We may look back on this era someday and realize that this was the golden age of rock’n’roll autobiographies.
But you have to agree that we are on a roll.
First we had Eric Clapton’s wonderful, soul-searching Autobiography. You could imagine Slowhand sitting at his laptop, twisting the chin hairs of his neatly trimmed beard as he struggled over telling the story of his son’s tragic death, his heart-ripping love for his best friend’s wife, and his imprisoning addictions. Few autobiographies of any kind have been as searingly honest.
Then came Life by Keith Richards, a work of masterful storytelling. We could say it was remarkably lucid, but one of the things we find out in Life is that a good part of the Keith-Richards-is-burned-out act is just that – an act. Offstage, he is a master of lucidity. He is an extremely intelligent and literate man who plays bad-ass guitar and has substance-abuse issues.
And now we have the Gregg Allman autobiography, My Cross to Bear (William Morrow, $27.99). Allman has been such a strong presence in the fabric of American music for more than 40 years – so much so — that we’ve probably taken him for granted.
All I can tell you is that after a drought of non-Allman music, when he pops up on my office iTunes or on the radio, I never fail to turn up the volume. He may be the most under-rated singer in the history of rock.
All of these books – Clapton’s, Richards’ and Allman’s – were done with collaborators. With the Clapton and Richards volumes, the ghost writers had some sort of literary purpose. They wanted to elevate their subject’s stories, and in those cases they worked spectacularly well. Allman’s collaborator, a much-honored music journalist named Alan Light, has tried to present his book as an intimate monologue. Imagine you’re sitting in a room with Allman, you’ve got your glass of ginger ale (he’s booze-free now, of course), and perhaps a surgical mask in an effort to combat second-hand smoke. Gregg’s got some stories to tell.
It’s written in the honest, direct style of a conversation with a good old boy. Allman holds back nothing.
We learn mostly about his brother Duane and how that guitar genius and his early death haunted Gregg his whole life. Gregg Allman’s greatest regret appears to be that in this last conversation with his older brother, he lied – for the first and only time in his life, he lied to his beloved big brother. A few hours later, Duane Allman died in a motorcycle accident.
We also learn that Allman’s father was murdered, that the overwhelmed mother sent her two sons to military school until she was able to properly care for them, and what struggles Allman had over his career with Dickey Betts, the guitarist in The Allman Brothers Band and composer-singer of its biggest hit, “Ramblin’ Man.”
Along the way, you learn that he prefers to be called Gregory, not Gregg. I once found myself at a urinal next to him at the Welcome-to-Georgia rest stop on I-75. I would have turned to thank him for all of the great music over the years, but it didn’t seem like the right time.
And you learn all about his marriage to Cher — as well as all of the other failed relationships in his life. Though he admits failures as a husband, he seems like he’s worked hard to be a good father.
For music fans, this book is essential. Though there’s no mystery to it, it’s one of those books that you can’t put down. Like any good conversation, you don’t really want it to end.
THE SIDE MAN: Bobby Keys never achieved the kind of musical fame of the Allman Brothers Band, but the chances are he’s played on some of your favorite recordings.
Like The Rolling Stones? That’s Bobby Keys blowing sax on “Brown Sugar.”
Remember those great George Harrison solo albums? Bobby Keys on sax.
Carly Simon, Eric Clapton, Delaney & Bonnie, B.B. King, Nilsson, Joe Cocker, John Lennon, Warren Zevon . . . hell, even Barbra Streisand.
Keys played on them all.
In some ways, Bobby Keys has been sort of a rock’n’roll Forrest Gump, only much smarter.
He connects local-boy-made-good Buddy Holly to the modern era. Like Holly, Keys came from West Texas in the late 1950s, an incredibly fertile musical proving ground, and hit the road early with Buddy Knox (“Party Doll.”). He connected with Buddy Holly’s orphaned backing band, The Crickets, and brought them together with the young Englishmen who were such fans of the doomed young singer – Joe Cocker and Eric Clapton among them.
Someone like Keys, standing on the side, waiting to play his solo, can sometimes see things more clearly than the headliner. It’s great to have stories told by Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Gregg Allman, but I look forward to books from the genius sidemen like Keys just as much. (Hal Blaine, who drummed on almost every record made in LA, published a memoir some years back on his days with the session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew.)
An interesting bit of trivia we learn from Keys: The Rolls Royce pictured on the cover of Delaney & Bonnie’s On Tour with Eric Clapton belongs to manager Albert Grossman. And the feet hanging out the window belong to Grossman’s most famous client, Bob Dylan.
Keys tells these tales and much more in Every Night’s a Saturday Night (Counterpoint, $25). Like all good, honest rock autobiographies, there are struggles with substance abuse and relationships and, eventually, a triumph through faith.
But there’s nothing clichéd about Keys’ story. Like Allman’s book, it’s like sitting down for an evening of good storytelling. For fans of Life, it again lifts the curtain on life inside the Rolling Stones. After all, Keys has been part of that stage band for nearly 45 of its 50 years and Keith Richards has often called Bobby Keys his “best mate.”