[Slowhand] Duane Allman & Eric Clapton: The Triumph And Tragedy Of Two Guitar Heroes

Lauren Blatt llrrbb4 at yahoo.com
Sat Jan 27 12:42:14 EST 2007


Great guitarists are no less a fascination to each
other than to the music loving, guitar-hero
worshipper, perhaps more so. Why else would Jim Hall
and Pat Metheny, Rory Gallagher and Muddy Waters, and
last but not least, Eric Clapton and Duane Allman play
together? Two recent books detailing the triumph and
tragedy of the latter two make it seem as if fate
decreed Clapton and Allman would collaborate on the
masterwork that is Layla.

Much has been written on the genesis of Layla And
Other Assorted Love Songs, Clapton’s most famous piece
of work. At least some of the writing depicts the
means by which Allman jump started the sessions for
this pivotal album when he entered but a short way
into them (see Gene Santoro’s liner notes to the 20th
Anniversary Edition). The revelation, if you want to
call it that, of Jan Reid’s book is that there isn’t
much more to say about the album than the music itself
states so eloquently and passionately.

Say this for Reid though, he does an admirable job as
an academic researcher. Delving ever so thoroughly,
perhaps more than anyone before him, into the story
behind the Arabic folk legend on which Clapton named
the song and album, Reid also explores the background
of the great English guitarist himself. That enquiry
leads inevitably into a similar outline of the roots
of his American counterpart. The subsequent tale of
the dissipation of the inspiration that led to the
formation of Derek And The Dominos is a familiar story
of self-indulgence and personality conflict, but with
a crucial difference: the music preceding the
downslide is transcendent.

What distracts from all this solid work is the
high-strung means by which the author relegates the
less-than-lurid aspects of the story to the
background. Reid re-emphasizes to a fault the
soap-operatic convolutions involving Clapton, his
friend Beatle George Harrison and the object of their
affections Pattie Boyd—Harrison’s wife and Clapton’s
paramour. These goings-on eventually take as much
precedence in this melodrama as the chemistry by which
Clapton and Allman created, through their guitar work
and the overall musicianship of The Dominos, what is
arguably the greatest rock album of all time.

Reid's interviews with Bobby Whitlock are the primary
source of insight into this phase of Clapton’s career.
Having become estranged from Delaney & Bonnie, the
keyboardist/songwriter/vocalist (who also contributes
insight to the Duane Allman biography, particularly in
reference to the Dominos' recording sessions), ends up
living with Clapton in England for a period of time.
He plays an integral role in the composing process
that evolved into the Layla album and helped in the
assembly of the Clapton band. His boyish enthusiasm
encouraged Clapton in those positive musical
activities, yet his nonchalance about the substance
abuse surrounding the group is notable as well.

“These two books suggest fate decreed Eric Clapton and
Duane Allman collaborate on the masterwork that is

Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs By Derek And The
Dominos thus becomes a natural starting place from
which to proceed to Randy Poe’s book, the first
attempt at a comprehensive biography of Duane Allman.
Depicting a man of good humor, endless passion for
music, and an addictive personality more hooked on the
joy of playing than on drugs and alcohol, it makes
perfect sense that the Southern guitarist lit the fire
under Clapton and the Dominos to sustain the creative
spark at the heart of Layla and bring it to fruition
in all its agony and ecstasy.

Skydog: The Duane Allman Story is a fast-paced read
full of essential detail. It’s an unusually
suspenseful biography as it documents the evolution
and demise of Duane and brother Gregg’s Hourglass
band, the 31st of February with Butch Trucks, and The
2nd Coming with Dickey Betts and Berry Oakley. In
doing so, it makes the grouping of the original
line-up of The Allman Brothers Band seem, like so much
else in Allman’s tale, the work of destiny. ZZ Top
guitarist Billy Gibbons' foreword is an unexpectedly
touching piece of mini-drama: only obliquely touching
upon the precise yet abandoned style of Allman’s slide
playing—the distinctive likes of which centered him as
a musician, solidified his reputation among peers like
Gibbons, and ultimately stood as a metaphor for his
reckless personality—it effectively sets the scene for
the story to follow.

Poe does a good job of putting the most significant
issues in their proper historical contexts. There’s an
implicit commentary on the concert business when he
discusses the ABB’s work at The Fillmore auditoriums
of the late impresario Bill Graham. The author’s
allusions to Allman’s drug and alcohol use, as in the
recounting of a New York radio interview, serve to
illustrate the intensity of the guitarist's
personality, not just use it as fodder for gossip
and/or innuendo.

The resulting picture of Allman—his Skydog nickname
formalized by Wilson Pickett—is that of a serious
musician getting more serious all the time. Just as
the iconic Southerner’s talent might have begun to
fossilize, his discovery of the jazz dynamic,
furthered through his introduction (via Capricorn
major domo Phil Walden) to former Percy Sledge drummer
Jai Johanny Johansson, escalates his drive to a higher
level. It leads inexorably, as do many other of his
transitions, to the next fateful step of his career,
in this case his work with King Curtis and Herbie

In keeping with his tempered tone, Poe understates
Allman’s contribution to Layla. Instead of
over-dramatizing the encounter with Clapton, Poe lets
the sequence of events speak for itself, including how
Allman devised the famous opening to the title song on
the album. He points out, crucially, how Allman
forsook ABB gigs to be sure to complete the recording.
It’s here that Allman, only 24 years old at the time
of his death, sounds like a wise and knowing
individual beyond his calendar years.

The artful depiction of this phase of Allman’s career
makes his tragic death in the motorcycle accident of
1971 seem inevitable as well. As Allman continued to
do session work even as the demand for ABB grew and
grew, the fatigue factor, combined with increasing
drug use throughout the band, resulted in a vicious
downward spiral. Duane’s brother Gregg is
conspicuously absent as this theme unfolds, his
presence supplanted by Berry Oakley. Killed in an
accident eerily similar to Duane’s in 1972, the
bassist took Allman’s death the hardest of the ABB
family, plunging into a morass of alcohol and drugs
resembling nothing so much as a death wish.

The author references how Allman himself alluded,
somewhat morbidly, to his own early demise in the
later months of his own life. It’s symbolic of the
man's influence on the young Southern culture of the
late 1960s and early 1970s that Poe speaks without
melodrama of the ABB’s post- death activities. Again
he allows the facts, such as they are, to speak for
themselves as he talks of Gregg Allman’s marriage to
Cher and the sale of the Muscle Shoals recording
studios where Duane first made a reputation for
himself. Throughout Skydog: The Duane Allman Story, a
selection of photos both illustrates the unfolding
story and piques the reader's curiosity, ultimately
making the book worthy of close perusal.

It’s a tribute to Poe and his subject that the later
chapters don’t come across as rushed or superficial,
as is the case with all too many contemporary
biographies. Given that, it's odd that current Allman
Brothers members such as Derek Trucks and Oteil
Burbridge aren’t allowed to provide some perspective
on the legacy of Duane Allman. Perhaps that’s for a
revised edition some years in the future—or even
another book altogether, one capturing the recurring
rites of passage navigated by ABB, all of which was
set in motion by the indomitable (if slightly flawed)
free-spirit of its figurehead Duane Allman.

Have a burning question?
Go to www.Answers.yahoo.com and get answers from real people who know.

More information about the Slowhand mailing list