Monday, February 24, 2014

Please Be With Me: A Song for My Father, Duane Allman by Galadrielle Allman

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I should know more about The Allman Brothers Band than I do, which (until I read this) isn't much. I've lived my entire life south of Mason Dixon - with half of that spent in areas still affected by Allman influence. Indeed, while reading Ms. Allman's biography it surprised me to find so many coincidences:
  • The author and I share a birthday, though we're separated by a few years.
  • Her uncle Gregg received a liver transplant at the Mayo Clinic right around the time my father did.
  • She lived eleven years in Jacksonville, FL. I lived there for 22.
  • Duane and Gregg Allman lived very briefly in Virginia Beach as children, where I live now.
  • In the book's prologue, Ms. Allman talks about finding a Rolling Stone with her father on the cover in an Athens, GA thrift shop. I lived in Athens for a time, and I have a good idea which store she mentions.
Spooky, eh? Maybe the last two tibits are a stretch, but seeing the birthdate was pretty wild. I also share the day with Gene Simmons and Gopher from The Love Boat.

Coincidences aside, I still acknowledge I should know more about The Allman Brothers. While not a Jacksonville-based band like Skynyrd and Molly Hatchet, the ties the brothers had to the music scene there shaped the legend. Perhaps for a long time, Ms. Allman knew as much about her father as I do - she was only two when Duane Allman perished in a motorcycle accident in the early 70s, a few years shy of the mystically unlucky 27 that stalks troubled musicians, and shortly after the band's grand commercial breakthrough. Please Be With Me is the culmination of her journey to meet a man everybody else (even strangers) knew and loved. 

To complete the puzzle, Ms Allman relies on the memories of colleagues, family friends, and relatives to recount Duane's life story in vivid, lyrical prose. You can taste the salty air of Daytona Beach, where Duane picked up chords through his adolescence, and follow the scents of bougainvillea, whiskey, and weed all the way to Macon and back. When you read stories of rock legends, however, you wonder about the accuracy of detail when everything comes to you second and third-hand. One reviewer on Goodreads of this book voiced some skepticism that Ms. Allman's book holds 100% accuracy. I don't know if this opinion is based upon further research on Duane and the Allmans, or just conjecture. I say, sometimes an urban legend holds a kernel of truth. Did a brother really arrange to severely injure himself to get out of the draft? Were there tensions with the Grateful Dead and in Clapton's Layla sessions? Chances are, you'd learn of different opinions as these events happened.

I thoroughly enjoyed Ms. Allman's book, which is partly a biography and partly a tribute not only to her father but the family that surrounded them. The strength of the narration carries you deep into the story that, for a moment, you almost forget the tragic outcome and want to remain where the music plays.

Rating: A

ARC received from NetGalley

Kathryn Lively is a mystery writer and book reviewer.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Eminent Hipsters by Donald Fagen

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Over ten years ago I wrote a short mystery novel called Pithed: An Andy Farmer Mystery. The protagonist is a middle-aged high school teacher who, in one scene, comes to adopt a rescue dog his son brings home during a free weekend from college. The dog's name is Becker, named for one-half of Steely Dan, but since Andy prefers the name Steely Dan that's what he ends up calling the dog. What does this have to do with my reading Donald Fagen's book? Not much - it's just that I usually preface these reviews with some kind of relevant anecdote, and this is the best I could do. Either that, or I could complain about having misplaced my copy of Fagen's Morph the Cat CD after only one listen. At least this way I've plugged a book, and I could use the money.

Anyway, I've had Hipsters out from the Virginia Beach library for about two months. It would come up for return and I'd renew it. It traveled with me during Christmas break, when I chose to read Doctor Sleep and a few books for my Pulitzer bucket list instead. No slight on Fagen, but there's something about the winter weather that takes the piss out of me. I don't want to do much of anything, and as I'd just come off a long writing jag I suffered a deeper exhaustion. This past weekend, facing yet another e-mail from the library, I picked up Hipsters and finished it in a day and a half.

This is not exactly a memoir. There are vignettes where Fagen recalls life as a teenager in New Jersey as an underage patron of jazz clubs, as a fan of subversive late-night radio, and as a hapless victim of G. Gordon Liddy's zeal. Most interesting is his piece on Jean Shepherd, which Slate reprinted in December. Like Fagen, I'd been aware of Jean Shepherd before A Christmas Story, yet this essay is not unlike peeling back a scab. Fagen's disappointment in his discovery of Shepherd as a grouch unhappy with the direction of his career is palpable, and perhaps a reminder that meeting our idols isn't always a good idea. What's especially interesting is to read the second half of this book, a day-by-day journal of Fagen's tour with Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald, to see how Fagen exhibits similar curmudgeonly behavior. He plays to audiences that either look as though "they'd been bused from nursing homes" or are comprised of "TV Babies," anybody born after 1960 waiting patiently for "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" and likely leaving disappointed. I should take offense at Fagen's alleged derogatory term, but I have to smile at the imagery he paints and can almost smell the Ben-Gay.

Eminent Hipsters might disappoint Steely Dan fans looking for something more substantial about band history. I liked this book because I can relate somewhat to Fagen's youth and middle-aged frustrations. I stole many a night listening to "subversive" radio (only for me it was Dr. Ruth, not Jean Shepherd) and enjoyed music and books beyond my years. There are no eminent hipsters in my history to speak of, but I suppose that means I'm due to become one.

Rating: B+

Kathryn Lively is an author of mystery and romance. Her latest novel is Killing the Kordovas.