Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Most Important Story I ever wrote

I didn’t even know I had a digital copy of this story until I stumbled upon it on my hard drive this afternoon while searching for something else. Then I remembered that it was re-run a few years ago in Hittin’ The Note, an Allman Brothers fanzine and they input it and then gave this to me.

Just looking at it, before I even read it, sent me into a wayback machine... way back to 1989 or 90… to times I haven’t thought about in a long, long time but it all came back instantly and I wrote this stream of consciousness style, right off the top of my head.

I lived in New Port richey Florida for a little over a year. I went down there because Becky got a job at the tampa Tribune. It seemed like a cool thing to do. Living was cheap, Becky was making a seemingly killer salary of about $22k, I looked at a map and the place seemed to be right on the Gulf. My best other option was a part-time job at a newspaper in Putnam County, I could write a lot, finally really learn to play guitar, it seemed like a romantic thing to do.

So I went down there and found it be the most depressing place ever. There was a weird mix of blue collar retirees and hardcore rednecks. Death metal thrived and there were always weird and disturbing crimes, like 85-year-old ladies being raped and murdered. Black people lived on the other side of tracks in all the little towns – literally.

I was conflicted about my relationship with Becky --totally adored her but didn't feel ready for full commitment. I struggled to find work. Tehre was no beach within 45 minutes --just mangrove swamps and housing developments. When we found th e one little county park on the water, we sat on a retaining wall to talk and I put my foot directly into a red anthill. My right foot was covered with the biting bastards and when I ran into the water screaming, they didn’t come off. I had to rub and rub to release their venomous grip and the whole thing felt like a metaphor for my life there. I felt like I had sat down in a fire anthill. (My ankle still gets irritated there almost 20 years later, by ther way.)

Nothing went quite as planned, or anticipated. On the other hand… we partied hard, we grew really close in ways that formed the foundation for our now-lengthy relationship and while I never did learn how to play guitar there, I actually did spend a lot of time on my writing. Because I had so much free time, when I got an assignment, I sunk my teeth into it like a pitbull and became completely engrossed in the subject matter. If I did a record review, I listened to the record 25 times or more, until it was inside me and I really had an opinion.

I was working for the St. Pete Times as a correspondent doing entertainment stuff and also local reporting -- covering high school baseball games, writing about an attack dog school or old people's regular bridge games (where I met a Pittsburgh retiree who knew my grandfather) and other stuff. Most of it wasn’t too exciting, but the Times was a good paper with good editors and I sharpened my basic reporting skills which have always served me well.

At the time, i was writing for Pulse (Tower) and Request (Sam goody) magazines. Record stores were thriving then and the stores had the resources and interest in putting out pretty real mags with real editors and writers. I mostly did smaller things for them and was somewhat ghettoized as the blues/roots rock guy. Every day I would come home from aimless trips to the mall or the grocery store or even the laundromat where I went to play Ms. Pac Man and ran for the answering machine, anticipating a call from Rolling Stone that never came.

One day, though, there was a message that was almost as sweet. The editor of Pulse called and they were assigning me a big feature on the then-just-reunited Allman Brothers Band, who were putting out their first comeback album, Seven Turns. It was huge for me because I had been dying to get a more major story from them. And the ABB loomed large in my consciousness, though I hadn’t really listened to them in a long time.

The Allmans had been my favorite band for a period when I was younger (I chose Duane Allman as the subject for my great american essay in sixth grade) but my interest had faded. They didn’t seem all that cool, I guess. But I was so pumped for this story. I went out and bought, at my own dime, the four-LP box set Dreams that had just come out a few months prior. I spent a week or two listening to those classic sides over and over, reading the liner note booklet, immersing myself in their music, their myths, their aura and I became totally smitten. Then I got the advance cassette for the new album – via Fed Ex, from New York! – and listened to it constantly... in my Chevy Celebrity, in my big clunky Walkman, in my home stereo.

Then the Seven Turns tour brought the Allmans to Tampa and I went to see them, at the state fairgrounds. The parking lot was filled with Harleys and I was filled with joy. After the shows, I went onto the bus and spoke with Gregg. It was probably my first backstage experience.

I na lot of ways, this story probably led me to get my job at Guitar World, so it was important in that way. And it reignited a passion for a band that has basically been my favorite ever since, so it was important in that way. And it was the first time I interviewed and/or met Gregg Allman, Dickey Betts, Warren Haynes and Kirk West, all of whom became key figures in my career, so it was important in that way.

But mostly it was important because it was the first time I felt that I had really tapped into myself and found a way to write journalism in which my essence and feelings and being came through without it being about me. I have never liked self-centered writing. It bores me and I struggle with that in my column, which is inherently self centered. I try to keep the lens focused outward rather than reflecting inward all the time. I also have never had much use for writing that was cold and clinical.

When I finished this story, I felt like I had accomplished something. I had merged my reporting with the kind of writing I did in the journals I religiously kept in those days. I reported zealously, talking to everyone I could -- I even tracked down and spoke to Phil Walden and Tom Dowd, two now-deceased music legends and I’ve reused those Walden quotes over the years. But I managed to not make it clinical, or so I thought.

I don’t know what I got paid for it – maybe $500, maybe more. I only made $8,200 that year, I remember that. But this story gave me a surge of confidence and even joy that carried me a long way. I just re-read the story (I wrote most of this first) and while I cringed at a few parts, it mostly holds up well. But even if it didn’t , it still would be the most important story I ever wrote.



An American Legend, Reborn
By Alan Paul

It’s easy to cast a skeptical eye toward ’60’s and ’70’s “super-group” reunions⎯the calculated, corporate-sponsored comebacks by some of our favorite British bands. And the Allman Brothers? To be kind, they’ve regrouped before with less than stellar results.
But Seven Turns, the Allmans’ Epic debut, immediately establishes itself as something altogether different⎯it blasts off with the sharp-toned slide guitar hook of “Good Clean Fun” and never looks back.
The band has succeeded in capturing the spark which made it America’s best, most memorable rock band almost two decades ago. The dual, harmonic lead guitars, the twin drums’ relentless propulsion, the country/blues/jazz hybrid rock ’n’ roll⎯all these wonderfully eccentric traits are abundantly present throughout Seven Turns. It’s the group’s best record since 1973’s Brothers and Sisters, and arguably its gutsiest outing since founder/slide guitarist Duane Allman died in 1971. The reasons for the rebound are many, but guitarist Dickey Betts offers a simple one: fellow axe-slinger Warren Haynes.
“We just haven’t had another slide guitarist in the band since Duane,” Betts says with a smoky drawl. “So when I played slide, Dickey Betts’ guitar was absent. This is the first time that my guitar appears with a slide guitar, and I think that’s what’s so reminiscent about the old band.”
The album is also a benchmark in diversity for the Allman Brothers. “Good Clean Fun,” “It Ain’t Over Yet” and “Shine It On” are Southern blues rockers fueled by singer/organist Gregg Allman’s primal growl and the guitar majesty of Betts and Haynes. “Let It Ride” and the title track are melodic, country-tinged tunes⎯antidotes to the heavier blues numbers⎯while the jazzy instrumental “True Gravity” explores the group’s improvisational heart.
The thorough assimilation of Haynes, pianist Johnny Neel and bassist Allen Woody by the original band members (Betts and Allman along with drummers Jaimoe and Butch Trucks) is central to the success of Seven Turns. The newcomers do much more than fill holes⎯Haynes and Neel each wrote several songs, contribute lead and harmony vocals, and have a tangible presence throughout the album.
“They’re not sidemen, that’s for sure,” Allman says. “And we’d never be able to live with them if they were. They are Allman Brothers⎯much more so than some people in earlier incarnations. And that’s a big difference.”
Haynes has a particularly difficult role. It’s impossible to play slide guitar in this band without being compared to Duane.
“He handles that beautifully,” Allman says. “He knows what he’s got and he plays it. He doesn’t feel like he has to recreate Duane Allman every night, and for that I take my hat off to him.”
Haynes, who played in Betts’ band for three years, says that that experience prepared him for the rigors of becoming an Allman Brother. “Had I not worked with Dickey, I would have had more trouble adapting,” he says. “Duane was a great player and he died young, and those two things lead people to immortalize him, so I know some people in the audience would like me to play like Duane Allman. But, for my sake, I just can’t do that⎯and the guys understand that. They’re great about making it a band, and that means everyone plays like a unit and everyone holds up their end.”
Another key to the success of Seven Turns is producer Tom Dowd, who was behind the boards for At Fillmore East and Eat a Peach ⎯records that established the Allmans as rock legends. Over the years, Dowd’s role has grown to be much more than that of mere producer.
“He’s like my father,” Allman says. “Teacher, father, guru⎯you pick your word. He was real supportive of us in this comeback, and he always stood behind me through the drug thing and everything else. Seven Turns would not have been the album it is if it had been done with anyone else. He is the eighth member of the band, for sure⎯and I’m talking charter member.”
Betts agrees that Dowd has become a de facto Allman Brother, and vows that the group will never record without him again.
“Recording this thing with Tom was such a pleasant experience,” Betts says. “He carries so much knowledge around with him and just offers very strong guidance for the band. I don’t know how we ever made music without him.”
Dowd⎯who recorded ground-breaking jazz and r&b performances by Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett, and Aretha Franklin before becoming involved with rockers like Eric Clapton and the Rascals⎯was drawn to the Allmans’ use of jazz elements, a crucial but often overlooked component of the band’s success.
“The Allmans have this unique facility,” Dowd says. “When they play things that are tangential to the blues, they swing like they’re playing jazz. They have this perpetual swing sensation. Even when they’re playing heavy rock, they’re swinging. They’re never vertical but always going forward, and it’s always a groove.
“They’re so identified and legendary as a rock ’n’ roll band. But when you take their music apart, you realize how exquisite and deep their playing facility and sensitivity really is.”
So how was a band that could crunch chords like Led Zeppelin, play the blues like Elmore James and coolly swing like miles Davis born?
The Allman Brothers Band formed in 1969 when Duane⎯who, as a studio guitarist in Muscle Shoals, Ala., recorded with Pickett, Franklin, and other r&b greats⎯returned to Jacksonville, Fla. Looking to put together a trio, Duane was already committed to Jaimoe as his drummer, and had his eyes set on bassist Berry Oakley. According to Betts, who played in a band with Oakley, the formation of the unique Allman Brothers Band lineup was largely improvisatory⎯much like the music in which they came to excel.
“As far as puttin’ the two drums and the two guitar players together and all of that,” Betts says, “that was just a jam. Duane and Jaimoe kept coming and sitting in with mine and Berry’s band to get used to playing together, and as we started jamming, something clicked, and eventually Duane asked if I’d go with them. Then when Butch appeared and jammed with us, it was something special so Duane asked him to play drums, and all of a sudden the trio had five pieces.
“So putting the whole band together was more or less of an improv thing⎯it just came about. We all were smart enough to say ‘This guy’s special’ about one another.”
The five went to Macon, Ga., and began rehearsing and cutting demos. It was then that the need for Gregg Allman became clear, according to Phil Walden, at the time Duane’s manager and president of the fledgling Capricorn label. “They had this great instrumental presence but no real vocalist,” Walden says. “Berry was going to do a little singing and so was Dickey and Duane. That was a lot of a little singing and no singer. So Duane called Gregg and asked him to come down.”
Gregg was still in Los Angeles, having remained there after the breakup of Hourglass, his and Duane’s first recorded band. With typically sage wisdom, music-industry types had tried to shoehorn Hourglass into a trendy, psychedelic package, and the experience was painful for both Allmans. In fact, it had sent Duane packing for home but Gregg remained in L.A., where his hard time continued. His disillusionment with the music business and struggle to find his own voice led him to write the songs which became Allman Brothers’ trademarks.
“Aside from a true vocal presence,” Walden says, “Gregg brought these really important foundation songs that the band was really built around.”
The lyrics to “Whipping Post,” “It Ain’t My Cross to Bear” and “Dreams” reveal a world-weariness, inner turmoil, and determination expressed with remarkable depth by the then-21-year-old Gregg.
“Those songs came out of the long struggle of trying so hard and getting fucked by different land sharks in the business,” Allman says. “Just the competition I experienced out in L.A. and being really frustrated but hanging on⎯not saying ‘Fuck it’ and going on to construction work or something like that.”
The band’s 1969 self-titled debut, featuring five Gregg Allman originals and cover of Muddy Waters and Spencer Davis songs, heralded the arrival of a new voice on the American music scene. But few were listening⎯Walden says that the album initially sold less than 35,000 copies. Still, the band retained its optimism.
“We were just so naïve,” Betts says. “All we knew is that we had the best band that any of us had ever played in and were making the best music that we had ever made. That’s what we went with. Everyone in the industry was saying that we’d never make it, we’d never do anything, that Phil Walden should move us to New York or L.A. and acclimate us to the industry, that we had to get the idea of how a rock ’n’ roll band was supposed to present themselves.
“Of course, none of us would do that, and thankfully, Walden was smart enough to see that that would just ruin what we had.”
But Walden admits now that he thought of cashing his chips and cutting his losses several times. “It seemed like I had just been wrong,” he says, “that they were never going to catch on. People just didn’t grasp what that Allmans were all about⎯musically or any other way. But they kept touring, state by state, city by city, going across the country, establishing themselves as the best live band around and building a base.”
Dowd first heard the Allmans while visiting Walden in Macon, Ga., in 1970. As he passed the Capricorn studio, the sound of the band rehearsing drifted out into the street.
“I got to Phil’s office and asked him who in the hell was rehearsing in the studio,” Dowd recalls. “He said, ‘That’s the Allman Brothers,’ and I said, ‘Get them the hell out of there and give them to me in the studio. They don’t need to rehearse⎯they’re ready to record.’ ”
The result of Dowd’s initial trip to the studio with the Allman Brothers⎯Idlewild South⎯further established the band as an innovative, hard-hitting outfit. During a break in the Idlewild recording sessions, Dowd had another band in his Miami studio⎯Clapton’s Derek and the Dominoes, who were recording Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs.
Duane’s presence on the title song, and throughout the album, was masterful, his impact reaching well beyond that of an average studio musician. Duane’s importance to the Dominoes is revealed by The Layla Sessions, a 20th anniversary box set to be released this month on Polydor. Throughout the collection of outtakes and jams, Clapton and Allman trade licks, with Duane’s slide often underpinning Clapton’s leads. One never-released track, simply titled “Jam IV,” features the Allmans band⎯minus Jaimoe⎯playing with Clapton and fellow Domino Bobby Whitlock.
The Dominoes’ record hit big, but Idlewild South was only marginally more successful than the Allman’s debut. It wasn’t until the next year, 1971, with the release of At Fillmore East, that the Allman Brothers Band became a verifiable sensation and a huge commercial success.
“Fusion is a term that’s been used in the last 10 years,” Dowd says. “But if you wanted to look at a fusion album, it would be Fillmore East. Here was a rock ’n’ roll band playing blues in the jazz vernacular. And they tore the place up.”
Indeed. With three songs clocking in at over ten minutes, including the 22-minute “Whipping Post,” which ended the album, the recording captured the Allmans in all their bluesy, sonic fury. But according to Walden, the recording was almost never released in its extended, double-album form.
“Atlantic/Atco (Capricorn’s then-distributor) rejected the idea of releasing a double-live album,” he recounts. “(Atlantic executive) Jerry Wexler thought it was ridiculous to preserve all these jams. But we explained to them that the Allman Brothers were the people’s band, that playing was what they were all about, not recording. That a phonograph record was confining to a group like this.”
Walden won out and was proven right when the record⎯“People priced” at three dollars below standard list price for a double album⎯became a top seller, and the Allman Brothers became the most heralded band in the nation. “Any comparison to anybody is fatuous,” read Rolling Stone’s review of the album, which went on to call the Allmans “the best damn rock ’n’ roll band this country has produced in the past five years.”
The high times came to a sudden end when Duane Allman was killed in a motorcycle accident while recording Eat a Peach, the band’s Fillmore follow-up. He was 24. But the Allmans didn’t collapse immediately after Duane’s death, returning to the studio to finish the session and cutting several standouts, including Gregg’s “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More.” The song’s sentiments were obviously inspired by Duane’s death.
Betts recalls that the decision to continue as a band was not an easy one. “We thought about breaking up and all forming our own bands,” he says. “But the thought of just ending it and then being alone was just too depressing.”
The following year the group added pianist Chuck Leavell and recorded Brothers and Sisters. But tragedy struck once again when bassist Berry Oakley died in yet another motorcycle accident. The band still didn’t fold, bringing in bassist Lamar Williams and finishing the album. Released in1973, Brothers included “Ramblin’ Man,” which became their biggest hit, as well as “Southbound” and the instrumental “Jessica,” both immediate classics.
Yet it was clear that the group was standing on its last, wobbly legs.
“After Duane died,” Betts says, “it was still very dynamic at first, but it just slowly slipped away and then we lost Berry and it was very hard to continue. I’m not weighing Duane’s loss against Berry’s loss⎯but losing two members was just so tough. In fact, it probably wouldn’t have even lasted as long as it did if it weren’t for Chuck Leavell. He was just such a strong player.”
Betts and Allman both released solo LPs shortly after Brothers and Sisters, and the group’s next outing, Win, Lose or Draw, was shaky at best. The hellhounds that had always nipped at Allman’s heels seem to have caught up with him; his solo remake of “Midnight Rider,” originally cut by the band on Idlewild South, was stripped-down and haunted, ringing with an eerie emptiness. By the time the group’s Wipe the Windows, Check the Oil, Dollar Gas was released in 1976, the Allmans had already disbanded. Listening to the very flat live recording, it’s clear the breakup was inevitable.
The band reunited in 1979 for Enlightened Rogues, but some indefinable spark was missing. “We tried very hard to reach the classic sound,” says producer Dowd. “We worked our fingers to the bone, but it was laborious.”
The band stayed together for two more albums on Arista Records⎯1980’s Reach for the Sky and 1981’s Brothers of the Road⎯but neither was much of a critical or commercial success, and another, seemingly final split occurred in 1981.
“During the ’80s when we got back together with Arista, they tried to throw us into doing something that we weren’t,” Allman says. “The whole music scene of the ’80s just wasn’t conducive to our music at all. We cut two albums and …God, it was very frustrating.”
Betts, too, says the ’80s weren’t the best of times for the gritty Southern rock band. But he adds that some of the Allmans’ lineup may not have been up to snuff.
“I don’t think some of the band groupings could measure up to the original band,” Betts says. “Even when we had some great players in the band, there was a pull, a tension⎯the unity was lacking. But the thing that made it more obvious was when the music trend started turning away from blues-oriented rock and more towards the synthesizer-based stuff and the more simple arrangements like dance music. That forced the record company to dictate to us what type of record to make or it wouldn’t get played on the radio, and we got caught up in that whole thing. That’s why we broke up in ’81. We decided we better just back out or we were going to ruin what was left of the band’s image.”
While the Allmans split up, with Betts and Allman each leading their own bands, some of their contemporaries managed to hang tough throughout the 80’s. Betts expresses admiration for such performers.
“Eric Clapton has a way of being a chameleon,” he says, “of finding songs that keep him in the forefront and surviving through times when the kind of music he loves to play isn’t exactly popular. The Allman Brothers Band was never able to do that. We either sound like our band or we don’t. We’ve painted ourselves into a corner of the market.”
But that corner began to seem less restrictive as roots rockers and bluesers like Stevie Ray Vaughan, Los Lobos, and Robert Cray found success. FM radio also returned to its roots in a quest for baby boom listeners.
“Classic rock stations really brought the Allman Brothers back,” Betts says, “and Stevie Ray Vaughan opened the whole thing up. He just would not be denied and kept going in there and making those traditional urban blues records. He just shoved blues down people’s throats and they got to likin’ it. He’s probably the front-runner in letting people see what they are missing. So I take my hat off to Stevie Ray for keeping at it.”
While these changes were taking place, the band was asked to play the Charlie Daniels Volunteer Jam, an annual charity event, in the spring of ’89.
“At the time, a lot of bands were getting back together,” Allman says. “The Who were touring, and Little Feat…so CBS came to us with the idea of getting back together. They wanted us to do it because everyone else was, but we said we would just go slow, get back together and see if we really wanted to do it.”
The answers were all yes, but the revamped band insisted that it had to complete a tour together before recording. As an extensive 20th anniversary tour was mounted last summer, Dreams, a four CD retrospective of the band’s career, was released on Polydor. The collection firmly established the Allman Brothers as a great American band, while the tour proved that the band’s fire still burned brightly.
Finally, Betts says, it looked like the band would once again be given free rein. And restricting the Allman Brothers, he adds, is tantamount to sentencing them to mediocrity. “This band doesn’t have anything special when we’re not able to do the instrumental jams and improvisation⎯which were kind of being taken away from us for a while. We were even asked not to mention Southern rock in an interview. It got that bad. ‘Don’t wear any hats on stage,’ they said. It just got so bad.
“I don’t mean to sound negative about the music business,” Betts continues, “because everyone knows that’s the way it is⎯especially the rock ’n’ roll end of it. It’s very, very trendy and you just have to accept that.”
But, in concert, the Allman Brothers seem oblivious to today’s trends toward high-tech gadgetry, elaborate staging and slick choreography. Mostly standing still, tattoos showing, hair flowing un-teased to mid-back length, the band kicks out the jams in three- to four-hour concerts. Here, the Seven Turns material proves itself by standing it ground amid the classic Allmans repertoire.
Whatever comes next for the band⎯Allman suggests a live album⎯for now they are making some serious statements. They’re proving that it’s possible to rebound strongly from adversity and, best of all, they’re proving that even now⎯in our post-Warhol, post-MTV, post-Reagan world⎯sometimes substance can indeed triumph over style.