Graded on a Curve: Lynyrd Skynyrd: (pronounced ‘leh-‘nérd ‘skin-‘nérd)

If there’s one band I’m glad I never belonged to, it’s Lynyrd Skynyrd. I love their music, but I couldn’t have handled their preferred method of conflict resolution, which generally involved a punch to the face. Or worse. Vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, Skynyrd’s highly volatile bandleader, not only managed to knock out piano player Billy Powell’s teeth—twice!—but on one notable occasion responded to drummer Bob Burns’ reluctance to play a song—and this was just a practice, mind you—by placing a gun to his head and saying, “Play the motherfucking song or I’m going to blow your brains all over this room.”

But it wasn’t just Van Zant who was throwing haymakers. Lynyrd Skynyrd wasn’t a band; it was Fight Club. According to a writer close to the band, “They drank a lot of Jack Daniels and, for recreation, almost, they would beat each other up.” And Ozzy Osbourne recalls seeing “The guitarist come on stage with a bandage on his hand, and the singer come out with a bandage on his head, and they were hugging each other, saying, ‘I’m sorry, brother—I love you, man.’”

But on those rare occasions when they weren’t beating the bejesus out of one another, Lynyrd Skynyrd managed to produce some of the finest rock music to ever come out of the South—or anywhere for that matter—thanks largely to excellent songwriting, the band’s balls-to-the-wall multiple guitar attack, and Van Zant’s timeless lyrics. Van Zant was an ardent student of the recordings of Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings, and it was part and parcel of his lyrical genius to set their populist leanings and outlaw stance to a rock’n’roll beat.

And Skynyrd had plenty more great music left in them—as their final LP, Street Survivors, amply attests—when their chartered Convair CV-300 went down in a forested swamp outside Gillsburg, Mississippi on October 20, 1977, killing Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and several others. Forget John Lennon—that uxorious has-been whose last gasp, Double Fantasy, is a maudlin farce, despite the sentimental praise heaped upon it solely because he was the Beatle who got shot by a nut—Skynyrd’s plane crash remains the greatest tragedy in rock history, period.

Dead end kids from the wrong side of the tracks in Jacksonville, Florida, the roughneck boozers and brawlers in Skynyrd named themselves after a hated gym teacher, regularly got beat up by rednecks for having long hair, and practiced 12 hours a day, seven days a week in 100 degree heat in a tin-roofed shack without windows or air conditioning they called the Hell House, while subsisting on peanut butter sandwiches they paid for by collecting soda bottles. And they did this for years. You would be hard pressed to find another band that worked so hard under such grueling conditions to get to where it got.

In 1971 the band produced some recordings at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio that went nowhere. Then a savior appeared in the form of New York musician/producer Al Kooper, who despised the progressive rock that ruled the airwaves and was on the hunt for a band that “played basic rock and roll. Because people were dying for that and all they were getting was this schmutz.” He caught Skynyrd’s show at a club in Atlanta and later said, “Can you imagine walking into a real funky club where you could get shot and hearing the Rolling Stones? And finding out they weren’t signed by anybody? I just couldn’t believe it.”

With Kooper’s backing Skynyrd signed to MCA—a disastrous match that Van Zant satirized in Second Helping’s sneering “Workin’ for MCA”—and went into the studio with Kooper producing. The result was (pronounced ‘lĕh-‘nérd ‘skin-‘nérd). Beloved by critics as well as rural folk from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line, it will likely never win the respect it deserves from Yankee urbanites, who continue to write off Skynyrd as a bad redneck joke or blame them for a youth spent hearing “Free Bird” some 97 times per day. What can I say? You can suffer for your art, but it’s always better to let others do it for you.

LP opener “I Ain’t the One” features Van Zant in a surly mood, Allen Collins playing some very mean lead guitar, and the occasional cool keyboard fill by Powell. With his sledgehammer of a voice Van Zant enters the song like a man knocking down a door, snarling, “Now I’ll tell you plainly, baby/What I plan to dooo/Say I may be crazy, woman/But I ain’t no fool.” Van Zant may not have been the greatest vocalist, but from his great southern drawl (“I do be… liiiiiieeeve”) to his inspired ad libs (“Time for me to put my boots out in the street, missy/Are you ready boots?/Walk on!”) he forces you to stand up and pay attention through sheer brute force of will.

“Tuesday’s Gone” is probably the loveliest song Lynyrd Skynyrd ever produced, thanks in large part to one very pretty chorus, the soaring mellotron work of Kooper (listed as Roosevelt Gook on the credits), some very sweet-sounding guitar solos by Gary Rossington, and a poignant turn on the piano by Powell. A mid-tempo epic about a lost lover named Tuesday, it never fails to choke me up because I used to have a girlfriend named Tuesday and I thought we’d be together forever, that is until she was horribly disfigured by a wildcat attack during a nature hike, and never forgave me for pushing her the wildcat’s way in order to protect my own male model good looks.

“Gimme Three Steps,” a hard-rocking barroom boogie and cautionary tale about dancing with unfamiliar women, opens with one very cool guitar riff by Rossington, at which point Van Zant commences to tell his tale of woe and humiliation. It’s nice to hear Van Zant play the comic foil for once, and from his immortal “I said, ‘Excuuuuse me’” to his “You could hear me screaming a mile away as I was headed out towards the door” he plays the role of a guy in the wrong place at the wrong time with real comedic panache.

The mid-tempo hard-rocker “Simple Man” opens on a quiet note, with Van Zant singing, “Mama told me when I was young/Come sit beside me, my only son/And listen closely to what I say/And if you do this/You will punch out your piano player’s teeth some sunny day.” Then Rossington’s ferocious guitar comes in, and Burns commences to play some of the most barbaric drum pummel I’ve ever heard in my life. And so it goes, quiet verses alternating with bone-crushing choruses, and I can only wonder what Van Zant siblings Donnie, Johnny, and Yanni (the black sheep of the tribe) thought about Ronnie’s writing them out of the family history.

“Things Goin’ On” is a perky and up-tempo populist number, featuring lots of zippy Rossington guitar solos and enough boogie-woogie piano to cause claw hand. Meanwhile Van Zant sings about conditions in the ghetto, the money wasted putting men on the moon, and the abominable conditions of Alabama’s porta johns, concluding “Well, if you don’t know what I mean/Won’t you stand up and scream?/’Cause there’s things goin’ on that you don’t know.” And don’t I know I don’t know it; I once lost a baggie full of ‘ludes down the rank black hole of a porta john at a Doobie Brothers concert outside Intercourse, Pennsylvania, and I definitely stood up and screamed. The Doobs were playing “Black Water” at the time, which in hindsight seems highly appropriate.

“Mississippi Kid” is an outlaw blues about a guy who’s got his pistols in his pockets and is Alabamy bound. Dominated by Kooper’s mandolin—in his usual savant’s fashion, Al figured the song needed something extra, so he bought a 40-dollar model and taught himself how to play it in like six minutes flat—and the lead guitar of Ed King, a latecomer to the band and former member of The Strawberry Alarm Clock, “Mississippi Kid” features some nice harmonica by sessions musician Steve Katz and would make the perfect song for a Smokey and the Bandit sequel, which should one come along I plan to move to Bolivia, and fast.

“Poison Whiskey,” a fast-paced number about the dangers of excessive booze consumption boasting some powerhouse guitar by Rossington and a great piano solo by Powell, is a definite case of “do what I say, not what I do” from a band that habitually consumed six fifths of Chivas Regal per show, commencing about 30 minutes before they went on (nerves, you know) and continuing throughout their set. At which point they would retreat to the hotel bar and the real drinking would begin, a routine that generally ended in a brawl, one or more mortally wounded hotel rooms, and an emergency visit by Powell to the nearest all-night dental clinic.

As for album closer “Free Bird,” what can I say? Everybody who hasn’t had a dominatrix sitting on his face since 1973 knows the damn song and is good and sick of it, including yours truly. But it’s the most played song in FM history alongside Anal Cunt’s “You Quit Doing Heroin, You Pussy” for a reason, and that reason is Allen Collins’ superb guitar solo, which is so long that back in 1977 I heard it start, rolled and lit a joint, got caught by the cops smoking said joint, was treated to a free ride in the back of a cherry top to the Gettysburg police station where I was processed, fingerprinted, and finally released on bond, and still managed to get back to my car in time to catch the ending. Or as The Drive-By Truckers put it in “Days of Graduation,” a gory urban legend of a song about a pre-high-school-graduation car accident, “Everyone said that when the paramedics got there they could still hear ”Free Bird” playing on the stereo/You know it’s a very, very long song.”

In the meantime, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s legacy lives on in great songs like “That Smell,” “Saturday Night Special,” and “Sweet Home Alabama.” The boys in Lynyrd Skynyrd were certainly no angels, but goddamn could they kick the shit out of a song, each other, and anybody else dumb enough to get in their way. So come October 20 be sure to put “Sweet Home Alabama” on the stereo, and for God’s sake heed Van Zant’s command to “Turn it up!” Or Ronnie—who once responded to a roadie’s decision to dispose of a broken piece of equipment by attempting to push him out of an airplane at 13,000 feet—may just appear in a puff of sulphur and gunpowder, and punch you in the mouth.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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