Matt sends this post from Chapel Hill, NC, to Bacon readers and music lovers in Nashville (and beyond):
Art is honesty; else you have entertainment, or distraction.
Entertainment and distraction are welcome, even necessary at times, but there is something so different – a visceral, soaring, beautiful intensity – in a Terrence Malick frame, or a Jeremy Mann painting, or a Sally Mann photograph. And it was there whenever Duane Allman played the unaccompanied solo in the middle of “You Don’t Love Me.”
This honesty also is present in Galadrielle Allman’s Please Be With Me: A Song for My Father, Duane Allman. It was far and away the best book I read, old or new, in 2014. The amount of temporal and emotional ground it covers is extraordinary. Galadrielle’s father, Duane, was alive for only 24 years; so much happened in that time that Galadrielle and the other family and friends Duane left behind spent the next 43 years processing those 24.
Please Be With Me certainly is a fine biography of an artist if you want to take it for that alone. You Bacon readers know Duane Allman, even if you think you don’t. For you locals, he was born in your city in 1946, lived as a child in homes on Westbrook Avenue and Scotland Place, and did two stints at Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon. If you have heard Wilson Pickett’s version of “Hey Jude,” or Aretha Franklin’s version of “The Weight,” or Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla” (for which Duane, not Clapton, conjured the opening riff), then you have heard Duane. If you have not heard the Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East in its entirety, or “Little Martha” from the band’s Eat a Peach album, then I am not sure your life has been one fully lived.
Duane’s life is all there, unvarnished, in Please Be With Me – his father’s murder and his mother’s determination to sustain the remainder of her small family in the 1940s and 50s South; his discovery of the guitar in his early teens, and his ascendancy to the status of one of the best ever to play the instrument; his move from solitary session musician in Muscle Shoals to the leader of a band that was a pioneering force in its integration of both persons and musical styles; his struggles with substances and relationships; and his death following an accident at a Macon intersection in late 1971.
What gives the book its special resonance, though, is that it also is Galadrielle’s frank memoir of grief, longing, and belonging. She was two when Duane died, and as she says early in the book, “My father is killed in the first paragraph of every article ever written about him.” Her parents had separated before Duane’s death. There is no existing photograph of her together with her father and mother as a nuclear family, and there is only one photograph of her parents with each other, which Galadrielle did not see until she was 44. To learn about her father and gather the material for Please Be With Me, she was forced to ask her father’s friends and family to relive his death, and to ask her mother, Donna, about the man who had rejected her, who had brought another woman to their home, and who had given her a tab of LSD and a capsule of Seconal as parting trinkets. (Again, this book is honest biography and memoir, not hagiography.) Galadrielle had to navigate through great losses and hurts – both hers and those of others. Along the way, however, there were discoveries of love and triumph – her grandmother’s defiance and resilience; her father’s ability to elicit extraordinary performances from those who entered his orbit; her mother’s determination to find a “way forward out of despair” following the successive deaths of Duane and Duane’s bandmate, Berry Oakley; and the resurrection of her father’s band with players, old and new, who possessed their own exceptional instrumental facility, and who would carry the band onward until it finally ran its course in 2014.
Again, I found the book extraordinary. It is a book about parents and children, spouses and lovers, and (of course, given who were are talking about) brothers and sisters. It is a book about the price of an artist’s vocation, and how that price is borne not only by the artist, but also by those around him or her. It is a book about people left behind or cast aside, and forced to fashion their own unique family experience from that circumstance. It is a book about the limits of love and longing. With regard to this latter theme, consider the following passage from the book’s final chapter:
“Before there was a fence around your grave, I sat beside you, and now I can only stare through the black bars, down at the inscribed marble slab and the little carved angel, replaced, after being repeatedly stolen, with money raised by your fans. My name is carved on the marble pedestal under her feet. The angel is my tiny proxy, invoking my love. An identical angel stands over Brittany’s name [Brittany Oakley, daughter of Berry Oakley] at the foot of Berry’s grave beside you. When we were little, we lay on the white marble slabs above you, Brittany and I making beds of our fathers’ graves. I pictured you inside like Snow White in her glass coffin, your heart still but visible, a red bloom in a cage of bone, your face perfect and calm, like a prince asleep.”
You may think that a book about a blues-oriented guitarist now 44 years gone is not your thing. If so, I would encourage you to take the paperback off the bookstore shelf, read the Introduction, and see where Galadrielle’s honesty and hard-won perspective takes you in those first 15 pages. I hope and believe you will find these pages, and the rest of the book, rewarding. There can be no happy ending here (“Duane’s story can only end one way. It ends with goodbye”), but as Galadrielle explains near the end of her search, now “[t]here are moments fully imagined in places where questions used to be.” And despite the chasm that never will be filled or spanned, she no longer will be defined by “being left behind.”
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Matt Osborne is a serious cat, a Southern intellectual who sports several tattoos and a disdain for pretension. He’s also a family man. His oldest daughter is applying to college this year with an interest in public health. She just wrapped up a European competition with her jump-roping team; they brought home the gold at the World Jump Rope Federation competition in Paris! His younger daughter loves field hockey, lacrosse, and fashion. It’s the end of the world as we know it for wife Mary Beth, who recently took a new position with “the people in dark blue” (at that other university near Chapel Hill). But she feels fine.
For Matt’s intro bio and a prior post on Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, please click here.
I am going to buy this today for my next trip. Thanks, Matt, for a great review!