I was listening to the Allman Brothers in the womb.
My parents were both huge fans of music, and there were always lots of records in rotation. The ones that were always near the top of the stack were Eat A Peach, Brothers and Sisters, and the one that loomed most largely in my life, At Fillmore East.
By the time I was born in 1976, Duane and Berry were already dead; their status as legends, particularly Duane’s, was an indelible imprint on my young mind. Their music was the soundtrack of my life, and it proved to me over and over again with each listen, I grew to understand, that you could apply a jazz improv, nothing-but-feel sensibility to rock n roll.
I went through a lot phases with my tastes growing up: pop, heavy metal, punk rock, classical, jazz, electronica, hip hop – but I always returned, again and again, to those records made by those long haired country boys from Georgia.
One of my fondest memories is of the early morning car rides with my dad when I was in high school. I wasn’t yet driving, and I was sick of riding the bus to school, so Dad would drop me off early before going to work at the machine shop. Every cold and dewy morning, he’d back the old Nissan out of the driveway, Camel straight in hand, window barely cracked, and we’d listen in silent awe to At Fillmore East on cassette.
“Okay, the Allman Brothers Band,” the album starts. You hear the ringing for a split second of someone’s open A string, and the very gentle tapping of a hi hat before launching into “Statesboro Blues”. We knew this album so well we didn’t even need to listen to it. We knew every note and phrase, every gritty vocal and screaming guitar note, every organ swell, every strike of Butch’s sticks and Jaimo’s hands, every moment of applause.
But when something is that great, you just can’t get enough of it.
Dad’s free hand, once we were in fifth gear, would rest in a place on the lower left hand side of the steering wheel, fingering along with Duane and Dickey. My right hand would play along with Gregg on my right thigh. Dad and I would glance knowingly at each other at our favorite moments – Duane’s first solo on “Statesboro”, the entrance of Dickey’s mournful guitar on “Elizabeth Reed”, and on and on.
But there was a moment that used to really piss me off.
Like my dad used to say, “Hire a teenager now while they still know everything.”
I was a smart aleck musical whiz kid. I took classical piano lessons for a lot of years, and I was really good. I wasn’t arrogant about it, in fact I was painfully shy, especially about my singing voice, but I thought I knew more than I actually did. The eternal affliction of youth.
On “One Way Out”, coming out of Butch and Jaimo’s drum and percussion solo, Dickey and Duane, in that order, would trade fours. And then on the last four, Duane ups the ante with this killer syncopated line, and then what does Berry do? He comes in a beat early and fucks it all up! This was another moment when Dad and I would look at each other, every time. Sometimes I would comment, “Aw, why?” And though Dad would smile, he otherwise never showed any agreement.
It took me years to see the beauty in that moment.
I used to think Neil Young was awful. I would snobbishly say, “He can’t sing or play worth a damn.” And maybe, technically, that is true, but when I saw him perform on TV in 1993, just him and his piano, it hit me hard. The raw, pure emotion of his performance got me in the gut. Though I didn’t become a huge fan of his, I never again criticized him. How could I? He was and is brilliant.
Yes, Berry’s early note on “One Way Out” is technically a mistake. But what I finally realized one day is that my annoyance at this moment had melted away, to the point where it may just be my favorite moment on the Fillmore record. Because after the early note, you hear Duane continuing to dazzle as if nothing has happened, and you hear the rest of the band making tiny little adjustments to make it all turn out right by the time they get back to the root. Just four bars and all was right with the world again.
The lesson there was so simple. Music for a musician is not just about playing. It’s about listening! Listening as if you have never heard the song, the chord, the moment before, and just bringing your skills to bear on each and every one.
Gregg is gone now. Another brilliant voice gone silent. Thank goodness we have all those perfect/imperfect records to listen to and rejoice in and shoot for.