How Gregg Allman Ruined My Drinking (Sort of…)

 

Gregg Allman, circa 2011 (New York Times photo)

 

The first time I got drunk I was 13 years old. I had no idea who the Allman Brothers were because I was already in denial of my southern roots at that early age, leaning toward “smarter” music like Elton John, Queen, and others. By the time I was 18 I was a certified anti-southern rock snob. I was also well on my way to becoming an alcoholic, drinking with purpose and abandon. Morning “skull-busters”, 16-ounce Budweisers, occasionally served as breakfast for a friend of mine and I and as we became regular drinking buddies, he turned me on to something that would blow my mind: marijuana and the Allman Brothers.

 

There was a July 4th weekend on St. Simons Island in 1977 when a random party broke out around a whole lotta Buds and a whole lotta bud, and my friend was determined to break me of my apathy toward his beloved Allman Brothers. After we’d achieved a remarkable high from a copiously fat joint, he put “Dreams I’ll Never See” on the stereo and cranked it up.

 

I was mesmerized. And not just from the weed.

 

A very strange friendship was cemented that day, as I devoured song after song – “Whipping Post”, “Trouble No More”, “Every Hungry Woman”, “Statesboro Blues”, “In Memory Of Elizabeth Reed”, “One Way Out”, “Not My Cross To Bear”.  A decade or so later, after we had both married and settled down (translation: gone on to become perfectly functioning alcoholics) we would spend our time together re-enacting that crazy, lost weekend, a ritual of insanity that continued for years. It was as if we had nothing else in common. The Allmans (and the booze and pot) were our glue.

 

Through my radio career, I managed to have a low-level brush with greatness with Gregg. This was at something of a low point for the band in the mid-80s. Gregg and guitarist Dickey Betts weren’t on speaking terms, but they managed to be on touring terms and I found myself introducing their separate bands onstage at a small dive in Charlotte, NC. I barely remember shaking Gregg’s hand (I’m quite sure he never remembered it), and Dickey looked at me like I was crazy when I stepped in front of him to do my slurred introduction.

 

Dickey and Gregg eventually patched things up, and when guitarist Warren Haynes joined the band, my friend and I were ecstatic. We caught the rejuvenated Brothers twice in Raleigh, and the second night found us in the audience shirtless and shit-faced. I was truly channeling my inner Joe Dirt in that moment. I couldn’t tell you what in the hell they played, but we were told by a lady who had to stare at the back of our staggering, swaying bodies through most of the show that she was really happy we enjoyed ourselves. (I might have detected a bit of sarcasm in her voice, but I could be wrong -  we did  enjoy ourselves.)

 

Fast-forward to December 1999. I had already been through a failed 28-day stint at rehab in 1988, and as another decade faded I had entered rehab yet again, determined to save my job. Gregg himself had been through rehab 11 times, and he was in a sober period then. He’d booked himself a solo gig for New Year’s Eve at the House of Blues in Myrtle Beach, and I became enamored with the idea of going. So I invited my old drinking buddy along. I was barely two weeks sober.

 

I know what you’re thinking. Here comes the relapse.

 

Nope. But I was one irritable son of a bitch. My buddy was drunk and having a grand old time and I felt completely left out. After that night I told him I couldn’t be around him if he was going to drink. It was just too damn hard. He understood, and complied by abstaining around me in the years afterward but it was never the same. I eventually relapsed again, not surprisingly, and stayed drunk for a good five-year stretch that began Memorial Day weekend 2008. When I got sober four years ago we had another falling out. Our friendship didn’t survive my recovery this time, and not entirely because he couldn’t handle “Sober Me”. I couldn’t handle sober me either, and so we went our separate ways and haven’t spoken since.

 

It’s a strange thing to chronicle your life through the career span of a band, but my drinking career and eventual sobriety had its rise and fall to Gregg Allman’s music. As he struggled to find his sobriety, I struggled to find mine. Even when I wasn’t sober, I’d find myself rooting for him to stay clean. I’m not sure why I was more concerned for Allman’s sobriety than mine, but I’m sure some denial was involved. As my former drinking partner and I used to laugh, “I could quit anytime. Now’s not the time.”

 

I’m glad Gregg finally got sober. I’m especially grateful that I’m sober.  His passing gave me a reason to reach out to my old partner-in-crime and try to make some kind of amends. Sadly, there has been no response but I have to be okay with that. I hate not being able to share the loss of Allman with him. I hate even more that two old friends can’t seem to find anything in common beyond the bottle and the blues. That gives me two losses to grieve this weekend.


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