Saint Andrews, Saint Allmans

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Sometimes you can have things to say, but you can find no words for them…or there’s a feeling inside you that there are no words to explain. You can say “heartbreak” or “jubilation,” but you can also set it up in music to make people actually feel it without ever saying anything about it. That’s the grace of music; that’s the blessing. You know, there’s a lot of different forms of communication, but that’s one of the absolute purest ones, man…. There’s nothing at all could ever be bad about music, about playing it. It’s a wonderful thing, man. It’s a grace. ~ Duane Allman, “Interview by Ed Shane on WPLO-FM Atlanta” (1970)

On a warm, clear day in June 2006, my wife and I sat down on a soft swath of grass to eat sandwiches we’d picked up at a local shop in town. We were in Scotland for an academic conference about the nature of sound. Our lightweight travel stroller was folded next to us on the grass. Above us towered the remains of Saint Andrews Cathedral, the eastern section. Its blank sanctuary windows opened to the blue sky. Through the vertebrae of the nave one could view the round sea, gray-blue with white strips of rollers. Still mostly intact and nearer the coastal edge loomed the square heft of Saint Rule’s Tower. Saint Rule (or Regulus), legend has it, brought relics of Saint Andrews from their original locus in Patras, Greece to this remote point on a coastal bluff in present-day Fife and built this tower to house them. The cathedral, great medieval masterwork, would undergo creation in 1158.


What, then, became of it? On March 1, 1546, Cardinal David Beaton, Archbishop of Saint Andrews, sentenced Protestant reformer George Wishart to death as an obstinate heretic. As the condemned man burned at the stake on the cathedral grounds, Cardinal Beaton, it was said, overlooked the scene from the tower’s stately windows, raising a chalice of blood-red wine in grim approval as flame-shadows echoed through the stained glass. Within three months, a band of Protestants would return to murder Cardinal Beaton in revenge. Beaton would have troublesome reformers thrown down the dark shaft of a deep sea-well at the back wall of the cathedral, where they would fall to their immediate death or else painfully starve to death in the dark. Per legend, the angry band tossed the cardinal’s body down the self-same sea-well. The cathedral would undergo uncreation in 1559. During the back-and-forth violence of the Reformation, a Protestant mob incited by John Knox made way for Saint Andrews Cathedral and started tearing it apart. They took the stones to town to use to build poorhouses.


Attributed to Abbot Suger in 1140, verses carved onto the gilded doors of the Basilica of Saint-Denis honor the power of art to raise the mind to better things:

The dull mind rises to the truth through material things,
And is resurrected from its former submersion when the light is seen.

Point made. Abbot Suger likened the transformative power of stained glass to that of the Holy Spirit—how it transfigures plain air into kaleidoscopic array, like the immense pied beauty unspooled daily through the earth’s sublime transformations. And yet, counterpoint made. When I think again of the image of our June day under that grand ruined form, I believe, like Wordworth’s Tintern Abbey, Saint Andrews is probably more lovely, more piquant, more transformative in its bare ruined state. It struck me as a perfect balance, spiritually: retaining some core structure, some basic practice and grounding ritual, but being mostly unwalled, mostly open to interpretation and freedom and play. Tear down the temple and build it back someday maybe, some poet said.


As part of his work as elder for our local Presbyterian church, located in the hill country of South Carolina in the shadow of the Blue Ridge, my father helped raise funds for a new giant stained glass window installment for the sanctuary. The artist took a postimpressionist approach to the scene. This abstract concept fit well with longstanding Presbyterian mistrust of Catholic iconography. But it also left some doubt over what precisely was depicted in the window. Many was the time, unable to sleep, I studied its odd images as a sermon droned on in the background. I only managed to parse out a big purple cross and a white descending dove that seemed to be belching out flames. There was something that looked like a Christmas tree in the upper left corner, encircled by black wolves, possibly. And then maybe a large golden dragon, with a red handlebar mustache, circling the sky in the center panel, talons rampant.

When the installment was first revealed for the minister and elders, my father, who had completed tours in both the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Army and consequently cussed like a sailor and a soldier, chimed right out loud: Goddam! Hell of a thing.

The minister: Noel, please, we’re in the sanctuary. A sacred place.

Dad: Not with that thing hanging here.


In the play of sunlight and shadow beneath the standing ruins of Saint Andrews, our two-year-old son, giddy to be out and about from the stroller, busied himself tearing ass, to and fro, to and fro. He was dressed in a little Scots plaid tam we’d got him in town, his yellow knit topknot waving like a flag caught in crosswinds, as he wove in and out of the weather-stained gravestones. He laughed bravely and struck his arms out spread-eagle, proclaiming: Playground! And we smiled and thought he’ll do all right if he can make a graveyard a playground, with such good will. Much in this world is a question of will; much isn’t. But that day we possessed together the abundant undulations of the sea, of the light on the sea, of the birds wavering above the sea: You’re my blue sky, you’re my sunny day


In 1949, a young soldier, called Bill mostly, was stationed at Fort Story in Virginia Beach, where he’d just earned promotion to captain. He was thirty years old, with a wife and two young sons. He’d served as a gunnery sergeant and lieutenant in World War II and landed on the Normandy beaches on D-Day.

The day after Christmas—his wife had taken the boys down to North Carolina to see her family—Bill and a friend, a master sergeant at the base, rolled out in Bill’s new 1949 Ford to lose some steam, drink some beer, shoot some pool at a local bar they frequented. A stranger at the bar bought them drinks for their service, asked them to tell about the war. When the soldiers were leaving, the man asked for a ride home.

As the soldiers drove through the country in the night, the man pointed and said he lived down that dirt road cut through the middle of those cornfields. So the soldiers turned and drove until the corn stopped. The two soldiers turned around to see in the backseat their new acquaintance holding an Army-issued .45, pointing it at them.

They got out of the Ford. The men tried reasoning. Bill told the gunman to take the new car, take the little money they had on them. The master sergeant said: Listen, buddy, we don’t mean you no harm. The stranger recoiled: You know my name. Now, I have to kill you. The stranger’s name, as bad luck would have it, was Buddy—Buddy Green.

Bill glimpsed lights through the woods at back of the cornrows. A farmhouse. He signaled his friend silently, nodded for him to take off running. The stranger began firing the .45, missing the master sergeant but hitting Bill three times in the back, killing him.


There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, The Man said. Or, as my father would say—about the highest compliment he could give—Willis Turner “Bill” Allman was a hell of a soldier.


The gunman Buddy Green would receive for the murder of a serviceman a sentence of ninety nine years plus one, or 100 full years, in jail. Naturally, he died in prison. Before he did, he wrote mournful letters to one of Bill’s adult sons, the younger one, begging forgiveness. The son never wrote back, and did away with the letters. Which seems fair because that stranger’s thoughtless pull on the trigger long before had done away with all memory of the father for that younger son, who, in his sixties in 2011, would confess: I don’t have the slightest memory of my father, nothing (12). Nothing out of nothing comes.


Still and yet, if you carry one cross too long, it will start to rub you raw. Or, to take some advice from Howlin’ Wolf: I wore my .44 so long, I done made my shoulder sore. On one level, the .44 represents the weight of anger, the heavy desire for revenge, carried on too long, with post-traumatic overtones, leading to a loss of direction and hope: Well, I’m so mad this morning, I don’t know where in the world to go. Sometimes it’s time to unbuckle the holster straps, let the past drop.

It might be worth adding here that Howlin’ Wolf, like Bill Allman, served time in the U.S. Army, from 1940 until 1943, when he was discharged after spending two months in the psych ward at Camp Adair in Oregon. At age 30, Chester Arthur Burnett, scraping together a living playing blues in and around his native Mississippi, was enlisted in the Army against his will. No surprise to find he bucked against the military regimen. He had grown up unschooled, literally unlettered, and when the Army found out they ordered him into rigorous tutoring to learn to read and write. From the arbitrary, brutal discipline meted out by his reading instructor, which included beatings for misspelling a word, Burnett began experiencing shaking fits, dizzy spells, fainting, and confusion, culminating one day in total nervous collapse. Diagnosed by Army doctors as everything from a schizophrenic to a hysteric to a mental defective, his treatment included being lashed to a bed, drugs, and electro-shock, until he was deemed unfit for duty and discharged under the catch-all disability in November 1943. Maybe one of the things from which Burnett was ready to unbuckle was this traumatic holdover from his Army days, as Howlin’ Wolf would convert past trauma into commercial art: Pawned gun to have some gold.


In 1949, Bill Allman’s boys, Duane and Gregg, were three and two years old. And I want to believe their lives were transfigured by resistance, and what was taken was given back.  The family unit suffered violent compression, but a new sort of integrity was born out of this, a new kind of wholeness—of holiness, even. Gregg would write of this tight-bound trinity born of the fire: As far as I was concerned, it was always the three of us—my mom, Duane, and me (12).

I want to believe, from a vantage of moral symmetry, the father’s death got repaid in the extraordinary lifework of the two sons. That dark hour of the father relumed into the genius moiling joy of the Allman Brothers: a true godsend. Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. They can steal your life, but not your soul, not your goodness. A soulless act down a dark road amid corn left standing in winter fields one day beyond Christmas kickstarted a wildfire and scattered it blazing across the known world. As his father before him, Duane Allman, in his younger brother’s words, was always the first to face the fire (6). And Gregg Allman, who witnessed such works, and still was always the next to face the fire. I want to believe the words of Saint Teresa of Avila: I myself hold that the measure for being able to bear a large or small cross is love (Way of Perfection chapter 32:7).


In high school, one of my older brother Noel’s friends was Alex Hopps. Alex was from England, relocated to the South Carolina Piedmont for his high school years. His father was a doctor and he had a younger sister. His mother had died several years earlier, when Alex was nine, in a one-car accident. The police said she’d fallen asleep at the wheel and run off the road. Alex’s family couldn’t believe that.

Alex looked and sounded to me like a young Roger Daltrey, lead singer of The Who with a voice full of napalm. Like Daltry, Alex had blond hair, piercing blue eyes, equally piercing wit. As a younger brother trying to hang out with my brother’s crowd, he’d regularly give me verbal hell, as was the proper role of an older brother’s true friend.

In 1991, Alex was working at the local movie theater to make money over Christmas break for college. He wasn’t working to make money for himself. He was giving the money he earned to a good friend, James. They’d run track together in high school and both were attending the University of South Carolina, and the money would help James get by while at school. One time I met Noel, Alex, and James down at the track after practice. They were all joking around when I walked up and I heard James, who was Black, laugh and say: Noel, you’re like the whitest guy ever! I remember thinking at that time: He doesn’t know me. A whiter shade of pale.


One night—Dancing with Wolves was playing—two former employees arrived at the movie theatre. They left the movie halfway through and met Alex walking down the hallway back to the lobby. They pulled a handgun on him, forced him out the side exit, pressed him against a siderail protecting the outside HVAC unit, and shot him to death in the left side of his head. They went into the lobby and forced the other employee on duty that night, James Todd Green, to open the safe in the ticket booth. They also took bags of money ready for deposit from Green’s car, and then made him get into their minivan with them. They drove for a few miles, then pulled over, forced Green out, and shot him to death execution style in a field.

Both killers were arrested the next day. My father served as an attorney barred in Spartanburg since the 1950s, and he had a strong reputation defending criminal cases. One of their initial lawyers asked Dad to represent the accused, not knowing our connection with Alex. I heard the response, before he slammed down the phone: Goddam cowards. God help them. Cause I aint.

Both killers would be sentenced to death and executed eventually by lethal injection. In an interview at the end of his time on deathrow, one confessed to his cowardice on that night. When the other was executed, he didn’t ask forgiveness from the families he’d damaged; he knew it wouldn’t be granted.

After college, James went to law school. He returned to the upstate, where he serves as an immigration attorney.


Among the dimmed lights of the Fillmore East on a March night in 1971, a voice proffered this opening: OK, the Allman Brothers Band… The intro was so understated, such a humble beginning, especially for what we now know was on its way. Something wondrous this way comes. Arguably the greatest live blues-based rock performance ever recorded.

As Gregg noted, the Allmans were never big talkers onstage. Brevity was the soul of wit: Just like me, my brother could play for a crowd, but talking to them just wasn’t part of it. He talked to them through his guitar. (171). Preaching a sacred text without words.


That opening OK resonates on a further level. There’s a loose strand of etymology for OK in military idiom. If, after a mission all personnel returned to base safely, the code was OK, denoting zero killed. Of course, this would not always be the case for the Allmans.

One late October day in 1971, lead guitarist Duane Allman, age 24, would go for a motorcycle ride in Macon and not return. A year later, in November 1972, bassist Berry Oakley, age 24, would go for a motorcycle ride in Macon—three blocks from where Duane wrecked—and not return.


I first came to love the Allman Brothers in about seventh grade, a hand-me-down from my older brother Noel. I’d already been introduced to other stalwarts of Classic Southern Rock, especially Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Marshall Tucker Band. That would be my hometown Spartanburg’s own Marshall Tucker Band.

I’d caught echoes of tunes off Eat a Peach (1972) before, of course, and liked what I heard: the lilting, longing ballad “Melissa” was a staple on the local classic rock FM channel, as was the bouncy countrified “Blue Sky,” and my favorite was “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More,” and the feeling for me was deepened by the backstory, that it was written by little brother Gregg Allman to honor his big brother Duane Allman, lost in a tragic motorcycle accident. In those times before facile internet searches, when it seemed only thick-bound encyclopedia volumes provided accurate fact-checking, I took for truth the legend that Duane had been struck dead by a peach delivery truck, thus the iconic album title and truck image on the album cover, in all its dark humor, the giant peach serving as some kind of weird memento mori. “Les Brers in A Minor” puzzled me, though I was drawn to it in some way, and I’d no idea what to make of “Mountain Jam,” which escaped me even as it entranced me.


At Fillmore East (1971) was recorded live, primarily over two nights on March 12 and 13, 1971, and the original double album, under the direction of renowned producer Tom Dowd, was released on July 6, 1971. In his August 19, 1971 review for Rolling Stone, Greg Kimball did not misapprehend the greatness set before him:

Any comparison to anybody is fatuous. In my opinion, the fact of the matter is that guitarists Duane Allman and Dickey Betts, organist-vocalist Gregg Allman, Berry Oakley on bass, and drummers J.J. Johanson and Butch Trucks comprise the best damn rock and roll band this country has produced in the past five years. And if you think I’m dog-shittin’ you, listen to this album.

Kimball concluded his review with this flourish: They’re one of the nicest things that ever happened to any of us.

When I heard At Fillmore East for real—not just a song here or there as background music, but straight through the first time whole—I felt confusion. I listened to it on my brother’s stereo with a pair of those old padded headphones plugged in. I felt disloyal, to Marshall Tucker, to Skynyrd. This, this sounded like it came from some other world. What I heard was religious experience. What they talk about in the Bible when they talk about consuming fire. I still believe this.


I’ve listened to At Fillmore East many, many times since, in various sonic incarnations, in many, many places. First came vinyl, then cassette, then CD, then iPod, then burned CD, then laptop, then iPhone, then YouTube. Everywhere I’ve lived, this has carried with me. It’s been a large part of me—a continuous, if changing, major facet of my identity across the myriad spaces and times of my lived experience.

And it’s never exactly the same, either. Listening to At Fillmore East, you never step into the same river twice. You’ve changed, but so has the river. Walk along the river, sweet lullaby / It just keeps on flowing, it don’t worry about where it’s going. The music keeps flowing. With the longer improvisations, such as “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” “You Don’t Love Me,” “Whipping Post,” and “Mountain Jam,” each song contains within it in essence several songs. Streams converging, diverging in complex riverine systems, looping into oxbows, cascading headlong into white-crested torrents. I pick up on something distinct each time I closely listen, some nuance I never had ears to hear before. Each time, there emerge new runs and eddies, new bars and backwaters, even startling new avulsions as the current climbs, suddenly breaks through the banks of what I had remembered. Each time, as the vinyl circles again like the rotating skies, new stars appear, aligning into new constellations.


In 2004, At Fillmore East was designated for preservation by the Library of Congress for its cultural, historical, and aesthetic importance. The Library of Congress, proxy of the United States government, showed the great good sense to gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost, thus giving kind admittance for multitudes to enjoy the fullness of the masterwork’s glory, at present, in future, to experience its astonishing sustaining power.


At Fillmore East is not perfect. Or, perhaps it’s perfect in its imperfection. For instance, Gregg Allman comes in at the wrong pitch on the line And I’ve got one more silver dollar—especially on one more—in an otherwise seamless “Midnight Rider.” I think of this as an aural instance of what Roland Barthes describes as the punctum in photographs: the pricking odd detail that stands out almost accidentally in a photograph and strikes the viewer in a curious, subjective manner. This slight vocal snafu amid a brilliant vocal performance overall by Gregg Allman, with his husky deadpan bluesy stark delivery, offers a purview into the physical work of the performance, the material difficulty and strain of producing this intense level of brilliance. We hear the hard labor of putting on this show, and the off-key moment reveals the live nature of the music all the more, striking us with its very aliveness. It offers a glimpse into the human work that opens in consonance, I believe, to the more-than-human workings at play in the exceptional performance recorded on At Fillmore EastAt Fillmore East is not perfect, but it is sublime.


Among my friends growing up, I’d contend for Duane Allman as a legit musical genius, a Dixie Mozart. I didn’t argue this about Jimi Hendrix, or Eric Clapton, though I loved them, too. Or even about Dickey Betts, for that matter. I don’t know what it was about Duane Allman that meant so much to me. His especial Southernness, maybe? Or maybe his fragility, too? In pictures, he always looked so thin, scraggly almost—about like a wandering stray skydog—like the weight of that Les Paul cherryburst was bearing hard down on him, as a cross.


If you told me tomorrow I could never hear the Allman Brothers in this life again, that’d be a tough swath to mow and a hard way to go. James Dickey once offered this high praise for fellow great Southern writer Robert Penn Warren: When he is good, often when he is bad, you had as soon read Warren as live (75). Obviously, this might defeat the purpose. Yet the Allmans reside in pretty much the same territory for me.


Per theologian Karl Barth, in his Church Dogmatics (1932), heaven is quite literally beyond compare; heaven is a place of utter sublimity and thus beyond real human description:

As the place of God heaven is, of course, a place which is inconceivable to us. It cannot be compared with any other real or imaginary place. It is inaccessible. It cannot be explored or described or even indicated. All that can be affirmed concerning it is that it is a created place like earth itself and the accessible reality of earth which we can explore and describe or at least indicate; and that it is the place of God (437).

In other words, and in others’ words, Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens. From a human vantage, nothing comprehensible happens, but heaven is nevertheless a place, a happening point for divine presence and action. It’s hard to imagine that nothing at all could be so exciting, could be this much fun.

Even as heaven is a place inconceivable to us, this doesn’t stop us from imagining endless conceits to try to describe it. These are mainly drawn from places of comparison, both real and imaginary. Where, then, is paradise? Standard-issue pearly gates, soft white robes and wings, golden harps and haloes? Neither the golden underground, nor isle melodious, where spirits gat them home, nor visionary south, nor cloudy palm remote on heaven’s hill…, some poet noted.


Karl Barth’s claim notwithstanding, if we wish to play if and translate the untranslatable gates of heaven, perhaps a where and then for paradise, imagined out of the real, is the half-fallen cathedral by the sea at Saint Andrews. On the tower’s edges, the intact pinnacles point toward heaven still, while the rounded arches of the hollow high windows open freely to the endless rhythms of the wind and of the sea, offering wide passage through. A place where shadow from a tombstone flits across my son’s laugh in play with light sifting through the hazel leaves, spinning his hair gold. A place of God, then.


In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1965), Thomas Merton described the crucial point of nothingness at the center of our being, a spark which belongs entirely to God and cannot be corrupted, try as we might, by our individual human ego: It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. This point or spark of divine nothingness in us, this soulshine, can vanish all darkness and meanness of life and it is not cultivated, but only given. One word for this is grace. For Merton, the gate of heaven is everywhere.


And like the unwalled cathedral at Saint Andrews, with its opening unity, where play at once begets ruin, ruin at once lets in play, for me At Fillmore East embodies a gate of heaven, a hollow window for grace to pass. The album carries an infinite spiraling of imposing, impressive structure with astounding, proliferating improvisations. It features a collection of virtuoso performances, yet these coalesce into something well beyond the individual egos, into something that is only given, that reflects a collective soulshine, that at times seemingly belongs entirely to God. The soaring overarching dynamic of At Fillmore East—in its towering intricacies and driving tensions, in its open ranging and stray ends, blazes sonically with the invisible light of heaven.


To focus on one sublime element of At Fillmore East as a divine point of nothingness, a spark that shines a light on heaven’s gate, see—that is, hear—Duane Allman’s remarkable guitarwork, sliding within, between, without ritual forms. Most would categorize Duane Allman as a blues-based player primarily, but his play was vastly synthetic. Syncretic, really, meaning his style amalgamated elements of varied received forms—notably, blues, jazz, country, rock, even classical—but did so without especial concern with cohesion or logical unity. He adopted strands of these forms to strain them, to push them to their illogical extremes. He was, to me, the first true early master of what would come to be called fusion. And the religious underpinnings of syncretic also work; listening to Duane Allman invoking, then exceeding old settled forms into new unsettling, dissonant ones sparks a spiritual experience.

Throughout the songs collected on At Fillmore East, Duane Allman’s guitar sets the foundations only to upset these with his searing improvisations. With his incomparable slide, he is continuously building and breaking boundaries. He raises the cathedral stone by stone only to raze it, leaving behind the bare outlines of the base structure, the ghostlier demarcations. His guitar mushrooms into long wanderings, somehow at once exotic and homeward, simultaneously soaring and plaintive, abstract and visceral, ethereal and material, paradisal and earthbound. His slide play is somehow at once grinding and gliding, smooth and murky. His sound is deep and dark and rich and thick: the stuff of the blues. But Duane Allman is at the same time fluid, rolling, connective. He is not a clean player; in fact, he is brilliantly, beautifully unclean, gritty, in the tradition of the blues. His playing, then, is not particularly precise or clear, yet, for all the rough-hewn technics and heavy gain of his sound, his guitarwork is amazingly fluent, shifting freely, openly across scales, blooming into improvisations. Even as you can actually hear his slide pressing over the strings physically between notes, his slide flows effortlessly from earthy, murky note to earthy, murky note.


Around the time of At Fillmore East, in part due to the influence of Allman Brothers drummer Jai Johanny Johanson or Jaimoe, Duane Allman was listening to free jazz by John Coltrane. At times, Allman’s slide becomes so piercing, so thick with distortion that it sounds like a sax wailing. Like Coltrane, Duane Allman courts dissonance, creating and holding dissonant tones as he slides between notes. He makes a beautiful mess, simultaneously rough, yet smooth. Duane Allman’s slide is like melting sand into glass.

His slide solos carry resounding sustain, and he holds especially the outside or atonal notes. He’s continuously slightly skewing the camera angles, keeping us a little disoriented, off-center. He uses such dissonance and distortion to stir extreme tension: to scale dramatic heights and ultimately break to epic ends. His slide playing is like the ocean churning full of surfcut; the tide is of one overall motion and pulse, even as the surface water is whipped to rags. That is Duane Allman’s play: the strong pulling undertow of traditional forms—blues, jazz, rock—in tension with the dynamic roiling energy of the surf breakers—his wild solos and runs. Duane Allman’s style embodies openness, discovery, total creative power. It is endlessly experimental. His sound sounds like what darkness would look like if darkness could shine.


Duane Allman honed his slide style on a 1957 Les Paul goldtop, which he used on the Allman Brothers Band’s first two albums and on the famed Layla sessions with Derek and the Dominos. He then traded the goldtop out for a 1959 Les Paul cherryburst, while keeping the pickups from the goldtop to maintain something of the earlier sound, as a kind of inheritance or lasting influence. The cherryburst is the main guitar he wielded on stage during At Fillmore East, though he also made use of the red and black 1961 Les Paul Gibson SG—notably for the blazing opening slidework on “Statesboro Blues.” The SG was known as the From One Brother to Another guitar since Duane and Dickey Betts would trade it off during live shows so they wouldn’t have to waste time retuning between songs. Just after those shows, Duane adopted a 1958/1959 Les Paul darkburst, his main guitar for the duration of his time remaining in this world. These are all beautiful guitars in their way, and also powerful imagery: the bright goldtop shimmering immense potential, sign of the glowing future; the rich, organic tones of the cherryburst offering something of the natural flow and open-heartedness of his play; and finally the darkburst heralding an explosive end, equally dark and bright: a darkness that shines.


And so by the power invested in me—none to little, if we’re honest—I hereby canonize Howard Duane Allman as Saint Duane of the Infinite Slide, First-Called to the Fire, Wonderworker of the Glassy Bottleneck along the Goldtop, Master of the Darkburst. One who had his cross to bear, but also his bearings. While admitting that his big brother, being human, had his shit parts (199), baybrah Gregg asserts Duane also had his consummate code, for Duane Allman would Not cut and run, he’d just cut. He figured out in his soul that life was much too precious to waste worrying about bullshit (201). Allman Zen.


If you don’t believe me—and I don’t blame you if you don’t—perhaps you’ll listen to the meticulous, incredible Butch Trucks, the other half of the longtime Allman Brothers Band drumming section. Trucks, alongside Jaimoe, formed arguably the best drumming duo in rock history; they blend together seamlessly as they adapt to whatever improvisational roads the rest of the band might take, come what may. An avid reader of literature and philosophy in his spare time, Trucks was not happy with Roy Blount, Jr.’s recounting of the condescending account of the Allman Brothers Band put together by Grover Lewis in 1971 for Rolling Stone. Sure as the sunrise, Butch Trucks sat down and wrote a long letter, which was published on May 8, 2005 by the New York Times Book Review, and rightly so:

First, let me state unequivocally that Duane Allman was one of the most powerful, charismatic and trustworthy men I have ever known. I would use the word “messianic” to describe the impact he had on the people around him, and his influence on music today runs much deeper than all but a very few even begin to know. He was a man of the highest character and principles…

If Duane Allman did threaten to punch out Grover Lewis, most likely let’s say he had it coming, as those money-changers in the temple long before very likely earned their whipping.


Saint Duane preached the wordless gospel, ringing it out in glory all along his golden strings, through the glass bottle slide on his ring finger, fretting sublime rhythms, sacred feelings, against oblivion’s time signature. His sound was excessive, astounding, overwhelming and at once emptying, in the gnostic way, in the way centered on that point of divine nothingness within us all. Saint Duane’s gleaming, gleaning slide work, sounds bursting from his cherryburst, pinpricks holes in the void, little points to let God in, truly. His guitar is not unlike those old weathered headstones, slanted, half-sunk to earth, that dot the shadowed grounds encircling the towering ruins of Saint Andrews Cathedral. Like the stones, his tone, while towering, is earth-rooted and weathered and not fully precise or upright, but a bit slanted, off-kilter, and more beautiful for all that.


Seeking moments with God, I meditate. To leave behind, momentarily at least, concerns of the ego, I listen to music, and letting its ineffable rhythms flood through me, submerge my conscious mind. Music’s repetitions close the shades on my shiny racing thoughts, for the time being, and make a little time for God, a little place for God to enter in. My go-to meditation songs include Van Morrison’s soothing instrumental “Caledonia Soul Music” and a couple of peace-filled choral reggae chants: Bob Marley’s “Rastaman Chant” (One bright morning when my work is over I will fly away home) and Wingless Angels’ “No Dark There” (And we need no candlelight / On Mount Zion there is no dark there). For olden time’s sake, I add in Ingegneri’s (misattributed to Palestrina) immaculate double-choir setting of “O Bone Jesu,” on repeat (O good Jesus, have mercy upon us). These uplift me from my common space, to spaces rich and strange, Celtic and Caribbean. If I begin by attending to the lyrics, I soon, following the line of my breath, let loose of the words; as fire answers to flame within a ring, the sound of the words, not their sense, as part and parcel of the song and its absorbing rhythm, takes over, and I enter into the meditative state.

When I’m in a for a long-haul meditation, my song of choice is the live “Mountain Jam” from At Fillmore East. All 33 minutes, 39 seconds of ridge upon climbing ridge of improvisational scaling the towering mountain summit. The song arose as improvisation off Donovan’s 1967 folksy pop hit “There Is a Mountain.” Meditating to Donovan’s version would, I fear, induce vomiting. The Allman Brothers’ “Mountain Jam” is a whole nother world. It grew (and grew and grew) out of a jam one night at the Fillmore East with the Grateful Dead and guitarist Peter Green, then of Fleetwood Mac. The deeper I listen, the more intently my breathing takes on the rhythms of the song. In this way, I adopt the song; it becomes a part of me. And by absorbing myself, my ambling, rambling thoughts, my ego, into the song’s various variations as it rolls through organ (Gregg Alllman), guitar (Dickey Betts; Duane Allman), bass (Berry Oakley), and drum (Butch Trucks and Jaimoe) solos, I try to become a part of God. The song is immense, and immensely wide open, and it helps me to become empty and more open to God. By the time the song and my breath reach the return of the full band, around 22 minutes in, I feel immersed into the culmination, which includes some of the most beautiful, astonishing slide guitar ever by Duane Allman. And right near the close is an absolutely lovely flowing section citing the traditional hymn, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” I admire the Renaissance conceit that humans honor God with honorable work. Likewise, “Mountain Jam” glorifies God in its glory. It helps me climb the mountain to get a little closer to God. I highly recommend it.

Legend has it that on the final closing night of the Fillmore East, the Allmans played an even more epic version of “Mountain Jam” than the one recorded on At Fillmore East. This unrecorded version, it was said, sprawled on for nearly two hours, but it is lost to all but memory.


At the close of the famed live version of “You Don’t Love Me” on At Fillmore East, Saint Duane even quotes sacred music in his closing improvisations. He’s busy immaculately sliding dyads up and down the full range of frets while the band rolls back and forth between A and D beneath his soaring play until they equally meet at a crescendo. Then, Duane Allman takes another seamless turn at breakneck speed, suddenly, brilliantly integrating a section of “Joy to the World” (1719), the traditional Christmas hymn composed by English minister Isaac Watts and based on Psalm 98. Much in the way of Mozart brilliantly integrating the traditional Welsh Christmas carol “Deck the Halls” into his 18th violin sonata (1778).

Perhaps it’s worth remembering that, early on, Christmas must have been a sad time for the young Allman brothers and their mother Geraldine, given their loss right at that time of year. This was, it seems, a form of reclamation, an act of balancing. Or, as Gregg would put it, with wry humor, in “Wasted Words” (1973): Well, I ain’t no saint and you sure as hell ain’t no savior / Every other Christmas I would practice good behavior.


Another salient, vibrant instance of Duane Allman’s preternatural virtuoso, his seemingly infinitely malleable imagination for reckless, daunting, dazzling, tough, delicate improvisation is recorded by Gregg when the brothers went to a New York City penthouse owned by their friend Deering Howe, which housed an old guitar, strung right-handed and left behind by Jimi Hendrix, dead in 1969, age 27:

When we got there, we all took off our coats, and my brother made a beeline for that damn guitar, plugged it in, turned this little Champ amp on, and started blowing this scathing molten lava line that went on for about twenty-five minutes. It was like nothing I ever heard him play onstage, and everybody was just in awe. There was a long silence afterwards, and Duane just said, “Nice guitar,” and put it down. (185-186).


And he was lost to us, in the flesh, at 24 years old, same age as prodigious English poet John Keats. One of my college professors one time listed John Keats’s major works when he died on the chalkboard next to William Shakespeare’s major works by the time he was 24 years old. Point being, had Shakespeare died at 24 years, he’d be remembered as a good poet and a burgeoning playwright, but really just getting going. Like young Keats, Saint Duane was just getting going when he was gone.

And let’s also spare a thought and prayer for that curly-headed brown-eyed handsome thick-spectacled glory-bound willowy young Texas guitar player Buddy Holly, gone at 22. Thank you not, as he said one time, and rightly so.


A salient, vibrant instance of Gregg’s mellow presentness is that he had no idea what official time signature he’d apparently composed the intro for “Whipping Post” in:

I didn’t know the intro was in 11/4 time. I just saw it as three sets of three, and then two to jump on the next three sets with: it was like 1, 2, 3— 1, 2, 3— 1 ,2, 3— 1, 2. I didn’t count it as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11. It was one beat short, but it didn’t feel one short, because to get back to the triad, you had two steps to go up. You’d really hit those two hard, to accent them, so that would separate the threes…. [Duane] said, “That’s good man, I didn’t know that you understood 11/4.” Of course I said something intelligent like, “What’s 11/4?” Duane just said, “Okay, dumbass, I’ll try to draw it up on paper for you.” (Poe 124-125)

Point being, like the lasting ruins of Saint Andrews Cathedral—those fragmented old good bones that once maybe housed the fragmented good old bones of Saint Andrews himself—with Gregg’s composing, the core structure’s there, if somewhat unrecognized, unlooked-for, and it allows for and encourages the layering on of improvisations. And his lyrics thrived on immaculate compression, on saying the most important things by leaving them unsaid or barely said. For one case in point, think of the refrain to “Whipping Post.”  After the repetitious momentous lyrical build-up of

Sometime I feel, sometimes I feel
Like I’ve been tied to the whippin’ post
Tied to the whippin’ post, tied to the whippin’ post

we close with the brilliantly compact, plain and plaintive, unrhyming, flat statement:

Lord, I feel like I’m dyin’

The rising chaos, musical and lyrical, ends abruptly; then we’re left with that final half-line hanging there over the void, to just think about that for a moment of silence, until the guitar and organ call us back and thrust us again into the dazzling resounding tumult.


Incidentally, it took the Hal Leonard Corporation forty-two pages to transcribe the sheet music denotations for the ineffable rollicking grandeur of the switchback solos from Duane Allman and Dickey Betts in the extended live “Whipping Post” from At Fillmore East. If you’re alive, this song thrums absolutely in the blood, buzzes in the heart like a hornet’s nest.


The Allman boys were sent away to military school by their mother Geraldine. She loved her sons dearly, but, as a single parent, in order to provide for them she had to go earn her CPA. As a cadet, Duane became an avid reader, repeatedly delving into J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Rings and into Kurt Vonnegut’s experimental novels. Naturally, the brothers hated it—being apart from their mom, being subjected to what seemed arbitrary discipline and punishment and bullying. But the brothers were there together, at least. And their lives grew luminous with resistance. They learned sadness and aloneness, but also strength and structure.


Both Allman brothers were born at the old Saint Thomas Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, a lovely brownstone building filled with history. Also, Duane nearly died there. Before a gig at Vanderbilt, Duane would almost OD, with half his body turning blue from bad blood flow; Dickey Betts grabbed him up and rushed across the road to Saint Thomas, where Duane survived after three days in the netherworld, much in the way of Jesus: God was looking down on us, man, and so were his Angels of Mercy…. The whole thing really scared my brother, man. He had the fear of God in his eyes after that… (172).


For my money, Gregg’s patron saint is Thomas, and Gregg carried forward Thomas’s way. Thomas was notably grounded, devoted to the present, his commitments were to this world. Yes, Thomas was a famous doubter, but surely one with a stout heart, with great courage. For it takes an immense love and hope to pour your efforts into this world alone. Sometimes just to get up in the morning. And, as Friedrich Nietzsche averred, in a quote often requoted admirably by Duane’s literary hero Kurt Vonnegut, Only a person of great faith can afford to be a skeptic.

We all know, wary of second-hand tales even from his apostolic brothers and sisters, Thomas insisted on seeing the risen Christ himself, to sticking his fingers up into the very cuts of Jesus. In the candle-bladed dark of the upper chamber, shut in with the others, breathing low together, stout Thomas touted his reality principle, probing old wounds, a stop-gap measure to stem the flood of sundered time, to be sure.

However, remember this: When Jesus insisted on returning to Jerusalem when the one he loved was ill—to save the beloved dead man, though this meant his own death—the other disciples were hit with mixed emotions. Not Thomas, who remarked: Let us also go and die with him.

Remember also that the risen Jesus didn’t shun Thomas to the outer dark, or at all, for his doubting. Maybe he could have a little more faith—to not see and still believe—but couldn’t we all? Maybe there’s a deeper plane. To have a passion for the impossible, as William Booth claimed. John and Mary Magdalene seemed to be there already, waiting. They had their feet under them, even at the foot of the cross. Nothing could shake them. For most of us, that’s hard to understand.


Saint Thomas, God love him, was not afraid to face the fire, despite or because of his doubts. In similar fashion, Gregory LeNoir Allman becomes Saint Gregg the Cross-Bearer, Second-Called to the Fire, Sure as the Sunrise. Like Thomas, Saint Gregg also is committed to presentness, to this world, to doubt as the soul of faith.

If you don’t believe me—and I don’t blame you—don’t take my word for it. Here’s Saint Gregg himself, acknowledging how things are with his abiding focus on presentness and process, in this case when it comes to songwriting: Writing throws your whole and complete attention into the process, and you get into it so deep, nothing distracts. Someone would have to inform you that your house was ablaze. (173)


In his classic novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), Kurt Vonnegut describes how the protagonist Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time (28) in part as result of his traumatic memories from World War II, from which Vonnegut also suffered. Vonnegut offers an alternate perspective on time and the past—on the narrative construction of human identity, let’s say—one drawn from inhabitants of the distant planet Tralfamadore, who are able to see in four dimensions and believe that It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever (34), for When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments (34).

In light of this form of presentness, Duane’s untimely death becomes one particular unpleasant moment that his younger brother revisits, but Duane also becomes just fine in plenty of other moments. Per Saint Gregg, present time goes by like hurricanes, pouring rain, subway trains, and much faster things. With the help of God and true friends, he’s come to realize, he still has two strong legs, and even wings to fly. So no need for crying or looking like you’re dying, go step yourself outside, and look up at the stars above, and go on downtown, find somebody to love. You can’t get hung up on dreams you’ll never see, on a future that’ll never come, so pull yourself out of bed, put on your walking shoes. Live presently; see what you can see. Again, the morning’s come, and the road goes on forever, so pick up your gear and gypsy roll on, roll on.

Or, for the November 2, 1972 performance at Hofstra University, nationally televised on the late-night program ABC in Concert, Gregg altered the final lyric of “Whipping Post” to That I feel that there just ain’t no such thing as dying.

Or, as he put it in his autobiography, he ultimately learned how to grieve by recognizing the close, intact integration of death in life, life in death, not just in the abstract, but on the daily: Now I can talk to my brother in the morning, and he answers me at night (202). With such patience and understanding, there’s no such thing as dying.


Thus, Saint Allmans. Why, the Allman brothers even looked like they walked out of Bible days, with their long shaggy hair and beards. They looked like right apostles. Even as Duane never made his Jesus year. Again, can you imagine what more he would have left behind, if he had?

And Duane was buried with a manner of relics: a silver dollar in one pocket, a throwing-star knife in the other, and his favorite ring on his hand—a snake that coiled around his fingers with two eyes made of turquoise (196), along with a couple of joints in his shirt pocket and a mushroom lighter.


When the hospital called on that fall day in Macon in 1971, the woman’s voice said it had been a slight accident. Gregg knew with that very word that his brother was dead. Slight accident, slight lie sliding into what would become a sacrosanct sleight-of-hand, a karmic conversion of ruin to return, emptiness to fullness, where nothing is left unredeemed.


The one relic I’d value most in memory of Duane Allman: a Coricidin glass medicine bottle. When I heard that Duane used a Coricidin glass bottle for his slide, ringing out from this makeshift glassy sheath on his ring finger, this hit me with the capacity of revelation. Coricidin cold medicine was a major part of my life growing up. As a kid, I had bad seasonal allergies and whenever I started to get stuffy, out came Mom with the Coricidin bottle. The pills never did anything much to elide the symptoms, but they did conk me out wholesale. They put me down in a sleep that does not feel its sleep, almost. Even when I was technically awake, under the sign of Coricidin, I walked around in a torpid stupor. Coricidin for me equaled a blurred existence, living as through a glass darkly. Again, I want to believe there’s some universal compensation for things lost or at the least, for some time mislaid, held in abeyance. What for me for so long had been the source of a dense, will-less feeling now became transfigured into a figure of immaculate vitality and creative will through Duane Allman. With his bottleneck, he generated earthly and ephemeral and ethereal, aching and arching and arcing Skydog sounds (“Mountain Jam”) as well as excruciatingly sheer siren wails (“Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’”) as well as mournful, echoing moans (“Drunken-Hearted Boy”), and nearly anything, everything in-between. In the hands of Saint Duane, that tiny glass jar grew more beautiful and truthful than some old Grecian urn—wilder and louder, too, like nothing else in Tennessee. It took dominion everywhere.


Preparing for the to-be-recorded Fillmore East live shows, Gregg Allman acknowledged his doubts:

But I have to say that I was still the big doubting Thomas of the whole thing. It goes back to high school—I made the other guys wait to tour until I got my diploma, because, as I told my brother, “Man, we will never make enough money to pay rent doing this.” My brother would say, “Gregory, you need to get a little more faith.” Anytime I would get in a crisis, he would say something funny and bring me right out of it. (180)

If Gregg is Saint Thomas, Duane is Saint Peter, the rock of the Allman Brothers: headstrong, reckless, improvisational, rolling off-the-cuff, maybe a bit of a hothead, but full of courage, full of faith, with vision forward—a visionary, but grounded, as in the compact duality of Duane’s nickname, Skydog. Where Gregg is presentness, Duane is futurity.


Indeed, Duane’s futurity seems even to have been cast into a very figure of his likeness, another brother, if you will. Appropriately, the line runs through ABB drumming great Butch Trucks. His nephew, Derek Trucks, is generally recognized as one of the most talented blues-rock guitarists on earth at present. As Gregg himself testifies, Derek is the living icon of Duane:

I fully believe that there’s more to it than just this life here on earth, and I’ve believed it for a very long time. Do I believe in reincarnation? After seeing Derek Trucks, how could I not? People ask me about Derek and my brother all the time, and I usually give them a little generic answer, because it’s a pretty heavy question. But I have very good peripheral vision, and sometimes I’ll catch him out of the corner of my eye, and the way he stands looks just like my brother…. I know when [Derek’s] really trying and when he’s on automatic pilot. I know what he’s doing, because he does it in such a similar manner to someone else I knew. (202)

Though, assuredly, Derek is Derek (202), his amazing talent and presence link back to Duane Allman. And so in a sense, on one plane, Derek Trucks serves as earthly double or parallel, a living gateway to the brilliance that would not die with Duane. A second coming. Derek’s carrying the fire, consubstantial with Duane.


I’ve focused mainly on what I consider the masterpiece of At Fillmore East, but, as an aside, even ABB deeper cuts reveal the amazing depth of Duane’s play, including his prolific studio work. Give a close listen to the glorious backend of “Hey Jude,” which is what first caught Eric Clapton’s ear, woven in-between Wilson Pickett’s wolfish howl; or to the sweet, sad echo of Duane’s guitar on “Please Come Home”; or the crosshatched weavings of his wood-body dobro on “Please Be With Me.” For better known pieces, listen again to “It’s Not My Cross to Bear,” where his playing moves the song somewhere back-and-forth between slow-dragging blues and gospel, seeming almost to fall behind time at each turn, but catching up just at the last right moment. Or, hear again the immaculate “Dreams,” in which Duane’s and Dickey Betts’ swirling, spiraling guitars mushroom profusely atop Gregg’s smooth foundational organ; this term is overused, but in this case I think accurate: the overall effect produced comes near the surreal. Or, listen close once more to Saint Duane’s last in-studio solo that gives a soulful rhythmic bedrock to the wistful “Blue Sky.”


Anthropologists have suggested that ancient sun-worshipping rites began as a response to the primitive fear of nonrecurrence. Praying to a sun-god was a way to allay anxiety that the sun would not rise again in the morning after the night’s darkness. Such practitioners lived in an old chaos of the sun or old dependency of day and night, as some poet said. The later Roman empire, for instance, established an official religion devoted to Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun, whose birth was celebrated right around the winter solstice—when fears over the sun’s disappearance waxed highest—on December 25, later looping in with the timing of Christian nativity celebrations.

Some implicit, half-submerged faith in the recurrence of day, in the continuity of the sun, courses through several Allman Brothers songs at key points. Three of my all-time favorite ABB lines center on the image of the sun in this way:

  • sure as the sunrise in “It’s Not My Cross to Bear”
  • Again, the morning’s come…a sunbeam’s shining through his hair in “Melissa”
  • the sunshine felt like rain in “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More”

The sure sun, the assurance that Again, the morning’s come, reflects the principle of the uniformity of nature, instilling faith that past order will predicate future structure. Another name for this might be God.


In January 1971, Duane Allman insisted all members of the Allman Brothers Band get a tattoo on the back of their calf. The tattooed image the Brothers shared was that of a mushroom. The mushroom has become a symbol of the band ever since.

Mushrooms are wild. I know someone who’s written a book devoted to them, called Mushroom, if you’re interested. The mushroom, that slippery bulb of nature, born of decay yet teeming with life, colorless to prismatic, strangely seeping underfoot, found alone or arrayed eerily in a fairy ring. That slimy, sliding, alien, liminal organism, blooming somewhere between plant and animal. Mushrooms have been root parts of folk medicine, of alchemy, of sorcery, of recreational drug use. Some evolutionary anthropologists believe eating mushrooms caused humans to become dream animals—that is, that consuming mushrooms caused our ancestors’ brains to grow, resulting in a huge jump in consciousness, in our exit from an eternal present and entrance into a heightened capacity for thinking about the past and the future, with lots of feelings like regret, dread, possibility, and hope ensuing and filling our heads and lives. All because of mushrooms, possibly.

What are they about, mushrooms? What Aristotle didn’t know what to do with in his classifications. What Francis Bacon termed imperfect plants, for lack of better terms. What Percy Shelley called the sensitive plantpale, fleshy, as if the decaying dead with a spirit of growth had been animated. What are they after? Little fibrous intricate trapdoors to mystery, even magic. Mushrooms, our current science says, are capable of forms of sentience, exchanging information as well as nutrients through their vast underground filament systems. Mushrooms bond; they network. They join together and they repent—in the root sense of metanoia: to change your mind, to put on a larger or higher mind. Mushrooms likewise affect and heighten the consciousness of other creatures, including of course humans. They offer a gateway to metanoia. The gate of heaven is everywhere, including even or especially mushrooms.

The opening gate to the Allman Brothers Big House Museum in Macon, Georgia is emblazoned with a big mushroom emblem surrounded by little mushrooms that opens up right in the middle to let you inside. As far as symbols go, for the Allmans, the mushroom was a good pick, much in the way of the cross for Christians.


One time at an Allmans show in the North Carolina mountains, a friend of mine brought a bag of mushrooms with him. Throughout the show, he just kept eating the mushrooms, like he was snacking, until he looked down and there was nothing but an empty bag. On our way driving back home down a state highway, he yelled for us to pull over. For some reason, the driver complied. Our friend leaped out, beelined across a frontyard, right up the steps and opened the front door. We ran in after him. He calmly walked past the old couple watching TV in their living room, informing them: Please, keep your seats. I’ll be right back. He went straight to the bathroom—he said he knew exactly where it was—and by the time he got back, we were all in the living room trying to explain the situation to the old people: We apologize, folks. It’s just he’s all messed up. A whole bag of mushrooms by himself…a whole bag!

Afterwards, that friend moved down to Athens, Georgia and started in on the music scene, making headway with a couple of CDs. Before that, we’d lived out west together in Wyoming, and I’d sometimes accompany him when he’d play acoustic sets at local restaurants and bars, singing for our supper. One of his standard covers, which he did well, was “Melissa.” At 27, he crossed the river, and hasn’t come back. Schizophrenic, off his meds, he sometimes comes by my old house, a place I haven’t lived in thirty years. Or will his spirit float away?


Duane Allman of course played lead and slide on eleven of the fourteen songs on the quintessential blues-rock album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs (1970) by Derek and the Dominos, another masterpiece. That album maybe saved my life. I was a fifteen-year-old depressed kid. My vision went akimbo; I’d started seeing floaters and auras. I worried I was going blind, among other things. Our den walls were lined with planks of knotty pine paneling. We always had a row of shotguns in the rack on the wall. They were unloaded. I knew where the ammo was, in the top of the old wooden Snow White icebox my Dad’s family brought with them up from Georgia. I listened to that impossibly intense interplay of guitars—Clapton and Allman, lead and slide, Fender and Gibson, mournful and searing—again, again, again. They were immediate soulmates, brothers, two orphans together. Both recognized, in humility, that whatever was great in their playing arrived from an immensity beyond them. Eventually, the tape buckled under the weight of repetitions, unspooled. Something in the fullness of that music kept me from stepping off the side of the world at that time, let me feel somehow not unredeemed.


The Allman Brothers were big fans of Jimmy Carter. In 1975, when he was Georgia Governor, Carter invited ABB to come up from Macon and attend a reception at the Governor’s Mansion for Bob Dylan who was playing Atlanta on his tour. The band got held up at the studio and arrived to the reception late after the other guests had left, but Carter still asked them in. Gregg Allman recounts his first glimpse of the future U.S. President standing on the front porch of the Governor’s Mansion:

The moon must have been full, because it was real bright outside, and I could see the silhouette of this guy standing on the porch. He didn’t have on a shirt, he didn’t have any shoes on, and he had on this old pair of Levi’s, and they were seasoned down perfect, man—they were almost white. I was thinking, “I wonder who this damn hippie is, hanging out at the Governor’s Mansion?” Well, it was him—Jimmy Carter himself. (265)

Carter invited them in, and they shared stories and a bottle of J&B over a period of hours. The Allmans would agree to help sponsor Carter’s Presidential campaign, performing a benefit show in Providence, Rhode Island in November 1975. Jimmy Carter went down to Macon to hang out at the studio with the band, and they all talked about music and skeet shooting and fishing—he’s an avid fisherman (267). At one time, band members planned to become Georgia farm boys together, much in the way of Jimmy Carter, purchasing farmland outside Macon that they christened Idlewild South; they named their second album after their would-be farm, though over time they gave up the land and the notion of becoming farmers. According to Gregg Allman, Jimmy Carter’s mind was young and wide open, and it still is today (266).


Whenever somebody’d ask my father who he voted for for President, no matter what year it was, he’d respond: Jimmy Carter—I wrote him in. Like the Allmans, he was a big fan of Jimmy Carter, fellow Georgia boy, fellow farm boy.


One of my favorite pictures of Jimmy Carter has him donning an Allman Brothers Band tee under a workshirt back in 1976 while he was running for President of the United States of America. It’s a Win, Lose, or Draw shirt. This was not a particularly memorable album, and not a particularly memorable tour. But it’s a show of good loyalty, of past faith and future promise.

President Carter, 99 years young, illustrates a life and liveliness for others. Up until he entered hospice, he was still teaching Sunday school outside Plains, Georgia and helping build houses for Habitat for Humanity. If some days I wake up disheartened, it’s bracing to remember Jimmy Carter is still alive in this world.


I love Jimmy Carter additionally for inviting to serve as his Inaugural Poet James Dickey, a Georgia boy who relocated to South Carolina. I cross myself and spare a thought and prayer for Mr. Dickey each day on my way from my home in Murrells Inlet down to my work in Georgetown. Dickey lies eternally in the shade of a lofty spreading bearded oak within the venerable All Saints Cemetery in Pawleys Island. His stone, usually adorned with shells left in his honor, is visible from the roadway.


Another favorite picture is of Duane Allman at the famed Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama. He’s got big cushioned studio headphones on with the curly wire running out, his glorious 1957 Les Paul goldtop resting on his right knee, and he’s sitting relaxed sprawled out on the carpeted studio floor, leaned up next to a wood door. He’s wearing a 1960s patterned shirt, a black vest, and striped pants. Pretty standard rock guitarist fare for the time, like something Clapton would wear. I love the shine off the top of his right boot, and the scuff-marks on the bottom of his turned-up left boot-heel. This contrasting combination to me says much about the nature of Duane, of his ultra-capacity for contrasting combinations, commingling roughness-in-smoothness, chaos-in-order, ruin-in-play, play-in-ruin. He’s also sporting some gloriously full mutton-chops dovetailing seamlessly with his handlebar mustache, crowned with his down-the-middle-parted straight long hair. The photo is black-and-white, but you can feel the vibrant red sheen of his locks, the sharp metallic gleam of the Les Paul’s smooth curves. And, best of all, he’s got a marvelous half-smile on his face, eyebrows arched. Loose and disciplined, calm and focused. He knows what he’s about.


I’m happy to count as a friend the scholar Ernest Suarez. Ernie is a prolific, foundational expert on Southern literature, and especially on Southern poetry, which is near and dear to my heart. He wrote a book on James Dickey, whom he knew well and visited many times, often staying with him near my present home in Murrells Inlet at Dickey’s summer place at Litchfield on Pawleys Island. Ernie also is a preeminent scholar of rock and blues, treating these seriously as critical art forms. Dr. Suarez is a distinguished chaired professor at Catholic University of America and for years when the Allman Brothers Band toured in D.C., Ernie invited and hosted the band members in class with him. He would have 500 students enroll in these classes. He now does the same with the Tedeschi Trucks Band, featuring Duane’s doppelganger Derek.

Ernie visited me here on the South Carolina coast a couple of years ago. We went together to pay our respects to James Dickey’s grave in All Saints Cemetery. My second favorite graveyard in this world. Despite his achievements, Ernie is beautifully humble, but knowing my interests, he kept sharing stories about Dickey. Each time, I suffered a pleasant lag, waiting to decipher whether he was headed into a tale about James Dickey or Dickey Betts, since he has a storehouse of both. And both Dickeys come across as immensely talented, if untamed; they lived wild and unencumbered much of the time. And both were prone to emotional upheavals, a measure of their wide-ranging, glinting personalities. And, to be sure, strict sobriety does not figure highly into most tales concerning either Dickey.

And as I’ve given most weight to Duane’s guitar here, Dickey Betts, also one of the best of his generation, deserves his due, and got it recently from an old fellow musical traveler plus a recent Nobel Laureate in Literature: Play “Blue Sky,” play Dickey Betts


Gregg Allman ends his autobiography with a curious turn:

I must have said this a million times, but if I died today, I have had me a blast. I really mean that—if I fell over dead right now, I have led some kind of life. I wouldn’t trade it for nobody’s, but I don’t know if I’d do it again. If somebody offered me a second round, I think I’d have to pass on it. (378)

This is puzzling. If your life is gangbusters, why not rinse and repeat? I feel there’s a deeper wisdom here that surpasses my understanding. Maybe it’s a sense that your experience is your own, that it shouldn’t just keep on going. Sufficient unto the day is the evil (and joy) thereof. When day is done, it’s done, each in its ordered place. A reflection, then, of Saint Gregg’s ultimate presentness. Gregg Allman, the younger son, had his reasons. His day is done now. Somehow I think he meant this closing thought to remain unclear, cryptic, a bit vatic. Everyone figure it out for yourself.

Gregg Allman seems at the end to be naming a desire to disconnect, to end the cycles, laying down all his crosses to bear, piling them on the fire to burn away. For him, life is complete in itself—all presentness, no futurity, one way out. Me, I still long to only connect. I long for linkages, those winding, interlocking loops and circling overlaps forged in unlooked-for ways, and I feel I’ve found and experienced several and sundry through the Allman Brothers Band, and some of these have struck and uplifted my life with the power of revelation.


Such half-submerged connections are what Southern writer Daniel Wallace—also, my cousin through our old Virginia line—describes in This Isn’t Going to End Well (2023) as influence: the recipe that makes us the unique, bewildering, beautiful and sometime insane creatures we end up becoming (236). Wallace talks about how influence often occurs tacitly, by an invisible hand—like a contact high…a kind of mysterious osmosis (236). Influence is tacit, yet intense, powerful in its capacity to form identity: We’re unknowable even to ourselves because of the unknown influences that shape us, like underground rivers flowing through our souls, unseen (236). Influence describes the subtle, yet immense ways that Duane Allman impacted myriad minds and worlds, including mine, though he was dead before I was born.


There’s a faux Peanuts cartoon I see from time to time circulating on social media. It’s got Charlie Brown in one of his trademark dejected poses, shoulders slumped, head hanging, and the word balloon above him reads: I still miss Duane Allman. Brother, I know the feeling. Many must have it, some poet said.

I still miss Duane Allman. I still miss my friend, gone across the river. I still miss Jimmy Carter, not yet gone. I still miss my son brimming with youth and sunlight among the weather-soiled stones under the stark tumbledown lengths of ancient Saint Andrews Cathedral. I still miss so many things. But things keep coming, filling the gaps. The blazing sea through the hollow stainless windows of Saint Andrews keeps rolling, always forward, coming this way. I can’t complain, if I always do. With all due respect to Saint Gregg, I lean heavily into connectedness, into coming back for more, even into endless rounds.


The bright ruins of Saint Andrews, a stained glass window or lack thereof, young men shot dead for no good reason, a former U.S. President, magic mushrooms, James Dickey’s grave, Coricidin bottles. Such vague associations, esoteric and drifting, yet they all converge, in my mind, into one vast underground river of influence. For me, the sublime influence of the Allman Brothers music contains the power to link them all in good order. I see these disparate, luminous moments as blinking signal fires crossing black gorges and distant outcrops, seeking assurance. I like to believe these sundry things still connect to a core flame, some shared power of goodness, if scattered far and away over the seasons, all part of the same loose, wandering fire. And it shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not put it out.



Works Cited:

Allman, Gregg. My Cross to Bear. With Alan Light. New York: William Morrow, 2012.

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of Creation. 3.3. London: T&T Clark, 2010.

Dickey, James. Babel to Byzantium: Poets and Poetry Now. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968.

Kimball, Greg. Review of At Fillmore East. Rolling Stone August 19, 1971.

Merton, Thomas. Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. New York: Image, 1968.

Poe, Randy. Skydog: The Duane Allman Story. San Francisco: Backbeat Books, 2006.

Rich, Sara. Mushroom. New York: Bloomsbury, 2023.

Shane, Ed. “Duane Allman Radio Interview.” WPLO-FM Radio Atlanta, 1970.

St. Clair, Jeffrey. “‘The Army Ain’t No Place for a Black Man’: How the Wolf Got Caged.” CounterPunch May 24, 2019.

Trucks, Butch. “Whipping Post!” New York Times Book Review May 8, 2005.

Vonnegut, Jr., Kurt. Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children’s Crusade, a Duty-Dance with Death. New York: Dial Press, 2009.

Wallace, Daniel. This Isn’t Going to End Well: The True Story of a Man I Thought I Knew. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2023.