‘One Way Out’ is the only song I can claim that I loved before I even have a memory of hearing it.
I’m not talking about the songs performed by people I know. My mother had a hell of a voice, and sang to me throughout my childhood. So in that sense I could say that ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out’ or ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’ could give this competition. But although I still love several versions of those songs, I’m certain that it had just as much to do with the fact that my mother sang them as with the songs themselves. Probably more.
‘One Way Out’ clearly touched something in me as a child. Something about the way it came out of the stereo connected with a barely formed part of my two year-old brain—the kind of thing you’d think would be reserved for nursery rhymes. Whenever my parents put it on, I’m told, I’d be delighted. I would start jumping up and down on the couch, or right there on the floor, and shout, “Good song! Good song!” I might have had about 50 words in my vocabulary at this point, and two of them were reserved for Good Song.
There are so many songs that have fallen away over the years. If 19 year-old me made a list of his favorite bands I’m sure Sublime would show up near the top. I don’t think I’ve intentionally put on one of their songs in 15 years. Maybe longer. Other songs I cast aside when I was young came back around to surprise me later. It took me until my 30’s to realize how good Bob Dylan was, and my last two years have included a complete rediscovery of the Beatles.
‘One Way Out’ is special for me not only because of the deep emotional response I had as a child, but because I can’t recall a moment in my life when I didn’t enjoy it. I never skip to the next song on the record. Once it’s on, it stays on, and I’ll still go to it happily when I’m searching for something to play. I’ve heard this song more than any other in my life, and it’s not even close. I’m not sure if it’s my favorite song (though it’s up there), and I wouldn’t categorize it as the best song I’ve ever heard. But by the time I die, I’m certain it will be the one song I’ll have carried with me through my entire life. Even if my death were to come on me by surprise, I doubt it would have been more than a month since I last heard it.
There’s a lot of romanticism in that last paragraph. A song that I carry through my life must also carry elements of all the music I’ve gravitated towards. From this seed sprouts the whole garden. I can see the truth of that in the way I lean into blues, prefer hard driving rhythms over slower ballads, and respond viscerally to live performances and recordings that feel like they might fly off the rails. But I see the shadow side of it as well: great pop music has often failed to penetrate, and my playlists are dominated by male vocalists and carry overwhelming amounts of nostalgia.
Maybe that’s true, the good and the bad. But if this was the song that set me on my musical journey, I could have done a lot worse.
* * *
If you know the song, then the version you’ve heard is probably the same one I heard. It comes from the 1972 album Eat a Peach, recorded mostly at Criteria Studios in Miami, except for three tracks recorded live (‘One Way Out’ being one of the live tracks). Eat a Peach is a terrific album, and if you know the story behind it, it’s also one of the more heartbreaking albums in music history.
The band recorded the studio tracks in the fall of 1971. During that time, their leader and founder, guitarist Duane Allman, was killed in a motorcycle accident in Macon, Georgia. He was only 24 years old.
The album came out in February of 1972. It opens with a wrenching number by singer Gregg Allman, written about his brother’s death. Before the year was out, bassist Berry Oakley would also be dead. Also from a motorcycle accident. Also in Macon. Also at 24.
Maybe one of the reasons I struggle to write about this song is because the story behind it is so extraordinary. A band that was fusing rock with blues and jazz, that was just finding their path and breaking through to a large audience, loses two incomparable musicians who formed the backbone of their sound. What’s even more incredible about the Allman Brothers Band is how much good music they managed to continue creating in spite of this. They suffered unimaginable loss, and were still a top flight band.
Radio host Dan Carlin likes to say that he’s “addicted to context,” and I get that. I want to explore everything around this recording, and where things might have gone differently for the band in the years to come. I can see how their sound shifted after the loss of Duane Allman, moving more toward a countrified style that would become a cornerstone of what’s come to be called Southern Rock, a distinction the band, and Gregg Allman in particular, didn’t seem to care for. (“You might as well call it ‘rock rock,’” said Allman)
I get that. Southern Rock seems to span this weird chasm between those who weren’t from the south, but affected the tone (Creedence Clearwater Revival), others who leaned hard into it with a feeling that had a lot of country music influence (Lynard Skynard), and those who eventually dove fully into confederate flag draped jingoism (Charlie Daniels, Kid Rock).
The Allman Brothers, by contrast, seem to me a unique force in the history of rock music. An integrated southern band far more influenced by jazz than by any sort of country sound. Even as they leaned into more country and folk influences on the albums that came after Eat a Peach, they never stopped being, on some level, jazz musicians. You can hear it on this clip of Dickie Betts and Dan Toler working their way through Horace Silver’s classic ‘The Preacher’ while backstage in 1982:
Dickie Betts was crazy about Django Reinhardt, and wrote ‘In Memory of Elizabeth Reed’ to try to mimic the guitarist’s style. Duane Allman wanted to take the band in the kinds of directions John Coltrane and Miles Davis were going. ‘Les Brers in A Minor,’ the second track on Eat a Peach, sounds like it would be just as at home on Davis’s Bitches Brew as it is here. When you listen to the Allman Brothers, particularly their seminal live album At Fillmore East, you hear that this is a band that could do absolutely anything.
Which brings us around to the recording of ‘One Way Out’ in New York on June 27, 1971.
* * *
The Fillmore East lasted just over three years as a music venue. Conceived by legendary promoter Phil Graham, and hosting a dazzling array of live acts (who often moved between New York and Graham’s Fillmore West in San Francisco), it had a meteor-short existence, and is responsible for a dizzying number of great live albums. The Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East, recorded over two nights in March of 1971, might be the best of those.
But the recording of ‘One Way Out’ was done later, and subsequently ended up on Eat a Peach. It was recorded during the venue’s very last performance, and I can take you through every second of it like a tour guide. The whistles and the slow fade in at the beginning of the track, the rattle of the double percussion, that first blazing moment when the whole band comes in, with Duane Allman burning a gasoline trail on the slide guitar.
It’s not a complex song. Pretty much a standard 12 bar blues (with a break on the tenth bar) about a guy in the home of a married woman, and his terror at realizing her husband might be waiting for him outside. But although Gregg Allman’s voice is fantastic, the lyrics are unimportant. What makes the song fly is the trade offs between the musicians, the tightness of the band, and especially for me, the mistake.
There’s a mistake in the song, and the recording has so much energy and drive that it took me about 35 years to notice it.
Three minutes in (just after Gregg Allman exhorts the crowd to “put your hands together”), Dickie Betts and Duane Allman start trading guitar riffs while the band sits back. It’s short and white hot, both men operating at top gear. Then the band comes in as Duane takes off and Berry Oakley, one of the great bassists in rock history, slips up. He gets too excited and comes in on the bass a beat too early (it happens at 3:18 on the track). I never noticed it because it doesn’t matter. Within two bars the band has swept up the mistake, reformed like a wave, and is coming right at you.
I love this mistake for a couple of reasons. One is that it’s only possible because this is a live recording. If this had been done in the studio, they probably would have used a different take. Another is that it makes the song sound even stronger, because it contributes to the hell-bent, off the rails feeling of a live set. It lets you know you’re in there with the band as they make this, without perfectionist producers and marketing men to get in the way.
Finally, I love it because it feels like the place I would have fit into the song. I’d be too excited, too caught up in the moment, too ready to go, and when I tipped the boat, everyone else would have to swing in and right it. There was a brief moment in New Orleans when I was sitting in with jazz bands as a rhythm guitarist, and this kind of thing is exactly why I never managed to become a regular member of a band.
But what I get more than anything from this track is the joy of people working together at something they’re great at. This is a wonderful moment in the band’s history. They were closing out a fantastic venue they’d become synonymous with. Their album, At Fillmore East, would come out the following month and turn their fortunes upward. Every member of the band was still alive, though several were struggling with drug addictions. The dark forces were there, but they hadn’t taken them down yet. They were one of the best bands in the country on the cusp of something great.
That I get to hear them in the moment before tragedy strikes is miraculous. I live in a time where that’s possible. More than that, I live in a time when nearly any song in the world is available to me at a moment’s notice. I could never have imagined that. And the band I hear in this song probably couldn’t have imagined their music would grow as big or last as long as it has. I came along at the right time to appreciate it, and appreciate it I do.
I’ve got all the songs in the world available to me, and I keep picking this one. Everyone has a go to first track on their mixtape, and this is mine. It’s the one that kicks off my own personal soundtrack.
It’s my track one. Always has been. Always will be.