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.
This is the first paycheck Duane got for playing in the band (signed by Greg).
And the dress worn by Brittany Oakley on the cover of Brothers and Sisters (displayed in the room where she lived as a child.)
A tee shirt from a concert I wish I’d been at:
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 handwritten lyrics to Blue Sky; “…bells are ringing everywhere…” came from hearing the bells in the church across the street.
displayed in the kitchen where he wrote Ramblin’ Man (and we have just done a bunch of driving on Highway 41).
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.
Two white stones side by side, with angels at their feet, representing their daughters.
Their graves were recently enclosed by a fence; apparently the amount of partying taking place with drunken fans got to be too much. You can see the Les Paul carved into Duane’s stone.
The music around the perimeter is from Little Martha, and note the discreet mushroom on the side.
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, gasses 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.
Fantastic! I know you can’t beat the original, but have you heard Jack Lawrence’s acoustic cover of “Blue Sky”?
I haven’t – maybe you can play it for us when we get to Austin, which is now looking like mid-February. Cheers!
The flatbed truck involved the day Duane died was driven by a 24 year old resident who had no familiarity with the band. The driver was married at that time and years later divorced. He was killed while riding in a work truck. It was then his ex posted the actual story of what happened. It can be verified with police records. Duane was as usual riding over the speed limit and was not in view of the truck’s driver when he made the left turn. The flatbed truck with a boom on it had to slow due to bad condition of the road he was entering. It was then he heard the crash and never saw what had occurred. He looked and saw Duane on the ground and the Sportster next to him engine still running at high revs. He got out and got the bike turned off. He thought the road was covered in a puddle of blood, it was primary case oil from the bike. Duane had merely swerved behind the truck instead of slowing down. The bike hit a dip in the road and then went airborne with Duane coming off the seat and landing on street with the bike landing on his chest, They both slid to the side of the road. Duane had a few scratches on his chest but was unconscious. He had massive internal injuries dying during surgery a few hours later. Duane had made no contact with the truck and the driver was interviewed that night at the police station. He was very shaken up. The police did not charge him with any traffic violations, he had done nothing wrong. Duane was on a hill and was not in view until he crested it. The speed limit was 35 and he was estimated to be going 55mph. Two girls had followed him and Barry was following them. Barry had taken a wrong turn and the girls were lagged behind fast moving Duane and lost sight of him. The next they saw him he was down. One girl was yelling at he driver that he had killed her husband. She was lying and was making assumptions as to what had happened. The truck driver was maligned for many years as having killed Duane by being careless which was not so. In death Duane became a guitar god/idol who hit a peach truck driven by a redneck who hated hippies was the story with the only fact being Duane was a great guitarist. The opening riff of “Layla” was Duane on guitar, immediately identifiable and embedded forever in rock music’s top 10. Derek and the Dominoes had struggled to make that lp and got nowhere until Duane showed up and inspired Eric (Derek) to keep up with Duane’s guitar playing.
Thanks for the informative comment. In the 1970s I was a distant teenaged fan, and in the pre-internet world all we heard were the rumors that Duane was killed by a truck carrying peaches. It’s good to know that the record has been corrected, and it’s really unfortunate that the driver was followed by untrue allegations for the rest of his life. We heard a more abbreviated version of this narrative at the Big House museum, but the facts more or less agreed with what you’ve written – they’re not promulgating any false rumors about a negligent driver.
In a strange coincidence, we live with a similarly misremembered narrative here in Eugene, Oregon. The great distance runner Steve Prefontaine was killed in a car accident in 1975, on the street where we now live. There are many rumors about the circumstances, and while there are now somewhat accurate descriptions in print, I’ve only heard the complete narrative that makes sense of the incident from a former neighbor who was on the scene right after it happened.