The town in Delaware I come from is just north of the Mason-Dixon line, but the bulk of the state is below it. And I associate the white-boys blues of this Southern clan with what is not so affectionately known, by us Nawthunuhs, as "slower Delaware," which is where my dad's folks were from. In other words, much as I might like to deny it, I have to admit there's some of this music in my blood. I don't mean I'd like to deny the Allmans per se, I just mean that when I do find myself caught up in their music, I'm aware that it's due to what Hunter S. Thompson would call "an atavistic fondness" for the blues as they emerged from the racial crucible of the Deep South. So one day in Cutler's in New Haven I saw a used copy of The Allman Brothers Band Greatest Hits and picked it up, the only CD I have by them.
What resonates with me from those days when Duane Allman, one of the best, walked the earth is not only the stirrings of '70s Classic Rock, which is what this music lives on as, but something more rooted, some kind of fabled domain that might only be, yet again, the glimpse of the child I was when I could float away on "Melissa" or "Blue Sky" as pure distillations of the summer in suburbs that could still fitfully recall their past lives as farmland. I mention those two songs, from 1972's Eat a Peach, as probably the earliest Allman tracks that I can recall hearing, along with the zippy instrumental "Jessica" from Brothers and Sisters (1973)-- all songs of the mellow Allmans as fronted by Dickie Betts.
Granted, everyone knew "One Way Out" because it was a gem of the doin' what you shouldn't, hearty partying era and the radio loved it. Same with "Ain't Wastin' Time No More" and "Midnight Rider," but I can't say that either had made complete inroads into my psyche -- radio play just being too haphazard. It wasn't till I started hanging out with my older brother Tom in those end of high school days in the late '70s that the kind of immersion occurred that leaves me forever chilled by Betts' frenetic slide on "Ain't Wastin'" and convinced by the desperado pose of Gregg's vocals on "Rider."
It was also then that the darker, meaner Duane-driven Allmans crept into my cranium as evidenced on the two stand-out tracks from the band's eponymous debut album in 1969: "Dreams" and "Whipping Post." On these two tracks Duane's playing is revelatory, as in, revealing untold riches in the instrument. The songs were written by Gregg who bellows the words with his trademark wounded hoarse cry of longtime suffering that made all us suburban white boys believers, for a spell, in Suthrun blues and its mystique -- "Lord help me, baby, or this will surely be the end of me" ("Dreams"). "Post" partakes of that world of the blues in which love is the cruellest obsession imaginable -- misogynist, yes, but . . . though the woman is heartless ("now she's with one of my goodtime buddies, and they're drinkin' in some crosstown bar"), the singer knows it's his own weakness that's to blame. Which "weakness" becomes -- in the apotheosis that Duane's guitar creates in the final climax -- almost Christ-like in the sense that being "tied to the whipping post" is being nailed to the cross of what Joyce calls one's own "cruelfiction," crucified, as it were, by a desire, a passion that just won't stop.
Then there's "In Memory of Elizabeth Reed" which is so stately and elegant, with a cool that becomes hot in the solo, that at times it could almost be Santana, which is to say that guitar gods were the main game c. 1970. To be young then was, for my money, to have a sense of music as the province of virtuoso musicianship -- as it was for my mother when she hearkens back to the days when Benny Goodman was alive and playing. Here's to Duane's fabled fingers, to Dickie's dexterous digits!
I drown myself in sorrow
When I look at what you've done
But nothing seems to change
The bad times stay the same
And I can't go on
--Gregg Allman, "Whipping Post" (1969)