On its way to a confluence with that Georgia river entire, the Altamaha, the Ocmulgee River flows through a place I’ve been to five times. The first time I crashed through Macon’s city limits was in a high school bus when I went to state in the 440, a track event in which I washed out, a loser. I recall we stayed in a motel on Cherry Street. The second time I went to play Mount De Sales in a tight game of football. I remember it well. Scored a 70-yard touchdown. The third time I interviewed an attorney, David Higdon, for a disappointing book project. The fourth time I went with my family to get legal counsel for my terminally ill Dad from that same attorney, a path that led to disillusionment. The fifth time was cheerier though it had a blue moment. I visited the graves of Greg Allman, Duane Allman, and Berry Oakley the afternoon prior to spending time with Chuck Leavell of the Rolling Stones, once with the Allman Brothers.
Well, that’s stepping in high cotton as Dad would say, and it’s my brightest memory of Macon, but when I reflect on Macon, I think of the Ocmulgee River, the Allman Brothers, the legendary but defunct Capricorn Records, and that long touchdown run. Mostly, though, I think of the Allman Brothers. For me, and many others, the Allman Brothers are Macon, Georgia, though they were born in Nashville and honed their sound in Florida, “Yankee South.”
Music -- notes strung together with care -- makes memories. How well I remember listening to the Allman Brother’s At Fillmore East in the musty basement of a brick home outside Athens. I cranked up “Whipping Post” on a big set of wooden JBL speakers. I hear it as I write these very words. Played “Not My Cross To Bear,” too, and now I hear Greg’s growling delivery.
In the early 1980s a gal named Linda and I saw the Allman Brothers in concert at Columbia, South Carolina’s Township Theater. I watched Greg stand at his Hammond B-3 organ and I must have dreamed it but through the haze I see “Cher” on the drum kit. Had to be a dream. Cher and Greg had long been divorced, but divorce doesn’t kill you, though some think it will. Two-wheeled conveyances do.
The Devil has a name and it’s Motorcycle. You know, a lot of fellows and gals love riding motorcycles. Not me. I learned way back in 1971 and ’72 that motorcycles kill people. Let me recite the words from Duane Allman’s marker, “Duane Allman Nov, 20, 1946 - Oct. 29, 1971.” And Berry Oakley’s tombstone, “Our Brother B.O. Raymond Berry Oakley, II, Born in Chicago Apr. 4, 1948, Set Free: Nov. 11, 1972. And The Road Runs On Forever.” The very reason I don’t ride is because of Duane and Berry. You know that sad motorcycle-setting-free Macon story.
I had long wanted to see Duane and Berry’s graves, side by side they are, and then Greg joined his brother and bandmates. Thanks to Chuck Leavell, I finally got my chance. The afternoon of January 14, I drove through the big iron gates of a place of eternal sleep that overlooks the Ocmulgee River, Rose Hill Cemetery. Robert Clark was with me. The sun was dropping and the headstones no longer reflected light. After wandering about, we stopped to get a sense of where Greg’s grave might be. Looking out the passenger window I saw a large mushroom, red with white spots lying in the grass. It was plastic. The Allman Brothers’ logo contains a large red-and-white spotted mushroom, you should know. We found some directions on a door. We drove downhill, made a right turn and soon came to the Allmans’ resting place. Uphill we walked to where a fellow was finishing up a day of laying bricks in what looked like a small stage. The plot, I’d learn, is being expanded and secrecy shrouds its purpose. No one in the know says much but they forgot to tell a brickmason to be quiet.
“Why are you laying bricks; making a stage?” I asked.
“No, Greg had a lot of children and he wants them to be buried here,” he said. Well, all right now. How much of that is true I just don’t know. I stood there looking through the wrought iron at all the stuffed animals on Greg’s grave, so many I couldn’t tell if he had a headstone. People have left all manner of guitar picks, mushrooms, coins, and rocks on Greg’s fence. To my back, across the way, a railroad track runs within view of this resting place of three Allman Brothers band members. I thought of Sarah Jones, the Columbia native, who was killed by a train during the making of Midnight Rider.
I stood staring at Greg’s grave while that magical song “Multicolored Lady” played in my head. Chuck’s perfect piano stayed with me as I held onto the dead man’s wrought iron. And so once again Macon makes me blue. Several of my teammates from that Mount de Sale football game are dead. The coaches are dead. Dad is dead. The Macon attorney is dead. The Allman brothers are dead. Poor Sarah whose sun went down while it was yet day is no more.
I’m a man who likes to reflect on things that don’t turn out as I hoped. Now and then I look in James Dickey’s “book of the dead,” my high school annual. On page 35 there it is, words typed in a Roman font, proof of one shining Macon moment. We beat Mount de Sales 13 to 0 in 1966, and 50 years later I’m still running and remembering Blue Macon.
Midnight rider that I am, I will go back. We all need a place that makes us better understand things we’d rather forget. For me it is that record-making, melancholy city down by the Ocmulgee, that place where brown water runs by a blue town on its voyage to a green sea, the repository of humankind’s tears.