When I was 18 and just starting college, I kept an old turntable in my bedroom at the family’s house. It was one of those all-in-one configurations, with bookshelf speakers attached and a puny amplifier snuck into its guts somewhere. You couldn’t rattle a window with the volume knob twisted all the way up, but then my meager record collection hardly offered much worth cranking. It was the late 1970s, and throughout high school I had been a devoted fan of whatever catchy was on the radio. The Doobie Brothers. Chicago. Wings. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. So: a fair amount of Cheez Whiz doodled atop some occasionally classic pop tunesmithery – “Bennie and the Jets” remains my karaoke go-to, “Bluebird” is so deeply and indelibly touching to me that I put it on the song list for my mother’s memorial – yet, not the music you would use to storm the gates of reality. I suppose my sudden immersion into a campus culture of stoner aesthetes and English Lit professors who moonlighted as rock critics quickly gave me a clue, because it wasn’t long before Michael McDonald’s Yacht Rock croon gave way to John Coltrane’s ecstatic blue-flame tenor saxophone on Live at the Village Vanguard and At the Fillmore East by the Allman Brothers Band, chasing equally sublime astral planes with their own soaring interpretation of the blues, the most earthy and fundamental of American sounds.
Something happened. The windows rattled. Soon, from elsewhere in the house, I heard a once-unfamiliar but urgent plea: “Turn it down!”
Coltrane passed into legend in 1967, amid the so-called Summer of Love, and became a kind of god figure, his monk-like devotion to transcendence through music an example that has inspired a near-religious appeal in his most ardent listeners.
By the time I became obsessed with the Allmans, Duane Allman had been dead for five years, a victim not of poor judgment regarding drug use, the era’s most persistent threat to rock icon longevity, but of a motorcycle accident. (Berry Oakley, the band’s bassist, died barely more than a year later, in an incident so similar as to be spooky). Yet, Duane somehow “still” seemed alive to me. He wasn’t a mythic figure, installed in the cultural pantheon. He wasn’t Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison. In fact, I’ve never really been not sure what cachet Duane actually enjoyed as “rock star.” Sky Dog was the nickname given him by Wilson Pickett, with whom he recorded “Hey Jude” as a sideman at Muscle Shoals, while brother Gregg was languishing in Los Angeles and the Allmans had yet to become that band. The honorific connotes a completely different universe than “Lizard King” or any of the chameleonic permutations of a David Bowie. Duane, like the rest of his cohorts, was not otherworldly. His music was, however, and could push that envelope, with its eddying, acetylene slide work and pinpoint articulation of notes, its wordless voice a pure flowing stream of spirit possession and soul shout. Listen to the five-minute solo that carries Boz Scaggs’s “Loan Me a Dime” from 7:45 into the song through to a slow fade. The energy builds and sustains, builds and sustains, seeming to become ever more intricate, lifting up like a rocket ship, and shedding each segment of the solo like a booster stage as it rises and rises.
Guitar hero godhead, to be sure, but Duane was, first and foremost, not a deity. He was too familiar. He was a “brother,” and the fraternal spirit of the Allman Brothers Band kept his persona or whatever you want to call it, tethered to the real, no matter how much he eyed the blue sky.
“You had all these British groups dressed up in Edwardian finery,” Phil Walden, who first launched the band on his Capricorn Records label at the end of the 1960s, once told me. “But there was never any attempt by the Allmans to be a show band. They played music. On occasions, when they were allowed to, for hours.”
Today, Nov. 20, 2016, would be Duane Allman’s 70th birthday. Had he lived, there’s no reason not to assume he would still be onstage playing. Keith Richards is almost 73. Eric Clapton 71. Duane’s brother Gregg, who has reeled himself back from the precipice of mortality many, many times, turns 69 next month. There can be no telling of what he’d be doing if he had lived. Music, for sure, and more than likely in some iteration of an Allman Brothers Band whose career might have looked a lot different, less strife-ridden, perhaps, had he never crashed his motorcycle.
Listening to some of the music recently, I was drawn back not to the Fillmore East recordings, but to some of those Southern-fried Muscle Shoals sessions, so often collaborative with great African-American artists like Aretha Franklin, King Curtis and Clarence Carter. That made me feel good in a way I’ve been needing to feel good for the last couple of weeks since Election Day, these performances that inherently address and exemplify the need for us all to bond across any and all perceived social divides or differences to make something truly unique and flowering. The dream of democracy.
Twenty years ago, when I interviewed Walden for a story about the Allmans, he told me about the last time he saw Duane alive. Walden heaped praise on the guitarist’s skills. “That’s the scary part,” Duane told him. “I don’t know if I can get any better.”
Super-fan Robert Randolph, a moving force and popularizer of the sacred steel guitar tradition, begged to differ when he paid tribute to Duane in Rolling Stone last year, when the magazine ranked him the ninth greatest guitarist in history. (For the record, the critics rated him better than Les Paul (#18), whose 1957 goldtop he played on “Layla” and the first two ABB albums, and immediately worse than Eddie Van Halen (#8). Aren’t polls silly?).
“Duane died young, and it’s just one of those things,” Randolph wrote. “You could tell he was going to get 50 times better. “