Dedicated to a Brother

Two weeks ago I started writing a blog post about Col. Bruce Hampton and didn’t finish it before I went away on vacation. When I got home I put it aside to write a tribute to Chris Cornell, and before I hit publish I heard about Gregg Allman. This is what being a music fan feels like in 2016-17. There’s cause for reflection and appreciation, but the losses are hard. I can see some of my favorite musicians are struggling with the deaths of some of family members and their biggest inspirations.

I have just one Allman Brothers concert t-shirt left, I think: the “2001: A Beacon Odyssey” shirt and I wore it the night my father and I met Gregg. We’d been going to shows together for a few years, and back then the idea of a fan from the old days seeing the band with his son seemed a little unusual. iTunes and streaming hadn’t yet erased the idea of a musical generation gap. Our friend Lana, who helped run the band’s website, talked us up to Gregg and we were invited to meet him. My father must have wanted to meet Gregg for 30 years but he let me do most of the talking, which was a tremendous gift. I said something like “I just wanted to thank you for everything you’ve given us over the years, with the music and everything.” It was March 24, 2001.

I felt then that I was completing a circle that opened when my dad saw Duane Allman and Butch Trucks at a hotel in Miami – before there was an Allman Brothers Band – and at the Fillmore East in 1971, when they were bringing American music to a new peak that combined electric rock and blues and jazz and country, all fused with fearless, burning improvisation and devotion. But we were just getting started.

By 2001 my little brother Tyler had seen the Allmans and quickly became a fanatic and an evangelist. He was an even bigger fan by 2006, the year he was diagnosed with cancer at age 14. He endured surgeries, spinal fluid leaks and a spinal tap, meningitis, physical therapy, relearned how to eat, and had radiation treatment. That was the first half year. And after about a year of good health he had a recurrence.

The Make-A-Wish Foundation offered Tyler almost anything he could’ve wanted. World travel? Celebrity meetings? No. Soon it would be March, the month the Allman Brothers set up residency at the Beacon Theatre in New York. Make-A-Wish got him tickets to 11 shows and he invited camp friends, school friends, family from out of town, and of course, me, our brother Jonah, and our parents. It was the band’s 40th anniversary and perhaps their final musical peak.

After one show we went out for dinner with guitarist Derek Trucks and bassist Oteil Burbridge. I got to watch the musicians I admired the most, men I’d interviewed and spent thousands of hours listening to, joking around with my parents. It was March 24, 2009.

The run continued and we hardly cared about the shows anymore. Tyler was running around backstage, taking photos with Gregg and hanging with Oteil and Derek. Oteil played Tyler’s bass for two songs during a show. He told piano player Chuck Leavell, after a solo, “that was the most beautiful thing I ever heard.” He spent that set dancing with a woman and at intermission he brought her to our seats in the orchestra.

“This is Galadrielle,” he said. Duane Allman’s daughter. She was something like a legend, known in fan circles but never seen. If he’d brought back a unicorn I’d have been much less surprised. The most impossible things were happening.

Reality crashed back in: the shows ended and immediately  Tyler returned to Boston for more radiation. That winter a friend gave him a drum kit. After all those years following the Allmans, I began making music with my brother. We formed a power trio with our dad.

Tyler’s cancer returned again the next year, the day after his 18th birthday, at summer camp. His condition deteriorated quickly and he called my parents to take him home. They were watching when he sat in with the camp band at one of their heavily-attended Saturday shows. His voice by then was scratchy and almost inaudible, but he wanted to sing anyway. They played Gregg Allman’s “Whipping Post,” and even if they couldn’t hear him, his friends knew what it meant when he sang “Good Lord, I feel like I’m dying.”

My brother died three months later, on October 29. It was the anniversary of Duane Allman’s death, and if it had to be any day, it made sense that it would be that one. The band’s music had carried us through the happiest times and the saddest, and somehow I was more bound up with it than ever because I now had the worst thing in common with Gregg: we’d lost a brother. I wanted to ask him how he got through it, but I’d heard him enough to understand it.

It took a few years before my dad was emotionally ready to see the band again, but I was back right away. Oteil played Tyler’s bass again on opening night. They covered one of Tyler’s favorite songs: “Blind Willie McTell” by Bob Dylan.

When the Allmans retired in 2014 I was saddened, but I was ready for the end when it came. Even before drummer Butch Trucks died this January I understood that something that had been in my life a long time was gone. I’d seen more than 70 shows in 17 years and couldn’t ask for more.

With Gregg gone, too, I’m even more amazed at how far the band and its journey took my family. The Allman Brothers were an epic story of tragedy and survival through art, and their greatness, and Gregg’s, was strong enough that it included other family’s stories of survival, too. Mine was only one, and we will always have what he gave us through his music.

Hit a lick for peace. Eat a peach for peace.

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5 Comments

  1. Diane Kessler Seaman
    Posted May 28, 2017 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this beautifully tapestry of ABB, our family, the ties that bind and the power of music. Your words brought tears and smiles thinking of Tyler dancing with Galadrielle and straining to sing Whipping Post at Baco. This needs to be shared across a number of platforms.

  2. Jennifer Paradis
    Posted May 29, 2017 at 12:35 am | Permalink

    Beautiful. Poignant, joyous, unbearably sad. Thank you for sharing this piece of your life with us.

  3. Norma jones
    Posted May 29, 2017 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    Memories..your words inspire, cause reflection and poignancy to my life. Music binds our wounds, raises our spirits, refreshes our past and can be a catalyst to long lost feelings. Thanks for sharing. I loved the Allman brothers and may their music always live on and what they gave to you and your family….priceless.

  4. Russell Hirsch
    Posted May 29, 2017 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

    Marley,
    This is a beautiful piece. “Whipping Post” will forever hold a deeper power within me than it had before. Love you guys.
    Russ

  5. Mark Ramsey
    Posted June 1, 2017 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    Wow. You really should submit that to USA Today or the NYT. And you really should write for a living.

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