John Paul White, Killer Mike, Mark Wenner, and Our Editor Remember the Legend
By Chuck Reece
Today, the concrete building at 688 Spring Street in Atlanta is an anonymous-looking urgent-care center. Many Southerners remember it as 688, the landmark punk-rock club. Fewer remember the joint as it was before we all cut our hair and cut down the guitar solos.
Pre-punk, it was called Rose's Cantina. And the best night of my teenage life — most of which played out to the soundtrack of the Allman Brothers Band — happened right there.
Growing up in the mountains, tapping into the cultural flow was hard. But I had two distinct advantages:
A buddy who was a few years older and owned a giant record collection.
A dad who was permissive enough to let that buddy and me head unsupervised to Atlanta for live music.
Rose’s was one of our frequent destinations. The place specialized in blues bands. Both George Thorogood and the Destroyers and Austin’s Fabulous Thunderbirds were regulars on Rose’s oddly situated stage. But my friend Dan and I had developed a preference for a band from Bethesda, Maryland, called the Nighthawks. A few Nighthawks gigs at Rose’s had given me some Basic Blues Education credits. And then there was the lure of the forbidden: Mark Wenner, the Nighthawks’ harmonica player, was the first person I’d ever seen whose arms were completely covered in tattoos.
The Nighthawks were a four-piece band — harmonica, drums, bass, and guitar. But on this one particular night in 1978, we arrived at Rose's to find a Hammond B3 organ taking up about a quarter of that tiny stage. A couple songs into the ’Hawks first set, my buddy Dan nudged me and said, “Gregg Allman’s over there.” Sure enough, there he was, sitting with a man in a black cowboy hat at a four-top table, smoking cigarettes and listening to the blues.
It did not take Dan and me very long to muster the gumption to walk over there. One of us said something like, “Sorry to bother you, Mr. Allman, but we both just love your music and we wanted to tell you.”
He said, “No, man. Have a seat.” He motioned to the two empty seats across the table from him and the man in the hat, whom I would later learn was Twiggs Lyndon. Flip over your old copy of “The Allman Brothers Band at Fillmore East,” and you’ll see him, front and center among the road crew, elbow propped on a bass-drum case with a tall-boy beer in his hand.
Gregg had lost his brother Duane seven years earlier. Twiggs lost his life skydiving the very next year, 1979. And now, Gregg is gone, too.
Allman was one of those rare, precious Southern souls whose work was big enough to embody all that is inside our region’s music. The gospel. The soul. The blues. The boogie. The black. The white.
On Sunday, I called John Paul White, the North Alabama musician. I wanted to speak with someone who had played alongside Allman, and in 2013, White had. He and Allman played together in London to mark the U.K. premiere of the documentary of the musical history of White’s hometown, “Muscle Shoals.” The film included segments on Duane Allman’s time in Alabama as a session guitarist, pre-Allman Brothers.
White said he was nervous about meeting a hero.
“But as soon as he walked in the room, I felt like we’d known each other forever,” White said. “I obviously played the Muscle Shoals card as soon as humanly possible to pique his interest. We talked about Rick Hall and the Swampers and Duane’s time in the Shoals and his time in the Shoals.”
That night, on the stage at London’s O2, they performed “Midnight Rider” together and some R&B chestnuts, including “The Dark End of the Street.”
“I was just floatin' the whole time,” White told me. “But it never felt like he was on this pedestal above me at any point. We felt like compadres, like the only thing separating us was his years on this earth. The other thing I took from him was his deep, innate love for music, for the history of music, for the bones and architecture of it. Everything was about serving the song. That was a beautiful thing. I lived off that for a long time.
“Gregg had a little bit of that same thing that Johnny Cash had, where, if you love him, you’ll love him forever, and you’ll love him across genres,” White continued. “With Cash, punk guys loved him, rock guys loved him — metal guys, country guys, blues guys, everyone. Gregg had that same thing. My 14-year-old, who’s a metalhead, we were talking about it this morning. He said, ‘Dad, every one of my metal heroes have been posting about Gregg Allman and the Allman Brothers and how big a deal they were to them in their formative years.’ And I thought, that makes perfect sense.”
Following that logic, it also makes complete sense that before Run the Jewels shows, rapper Killer Mike usually cranks up “Whippin’ Post” to get himself hyped for the stage.
Mike called me from Boston Sunday afternoon to talk about his fascination with the Allman Brothers.
“Northeastern liberals, god bless them, they try to convince you that if you’re a black person from the South, then you’re the antithesis of white people from the South,” he said. “And that’s just simply not the truth. We have a lot more in common. Think about the lyrics in ‘Whippin' Post’: ‘I been run down, I been lied to, and I don’t know why I let that mean woman make me a fool. Took all money, wrecked my new car. Now she’s with one of my good-time buddies, they drinkin’ in some crosstown bar.’ That is a blues lyric, all day. It was just radically different from popular rock music. It had a real soul that spoke to you. I still listen to ‘Whippin' Post’ to get me hyped for a show.”
Mike sees Allman the same way I did — as a figure who could embody all of Southern music’s roots and branches.
“Musically, I never really followed categories or much cared,” he told me. “I just knew that when I heard this band, I had heard soul and funk and blues and gospel. You never get used to people dying, but I can honestly say that as a Southerner, you’re given so much mythology about death growing up that instantly, when I got the news Gregg Allman died, the first thing I could think was that him and his brother are up there somewhere, just jammin’ like a motherfucker. Heaven is definitely a better place musically today.
“I hope more young musicians get a whiff of the Allman Brothers,” Mike continued. “I hope more young musicians break stereotypical barriers and do things that they are not expected to do — and just kinda lead the way to wherever Southern music is going.
“I’m just going to roll me a joint now and listen to some Allman Brothers and enjoy being a Southerner.”
Thirty-nine years ago, on that night in Rose’s Cantina, my friend and I experienced the same lack of rock-star attitude from Gregg Allman that John Paul White described to me. We were just kids, teenagers, but still, he offered us a seat at his table, introduced us to his buddy Twiggs, and kindly answered our questions between the Nighthawks' songs.
Between sets, I noticed a guitar case between Twiggs Lyndon’s feet. I asked him if that was Gregg’s guitar. He shook his head.
“No,” he said. “It’s Duane’s.” When Duane died in a motorcycle crash in 1971, his three favorite Gibson Les Pauls — a gold top, a cherry burst, and a dark burst — went three different ways. Duane bought the dark burst in June of 1971, and it served as his main instrument until his death four months later. After his death, the dark-burst Les Paul went to Gregg, and Twiggs was its caretaker. He told us he never went anywhere without the guitar.
“You wanna hold it?” he asked us. Uh, yessir, we do. And we did, for a few seconds each. Of course we wanted to hold it! Both of us knew — although we probably couldn’t have articulated it at the time — that the instrument was a touchstone, a connection to an entire world of the South’s music, to the culture that binds us no matter our backgrounds. The spirit of a black man, Blind Willie McTell, had entered a couple of pasty-looking Tennessee white boys, Duane and Gregg, and then Duane gave it all back when he played with the likes of Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin in Muscle Shoals.
I spent a few hours yesterday trying to figure out whether this night at Rose's Cantina fell in 1977 or ’78. I sent out a few messages that I was looking for confirmation. Then, at about 9 p.m. last night, my phone rang — a number from Silver Spring, Maryland. It was Mark Wenner, who is still, at age 68, leading the latest version of the Nighthawks through a never-ending string of tour dates.
Wenner confirmed that the night in question was in 1978. More importantly, he told me the show at Rose's was one of a string of gigs (the first was a few days earlier in Jacksonville, Alabama) that Allman's friend, Twiggs Lyndon, had engineered. Allman had been stuck on the downslide in California, and Twiggs had decided it was time, in Wenner's words, for Gregg "to play some real music with a real band again."
When the Nighthawks came back up for the second set, Gregg stepped up to the stage with them, sat behind the B3, and dove headlong into "Don't Want You No More." It felt like heaven. The Allman Brothers were the first band I ever fell in love with, but I was too young to have seen them before their first breakup, in 1975. Still, by some miracle, there I was, three years later, watching Gregg Allman, still just a young man on the cusp of 30, lead the Nighthawks through a history of Southern music.
They played, as I recall, until about 3:30 in the morning. In the parking lot, we discovered that some drunk on his way home had managed to knock the front bumper almost entirely from our vehicle. The bumper’s left side lay on the ground, and the right side dangled from the car by one wire, which led to a parking light. The headlights still worked, so we just cut the parking-light wire, loaded the bumper into the trunk, and headed back up the road to Ellijay. I got home not long before sunrise. I tiptoed in to find Dad still asleep. I crawled into my bed, and felt something bigger than just the thrill of a successful teenage adventure.
It felt more like enlightenment.
Southerners have so many things to thank Gregg Allman for before his body is laid to rest — with Duane’s and Allmans bassist Berry Oakley’s — in Macon’s Rose Hill Cemetery. The next time I go to Rose Hill, I will thank him, too — for the music, of course, but also for being a man of sufficient grace to let a couple of kids touch his brother’s holy guitar. A man of enough humanity to know that the music it contained might define us as much as it did him.