Graded on a Curve: Lynyrd Skynyrd,
The Essential Lynyrd Skynyrd

With the 40th anniversary of the tragic plane crash that claimed Lynyrd Skynyrd upon us, I feel beholden to say that Lynyrd Skynyrd weren’t just the finest Southern Rock band to come out of America, but perhaps the finest rock band to come out of America period.

I’ll grant you the Velvet Underground if they’re more your decadent cup of tea, or the Doobie Brothers if you’re double-retarded, but there’s no denying that Jacksonville, FLA’s Lynyrd Skynyrd has mattered to more people and will continue to matter to more people than NYC’s Velvet Underground ever will. And by no means are all of those people unreconstituted rednecks who fly Confederate battle flags from the backs of their pickup trucks. No, as the Drive-By Truckers demonstrate, some of the best of ‘em are dyed-in-the-wool liberals who believe Black Lives Matter and aren’t afraid to shout if from the rooftops.

Some people will never like Lynyrd Skynyrd because they had kind things to say about the state of Alabama and mean things to say about Neil Young, but the fact is that Ronnie Van Zant, whom I consider to be one of the finest songwriters to ever walk this planet, never uttered an impeachable word on the subjects of race or white grievance or George Wallace for that matter. Even booed the fella in “Sweet Home Alabama,” for Christ’s sake. And as “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” proves, Ronnie knew damn well he was playing the black man’s music and was proud of the fact.

The man may have had bad manners—he knocked out his keyboard players teeth, twice, once put a gun to his drummer’s head because the poor fool declined to play a certain song at practice, and from what I understand even tried to push a guy out of an airplane at 30,000 feet—but his songs were from the heart and filled with grace and at their best lovely beyond measure. And call him a simple man if you will, but he wasn’t dumb. Thanks to Van Zant, Lynyrd Skynyrd—and I’m talking here, as always, about the pre-plane crash Lynyrd Skynyrd, which is the only Lynyrd Skynyrd that matters—was that rarest of things: a thinking man’s Southern Rock band.

At the helm of Van Zant, Lynyrd Skynyrd played rock and roll like they were playing country and vice versa, and by saying this I do not mean to insinuate that they were a country rock band. They were anything but, with the possible exception of “The Ballad of Curtis Loew.” They were Waylon Jennings gone rock and roll with a vengeance, and if Van Zant sounded a bit like Paul Rogers he one-upped him by introducing a sly sense of country wit and swagger into the mix. I’ve heard it said that Lynyrd Skynyrd was a rock band with a country singer, but it’s not that simple. On such songs as “Gimme Three Steps”—in which the bad ass Mr. Zant is happy to play the fool—and the brilliant “Simple Man” it’s the storytelling that is country and the music that is rock and roll. And the same goes for plenty of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s other classics.

Van Zant could be belligerent—as the live version of “Gimme Back My Bullets” on 1998’s The Essential Lynyrd Skynyrd demonstrates—and he could be pissed off (check out the angry anti-handgun screed that is “Saturday Night Special” and the immortal “That Smell”), but he was often surprisingly tender. And I’m not just talking about the luvverly “Tuesday’s Gone,” which I consider one of the most transcendentally beautiful rock songs ever written. “Comin’ Home” literally gives me goosebumps, while the resigned “All I Can Do Is Write About It”—which bemoans the slow but inexorable erosion of Mother Nature in the face of “progress”—is clearly the work of a sensitive and caring man. And even the great “Sweet Home Alabama”—which has always been and will always be on my Top Ten list—is a love song at heart, its friendly challenge to Neil Young notwithstanding.

Lynyrd Skynyrd could serve ‘em up hard—“That Smell” (which includes the best ever drunk driving lyric in “Oak tree you’re in my way”) is as good a hard rocker as any, and the same goes for the defiant “Gimme Back My Bullets,” the pissed off “Workin’ for MCA,” and the grinding “I Ain’t the One”—but they had a light touch too. “Swamp Music” is pure country boogie, while “Call Me the Breeze”—despite its mean guitar—practically bounces down the road. And the same can be said about the positively ebullient “I Know a Little” and the very libertarian “You Got That Right,” on which poor Steve Gaines—the young guitar hotshot who would die with Ronnie on Skynyrd’s ill-fated final flight—shares lead vocals. To hear them singing together is to hear what might have been, because as Street Survivors proved, Lynyrd Skynyrd had a lot more great music in them.

About the LP, The Essential Lynyrd Skynyrd is the best greatest hits album out there, especially since Gold and Platinum—which I own and treasure—has gone out of print. Do I have caveats about this comp? Sure. Nobody in their right mind needs TWO versions of “Free Bird,” and speaking just for myself I’d have replaced the bluesy “Mr. Banker” and the undubbed demo version of “Four Walls of Raiford” with the heartfelt and lovely “Am I Losin’?” and the menacing “The Needle and the Spoon.” And I would most definitely toss the very Bad Company like “Was I Right or Wrong?” in favor of the tres defiant “Don’t Ask Me No Questions.”

The tragic death of Ronnie Van Zant spelled the end of Lynyrd Skynyrd because Ronnie Van Zant WAS Lynyrd Skynyrd. I don’t say this to disparage the consummate musicianship of any of his band mates. Skynyrd’s “three guitar army” was by turns a blunt force and a surprisingly subtle piece of machinery. And Billy Powell’s keyboards make “Tuesday’s Gone” the masterpiece it is, and there’s no denying it. But it was Van Zant who wrote the great songs and drove the band to greatness, and without him around the others were lost, as the sad “second act” of Lynyrd Skynyrd proves.

I will always consider Van Zant’s death the greatest tragedy in rock history—greater than the deaths of Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, and Cobain—both because Van Zant had so much more to give and because his death was so undeserved and pointless. He had no hand in his own demise, and that makes his demise all the more difficult to stomach. He was so young. He had more, so much more, to speak his mind about. Because in the end that’s what he did so well. He insisted upon having his own unreconstituted say, and not many could say it with as much simple eloquence as he could.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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