Graded on a Curve: Lynyrd Skynyrd,
Gimme Back My Bullets

Tomorrow, October 20th will mark the 39th anniversary of perhaps the most tragic event in rock history; to wit, the one that deprived us of the redneck genius of one Ronnie Van Zant, just three days after Lynyrd Skynyrd released 1977’s Street Survivors. The twilight crash, which occurred in a remote forest outside McComb, Mississippi as the band was flying from Greensboro, South Carolina to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, also took the lives of Skynyrd guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister Cassie Gaines, a backing vocalist for the band, as well as the lives of the pilots and assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick.

Lynyrd Skynyrd lives on, not so much in the form of the band bearing their name that still roams the land playing meat and potatoes rock (minus the meat) for the faithful hungry enough to settle for poor seconds, but on their records, which sound just as fresh today as they did back in the seventies. People who write off Lynyrd Skynyrd as being just a band of dumb rednecks should remember that southern man don’t need them ‘round anyhow, and would also be well advised to remember this shocking truth: Lynyrd Skynyrd was both a populist sensation and a critic’s band. The Village Voice’s Robert Christgau never tired of singing their praises, and Greil Marcus ranked their demise as the No. 1 rock tragedy of the 1970s, the decade that cost us Janis, Jimi, and Jim, to say nothing of Elvis. As Christgau once said of Van Zant: “Dumb he ain’t.”

Take the title track of 1976’s Gimme Back My Bullets, on which the guy who hated Saturday night specials seems to be demanding his ammunition back. It’s a ferocious track, and Ronnie sounds like an ornery advocate for the National Rifle Association, that is until you learn he wasn’t referring to real bullets, but to the bullets that Billboard magazine used to put before chart entries for songs that sold a million copies. As for the guitar work it’s every bit as ornery as Ronnie himself, and the track is a classic. The same goes for the relatively overlooked “Every Mother’s Son,” a lovely tune with a great chorus and a couple of guitar solos that will make you forget all about Ed King, the Yankee-born Skynyrd guitarist who jumped ship after 1975’s Nuthin’ Fancy. Hell, J. Mascis liked “Every Mother’s Son” so much he recorded a cover over it.

“Trust” is another rarely heard track and features lots of the amazing Billy Powell’s piano. Ronnie sounds like he’s suffering a case of cocaine paranoia as he basically advises his listeners to trust no one, not your girl or your best friend, although he does omit your dog and your mama. It ain’t the best Skynyrd track you’ll ever hear, and the same goes for the band’s crawling king snake of a cover of J.J. Cale’s (I Got the) Same Old Blues.” Van Zant’s vocals are spot on, guest Lee Freeman plays some swampy harp, and the guitars are syncopated and funky, and kinda remind me of the seventies keyboard work of Stevie Wonder, they do.

On “Double Trouble” Ronnie is in boasting mode, and the truth about Van Zant was that he was a mean drunk and a despotic band leader, and you can take him at his word on this one. The guy who knocked out Billy Powell’s teeth not once, but twice, and once put a gun to his drummer’s head because he didn’t want to rehearse a song for the umpteenth time, was double trouble in the truest sense of the words. As for the song, the guitar work is intricate, Artimus Pyle’s drumming is hot hot hot, and Van Zant’s belligerent vocals are backed by the Honkettes, Skynyrd’s backing singers. And once again Powell’s piano playing is worth the price of admission. The highly melodic “Roll Gypsy Roll” could almost be an post-Duane Allman Brothers Band song, and I like its slinky forward motion almost as much as I like Van Zant’s confession that, “I made lots of money/Just how much I don’t know/But most of the money/I done stuck up my nose.”

“Searching” boasts some rip-roaring guitar joined to some subpar Van Zant lyrics in the vein of a wise man telling him that the secret to happiness is finding your true love. Van Zant liked to write songs about a young fella looking to some sage old duffer for advice, but this ain’t the best of ‘em. That said, while King’s departure reduced Skynyrd’s legendary three-guitar attack to a duo consisting of Allen Collins and Gary Rossington, you wouldn’t know it by listening to either this track or its follow-up, “Cry for the Bad Man,” which once again features the Honkettes as well as some ferocious guitar work, to say nothing of Van Zant’s vocals, which were always more subtle than most people gave him credit for. Why, none other than Bob Christgau said of his singing, “Where Gregg Allman (to choose a purely random example) is always straight, shuttling his voice between languor and high emotion, Van Zant feints and dodges, sly one moment and sleepy the next, turning boastful or indignant or admonitory with the barest shifts in timbre.”

As for album closer “All I Can Do Is Write About It” it’s one of the loveliest songs I know, with Van Zant going country, Powell playing some truly lovely piano, and guest Barry Lee Harwood adding some tasty dobro and mandolin licks as Van Zant sings about the encroachments of urbanization on the Southland he knows and loves. And it’s eerie as well, or at least quite the coincidence, when Van Zant sings, in a voice that is full of acceptance, “’Cause I can see the concrete slowly creepin’/Lord, take me and mine before that comes.”

I know that Gimme Back My Bullets was not Lynyrd Skynyrd’s best album, and that Van Zant was no saint. But he was a man of conscience, as his boos to George Wallace, hatred of Saturday night specials, and defense of what he thought of as your true Southern virtues (which had nothing to do with Jim Crow, racism, or nationalism) indicate. His loss, to me as well as to many others, was incalculable. I choose to believe that he had plenty more great music in him, and that when one places him in the Southern pantheon he sits closer to Waylon Jennings than to, say, the Charlie Daniels Band or those poseurs the Outlaws. Nobody can know what was going through Van Zant’s mind as that plane was going down, but I believe he knew he was going to die, and accepted it with the stoicism that had characterized the many songs in which he predicted his premature demise. And I also choose to believe that just before impact he said, just as he will do forever at the beginning of “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Turn it up.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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