By Mike Greenblatt
On Oct. 15, 1971, The Allman Brothers Band was on top of the world. Years of hard work in the studio and on the road finally paid off with popular success. “At Fillmore East” achieved Gold Record status — the first release by the band to do so — and the band was hard at work on its next studio album.
Fourteen days later, the band’s path took a devastating turn: Lead guitarist Duane Allman died in a motorcycle crash. Somehow, the group still managed to complete and release that studio album, the incomparable “Eat A Peach,” which marks its anniversary this month. Drummer Butch Trucks shares his memories.
Seems hard to believe, but it’s been more than 40 years since the Capricorn Records release of “Eat A Peach” by The Allman Brothers Band, an album that has not only stood the test of time to still sound as vital today as it did upon its release on Feb. 12, 1972, but has actually gained in stature, thanks to its influence over every generation of American rock bands since.
In 1971, The Allman Brothers Band was coming off its groundbreaking “At Fillmore East” live album. This reporter was in the audience the night before the album was recorded, a night when the Brothers played for seven hours straight before we all walked outside onto Second Avenue, dazed and confused, into a blinding sunshine. They knew, management knew, the label knew, and the fans knew that the follow-up studio album was going to be a monster. And it was.
But what they couldn’t possibly have been prepared for during its recording was the death of band leader Duane Allman at the tender age of 24 in a motorcycle accident on Oct. 29, 1971. Although Duane was gone, the album was finished, thanks to the band’s amazing brand of Southern determinism.
Drummer Butch Trucks, never at a loss for words, played drums on both of those aforementioned albums, and he continues to do so today, as ABB continiues its legacy as a stellar touring attraction.
In asking Trucks how in the world one could put all 33 minutes and 38 seconds of “Mountain Jam” on what was being perceived at the time as a “career record,” he gets loud.
“You do when that becomes the highlight of every gig you play and then the guy who started it all dies,” he yells. “That particular recording of ‘Mountain Jam’ is probably the worst we ever played it. It’s too fast. It never really does lock down into a groove. That was from the last night — the closing night of the Fillmore. If you’ve ever listened to the tapes, you can hear Duane getting pissed off at the audience. It was an all-invite show. Bill Graham had the industry there, plus anybody who had ever played the Fillmore. So up comes the Beach Boys, unloading their gear. They demanded to play last. Bill says, ‘Then pack up your shit and get out of here, because I’ve got my closing act!’ So they said OK. They get on about midnight, going into a bunch of new songs. But by then, everybody in the audience who had the free booze all night was pretty damn drunk. They weren’t into anything new, so The Beach Boys do ‘Surfing USA,’ and the place goes apeshit. This lasts until about 3 o’clock in the morning. Then we had to go on. By that time, what was left of the crowd just didn’t have the energy to deal with us. And, the night before, we had played until about 8 o’clock in the morning! That was the true closing night. We played seven hours, including an encore of `Mountain Jam’ that lasted three hours. It never stopped. When we finished playing, there was no applause, just a stunned silence. The audience is sitting there with a shit-eatin’ grin on their face. We’re all lookin’ at them. I’m sittin’ there on my drums, having just gone through something I’ve never been through before.
“A lot of shows, you get into that pocket for a little while, that place where you can’t make a mistake, where your brain gets out of the way, where you’re completely in the moment. It was the philosopher (Heinz) Lichtenstein who said, “other than mathematical equations, there is no way we can ever know that anything is true.” You just can’t. And one of the main reasons is we don’t have a vocabulary to express the things we feel are the truth.
“I’m trying to express to you, Mike, a musical truth that cannot be expressed in words. I have no words to express what it is. All I can do is approximate it. Do you understand what I’m saying? There’s this place where you can go when you’re playing music where you’re completely in the moment. There’s no yesterday. There’s no tomorrow. Your brain is completely taken over by the music that’s in there. You’re not thinking. Your body is completely free to do what it knows how to do. It’s what great golfers can train themselves to do. A great golfer is able to take a swing at a little white ball without thinking about it. And the minute he starts thinking about it, he’s f**ked. That’s Tiger Woods’ problem right now. All he can do is think. He’s so bound up in himself that he can’t hit that damn golf ball anymore. He can’t get his brain out of the way. Are you following me?
“That next-to-last night at the Fillmore East was a night when we got into that groove. We used to call it ‘hittin’ the note.’ We all knew what it was, but we didn’t know how to describe it. But we knew what we meant when we looked each other in the eye and would say, ‘Boy, we were hittin’ the note tonight.’ It’s like your first orgasm. Explain that to me. Explain what it feels like. You can’t do it. There are certain things that are not explainable.
“We were hitting that space, as opposed to ‘putting on a show,’ like the Stones or Lady Gaga. These people don’t play music. They’re entertainers, and that’s cool; it has its place. The clown in the circus has his place — people like it and they’re entertained — but that’s not art. It’s not music. Music is something that happens when a great orchestra plays Beethoven’s Ninth and everything works.
“I see the people dancing in our crowds today. They’re really getting it. They’re completely in the moment. They may have just had the worst day of their lives, but for those few minutes, they’re in heaven. I’m an atheist, and I believe that’s as close to heaven as you’re going to get.”
Recalling the magic of life on the road
So the question for The Allman Brothers Band going into the recording of “Eat A Peach” was how to take that onstage magic and recreate it within the context of a sterile recording facility. And the answer — at least according to Butch — is that you don’t.
“We were very lucky that Duane Allman was the leader of the band,” explains Trucks. “He had spent several years recording unbelievable music with great musicians. Our first couple of albums was Duane teaching the rest of us how to use a studio, but one of the things we learned was, forget about this being an art. The art is onstage, in front of a group of people. That’s why we decided after the first two albums that the way our band was going to break was with a live album. That was the only place where we could really play the music that we were playing. I don’t know of any other band who did it that way.
“We only had basically two and a half years with Duane,” Trucks says softly. “I did more living in that period than I’ve done the rest of my life. We never stopped. We were either playing, partying, getting in trouble or traveling. Every once in awhile, we might lay down and sleep, but not much. One time, I remember we picked up a couple of young girls hitchhiking cross-country when we first got our camper. One of ’em was quite lovely, so we played poker for her. I won with a full house. We had life by the tail. The label kept saying, ‘Get that blonde-headed kid out from behind the organ, stick a salami down his pants and let him jump around the stage!’ We said, ‘Screw you.’ For the first time, we were not trying to be successful. We just had no patience for journalists. We really didn’t want ’em on the road with us but our management kept sendin’ ’em out there, and they’re in our face all the time. And we’re like, ‘Why don’t you get the hell away from us? You want to write about something? Watch. But don’t bother us. You’re in the way.’
“Back then, we weren’t listening to our peers. We made a conscious decision not to. We were either listening to very old blues or the jazz of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Charlie Parker. Cream took the blues and started improvising. That opened the door. But it’s still just three-chord blues. After hearing Miles and ’Trane, we incorporated their changes and made it more sophisticated. That’s what I’m most proud of. And I’m waiting for someone today to pick up the ball and take it to another level. Nobody seems to be doing it.”
Making the jump from stage to studio
Armed with only two songs — “Blue Sky” by Dickey Betts and “Stand Back” by Gregg Allman and bassist Berry Oakley, The Allman Brothers arrived in Miami and proceeded to show frustration in attempting to convert their onstage magic into studio awareness.
According to Trucks, Duane said, “Y’know boys, it ain’t gonna happen in here like it does onstage. So we’re gonna have to do something different. We got to quit trying to turn ‘Stand Back’ into a jam, at least the type of jam we like to do. We got to turn this into a song, calm this thing down. It’s got to not be so damn electric.’ With that, he picks up an acoustic and starts playing a rhythm. From that rhythm, a river of flowing groove ensued.
“And I don’t think we’ve ever played it with that laid-back groove ever since,” says Trucks with a chuckle. “You hear us play it now, and it rocks. I go back now and listen to that original ‘Eat A Peach’ version, and it just sounds so mellow. And if you listen closely, you can hear that rhythm guitar by Duane, and that’s where the pocket is. We all locked into that pocket, and it all just fell into place.”
Dickey Betts had never sung on an Allman Brothers record before. And he didn’t want to sing “Blue Sky.” He had to be talked into doing it. (Just like Jaimoe had to be talked into playing the drums all by himself on “Stand Back.”)
“We came home from Miami, and shortly thereafter had to deal with the reality of Duane’s death,” says Trucks. “It took me several weeks before I finally could even begin to accept the fact he was gone. And I’ll tell you the truth: I’m 64 years old. It’s 40 years later. I still have dreams of running into Duane. There’s the piece of me that still will not accept losing him.”
Trucks says that after Duane died, bassist Berry Oakley “spent that whole year pretty much walkin’ dead. Berry couldn’t live in a world without Duane.” The motorcycle crash that took Oakley’s life happened Nov. 11, 1972, just 376 days after Duane’s.
Duane Allman was the force that changed Trucks’ life forever.
“He turned me from being a junior high math teacher into a drummer. And what he did to me, he did to everyone he met on one level or another,” Trucks says. “If you knew Duane Allman, you were different from who you were before you knew him. He changed you. Few people like that come along every century or two. Not many. And they change things. The world is a much better place because he lived in it. And because he lived the way he did, maybe he had no choice but to live a short life.”
After Duane’s death, band members went back to Miami to finish recording “Eat A Peach.” Then, they took six months off before deciding what to do.
“Once it sunk in that he was dead, the grief was overwhelming,” says Trucks.
But once the band started playing on stages again, “all those doubts of whether we could do it were blown away,” he says. “The freedom of being able to get on up there and put that grief into your music was truly liberating. Not only that, but the joy was still there. It didn’t die with Duane. That music was magic, and it continued and continues to this day. I think we’re playing better today than we ever have. The band now is technically better than that band was. I don’t think we have the originality that band had, but technically, my nephew Derek (Trucks) plays rings around Duane. But Derek’s been playing all his life. Duane played slide guitar for three years. He was just gettin’ started. And he had to invent it! Nobody played slide like Duane before Duane! He took a little piece of this guy and a little piece of that guy, then he added himself to it, and this is what came out. And there’s so many people who followed him. Look at Joe Walsh: a carbon copy! And when Derek started, that’s what he was. But now he’s had damn near 20 years. So, sure, when you hear Derek Trucks play today, you’re going to hear some Duane. Except when he plays ‘Statesborough Blues,’ because that’s pure Jesse Ed Davis. Hell, Duane always admitted stealing that lick from Jesse Ed. He used to laugh about it all the time, although Jesse Ed wasn’t laughing. He was an angry Indian, boy.”
However, Jesse Ed saved Trucks’ hide on at least one occasion.
“I was with Jesse Ed the night I met Phil Spector and John Lennon at A&M Records. I wound up getting into a screaming match with Spector. I swear, I was going to go back in after I left just to kick that little runt’s ass. Jesse had to hold me back. I said, ‘Why not go back in there? He’s only about four feet tall.’ So Jesse says, ‘Yeah, but did you see the guy in the corner? He’s a Black Belt, and he’s carrying a gun and a knife. You touch that little f**ker and he’ll rip you to pieces.’ So instead we walked down the hall and listened to Joni Mitchell mix an album with Tom Scott. That was one of those special nights you never forget. On the way out, Lennon kept apologizing to me for Spector — ‘I’m really sorry, man, I’m really sorry,’ he kept saying.
“Where was I? Oh yeah, so, in the second “Eat A Peach” session, the one after Duane died, Dickey writes ‘Les Brers in A Minor’ and, yes, we did, indeed, understand it wasn’t French. ‘Les’ is not correct, and ‘Brers’ is not a French word, it’s from Uncle Remus. We meant it as ‘the brothers,’ but there was a little double entendre working there with the word ‘les.’ It should have been two S’s. Less Brers. Less Brothers. Get it? We played around with all that. And it was in A-minor because everything we played was in A. We wound up doing the intro in Studio C, which was new at Criteria, but it was a very dead studio. It was made for rhythm ’n’ blues. If you listen to the changes, especially in the tone of the bass, we tried and tried but just couldn’t do it. So finally [producer] Tom Dowd, who always had the answers, said, ‘Move everything to Studio A.’ Studio A was a big, open studio that they built for Jackie Gleason to do his orchestra in. That’s where we wound up doing most of our recording. As soon as we walked in there, we nailed it on the first take. But you can hear a difference in the bass tone if you listen closely to the intro that we recorded in Studio C.
“Then we got to ‘Melissa,’ and if you look on the record, it says it was written by Gregg Allman and Steve Alaimo. Well, hell, Gregg wrote that song four years before he even met Steve Alaimo. He just sold it to Alaimo for $350 so he could get airfare to California.
“We had spent a lot of time mixing. Dickey was starting to discover how to play with the studio like Duane taught him. ‘Blue Sky,’ especially, was filled with all sorts of patches and punches. We were doing 16-track, and in order to get ‘Blue Sky’ done, I took eight tracks and Tom Dowd took eight tracks and we really had to work hard to get the fades in, punch in the repairs, punch ’em out, practice it eight times and listen, listen, listen. So we’re running through it all, and we just about got it done, and all of sudden the door bursts open and in walks Stephen Stills. He hits fast-forward on the console and sticks on his ‘Love The One You’re One With’ song, and I jump out of my seat and had to be held back by Tom Dowd. I was going to knock him on his damn head! Jesus Christ! And I haven’t liked Stephen Stills ever since.
“I get home. The mixing is all done. It’s off to be mastered. I walk into (Capricorn President) Phil Walden’s office, and the artwork is laying on his desk. We found out later that the cover with the peach truck on the front and the watermelon truck on the back is a rip-off. They were 1920s postcards. The inside art, though, is all original. The postcards said, ‘The kind we grow in Dixie.’ I looked at it and said, ‘This is great, but that title sucks.’ He had it as the title of the album! Now Duane, just before he died, had done an interview quoting poet T.S. Eliot. Duane loved Eliot, especially ‘The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock.’ There is, towards the end of that poem, a line that asks, ‘Do I dare to eat a peach?’ The metaphor for digging into life, really getting into it, is obvious. Prufrock was very anal, didn’t want to get himself dirty, like falling in love, making love or anything like that, and eating a peach can be a very messy thing. So in this interview that Duane was doing, the journalist asks him, ‘What are you doing for the revolution?’ Duane practically laughs in his face. ‘Revolution? Are you kidding? It’s all just evolution. I’ll tell you what I do. Everytime I go down south, I eat a peach for peace. I told Phil Walden to call the album ‘Eat A Peach For Peace.’ They shortened it. I still think my title was better.