flood of undulating bodies flashing smiles in the multicolored light, the sweet and sour stink of weed and sweat nearly suffocating me. The band loomed high above us, a new and surprising perspective.

There is no time in my memory before I knew their songs by heart: the clapping crescendo of “Revival,” the thumping bass intro to “Whipping Post,” “Jessica” swelling with delighted piano runs. I knew every note before knowing their names: the familiar rise and fall of chorus and verse, a bridge to my world of dreams.

After the final encore, while the crowd stomped and screamed for more, the remaining members of my father’s band walked into the wings—Gregg and Dickey, Jaimoe and Butch—and as they passed, I knew not to reach for them. I could see their fatigue and relief, the sweat soaking through their shirts. They climbed directly into their chauffeured cars and were gone before the stadium seats were half empty.

Sometimes we met them back at their hotels and visited. I watched TV in icy air-conditioned rooms while Mom talked to her old friends. We kids ate ice cream and french fries, delivered by room service, then raced in the hallways and pushed every button in the elevator. I would finally fall asleep tucked under a coat on top of a carefully made bed, only to wake up the next morning in my own room, a world away, remembering nothing of the long ride home, crushed with disappointment that they were gone. Or worse, the night would end immediately with the music, my mother leading whiny me away by my tightly held hand directly from the stage. She’d carry me through the endless, trash-strewn parking lot to our red Chevy Impala and drive us home.

Like every circus, they folded their tent and left town before daylight.

This grand excursion happened every year the band toured, and represented the most tangible connection I had to my father. Seeing the band play was never balanced by more traditional family time spent with the people who knew my father best. They lived on the road during those years. They were gypsy troubadours who were most at home onstage. I was raised in a world of women and children, and the main things we had in common with the band were our shared losses and our love of the music, which was always a force of good in all of our lives.

No one believed in the power of the music and the Brotherhood more than my father had. His spark set their fire. He was their driving wheel. Losing him irrevocably changed everyone who knew him, and literally changed the way the world felt to all of us. It seemed impossible that someone who lived so fiercely, and with such hunger for all that life could offer, could be taken so suddenly.

The void he left can never be filled. It is that simple.

I wanted to fill that space with knowledge of him, but I did not know how and the confusion that created was constant. The force of my longing for my father was a defining part of me from the beginning, and nothing could touch it.

My mother took very few things with us when we left Macon in 1971, after she and Duane separated. Duane gave me his stuffed toy Eeyore, the worried donkey from Winnie the Pooh, for safekeeping. Donna took back the elaborate valentine she had made him from their bedroom wall and tucked her small bundle of letters from him into her suitcase along with the tab of LSD and the Seconal he gave her as an odd and uncharacteristic parting gift into her purse. The beautiful Mexican silver bracelet he had given her was lost and they never wore wedding rings.

There was not a single photograph of the three of us together.

Precious little evidence of Duane made its way into our successive homes. Most of our pictures of him were the same publicity stills reprinted in the press. I didn’t have his clothing or trinkets to treasure and cling to. But his music was everywhere, and it became an increasingly important source of comfort and connection as I grew up. My mother would say, “Listen to him play. His music is the best of him.”

Duane’s story can only end one way. It ends with goodbye. But you can live forever inside a goodbye. I have, all my life so far. What better way to live in longing than with a song, repeated endlessly? How many daughters can lift the needle of a record player and trace backward to the first groove in an album and hear their fathers, young, strong, and alive? I count myself lucky for this, the luckiest of the unlucky. I have no memories of my father, but even as a young child I understood he was not lost completely. I could find him in my own pale face and red hair. He is in my walk, with shoulders held high; his good friend Johnny Sandlin told me that. My mother tells me I am his when I twist my mouth into his half grin or roll my eyes at her. His brother says I look just like him when I cry. I know his friends are seeing him in me when something passes through their faces that looks a little like fear. It’s troubling to feel like I have disappeared for a moment, eclipsed behind a memory of him, but I have grown to like it. When I see people startle, I feel linked to my father in an undeniable way.

My mother didn’t talk about my father easily. I wasn’t raised with stories of Duane’s adventures or tales of their love. My father’s world was a perilous one, especially for women and children, and she felt we were lucky to have left it when we did. His story was not child-safe. She says I was a sunny little girl who woke up happy every day. I was her lifeline in the wake of his death, and moment to moment, I helped her heal. If I sometimes bit other children or flew into tiny fits of rage, those things didn’t seem dire or unusual. She didn’t see my bad behavior as an expression of loss. Mom believed I was protected from mourning by my ignorance and my age. She sincerely hoped I would never really know all we had lost. How could I miss a father I had not known?

In turn, I saw her sorrow and it frightened me. Donna sometimes withdrew into a part of herself I couldn’t reach, and I watched her very closely, looking for a way in. Her fragility and vulnerability were barely masked by her fierce defensiveness and silence. Asking about my dad would only hurt her, and my longing to know him wasn’t worth causing her more pain. That was my belief.

We were both wrong, and it took decades for me to tell her so.

~

From the Book, Please Be With Me by Galadrielle Allman.

Copyright © 2014 by Galadrielle Allman.

Reprinted by arrangement with Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House. All rights reserved.

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