There once was a time I knew the name of everybody in the Allman Brothers Band. Now, there's a revolving cast of characters who I've never heard of, except for Gregg on keyboards and vocals, Warren Haynes on guitar and, I think, Larry Fine on fiddle. That poor group has lost as many guys as the troops who hit Normandy Beach on D-Day.
But a long time ago, they were all alive and well. They had one of the best slide guitar players in the business. And I made dinner for him one night. Well, sort of.
It was early 1971. The Brothers were playing at a theater close to my house. I was going through a very eclectic musical period. Either that or I wasexperiencing Schizoaffective Disorder and everyone was just too polite to tell me. One minute I was listening to the cosmic, lyrical melancholy of Jackson Browne, the next I was digging Bowie's Hunky Dory and trying to look like him — meaning, a rockin' version of Lauren Bacall, with a mean attitude. Or is that redundant?
I also liked the blues and The Allmans were the first white guys in a while who seemed to really grasp its essence. Plus, they weren't scary rednecks. Even though they were from Florida, their accents sounded less Southern than lots of long-haired guys from the Grand Concourse in the Bronx. They swung. They had a great lead singer. And they had Duane.
I knew his name and face already. If you looked at the back of Aretha Franklin's Greatest Hits, there was a great picture of this long-haired white guy talking to her. He's also played with Wilson Pickett on a Beatles' tune. The myth goes, it took Duane hours to convince Pickett to play on the song. Because, being a good man, Wilson apparently said, "I ain't singing no song called 'Hey Jew!'" Once enlightened, Wilson, Duane and Muscle Shoals cats, burned the McCartney tune to its roots.
Smiling, hip, Duane seemed to be the first sign (after Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn), that you could be a white boy from the South and not aspire to be the Imperial Cuckoo Clock-or whatever the Klan called it.
Duane had also played on what was, possibly, Laura Nyro's greatest album, Christmas And The Beads Of Sweat. This was a man who knew no boundaries in music. Which before music got slotted into 10,000 categories — plus Hootie! — was the way most of us felt.
If you listen to "Statesboro Blues," back-to-back with Duane's playing on "Layla," you hear not just the beautiful, ringing tone of his slide work, but extremely paradoxical emotions. On one hand he was a stinging, ferocious player, but just beneath the aggressive surface was a melancholy and lyricism that made you feel lhe was quietly begging you not to go. To stay and listen just one more minute. That he was lonely. I think that dualism is what we heard in Duane.
But back to that night.
We had just endured an opening set by Billy Preston, a man who later on was convicted of insurance fraud and trying to have carnal knowledge of a minor. Both ugly crimes, but which paled compared to that of wearing an Afro wig the size of a rhododendron.
A fine sideman, you didn't want to see Preston live. He was so hammy and eager to please, he made Sammy Davis seem like Leonard Cohen. After he finished "Nothing From Nothing," Preston stood up and slapped five with audience members and hugged himself. I was only glad that Richard Nixon wasn't there. I feel certain Preston would've said he was "a beautiful cat." After coming back for an encore that nobody requested, Billy was gone.
I got up and went to the bathroom. It didn't seem to matter that I didn't have a joint. Three shallow breaths and I was so stoned, I did something really immoral. I agreed with some guy who asked, "Wasn't Preston great?" And thought afterward, 'Nelson Rockfeller is right. Drugs are bad for you.' Short-term memory shot, I somehow realized I was hungry. And went into the lobby to get something to eat.
There were about 20 people, ranging in age from 15 to 30, standing at the food counter. Clearly, everybody was stoned. Milk Duds were being sold by the gross, as was popcorn. When I finally got up to the front, I did my little Buddhist joke. "Can I have a Zen hot dog?" I asked the pimply-faced freak behind the counter. He looked puzzled and asked what a "Zen hot dog" was. "One with everything," I replied. After multiple groans, he fixed my poisonous meal and handed it to me.
All at once, the atmosphere changed, like there was a tornado about to hit us and, in a way, there was. From behind, came a guy I saw from the corner of my eye. I turned. Standing there was Duane Allman — "Skydog" himself — as skinny as a telephone wire, wearing a cowboy shirt and flared jeans. Those unmistakable reddish mutton chops leaking little drops of perspiration. I gasped, just as the vendor handed me my frank. Mr. Allman was clearly in a quandary. He was obviously pressed for time. He had-astonishingly not been fed, but, Southern gentleman that he was, he asked, meekly, "Hey, can I get a hot dawg?"
We all stood there, our eyes ridiculously wide. "It's Duane Motherfucking Allman," said some Oxford Don standing near me. The guy behind the counter was scrambling around, trying to serve everyone. But he seemed to be ignoring the rock star who was about to go on. Duane made his request again. The counter guy was now too far away to hear him. Allman looked up at the ceiling in frustration, a faint smile on his face. When I had an idea as simple as a Hemingway sentence and as profound as something by Einstein. I handed my hot dog toward the guitarist.
"Duane, take mine," I said.
"You sure, man?" Allman wondered, his voice mixed with gratitude and the sound of pure starvation.
"Yeah, it's okay. I don't want you keeling over onstage. I paid a lot of of money for this ticket."
Allman laughed. Then he began to dig into his jeans. He was digging pretty hard, too. This was the first glimpse I had into the economics of rock 'n' roll. And it wasn't pretty.
"It's cool," I said. "Just take it. By the time that guy gets around to you, Nixon will be out of office."
"Ain't that a nice thought," said Duane. "Thanks man. All Jaimoe's got is some M&M's. And that just wudden gonna do it."
I handed the guitarist my hot dog and told him to get going. Allman patted my shoulder, nodded and was gone.
That night The Allman Brothers played like it was the last concert they would ever do. They set "Statesboro Blues" aflame, did a 20-minute version of "In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed" and simply destroyed the 1800 stoners who loved that band.
When Duane launched into a solo that got an unusual amount of applause, I thought I had the tiniest bit to do with it.
Eight months later, a friend called to tell me that Duane Allman was dead. I'd never met Jimi or Janis, so, as bad as those deaths were, they weren't personal. After I hung up the phone, I started to cry. But about two minutes later, the image of me putting a hot dog into Allman's hand, appeared in my mind, freeze-frame style. I began to smile through my tears. I don't eat franks anymore. I'm middle-aged and I take care of myself now. But should I ever see anyone, anywhere, ever eating a hot dog, I also hear a searing slide lick in my head. And a familiar voice belting out,
"Wake up mama, turn your lamp down low." And as much as I miss that great band and that brilliant guitar player, I feel okay. He may have been steeped in the blues. But everytime I think about Duane Allman? You know, man? I feel alright.
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