Skydog – The Duane Allman Story

Skydog – The Duane Allman Story
By Randy Poe

A book review

On March 23, 1969 a young guitarist, with a reputation as a hired studio gun on several of the best R&B records of the era, invited a group of musicians to his Jacksonville house for a jam session.  Hours later, the playing was over, and every musician in the room was energized by the experience.

Duane Allman, the man who’d gathered them together that day, stood in front of the open doorway and said, “anybody in this room not gonna play in my band, you’re gonna have to fight your way out of here.”
He called his brother Gregg home from California, and the Allman Brothers Band was born.  Their fusion of rock, blues and jazz gave birth to a new genre of music, simply (and somewhat deceptively) called “Southern Rock.”

But the original band would only exist for two and a half years, until Duane died in a motorcycle accident, four days after checking out of rehab.

“Skydog” chronicles a story that’s been told before, in Scott Freeman’s “Midnight Riders – The Story of the Allman Brothers Band.” But what makes Randy Poe’s excellent biography a worthy addition to the canon is his focus on Duane Allman’s evolution as a musician.  Poe largely eschews the band’s well-known tragic elements for a detailed look at the life of a single-minded performer who reshaped American music.

The Allman Brothers were an interracial band in a segregated South, featuring two drummers when such a thing was unheard of.  Their music hinted at jazz, but could rock like the English Invasion groups Duane and Gregg emulated with their first band, while staying rooted in blues traditions.

No one had even imagined a sound like the Allman Brothers, until Duane Allman invented it that fateful day in March 1969.

“Skydog” – the nickname was given to him by Wilson Pickett – shows that it wasn’t an easy road.

With bands like the Allman Joys and Hourglass, Duane Allman enjoyed a reputation for flashy playing that made he and his brother a hit in the “garbage circuit” – clubs and roadhouses throughout the South who welcomed the band’s mix of blues and Yardbirds covers.

Their first break came when recording sessions done with songwriting legend Jim Loudermilk led to a West Coast contract with Liberty Records, at a time when old time labels were trying to capitalize on rock and roll.

The experience was a double-edged sword for Duane.  On the plus side, his band frequently shuttled up to San Francisco for shows at the Fillmore West.  There, they met concert promoter Bill Graham, and laid the groundwork for their legendary “Live at the Fillmore East” album.

Duane also picked up slide guitar, after seeing Jesse Ed Davis play “Statesboro Blues” with Taj Mahal one night in Los Angeles.   The Allman Brothers would later copy Davis’s arrangement of the song and make it famous.

But Hourglass never found its musical voice, making two forgettable albums.  Eventually, Gregg chose to work off their record contract in L.A., while Duane went home to look for studio work.

His first stop was Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals; he’d made some friends when Hourglass recorded a blues-based album there (which Liberty later rejected). Studio owner Rick Hall told Duane he had plenty of hotshot guitarists on the payroll, but that he could hang out and see what transpired.  Eventually, his work on Wilson Pickett’s cover of the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” – which Duane suggested to the incredulous singer – got him noticed.

In short order, Allman’s distinctive playing was heard on records by Aretha Franklin, King Curtis, Arthur Conley and others.  Later, he made his mark on Boz Scaggs’ debut, one of the first albums made at the now-legendary Muscle Shoals Sound studio.

Soon, the Allman Brothers Band’s trajectory would begin in earnest.  Two and half years later, Duane Allman was dead.  Though his brilliance is to many fans a tragic footnote in the band’s 40-year history, “Skydog” makes clear that though the Allman Brothers could carry on in his absence, they would not have existed without Duane.

The book also explores Duane Allman’s work with Eric Clapton – their mutual admiration society meeting, shared taste for excess during the making of “Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs” and Duane’s short touring life (three shows) as a member of Derek and the Dominoes.

Poe breathes life into this seminal period of American roots music, and one of the era’s most important figure’s coming of age.

In an earlier review of “Skydog,” it was stated that the book “suffers from a lack of source material – the bibliography is several pages long, but Poe conducted few, if any, of his own interviews.”

That is incorrect. In a 3-page acknowledgments section, Poe thanks several individuals for their participation in the book, including ABB members Gregg Allman and Chuck Leavall. This reviewer regrets his error, and hopes that correcting the record within 24 hours of posting the article will mitigate the unfavorable impressions it caused.

Too much time is spent on the already well-documented post-Duane Allman Brothers era.   When he focuses exclusively on Duane’s music, especially through the insights of people like Rick Hall, Jerry Wexler and the various members of Allman’s early groups, “Skydog” is a solid biography.

Boston Rocks – “The Sound of Our Town”

soundofourtown.jpgA Review of “The Sound of Our Town” by Brett Milano

Boston music doesn’t begin and end with the J. Geils Band, Aerosmith, the Cars or the “More Than a Feeling” arena rockers named after the city.

In “The Sound of Our Town,” a thorough look at the highs and lows of rock music in the region, Boston journalist Brett Milano reports that it all started with the G-Clefs. The Roxbury doo-wop band won over the tough audience at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, and had a minor hit (“Ka-Ding Dong”) in 1956.

The canon includes Freddy Cannon’s “Palisades Park,” and “Gangwar,” a dark rockabilly tune from New Hampshire native Gene Maltais. There’s also an early precursor to teen idols New Kids on the Block and n’Sync.

Teddy & the Pandas began as a Beatles-era boy band. Later, along with Ultimate Spinach, Beacon Street Union and Eden’s Children, they were part of the forgettable “Bosstown Sound” – a record company executive’s misguided attempt to package the countercultural music of the time.

The town’s most famous song didn’t even come from Boston. The Standells recorded “Dirty Water” in their hometown of Los Angeles, as a tribute to a band member’s Boston-born girlfriend.

These and other interesting anecdotes pepper Milano’s well-researched book. It’s widely assumed, for example, that guitarist Tom Scholtz grew Boston like mushrooms in his basement. The band actually paid dues playing area bars for more than four years, evolving the songs from their multi-platinum debut album along the way.

A Kenmore Square music club, arguably more famous than the bands that played there, also features prominently. The Rathskeller, known to all who cared simply as “the Rat,” hosted early shows by the Police, the Cars and Tom Petty, as well as the “Rock and Roll Rumble” – an annual talent show known as much for the bands that didn’t make it past the first round (Morphine, Mission of Burma) as those who won the competition.

For much of rock’s early history, New England performers followed more trends than they set. Bands like Mission of Burma, Throwing Muses and Morphine started to change that in the early 80’s. But being a visionary didn’t guarantee success; quite the opposite. Though the Pixies are often cited as one of rock’s most influential groups, they didn’t sell many records until they reunited in 2005.

One singer’s career ranges across most of the period covered in the book. “If the Boston scene has a single godfather, Willie Alexander is it,” writes Milano. In the early Sixties, a Rolling Stones appearance on the Mike Douglas Show inspired Alexander to quit Vermont’s Godard College, move to Boston and form the Lost.

Over a long career, Alexander briefly played keyboards in the Velvet Underground, fronted the punk rock Boom Boom Band in the 70’s, and worked as a spoken word artist. He turned 65 this month, and shows no signs of letting up.

Alexander also lent Milano his extensive memorabilia collection for the book.

Though subtitled “a History of Boston Rock & Roll,” the city is really a focal point for the entire New England scene. The Shaggs, four Fremont, New Hampshire sisters who were browbeaten into performing by their overbearing father, are perhaps the strangest band of all. Most everyone agrees they couldn’t play or sing a note, but that doesn’t make them any less loved.

G.G. Allin was both weird and dangerous. Milano calls the Lancaster, New Hampshire native “the most extreme rock monster who ever lived.” Allin died of a heroin overdose in 1993, after a career of shows that typically would only last as long as it took the police to shut them down.

Rather than weave a narrative around his story, Milano’s book often reads like a long series of Wikipedia entries. This chronological, band-by-band approach drains some of the spark from “The Sound of Our Town.” But the book is still an essential reference for anyone looking to understand Boston’s contribution to the world of pop music.

Townes Van Zandt – John Kruth’s Biography

tvzbio.jpgTo Live’s To Fly

The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt

by John Kruth

Townes Van Zandt died young at 52, but he was lucky to have made it past 30. The subtitle of John Kruth’s biography refers to a 1973 album, “The Late Great Townes Van Zandt,” which got its’ title from the time in 1972 that the singer clinically died – twice – after a heroin overdose.

“Many thought Townes’ excessive behavior was deliberate,” writes Kruth, but the Texas songwriter “believed he couldn’t write with validity without firsthand experience … it was hypocritical to sing the blues if you haven’t lived them.”

Through the recollections of Van Zandt’s friends and acquaintances, John Kruth’s biography paints a vivid portrait of a troubled, gifted artist who never achieved the level of personal success he deserved. His songs, said one friend, “stick in your mind like burned beans to a Crock-Pot.”

“If you say Buddy Holly is the father of Texas rock,” says Michael Murphey, “the you have to say that Townes is the father of Texas folk.”

Sadly, Van Zandt’s own records didn’t sell well, a fact Kruth attributes to poor management and the singer’s lack of creative control in the studio. Over the course of his career, Van Zandt re-recorded many of his best songs, both live and in the studio, trying and failing to get the perfect take. Often, says Kruth, excellent work was obliterated by overdubbing.

It wasn’t until tunes like “Poncho and Lefty,” “Tecumseh Valley” and “If I Needed You” were covered by the likes of Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris to Bob Dylan that the world outside Texas began to notice Townes Van Zandt. In death, his reputation as the best songwriter to ever come out of Texas is undisputed.

Kruth’s book is hamstrung a bit by its’ hagiographic nature, conflicting memories and the absence of some key voices. Susannah Clark is working on her own book, so the author had to rely on a few quotes from other sources to communicate her close friendship with Van Zandt.

Some of Van Zandt’s close friends were reluctant to speak with Kruth, a fact used to entertaining effect in an exchange with Guy Clark (married to Susannah). Before agreeing to talk, the songwriter grills him mercilessly, phoning Ramblin’ Jack Elliot in an attempt to call his bluff. “Jack, I got this little Yankee journalist here who says he knows you,” sneers Clark, then hands the phone to Kruth.

There are festering rivalries between many of the principles that leave the reader wondering about the real stories at the heart of the book. Longtime manager Kevin Eggers and Townes’ third wife Jeanene Van Zandt, for example, had a bitter relationship before and after the singer’s death.

Often, each reports a different version of events, forcing intermediaries to provide clarity for certain incidents. Engineer Eric Paul stood between the two while trying to mix a 1990 session using a group of backing vocalists that Jeanene termed “cheesy” and Eggers likened to Elvis Presley’s Jordanaires.

“I did my best!” says the exasperated Paul, who claims that Van Zandt was “quite proud” of the finished work..

The author attempts to solve the problem of multiple recollections by introducing an abundance of voices to Van Zandt’s narrative. This is a problem. As Kruth notest early on, “Townes was everyone’s best friend.” Often, the telling of a single story resembles a gaggle of hung-over drunks trying to explain the events at last night’s party.

That’s a challenging task for the best of writers, let alone an unabashed fan who’s given the singer’s widow “my guarantee that I wasn’t out to lionize her husband for all the wrong reasons.” Any honest biography would suffer from such stipulations.

Still, “To Live’s To Fly” managers to ably gather the threads of Townes’ Van Zandt’s life. But Kruth can’t avoid, as he puts it, “glorifying tragedy.” He’s writing about a subject whose best work was at times utterly morbid, and who wrote lines like “the end is coming soon it’s plain/and a warm bed just ain’t worth the pain (“Tower Song”).

“Townes was a sad soul,” says friend Eric Anderson. “You know how Rolling Stone rates new albums with stars? Well, if a song was really depressing, we’d give it ten razor blades.”

It’s hard to find the silver lining in those words . Says Kevin Eggers, Townes Van Zandt “worked at being a tragedy. That was his full-time occupation.”