Each month, our Aux.Out. Book Club reads and discusses either a canonical piece of music writing or something fresh off the presses. This month, we sat down with Alan Paul’s comprehensive oral history One Way Out: The Inside History of the Allman Brothers Band. Paul, in his own words, sets out to “disentangle the myths and legends, with the eyes and ears of a journalist, and the heart and soul of a fan.” Read on to see the Book Club’s reaction to One Way Out.
Book Club Members:
— Matt Melis, Senior Editor
— Henry Hauser, Staff Writer
— Dean Essner, Staff Writer
Recent Book Club Reviews:
Mo’ Meta Blues by Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
31 Songs by Nick Hornby
Signifying Rappers by David Foster Wallace and Mark Costello
Dinosaur Jr. by Dinosaur Jr.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
For Next Month:
Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan
Matt Melis (MM): Earlier this year, Warren Haynes and Derek Trucks announced they’d be leaving The Allman Brothers Band at the end of 2014, and Gregg Allman has stated that the band won’t tour anymore following their departure. So, now seems like an appropriate time to reflect on the band’s legacy with a book like Alan Paul’s One Way Out.
So, for starters, what does an Allman Brothers oral history, like this one, add to their story?
Henry Hauser (HH): It helps clear away the clouds of myth and legend. The Allman Brothers are a band with a lot of baggage. There’s the reputation for excessive drug use, tragedy of early deaths, and power struggles between members, including brothers Gregg and Duane Allman. It’s very difficult for outsiders to understand how that band functioned at all, let alone produced some of the greatest music of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. This oral history fleshes out that story through a diverse array of perspectives, which were pretty cohesive, despite presenting so many different voices.
Dean Essner (DE): The first thing that struck me about the book was the sheer size of it—about 500 pages. That alone serves to punctuate the band’s long and detailed history. Just reading the very candid bits of commentary we get from band members and people associated with the band offers a lot of insight.
MM: Dean, before this conversation, you mentioned that the book could be hard to get through at times. What difficulties did you run across?
DE: I grew up with the Allman Brothers, but I’m not a super fan. So, I thought it would be interesting to read the book as someone looking to learn about the band’s history rather than affirm what I already knew or just get several different perspectives on the same incident. The first 150 pages laid out a lot of that history, but the commentary from band members, while well-intentioned, often said a lot of the same things. The quotes didn’t seem that well organized. And maybe it’s possible that everyone had the exact same thing to say about every subject, but it just felt very repetitive.
HH: To me, it didn’t feel repetitive. I felt like I was sitting around in a circle with these guys shooting the shit and rehashing some old memories.
In terms of length, I agree with Dean that the last 150 pages seemed superfluous. The band’s early history—the densely rendered character sketch of Duane, drug use, diverse musical influences, and the hardships facing a racially integrated band in the Deep South—deserved every line. But after two of the most compelling figures die, there’s a strong argument against maintaining that same level of detail throughout the remainder of the band’s history.
DE: I like your view of the book as sitting around in a circle and shooting the shit with the band. That’s a really good way of looking at it. And I’m assuming you felt like you had enough background on the band to contribute to that dialogue. Unlike you, though, I felt more like a reporter or observer because I didn’t have as much prior knowledge going into the book. So, I felt as thought I was outside of the circle—maybe peering in through the window or something. And I wished there was more of a concerted effort to reach out to someone who may not have been a super fan.
HH: You make a good point. Going into it with specific themes that you’re interested in learning more about definitely enhances the reading experience.
MM: Was an oral history the best way to tell this story, then?
DE: I’ll say that my favorite part of the book was the photos. I thought that the photography was beautiful and really did as good of a job telling the story as some of the dialogue and interviews. I actually think the text could’ve functioned best as a coffee table book, featuring mostly photos followed by various factoids and snippets of really interesting information. It’s fair to question how much hard history you can really tell purely through photography. But I really loved looking at the old photos of the band playing and hanging out.
The book does run really long, though. The history itself felt like a bit of a slog to go through, while there were, at times, sequences of quotes that were just beautiful and evocative. For example, all the band’s visceral reactions to Duane dying came together wonderfully. Maybe it would’ve been enough to read a few of those sequences underneath a photo of him shredding on guitar or something.
HH: An oral history was really the only way this story could be told. Objectivity gets dulled by the passage of time, and certainly by the fact that almost all of the band members were on some heavy drugs. There is simply no way to state objectively what happened. The only real way to get a picture of what it was like to be in that moment is to get a diverse array of perspectives and try to triangulate the signals, so to speak.
I completely agree with Dean that the photos were a major highlight. Some incredible shots of the band in the studio and performing live in the early days: raggedy, long hair, looking like they hadn’t eaten in a week. I’m a big Kindle user. Do NOT buy this book on Kindle. Get it in print. Those photos alone are worth the price of admission.
MM: Obviously, a comprehensive project like this one would hopefully get to the essence of what made and makes The Allman Brothers Band unique and special. Does One Way Out crystalize this for readers?
HH: Absolutely. It puts it right up front. It’s their collaborative approach, the striving for a coherent musical voice, the spontaneity, and, maybe most importantly, the diversity—both in terms of musical influences (from jazz-swing to blues, psychedelic, urban-country, and hill-country) and race/ethnicity of the band members themselves.
DE: It gives the CliffsNotes to it, and some pieces of dialogue do a good job of capturing that, but one of the issues I have with band oral histories in general is how hard it can be to break down the magic of music. It’s difficult to completely articulate that. I think there should be a tagline at the end of the book that says, “Go listen to the music.” You can talk about it all you want, try to verbalize what it must have felt like to hear Duane Allman pick up a guitar and play slide for the first time, but it’s hard to capture through words what that feeling must have been like. And the only way for a reader to get a true sense of that is to listen to the music. I think that the book does a good job of pushing the reader to discover or revisit the band’s catalog.
MM: As already mentioned, Duane Allman dies very early in the Allman Brothers story. Does the passage of time and the fact that he’s not around change how he’s spoken about as a leader, guitarist, and brother? Do you think we’re likely getting the real Duane here or more a mythical version?
HH: Well, the short answer to that question is that it’s impossible to know because none of us have ever had the opportunity see Duane in person. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem as though we’re being presented with an idealized character sketch. Sure, we hear about the positive aspects of his personality: total self-confidence, lack of ego, and abundance of talent and fire. But we also hear that he was reckless. And when he drank, he turned into a mean, hateful person.
We hear that he didn’t have a “lifestyle compatible with life,” as Dr. John puts it. And Dickey Betts felt that Duane knew he had a certain amount of time “to get things done.” I’m drawn to believe them based on some of the anecdotes and stories about near-death experiences and overdosing. He very well could’ve known his clock was ticking, and the emotional pain he put into his music really confirms that.
DE: As Henry points out, we do get a lot of passages where band members recall their concerns over Duane and his trouble with drugs and how he was reckless, even in his work. But at the same time, how can you write an Allman Brothers oral history and not idealize him in some way? Essentially, he was responsible for the band, and the book starts with him—and, yes, we get a little about Gregg and him as children picking up guitars—and the evolution of his guitar playing. Even though we do get a nice amount of parts where he isn’t painted as a perfect human being, as a musician, artist, and visionary, it’s hard not to idealize him in a book like this one. Without him, obviously, there is no Allman Brothers Band.
MM: Drug use and power struggles between band members often drove and dominated the story told in One Way Out. Does that make for a compelling narrative?
DE: Maybe it’s shallow to say so, but if I’m reading a long history like this, some of the details about drug use and turmoil within the band turn out to be pretty juicy—sort of like reading an intimate gossip column.
HH: I found the discussion of drug use and how it impacted the band’s commitment to creating evocative, visceral, transcendent music to be really significant. After all, this is a band where the founding member is nicknamed “Skyman” because he liked getting high.
When listening to At Fillmore East, I’ve always been flabbergasted by how a band known to get drunk and high all the time could sound that impeccably tight. It just didn’t make sense; I couldn’t reconcile it.
And I think the book really takes this head on. Right from the get-go, the band members realize that they can’t play very well when they’re stoned. So, they set up a rule that they’d stay straight until after rehearsal, or until after their gig. Unfortunately, over time, that strict rule turned into more of a rough guideline and it became less about the music and more about the drugs.
One really telling anecdote, and one of the few highlights from the second half of the book, was the Watkins Glen concert, which is sort of infamous in music nerd history. It was arguably the largest non-Woodstock show of all time. You have 600,000 fans crammed together in this small town in upstate New York. It’s declared a disaster area. Musicians have to be flown in by helicopter. Everyone pretty much expects Jesus to show up, when The Grateful Dead, The Band, and The Allman Brothers, perhaps the three greatest jam bands in history, all play together. Butch Trucks says that while playing, they all thought it was the greatest-sounding jam ever, the epitome of everything they had worked for. But when they played it back, it sounded terrible.
So what ruined the soup? It’s the drugs. In this particular instance, it’s not just that they’re all on drugs; it’s that each band is on a different drug. The Allman Brothers was on coke. The Dead was on acid. And The Band was probably boozing. Had they all been on the same drug, it probably would’ve turned out better, but I still don’t think it would have reached its full potential.
MM: What was the most memorable section of the book for you?
DE: Reading the three-chapter span leading from towards the end of Duane Allman’s life up until right after his death when the band are sort of figuring out how to move on, because that’s ultimately the turning point of their career. As I alluded to earlier, some of the tributes to Duane are the most visceral, real, and heartfelt passages to read. I actually really enjoyed a lot of Allan Paul’s commentary whenever he’d give it, and there was this one part where he mentioned that it was two days shy of a year after Oakley had prayed for Duane to recover from his overdose in a Nashville hospital that Duane died at just 24 years old. It’s chilling. And that part of the book has to deliver and does.
HH: For me, it was At Fillmore East. Listening to Allman Brothers studio records, you don’t get the sense that this is one of the greatest live bands of all time. In the oral history, they recognize that their sound didn’t come across on early records in the same visceral way it came out live.
Butch Trucks says that their best music came from nowhere. It wasn’t practiced, planned, or discussed. And their performance on At Fillmore East really showcases this. Dickey Betts notes this is not a “doctored-up tape.” It’s a genuine live album. They kept it out of the hands of the studio suits and anyone who tried to tinker.
The sounds of the audience are in there, too. According to Gregg, the audience was a big part of the band; their goal was to create the most transcendental experience possible for their fans. And At Fillmore East really captured all of that: the spontaneity, the live chops, the audience interaction, the comradery between band members. I started listening to that album after reading that chapter, and a month later I haven’t stopped.
MM: It’s that time again, folks. How would you grade One Way Out?
HH: I think the author really achieved his objective: “to disentangle the myths and legends, with the eyes and ears of a journalist, and the heart and soul of a fan.” The book formed an emotional connection without being gushy and got the facts across without seeming like a laundry list. The narrative was smooth, despite the litany of fragmented voices. And there were some really great character sketches of the various members. The last couple hundred pages might be more in-depth than the casual reader would like, but you get your money’s worth by the time you get to the pictures. GRADE: A-
DE: I recognize I’m probably not the right audience for this book. I think it’s more for Allman Brothers completists: people who love the band and are looking for a souvenir to place on their shelf next to a record collection. That being said, there are strong and interesting passages, great insights, and the photography is remarkable. But the length is very, very frustrating. I just don’t think it’s strong enough to hold anyone’s attention unless they love the crap out of this band. GRADE: C
One Way Out is available for purchase here.