So sorry for the lack of posts here lately, especially in light of my recent vow to keep on plugging away while the rest of blogdom snoozes. However, a series of crises on this end—not the least of which is my old man being hospitalized with pneumonia again—has stifled my creativity and limited my free time, hence the relative silence from yours truly. I can’t guarantee when the clouds will clear at this point or when I’ll be able to post more frequently, but in the meantime, enjoy my re-worked band tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd, which I originally posted in the spring of ’07, and have decided to expound on a bit more…
I recently read two books from the library about Lynyrd Skynyrd, one good, one not so good. The good one was co-written by a former member of their road crew and a close friend of the late Ronnie Van Zant, Gene Odom, entitled Lynyrd Skynyrd: Remembering The Free Birds Of Southern Rock, and it’s totally worth it for his first-hand account of their tragic 1977 plane crash alone, during which Odom lost an eye and suffered other serious injuries. The other book, Freebirds: The Lynyrd Skynyrd Story by Marley Brant was more expansive and also covered more of the group’s post-plane crash history, but was loaded with factual errors, gossip/hearsay and misspellings galore (for instance, ‘Van Zant’ was spelled numerous ways throughout the book, including ‘Vanzant’ ‘VanZant’ and ‘Van-Zant’) and former bassist Larry Junstrom (later a member of .38 Special) was listed as Larry ‘Jungstrom’. Pretty sophomoric effort, there, Marley…
When I first heard Skynyrd on AM radio in ’74, I naturally assumed they were from Alabama, based on “Sweet Home”, but of course, LS hailed from Jacksonville, Florida. I was fairly ambivalent about the band during the ‘70s for the longest time—I liked some of their stuff, especially the monumental “Free Bird”—but I was rather put-off by the brawling biker-bar mentality the group projected for so long (much of which was fairly true, based on my reading). But, when I looked a little deeper and learned more about them, I discovered there was a lot more to this band than I realized, singer Ronnie Van Zant, in particular. Far from the macho gun-toting redneck I pictured him to be, RVZ was actually a fairly ordinary guy who shunned the limelight and disdained being famous, just as the song “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” indicates. Actually, all of the band members were hardly your typical Rock Star material—they were just regular working-class folk who were talented enough to make a go of it in the music business.
Mr. Van Zant was well-spoken and a far better wordsmith than I initially gave him credit for being, and had a knack for coming up with lyrics and never committing them to paper. It was like he had this internal Rolodex in his head that he filed ideas and phrases in, and just dialed them up at will. Just about every account you read about Ronnie portrays him as a “fine Southern gentleman” who was well-respected by his peers, almost to the point of granting him sainthood. No disrespect intended to the dearly-departed, but this is the same man who would routinely get fucked-up on alcohol and beat people up who crossed him, including his own bandmates—late keyboardist Billy Powell lost numerous teeth to Ronnie’s fists once. Doesn't sound very “gentlemanly” to me. He seemed to be fairly unapologetic about it, too, making it all the more confounding. Alcohol is no excuse, either—you don’t go around beating up your friends. If you beat me up, you’re no longer my friend, but I digress…
The rest of the band was full of characters too, like late bassist Leon Wilkeson, better known as “The Mad Hatter” for his humorous onstage headgear, ranging from English “Bobbie” helmets to “Cat-In-The-Hat” hats. I think the boy was a little mental, too, because when I saw Skynyrd in concert in 2001—just weeks prior to his death—he wore these bright red latex pants onstage in searingly hot weather. Lead guitarist Allen Collins was extremely underrated—I find it amazing to this day that he dreamed up and played the entire legendary solo on “Free Bird” by himself, with only an assist or two from Ed King and Gary Rossington in places. Sadly, Collins was probably the most self-destructive member of Skynyrd, and his post-plane crash life was full of tragedy. His wife died suddenly during childbirth in 1980, and six years later, he got drunk off his ass and wrecked his car in which his girlfriend was a passenger, killing her and leaving him paralyzed from the waist-down. Some say Allen had a death wish in the years following the plane crash, and even though he tagged along on the ’87 Lynyrd Skynyrd reunion tour as a “musical director”, not being able to play guitar and be on-stage with his friends must have just sucked the life right out of him. Collins died of pneumonia on January 23, 1990 at age 37—done WAY too soon.
Another tragedy amongst the many this band has had its unfair share of was guitarist Steve Gaines, who joined in the summer of ’76. Skynyrd was in a slump following two so-so albums (Nuthin’ Fancy and Gimme Back My Bullets), which led to the departure of Ed King in late ’75. They carried on with just two guitarists for a time until back-up singer Cassie Gaines (of the “Honkettes” as Ronnie dubbed them) recommended her brother as a replacement for King. In a most unusual move, the band decided to “audition” Steve right there onstage at a Skynyrd show at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, Kansas—talk about a baptism by fire! Gaines was so good, though, that Van Zant took to him right away, and Steve was inserted into the lineup just in time to record their live album, One More From The Road. Gaines was a much-needed shot in the arm, and he brought a new dimension to the band with his almost jazz-like playing. You can hear him prominently on their final studio album Street Survivors on tracks like “That Smell” and “I Know A Little” (which he wrote) and that’s him sharing vocals with Ronnie on “You Got That Right”. You might say that Steve Gaines was another Stevie Ray Vaughan in the making—who knows what he might’ve gone on to do…
Steve seemingly re-energized Collins and Rossington, who both suddenly realized they needed to elevate their playing just to keep up with this guy, and all seemed to be right in Skynyrd-land again until that fateful day, October 20, 1977, just three days after the release of Street Survivors. During that time, I was just beginning to make the transition from Top 40 radio over to Album Rock, and I just happened to be tuned into the old KY-102 that night when the DJ (Ray Sherman, I wanna say) broke the bad news, and it turned into an all-night vigil as the details trickled in. I also clearly remember the next night when Walter Cronkite committed his fairly infamous gaffe on the “CBS Evening News”, “Three members of the Rock group Len-yerd Skin-yerd died yesterday…”
What sucks the most about the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash is it could have and should have been averted. Their plane was over 30 years old, and the pilots knew there was something wrong with one of the engines, but arrogantly decided to hold off on fixing the problem until they reached Baton Rouge, where a mechanic from Houston was due to meet them and make the necessary repairs. Even worse, there was no compelling need for Skynyrd to arrive in Louisiana on the 20th—their next concert wasn’t scheduled until the next night, and they could’ve taken alternate transportation from South Carolina, where the doomed flight originated. Basically, the plane ran out of fuel about 50 miles from its destination, and ironically, if they’d run out of fuel a bit sooner, they may well have been able to land the plane in a flat field to a much lesser impact, but unfortunately, the plane dropped right into a grove of trees in swampland. Both pilots were killed on impact, as were Ronnie Van Zant, Steve and Cassie Gaines, and tour manager Dean Kilpatrick, all of whom were seated at or near the front of the aircraft. The other 20 passengers suffered numerous injuries of varying degrees of severity, and drummer Artimus Pyle—with broken ribs and bleeding profusely himself—was able to make a run through the rugged terrain to summon help from the locals. Mr. Odom’s blow-by-blow account of the crash in his book is as riveting as it is chilling.
For a band that always prided itself on being a “family”, Lynyrd Skynyrd sure has been a dysfunctional lot ever since the 1977 tragedy. Now, I’ve never been in a plane crash, and I hope to hell I never will be, so I have no idea what it’s like or how horrific it can be, but the way these people have treated each at times over the years has been downright baffling. Keyboardist Billy Powell raised eyebrows and caused some hurt feelings amongst the Gaines family when he embellished the plane crash aftermath story on VH-1’s “Behind The Music” in 2000, claiming that Cassie Gaines “died in my arms and Artimus Pyle’s arms”, not to mention that her neck was slit from ear-to-ear. Neither claim was true, and Powell’s story didn’t hold water anyway, considering that Pyle was off seeking assistance, therefore she couldn’t possibly have died in both sets of arms. He also claimed that Ronnie Van Zant “didn’t have a mark on him” (there goes that sainthood stuff again) when Van Zant indeed died of massive head injuries.
I also find it rather sad that the surviving band members turned their collective backs on Pyle when he was accused by his whacked-out girlfriend of child molestation with the daughter he fathered with this woman. Pyle was forced to register as a sex offender for a time, and no one in the band stood up in support of him, and they basically just threw him under the bus and his reputation is ruined for good. There seems to be an especially nasty rift between Pyle and guitarist Gary Rossington, the lone surviving original Skynyrd member. At least AP was invited to attend and perform at Skynyrd’s induction ceremony for the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2006 (as was original drummer Bob Burns), but there was one glaring no-show that night that I’ve always been curious about. Charlie Daniels, who often championed the Skynyrd cause and was a close friend of Ronnie Van Zant, was nowhere to be found that night. Considering how Daniels honored Ronnie’s memory in the poignant 1979 C.D.B. song “Reflections”, I would’ve thought for sure Charlie would be the obvious choice to induct the band into the Hall, but we got stuck with Kid (C)Rock doing the honors instead—talk about a downgrade! Makes one wonder if there’s a rift between Daniels and the band now, too. I also have issues with Van Zant’s widow, Judy, who owns and controls the band’s name and interests, for selling Ronnie’s songs to TV ads to help Col. Sanders sell chicken, etc.
My All-Time Lynyrd Skynyrd Top 15:
15) Workin’ For MCA (1974) As proud a man as Ronnie Van Zant seemed to be, evidently he wasn’t above doing a little sucking up to his record company with this song. Actually, it was all tongue-in-cheek, and not a bad tune all the same.
14) Crossroads (1976) Rather difficult to tell Skynyrd’s version (off One More From The Road) from Cream’s classic 1969 rendition, but I’ll take Skynyrd over Cream here, if only because Van Zant was a better vocalist than Eric Clapton.
13) Simple Man (1973) This was a very personal song to Mr. Van Zant, with the “Mama” in it actually being his grandmother who counseled him during his youth. One can only imagine Ronnie doing somersaults in his crypt when they started using this song in TV beer commercials. And for a cheap, crappy brand like Busch? Pure heresy…
12) Gimme Back My Bullets (1975) Nice and rough (as Tina Turner might say) with a nasty rumbling riff. Don’t let the title fool you—the song’s not about firearms or ammo…
11) I Know A Little (1977) One of the rare times Skynyrd did a song with lyrics not written by Van Zant (other than cover songs). Young master Gaines had written this one some years before joining Skynyrd. I love the punchline: “I know a little—baby, I’ll guess the rest…”
10) What’s Your Name? (1977) This one came out as a single in advance of Street Survivors and it’s the one that made me finally embrace the band. I found the way Ronnie sang “Little girl” in the chorus rather endearing, for some reason, and the song is funny in places.
9) The Needle And The Spoon (1974) The first of several cautionary tales that Ronnie Van Zant put into song. Pity some of the band members didn’t heed it…
8) Don’t Ask Me No Questions (1974) Another personal song from RVZ, all about wanting to get away from it all when returning from the road. I imagine all Rock stars go through this in one way or another with their family and friends, which makes me kinda thankful I’m not famous.
7) Saturday Night Special (1975) In which Ronnie and the boys take an anti-handgun stance—most unusual when you consider that a good chunk of Skynyrd’s fan base are NRA members. Nasty riffing from Collins and Rossington here too.
6) Tuesday’s Gone (1973) Excellent tear-jerker that features a beautiful Mellotron solo in the middle, which was usually the province of Moody Blues and Elton John records back in the day.
5) Gimme Three Steps (1973) Probably Skynyrd’s funniest song, all about that “fella with the hair colored yella”. Van Zant kinda sorta based this one on actual events.
4) You Got That Right (1977) Not only did Steve Gaines impress everyone with his guitar playing prowess, he wasn’t a bad singer, either, thus he got to duet with RVZ on this one. Love the attitude here, especially, “I’ve tried everything in my life/The things I like, I try ‘em twice…” The line “You won’t find me in an old folks home” was prophetic, too, as Van Zant had often predicted he wouldn’t make it to the age of 30.
3) That Smell (1977) An even more haunting cautionary tale, and again, it’s a pity some of the band members failed to heed it, especially the late Allen Collins.
2) Call Me The Breeze (1974) The Muscle Shoals Horns (aka ,“The Swampers”) totally make this already cool song cook even more. How it was omitted from the first Skynyrd compilation album, Gold & Platinum is a mystery.
1) Free Bird (1973) Just like The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, Elton John’s “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting” and Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love”, no matter how much this thing gets played to death on the radio, I never tire of hearing it. This song ended virtually every Lynyrd Skynyrd concert from day one.
NOTE: Yes, I know, “Sweet Home Alabama” didn’t make the cut here. Classic song, yes, but there are a few classics I just don’t care for that much and this is one of them. Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall” is another example. And unlike “Free Bird”, I’m pretty burned-out on constantly hearing “Sweet Home” on the radio…