There’s this dream I occasionally have about my brother.
The two of us are bodysurfing off the coast of Catalina. Both of us are teenagers, just barely old enough to have driver’s licenses.
It’s late afternoon, the shoreline is full of tourists, and the old casino sits like an outsized tombstone a few hundred yards from the sand.
For the first several minutes of the dream—or what I assume are minutes—nothing much happens. We swim, we pause to catch our breaths. Gaze back towards the shoreline to look at some pretty girls sunbathing near the lifeguard tower.
Then my brother disappears beneath the water, and he never comes back up.
I’m confused, then panicked, and I keep diving below to search for him.
Eventually I look to see if there are any boats nearby to signal for help; there aren’t.
And when I begin to shout towards the people along the shore, no one seems to notice.
No one—I am certain of it—notices.
How does it end?
I just told you.
My brother, a strong swimmer, stronger than I’ll ever be, is swallowed up by the sea.
Every time I wake up from this dream, and sometimes a few seconds before, “Blue Sky,” by The Allman Brothers, begins to play in my head. The track is the 9th song on the band’s 1972 studio album, Eat a Peach. Fans of the band know was the last to feature the presence of guitarist Duane Allman, who died in a Georgia motorcycle accident before the record was completed.
Allman’s guitar playing on the song is almost impossibly fluid. When he begins to solo after the first chorus, he sounds like a merman trying to explain to an angel why the water is more sacred than the sky. By the time the band’s other founding guitarist, Dickey Betts, begins to solo a minute-and-a-half later, I’m often surprised to find that I still have legs rather than a long, shimmering tail.
Maybe that’s what happens at the end of my dream: my brother grows a tail and swims away.
It makes a certain type of sense. In that dream, my brother—perhaps because he’s a year older, perhaps because he carries himself with a stately aloofness—seems like a figure out of an ancient myth. Adonis with a better backstroke; Paris with serious lung capacity.
For years I wondered whether Duane Allman visited his surviving brother—Gregg, the band’s main songwriter, lead singer, and incomparable organist—in the latter’s dreams. And if so, whether he and Gregg ever spoke.
In 2011, upon the release of Gregg’s sometimes lovely, sometimes cruel, memoir, My Cross to Bear, I finally had an answer, as the book opens with Gregg describing a dream he has while in the hospital after a liver transplant:
I was standing at a bridge and it was twilight, and somebody was on the other side. They weren’t motioning, they were just looking at me, but the message got through: don’t come across this bridge.
The “somebody,” it turns out, is Duane, and he wordlessly informs Gregg that it’s not his “time yet.”
I’m not sure why, but upon reading that passage I found myself crying harder than I have in several years.
That wasn’t, I should mention, the first time Gregg Allman made me cry.
I should also probably mention that I don’t have a brother.
In regard to that first point, the first time Gregg Allman made me cry was on my way home from the funeral of my friend Alison several years ago. I was on the 405 freeway heading south and, rare for a weekday afternoon, traffic was light, so I was doing 70 or 75 miles per hour. I had my windows down and the volume on the radio turned up.
“Midnight Rider,” a song whose narrator belongs to the same tradition of anti-heroic American desperados as Warren Beatty’s version of Clyde Barrow and Kenny Rogers’ interpretation of The Gambler, and whose instrumentation sounds like a cross between Mannish Boy-era Muddy Waters and Music from Big Pink-era The Band, began to play.
It is not, obviously, the kind of song meant to inspire tears.
It is, rather, the kind of song meant to inspire bar-fights or audience sing-a-longs at an outdoor festival.
Yet for whatever reason, the moment Gregg began to sing about not letting “them” catch him, and I was suddenly doing 70 or 75 miles an hour with my windows down and the radio turned up, tears streaming down my face at an alarmingly fast—hysterical, even—rate.
Indeed, I found myself feeling that Alison was the Midnight Rider, and that she was, through Gregg’s voice, telling all of us—me, her boyfriend, her family and other close friends, cancer—that where she was going no one would be able to catch her.
The tears were my way of telling her that I understood, and was happy for her, even though I already missed her.
After all, she deserved to be on the move, and I liked the idea of her traveling on a road that “goes on forever.”
Eternity, and all that.
And besides, it felt like Duane’s acoustic guitar, with its hook built around a repeated hammer-on of the Dsus2 chord, was tracking her, like a guardian angel in standard tuning whose only job was to make sure that my friend got to wherever it was that she wanted to go.
Which didn’t—and still doesn’t—surprise me. Duane’s playing is full of such kindnesses. You can hear it in his solo on “You Don’t Love Me” from “At Fillmore East,” where Duane pays tribute to King Curtis, John Coltrane, and Psalm 98 with an extended solo as full of gratitude as Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”; you can hear it throughout Gregg’s greatest composition, “Dreams,” where Duane’s guitar becomes a sonic Virgil to Gregg’s tortured, questing Dante; and you can hear it in the second half of Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla,” where Duane’s slide-guitar sounds as elemental as fire and water, earth and air.
You’re in good hands, I said to her, and to no one, as I continued to drive. Safe travels.
In regard to that second point, I don’t know what to say, other than that, within the landscape of the dream, my brother is as real to me as the ocean, or the pretty girls at the shore, or the art deco facade of the shuttered casino.
And even when I awaken, I love him, and miss him, and hope that, perhaps in someone else’s dream, he comes back up for air, whether in this sea or another.
This brother of mine, never born, always dying: does he hear the same song I do as he swims?
And if so, what does he think of Duane’s guitar playing?
Perhaps he prefers Dickey Betts.
There’s no shame in that. Dickey Betts was to The Allman Brothers what George Harrison was to The Beatles: a musical genius overshadowed by two other musical geniuses.
And for the twenty or so seconds that Duane and Dickey solo together in “Blue Sky”—two mermen in love with the water, and what their bodies can do within that water—they make a convincing case there all kinds of ways for men to be brothers, whether or not they share the same blood.
It’s been a while since I’ve had that dream, actually. But the next time I do, maybe instead of swimming with my brother, the two of us could play our guitars. We probably have the same taste in music, and I don’t think that Duane, Dickey, or Gregg would mind if we jammed right along with them.
 Allman, Gregg. My Cross to Bear. New York: William Morrow, 2013.