Old people go to Graceland; Elvis still looms large for those who grew up in the 50s. But what about my musical generation, those who caught the tail end of the 60s but really came of age in the 70s – do we have an equivalent Mecca, a place of deep significance in the life of the musicians? There’s the Grateful Dead house at 710 Ashbury. The store in Seattle where Jimi Hendrix’s first guitar was purchased. Abbey Road. But I think if there’s one place that surpasses all others in the mythology of rock, it’s the intersection where Duane Allman died in a motorcycle crash in 1971.
Traveling with a fourteen-year-old, I’ve been subjected to not-infrequent bouts of fan-girl behavior (mostly involving Star wars this year), so I didn’t feel too bad dragging her to Macon, Georgia, to visit the place where the Allmans lived and died. We’ve been avoiding historical spots where something once happened, unless there’s really something physically there, and Macon provides this too: there’s the Big House Museum, exhibiting vast amounts of Allman Brothers memorabilia, in the house where they lived together for a few years in the early 70s.
When I was young, the Allman Brothers were the benchmark band for us. We could understand if people didn’t get the Grateful Dead – they were a complex band, a taste that could take years to acquire. But if you didn’t like the Allman Brothers, there was just something wrong with you, and hanging out with you clearly was not going to be a good time.
The Big House Museum was pretty overwhelming, even for a confirmed fan. They say they have about 40% of their material on exhibit. The box pictured above was for Berry Oakley’s bass, and is the one used in the iconic album cover for Fillmore East. Then there’s this Les Paul, used by Duane on the first two albums, and when he played in the Layla sessions.
The house itself is much nicer than you would expect for a communal rock band in 1970; maybe it’s been fixed up a lot. It’s in a neighborhood of large, older houses, most of which seem to have been converted to apartments long ago.
This is the front parlor room where Dickey Betts wrote Blue Sky for his fiance, sitting in the window bay. I loved seeing this; Blue Sky has always been one of my favorite songs, and we played it at our wedding.
The “casbah” room upstairs, were they hung out and listened to music,I like imagining that they argued over who had to get up and change the album every 20 minutes. and the apparently legendary shower, with the seven shower heads (a rarity in those simpler times).
We visited the site of Duane’s crash on October 29, 1971, the intersection of Hillcrest and Bartlett. Contrary to myth, it wasn’t a peach truck, but a lumber truck heading for the nearby lumber yard. Duane was coming down the hill from the left, and hit the truck making a left turn from the right, into Bartlett where I am standing taking the picture. He was 24 years old.
Berry Oakley died after a motorcycle crash too, one year later and four blocks from this intersection. Duane and Berry are buried in Rose Hill Cemetery, a place along the river and railroad tracks near downtown where the band used to hang out a lot. It was started in 1840, and hundreds of civil war casualties are buried there. We walked past the grave of Elizabeth Reed (Napier), but we didn’t track down the tombstone for Little Martha. Duane and Berry lie in a beautiful dell that slopes down to the river.
One late night during my sophomore year in college, I walked back to my dorm after hanging out with friends. As I passed the suite of some classmates I didn’t know too well, I heard Blue Sky being played very loudly. I wasn’t ready to go to bed, so I knocked on their door. The door opened on a darkened room, with a half dozen blissed-out, practically catatonic guys laying back in their chairs, while Eat a Peach spun on the turntable by the window under a single spotlight. The song ended, Little Martha played, and they began to revive. When the album was over, they began talking, and I discerned that they had an interesting take on the history and meaning of the universe. There was a big bang, the universe expanded, gases coalesced and formed planets, life appeared, species evolved, humans arrived, civilization began, and the arts and music were invented. And the point of all this was that eventually Duane Allman would be born, so he would be there to play on Blue Sky. (A corollary was that it was nice he was around for the Layla album too.) This pretty much justified human existence for them, and I realized that if you were looking for an eternal verity (like something on which to base a major religion), you’d have a hard time finding something more inarguable and certain than the perfection of the Allman Brothers.