Galadrielle Allman’s Song for her Father: Please Be With Me
Photo by Clay Patrick McBride
I think that Berry Oakley almost gets lost in the legend sometimes, you know? The focus always seems to be on the macabre similarities between Duane accident and Berry’s the following year. The bond between Berry and Duane – both as friends and incredible musicians – is often lost. You help us get to know Berry the person.
I hope that comes through. I don’t know as a lot of people know that Berry and Jaimoe were the first ones that really set Duane on fire. Chasing that sound that they had when they were jamming at FAME [Florence Alabama Music Enterprises in Muscle Shoals, Alabama] is really what started the band. The kernel of that rhythm section was so important to the sound being created. And then adding in Dickey; and then the driving energy of Butch – this powerhouse that just combined with Jaimoe; and then adding Gregg. Each piece came at the perfect moment.
But that first spark was definitely Jaimoe and Berry. Berry was a unique person and he really had this kind of idealism that I don’t know that Duane shared at first.
Duane was coming off this really difficult thing in Los Angeles and I think he was a little cynical about the industry … and then there’s Berry telling him about these free shows in the park in Jacksonville. Berry had this vision that there were all of these kids just waiting to be liberated by this music; they could build this gorgeous community and all be part of it. I think that just kind of blew Duane’s mind.
The idea of the brotherhood and taking the music to the people – that was absolutely Berry; that was his personality; that was his heart. Even the Big House – the idea of living together and having a big table that everybody would sit at – that was Berry.
Berry had a very strong nuclear family. He was very close to his sister; he was very close to his parents, who were a very loving couple. So he had that foundation – and it was very different from where Duane and Gregg were coming from. Berry had this vision of family that was very solid and he brought that to the band … it became so important to their identity.
And then there were Berry’s talents as a bassist.
That’s right: Berry was such a unique bass player. He was so melodic and capable of interweaving himself with these incredible guitar lines. I don’t know that most people can even discern and tell how special it is – I hope they can.
I talked to Oteil about Berry’s strengths and that was really helpful to me too; to really try to hear Berry – to follow and to listen.
Oteil has that diverse skill set, too; he’s funky and he’s powerful, but he’s also truly melodic and creative and can hold that stage alone and do solos. He’s amazing.
It’s so helpful to have relationships with the current band and to be able to ask them questions. At one point I was texting Derek and asking, “What is it that makes Dickey so unique? I can’t find the words for it.” We had little conversations about it, which is so cool. These men all studied the original band.
You mentioned the bond of the original trio _ your dad, Berry and Jaimoe. I loved those scenes you describe throughout the book, when you’re sitting with Jaimoe. Whether he’s helping you understand some long-ago memory or explaining a rhythm pattern … those are sweet little moments, which helped to bring across the relationship he had with your dad.
Jaimoe’s such an incredible person; I wish everyone could spend some time with him. He is still so tuned into discovering things about music; still as creative right now as he was back then. The music is part of who he is as a person and still relevant. What they’ve been doing at the Beacon is the same thing: get up there and perform in the moment. It’s so cool for me to see that happen now, as it could just as easily not be that way. It’s still there.
Regardless of what’s gone down over the years between the band and Dickey, the book does a nice job of describing his role in the brotherhood; his friendship with your dad; and his contribution to the Allman Brothers’ sound. I think you give Dickey his due.
I don’t see how anyone couldn’t. In terms of Dickey’s playing; his writing; his energy – it was as much Dickey’s band as it was Duane’s. It was all of them. But you can’t understand what they were doing without really understanding Dickey.
That was another thing that Jaimoe said to me: “You can’t remove a piece of this and not change the whole.” And as much as the band shifted and changed with time, they are still inspired by those early days, that foundation … and Dickey’s sound is part of the foundation. I have a real respect for that.
In a former life, I used to go lobstering offshore – making trips. It wasn’t always easy to leave, but when it was time to go, you had to go – and it also wasn’t always easy to come home, either. You often had to unwind and get back to being yourself. I mention that to say I understand a little about the scenes you described from the years on the road … and how the homecomings weren’t always easy.
It’s a really, really different kind of living. I think it takes a toll and exhausts you on a level that nothing else can, you know? I’ve had boyfriends in serious touring bands and I think I’ve learned that from our own version of it: you see this kind of desire to come home, but you see this distance, as well. It takes a while; it might take a week or even a month to really get home; to have their body and mind connected at home. And when you don’t have time to do that, it just sort of never happens.
It’s hard – they’re living on a different schedule; they’ve switched day and night; they’re not eating; they’re in a world of men out on the road. And then suddenly they’re back home with babies waking up in the morning … in a house … in a town where there’s nothing to do. It’s a total culture shock.
I think it really was a process for my mom and the other wives to sort of learn what that was going to be like – and try to understand the rhythm of it.
It was a sacrifice; I think it is for any person who has a traveling life, whether you’re playing music or driving a truck or fishing, as you used to do. I think a lot of people struggle, because they really do want to have a family life, but if you’re not there, it’s really hard to mend that hole when you get home.
And there wasn’t a whole lot of time back home during those early days of the Brothers.
No – and that’s why I loved finding the letter where Duane talks about missing Thanksgiving and having to eat at a Holiday Inn. People don’t realize how much that hurt them. They think about “Oh, the touring life – it’s such an adventure.” No – there’s a certain level of longing and missing home.
I think that’s all fodder for the music: when you’re playing the blues on that level and tapping into yourself. I now understand a little better what was feeding them: if you’re going to be away from home and you’re going to be making a sacrifice that big, you play with everything – because that’s what you’re there to do. You’re not going to phone it in when it’s costing you everything to be there, you know?
How did writing this book change – and I’m assuming it did change – the way you listen to your dad’s music?
For one thing, I’ve gone through phases in my life where I haven’t listen to his music very much, because it was painful … I just couldn’t.
But while we were working on the Skydog box set, I just got sort of immersed in the music and I started listening to everything that I could get my hands on – not just the released albums, but the tapes that the traders would send me and the bootlegs.
For one thing, I really got a sense of his growth. Before I wrote this book, I – like a lot of people, I think – just saw him as this genius who put his magical touch on this handful of brilliant albums. But now I have a real sense of him learning and teaching himself to do this; the level of commitment it took to get his skill set up. When you listen to him in a high school band; listen to him covering other peoples music in the Hour Glass; listen to him in the studio with all different genres of people – you really get a sense of his voice emerging and his strength gaining. By the time you get to the end of 1971, he’s just miraculous, but it doesn’t seem like it was just out of nowhere. He gained all that strength the hardest way possible: constant, constant playing.
I think that’s something everyone can sink their teeth into – it’s not just like, “Oh, lightning struck on this spot and it’s never going to hit me and I can’t do that.” No – anybody who loves something can grab on and hold on and get better at it. That’s something that I didn’t take from my father’s legacy before … but now I really do. And in some ways, I feel like I did that with writing.
When I was 20 and first saw the glimmer for doing this project, I couldn’t have done what this book is now. It took me 25 years of learning and writing and reading books that I loved; trying really hard and failing and writing self-pitying journal entries about how hard it really is … and then you get to the point where you have your skills together and you can just soar.
I’m lucky to say I hit that stride and it really felt good.
As the Brothers would say: “Hittin the note!”
Yeah! (laughter) I think I finally know what that really means, actually.
You describe that scene where your father tells your mother, “Don’t go airing our dirty laundry and putting our business in the street.” There had to be times during the process of writing this book where you heard those words – and you had to make some tough judgment calls.
I struggled with that.
There were two moments of realization for me along the way. For one thing, Gregg’s book came out and he was so honest about his struggles with drugs; his sex life; not having gotten close to his kids early on … the hardest things. And he just talked about it honestly. At the end of that book, I felt even closer to him: “Okay – he’s risking all this.” So that was one thing that shifted the way I looked at it.
The other thing was realizing that when I read a book – especially something like a memoir – it’s the moments where the people are struggling or going through darkness … that’s the point where you enter into the story and get close to them. It’s not all a fairy tale; none of us are perfect; all of us have a kind of darkness in us that we struggle with and we try to get somewhere better.
If you make everything whitewashed, there’s no way to reach people and touch them, you know? There’s a way to handle it that exploits it – and then there’s a way of handling it that talks about it in the context of everything else that was happening … and in terms of how young they were. You end up with a greater compassion for them.
All the things that happened – all of the bad behavior and the hard things – I get where and how it would happen. I think we all go through those moments when you can’t be your best self and something else takes over.
To make anybody out to be some sort of perfect being would be so wrong on many counts. I mean … listen to the music – that’s not perfect, either.
Right! It’s the struggle of it; the pain; the rough spots; the stumbles and falls and getting back up. That’s part of the music, just like it’s part of life.
It’s all of a piece; you can’t leave out half of it and still tell the truth. You have to be able to face the truth. And you’re right: that’s one of the most powerful things about my father’s music.
There are more technical guitar players who can play elaborate, heady licks that are just clean and perfect and pristine … but they don’t move me. The reason that my father’s playing is emotional is because it has a ragged edge sometimes; he can take a note that sounds odd and bend it and it really soars … there’s something in it where he embraces that kind of imperfection and passion – when you feel like it’s going to veer off in the wrong direction at any second, he controls it.
The blues have those kinds of dissonant, minor key things that are just difficult to the ear sometimes … but my father takes you on this whole journey. By the time you get to something that’s just absolutely perfect and lovely, you’ve gone through hell to get there … and it’s more powerful because of that. He wasn’t just hitting licks; he was building whole narratives with his music … that’s how I hear it.
Or look at the way they came out of this incredible tragedy and wrote “Les Brers”, you know? To me, that speaks volumes of who they are: they take the hard things and the hard moments and they put their hand in the fire and pull out something beautiful. That’s something I think people can really, really relate to – whether you do it for yourself in some other genre of creativity or whether you just feel that way in your heart.
I think we all know that feeling of trying to make something good out of something that’s not easy, that’s not right … things get broken along the way. But they were survivors and they had lessons to teach. And I think that’s what the blues are about: transforming pain into something beautiful.
Brian Robbins eats a peach over at www.brian-robbins.com