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Published: 2014/04/20
by Brian Robbins

Galadrielle Allman’s Song for her Father: Please Be With Me

The career of legendary guitarist Duane Allman has been well-documented in words and music over the years – but what of the man himself? Sadly, we probably know more about October 29, 1971 – the date of his fatal motorcycle accident – than any other day in Duane Allman’s life. We know some of his glorious solos phrase-by-phrase … but we don’t really know where that music came from; what was feeding his fire.

Until now – and it took a daughter’s love for a father lost before she got to know him.

What began as a personal quest by Galadrielle Allman to find her father Duane in the memories of those who knew and loved him eventually turned into a wonderful book she has shared with all of us: Please Be With Me – A Song For My Father, Duane Allman.

Please Be With Me is packed with the music; the miles on the road; the struggles; the epiphanies – but it’s also packed with the Allman Brothers family: not just by blood, but by heart and soul and sweat and dedication.

And along the way, we finally get to know Duane Allman the person.

Galadrielle was kind enough to talk with us about the process of writing Please Be With Me – an immense task in a number of ways.

BR: Galadrielle, the last time we talked was just about a year ago when the Skydog box set was released.

GA: That’s right – it’s great to talk to you again. And don’t let it fool you: I know it looks like I’m just popping these things out, but it’s been a long process. (laughs)

You’ve probably been hearing this steadily since Please Be With Me came out, but … I can honestly say I’ve never read a book quite like this – it’s more than a biography, more than a memoir … and although it’s so, so personal, the story will draw any reader in.

I can never hear that too much. (laughs) That was my goal; I wanted it to be about my father, but I also wanted it to include my family. I wanted it to be something that would please and instruct even the most serious Allman Brothers fan … but I also wanted someone who’d never heard the Allman Brothers play to get something out of it, too.

Well, mission accomplished, I’d say.

Thank you. (laughs) I was telling someone recently: with a band like the Allman Brothers, the bar is set really high for you. When you carry that last name you can’t do things in a half-baked way. I said that to my uncle and he laughed really hard. I told him, “I wasn’t going to put your last name on anything that wasn’t good.” (laughter)

So, I think that’s why the idea germinated with me for almost 25 years; I really wanted to live up to the legacy and handle it in a way that would also feel artful. That was kind of my highest goal.

I appreciate the fact that you set out on this quest for your own sake to get a better understanding of who your dad was – but you‘ve still shared his story with the rest of us.

It’s funny – when I was younger and I imagined doing this, all I really thought about was travelling and talking to his friends. That’s really what I wanted before I wanted to make a book: I wanted to know him; I wanted to travel to the places he’d spent time in. I wanted to do that and it felt like such an epic quest that it would be hard to get the time and the funding and all.

On a separate track, I wanted to be a writer. And at some point I realized, “Not everyone gets born into one of the great American heroic stories … it’s such a great story. How could I write anything else – especially for my first book?” I really felt like it was a gift to me that I had this story to tell. Those two things were definitely connected.

As far as sharing it, I think when I was younger I was much more worried about what it would feel like to do that. I used to say to my mom, “I could write this book and just put it in a box and be happy.”

I just wanted to do it; I wanted to research it and have the experience of writing … but the experience of sharing it was a little scary to me. That meant being a public person and talking about it … but as I’ve gotten older, I’m stronger and more confident – I’m able to do that. And it’s actually been a wonderful experience.

I’ve only done a handful of readings so far, but it’s been so powerful to have people come up to me who loved my father and have them shake my hand or want my signature. It’s just humbling to me … and it really does have this feeling of living a part of the kind of life that he lived. Talking to people about his music and being a representative for him publicly is a huge honor for me – and to see how much he touched people. You can’t really see that in the same way at concerts. To be in a bookstore and sit down with somebody has been really lovely – it really has.

Family is as much a theme in the book as the music, in its way.

Well, I think we all have families we want to know better – especially families with parents who are busy … or fathers that work away from home … or fathers that they lose. I think there’s such a hunger in all of us to know where we come from; to know our parents as people; what they’ve accomplished and what they care about. In some ways, I think that’s almost universal.

I’d encourage anybody to talk to their parents’ friends; talk to people that knew them; that worked with them … get a broader understanding. People are really open; suddenly you have new friends of your own and a picture of your parents as human beings, which is really inspiring.

I wanted to know how my father became a guitar player; I wanted to know the kinds of emotional things that drove him … because the intensity of his music doesn’t come out of nothing – it comes out of life’s experiences. Over the years, I pored over things that were written about him, but I really didn’t get a clear sense of his personality or what he was like as a kid or who he was close to as a person or what he liked to do with his free time – as if he any had free time. (laughs) Those were the things I had a burning desire to know.

All I can honestly say is now I have a much more complete picture – it will never be complete, but at least it’s closer to him, rather than just being a portrait of his career.

To me, it seems like it would be easier to interview folks I really didn’t know – rather than close family.

Oh, gosh – that’s a fact. (laughter) What happened was, I really didn’t interview them … I just spent long periods of time with them. When it was all said and done, I was probably in Savannah with Gregg for a month total over the course of a couple of years. I was probably at my grandmother’s house six or seven times. My mom and I would talk constantly.

I would’ve thought your mom might’ve been the hardest of all – not that I know her, certainly, but simply because it’s your mom.

She was someone that I did try to structure interviews with a little bit more, actually. She’s much more able to talk openly when you focus on a specific thing: “What was your first car?” And suddenly we’re talking about my dad, because he rode in her first car, you know?

When it’s people that you know, it’s important to make them feel that you’re actually spending time with them and not just turning the tape recorder on them. You’re having a talk over dinner or whatever.

I can’t take notes during a sit-down interview. I like to have conversations – and it’s impossible to have a conversation if you’re constantly writing things down. With a recorder, you both know it’s there, but it ceases to exist after a while.

That’s right, that’s right. But it does make people self-conscious at first to know the recorder’s there – especially if they’re not sure what you’re going to do with it. But there was also a real trust because everyone knew how much I love him and how much I love them … they knew that I was going to try to write this story with love.

One of the people who we really get to know along the way is your grandmother Allman – Duane and Gregg’s mother. You not only write about her strength in the wake of her husband’s death and how she raised her two sons, but how big a part she played in supporting their music early on, as well.

Absolutely – she’s remarkable. She has this great Southern mode of expression that I hope I did justice to. She’s so funny and her turns of phrase are full of these great sayings that she’s picked up over time. Plus, she’s so forceful and honest … she’s been an important part of my life, all my life.

She’s almost this mythic character to Allman Brothers fans: they know to call her “Momma A” and they know that she was a single mom … but again, there was never a sense of her personality out there in the world. She was a single parent and the sole breadwinner during a time when that wasn’t easy to do. She really had to make sacrifices and choices that would’ve been difficult for anybody.

You capture some of her force in that passage where you asked her why she didn’t try to stop Duane from quitting high school. You described how she seemed to grow a couple inches taller and she gave you that look … and then proceeded to explain to you just how the world was turning back then.

She did! (laughter) She’s a force. And she’s my Granny … she’s always been this gentle, quiet soul to me. But I saw this flash of “Oh, yeah – she raised teenaged boys, alright.” (laughter) There’s the tough woman inside. She definitely put her foot down when she wanted things to be a certain way, but she also accepted them for who they were.

That was something I didn’t entirely know. I knew she was proud of the music later – I’d seen her at concerts all my life and when she was younger, she’d travel all over the country to see them play and was always right there. But when she was young, she was carting them around in her car and introducing them to club owners; making them get union cards and all that; paying for their Nehru suits that they wanted for their stage outfits and ironing their shirts before they went on stage – she was right there.

That’s the thing: when you look at a band, you don’t necessarily see all the people behind them, whether it’s the crew or their family. There are a lot of people who really work hard and believe so deeply and passionately about the Brothers … and I really wanted to capture that, too. Red Dog and Tuffy and Kim – that whole crew that literally left home, got in the van, and never looked back. They gave everything; they really committed their lives to the band.

As someone who does my creative work alone, that just seems like the ultimate gift, you know? To have a crew a like that …

And it went both ways, didn’t it? I loved the moments when your dad stood up for the road crew: “They have just as much right to sit in on this meeting as we do” – or – “Those guys get paid first.” How many stories do you hear like that out in the world? Not a lot of them.

No, you don’t. Or when Kim Payne got on his motorcycle and rode cross-country just to be a part of the road crew and half starve with them while toting a 400-pound B3 up staircases every night.

I think the crew earned that respect from the band … it was like “sweat equity.” They really did help them survive at a time when they had nothing – nothing – but the music. But that was everything and that was all they needed. It was beautiful.

I knew those men as a kid. Some of my most powerful memories as far as being at those shows back then are about interacting with the road crew. I had really touching moments where I would be standing there listening to music as a teenager and Joe Dan Petty would walk up to me and whisper in my ear, “You look so much like him.”

They were generous like that with me – they made me feel connected to my father. The road crew was always funny and kind and took time for us kids. I have a lot of love for them.

Did you attempt to arrange your conversations with people in a timeline manner, sort of rebuilding Duane’s life as you went along?

I was at the mercy of other people’s schedules a lot. I pretty much devoted the first two years to traveling and talking to people. But then there were people like Albhy Galuten, for instance. [Galuten worked as engineer for the Layla sessions alongside the legendary Tom Dowd, as well as contributing some piano.] I met Albhy within the last couple weeks of finishing the book. I rewrote the Clapton chapter at that point to include him because he was such a great source.

So the interviews all came around in different ways, but I did write chronologically. I wanted to kind of build the story so that I was integrating what I knew about him throughout his life. I’m not sure why I did it that way, but it sort of felt right.

By the time I reached the last chapter, I felt like I’d written the whole book so I’d be able to write the outro, which was sort of the most personal thing. By the time I got to the very end of the book, the loss felt different. The way that I wanted to talk to him directly at that point was a culmination of that entire experience. I think that was a good way to do it emotionally – to just sort of take the long way to get there.

You wrote that when you reached October 29, 1971 – the day of Duane’s fatal accident – you stopped working on the book. How long did that period last?

Oh, it was months – I think it was easily three months. It was really a hard moment. Linda Miller – she was Linda Oakley [married to bassist Berry Oakley] – saved me from that block. October 29 was her birthday … and because I knew she had experienced that first hand and watched Berry go through it, I knew that she was the one to fill in the story.

At that point in the book, we have Linda’s account of that day.

Yes: she wrote me that beautiful letter and I kept it intact, because it was so perfect. That really saved me from having to reconstruct that whole day by myself.

I didn’t want to do it; it wasn’t like you could change what happened by not writing about it, but it almost felt that way … like a little sit-down strike. Can’t we end this book a different way?

You touched on that in the introduction where you wrote, “My father is killed in the first paragraph of every article ever written about him.” I read that aloud to my wife – questioning it in my mind … and then sadly realized you were exactly right.

It’s a fact; it’s a fact. And that’s something I noticed really young: I’d get excited that they’d written something about my dad – and then I’d open it up and it would be, like, “motorcycle accident” within the first two sentences. And that hits you really hard, you know?

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