Gregg Allman died today, a couple weeks after Chris Cornell. On the face of it these are not related events, but make no mistake, rock vocalists of their firepower and presence always made a fairly exclusive club. Who else, we might ask, are members? Their loss — inevitable, of course — provokes a wondering at the world, in the sense of the permanence of art versus the fragility of the human body, the physicality of their presence as they walked the earth. What they leave behind forever looms over the sum of chemistry and animation that motored them through their time here, hungrier in their rock-and-roll instincts and purpose than the rest of the lot of us.
Strange coincidence: on the day of the evening Cornell died, I traded in my Soundgarden Louder Than Love LP, which I’d owned since its release way back in those hoary days before grunge was called grunge, when Robert Plant was still bemoaning all the Zep copycats while steadfastly refusing to bring the goods himself. A solid, riffing record, though not their best, and unlikely to get many future spins — its value to others outweighed its use to me. Do you remember the context of this album? It came on the heels, well, or a year or two later (and I’m not going to stop and look it up now), of Guns’n’Roses bellwether Appetite for Destruction, and outwitted that band’s lackluster followup. I remember a couple years on and guitarist Kim Thayil saying they were always trying to be Sabbath without the parts that suck, and that about summed them up, because generally they were. At their core, always, was Cornell, the definition of gifted, who somewhere between Louder than Love and Badmotorfinger found his voice, a cocksure combination of Plant and Rodgers, but so goddamn powerful and so much his own thing. Henry Rollins once said that Cornell’s voice could peel the paint off the walls, and he was right. That Cornell could do it in tune and with shifts in timbre and light and tone made him all the more remarkable. At his death he was still making good records and at the top of his game as a performer. Soundgarden’s King Animal from 2012, though now unbelievably five years distant, was as good as any record they made, despite the fifteen-year gap between it and Down on the Upside. His method of exit was undeniably, tragically sad. Does it match the music? Should it? I’ll be thinking this over for some time.
Today, this first day of a three-day holiday weekend, I spent some time going through my LPs, thinking of the next batch for trade, as I am in the middle of my own vinyl renaissance, with the idea that a good record or book is better played or read than sitting on a shelf. In the trade stack went a double-album compilation of recordings by the Hourglass, Duane and Gregg Allman’s band prior to the Allman Brothers. When I later heard of Gregg’s death, I had the thought, following on my Soundgarden trade earlier last week, that somehow my record tastes were guiding the lives and deaths of rock stars. It’s not a stretch. They become part of the fabric of life, their music has a profound personal effect, and so the butterfly beating its wings, in the shape of me making the decision to, you know, ditch the Hourglass, becomes causal in Gregg’s death. Gregg’s death to me, how it effects me. Me me me. But like Chris Cornell, Gregg Allman is still Gregg Allman on record. The life there is indelible. It’s a human cry, a channeling of the Spirit. I spun up the first Allman Brothers LP (one I would never trade) this afternoon, and rocked out like I did when I first heard it, back in 1984 when I was working in a photo darkroom in Ft. Worth and my hippie boss always had the radio tuned to the station that would and did play “Whipping Post” on a regular schedule. When I saw Gregg play with his band in 1987 at Red Rocks in Colorado, opening for Stevie Ray Vaughan, I was aware even then that I was witnessing a legend. That voice. Like Cornell, Gregg Allman had a voice that defined an authenticity transcending boundaries of culture or race — it was the sound of the human soul. I understand he never got over the death of his brother (who would?), and according to Derek Trucks would consult with the spirit of Duane fairly regularly as to the artistic direction of his various bands.
Rock and roll at the level that Chris Cornell and Gregg Allman played it hits hard. We know their work brought them vast number of fans, but I think for each of us (well, for me at least) there is a connection that is personal, even in some sense private. I associate memories, there are feelings unnamed, some primal, that accompany passages of their work. I can write about the riffs, the freedom, the bellow and power of the sound as it moves air, it but ultimately it can’t be intellectualized.
They were only human. They are dead. They are here. I am listening even now.