Tuesday, May 22, 2007

"Let's play some ol' Honk!"

Spent most of my day Sunday listening to my Lynyrd Skynyrd CD collection, and each time I do so, they sound just a little better to me.  For a long time, I was pretty ambivalent about Skynyrd—I liked some of their stuff, and of course, "Free Bird" is monumental, but I was rather turned-off by the brawling biker-bar mentality that the band projected for so long.  But, when I looked a little deeper and learned more about the group, I discovered there was a lot more to them than I realized, lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, especially.  Far from the arrogant macho gun-toting redneck I pictured him to be, R.V.Z. was rather a fairly ordinary guy who actually shunned the limelight and disdained being famous—just as the song "Don’t Ask Me No Questions" says—and he seemed like the kind of guy you’d love to sit down and have a few beers with and just shoot the shit.  He was well spoken and a better wordsmith than I initially gave him credit for, and it’s not so hard to see why Ronnie was so well respected by his Southern Rock peers.

The rest of the band was full of characters too, like late bassist Leon Wilkeson, known as "The Mad Hatter" for his humorous onstage headgear, and a very underrated lead guitar player, the late Allen Collins.  The addition of the late Steve Gaines on guitar in '76 gave Skynyrd a much-needed shot in the arm following a couple so-so albums, and he brought a new dimension to the band on what I think was their best album, Street Survivors.  You can hear him prominently on tracks like "That Smell" and "I Know A Little", and that’s him sharing vocals with Van Zant on "You Got That Right", and he seemed to breathe new life into the band and they were on the upswing again until that fateful day, October 20, 1977.  During that time, I was just starting to embrace Album Rock radio after basically growing up on Top 40 stations, and I just happened to be tuned in to the old KY-102 that night when the DJ—I want to say it was Ray Sherman—broke the terrible news.  I also clearly remember the next night and Walter Cronkite’s fairly infamous gaffe, "Three members of the Rock group Len-yerd Skin-yerd died yesterday…" on the "CBS Evening News".  Unquestionably, it was one of the worst tragedies in Rock history...

I do have a couple lingering issues with Lynyrd Skynyrd, though, namely the way keyboardist Billy Powell embellished the plane crash aftermath story on VH-1’s "Behind The Music" when he claimed that Ronnie Van Zant "didn’t have a mark on him" (not true—he died from massive head injuries) and that background singer Cassie Gaines "died in my arms, and in Artimus Pyle’s arms" and that her neck was slit from one side to the other (again, neither claim is true—it would have been impossible for her to die in drummer Artimus Pyle’s arms, since he left the scene to summon help, nor was her neck slit).  I also think it was very low-rent of the band to basically throw Pyle under the bus several years ago when he was wrongly-accused of doing inappropriate things with an underage girl—they basically wanted no more to do with him when the allegations came out and kicked him out of the band, although he was later cleared of the charges but his reputation was ruined—not cool!  Pretty disappointing for a band that prides itself on being like a family, too.  I also have a problem with Van Zant’s widow, Judy, who owns and controls the band’s interests, for selling out and putting their music on TV ads to help Col. Sanders sell chicken.  Thanks to this, I now can’t hear the intro to "Sweet Home Alabama" without also hearing that annoying beedle-beedle-beedle sound effect that KFC dubbed over it.

My Lynyrd Skynyrd Top-10 of All-Time:
1) "Free Bird" (1973)
2) "Call Me The Breeze" (1974)
3) "That Smell" (1977)
4) "You Got That Right" (1977)
5) "Gimme Three Steps" (1973)
6) "Tuesday’s Gone" (1973)
7) "Saturday Night Special" (1975)
8) "Don’t Ask Me No Questions" (1974)
9) "The Needle And The Spoon" (1975)
10) "What’s Your Name?" (1977)

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