Some people have the worst luck. After the Convair 240 chartered by Lynyrd Skynyrd plunged from the sky into a Mississippi swamp on Oct. 20, 1977, drummer Artimus Pyle slogged through the muck to get help. When the hirsute Pyle finally reached civilization in the form of a farmhouse, he was a jabbering, blood-splattered mess who looked, to use his own description, “like Charlie Manson.” The farmer, being the kind of “simple man” Lynyrd Skynyrd liked to celebrate in its songs, did the natural thing: He produced a shotgun and shot the longhair. (The resilient Pyle took some pellets in the shoulder but lived.)
Although that probably stands as the nadir of Pyle’s career with Skynyrd, the terrible truth is, compared with some of his bandmates, he got off easy. Being a member of Lynyrd Skynyrd was not a recipe for a long life—a fact that singer and bandleader Ronnie VanZant summed up by saying, “We done things only fools do.” VanZant himself perished in that swamp, as did guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister Cassie Gaines, who sang backup vocals for the band. Guitarist Allen Collins survived, only to be paralyzed in a subsequent car accident and die young. Similarly, bassist Leon Wilkeson survived only to die in a drug-related accident last year.
The Skynyrd saga is one of nasty habits, car crashes, suicides, drug abuse and more drug abuse, violent tempers, abused hotel rooms, backbiting, sellouts, betrayal and counterbetrayal, slit throats, grave robbing, child molestation, and enough broken bones to keep your average orthopedic surgeon busy for a year.
Which is the biggest problem with Marley Brant’s Freebirds: The Lynyrd Skynyrd Story. She wants to convince us that the tale of Skynyrd—in which a longhaired crew of working-class “whiskey rock ‘a’ rollers” from Florida get together and, through simple perseverance and true grit, win glory and overcome tragedy—is mythic and inspiring, a story of redemption. Unfortunately for her book, it’s neither. The Skynyrd story is not inspiring, edifying, or even particularly illuminating. Nor is it a celebration of the resilience of the human spirit or a demonstration of unity in the face of outrageous misfortune.
Instead, it’s the story of some really kind of brainless guys who, between bouts of alcohol- and drug-inspired madness, just happened to produce some of the finest American folk music of the late 20th century. (Call me the breeze, but among American groups I’d put Skynyrd behind only the Band and Creedence Clearwater Revival in terms of the quality of their overall output. And I’m not alone; despite its reputation as a band that only a lout could love, Skynyrd is also revered by such critical luminaries as Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, and Chuck Eddy.) Because Brant doesn’t really succeed in shedding the slightest amount of light on just how this miracle occurred, and because she gives over half the book to the band’s long twilight following the death of VanZant and the others, Freebirds should be read—as should most rock biographies—as an accretion of really stupid rock anecdotes.
On this front, Brant’s book succeeds wonderfully. Not even her pedestrian prose and status as a shiny-eyed Skynyrd sycophant can dull the sheer sociopathic luster of this star-crossed band’s breathtaking dysfunctionality. Where to start? With Ronnie VanZant, of course, who despite myriad testimonials to his big heart comes off as a drunken brawler with a terrifying tendency for sudden and extreme violence. As a band leader, VanZant was nasty, brutish, and short-tempered—in one telling passage, a friend describes what happened when early drummer Bob Burns declined to play a certain song: “Ronnie…stuck [his gun] up to Bob’s head. He says, ‘You play the motherfucking song or I’m gonna blow your brains all over this room.’ This was just a rehearsal.” And this from the guy who wrote one of the best anti-gun anthems of our time, “Saturday Night Special.”
VanZant’s list of crimes against his own friends—his scrapes with strangers are too numerous to mention—also included stabbing guitarist Gary Rossington in the hand with a broken bottle (allegedly because of a disagreement over how to pronounce the word “schnapps”), knocking out piano player Billy Powell’s teeth (twice!), and trying to push roadie Joe Barnes out the cabin door of an airplane—at 13,000 feet.
That this one-man theater of cruelty was capable of writing songs that spoke directly to—and for—a generation of fans is one of those enduring mysteries that make rock ‘n’ roll such a wonderful thing. VanZant, who grew up with the nucleus of the band that would become Lynyrd Skynyrd on the wrong side of the tracks in blue-collar Jacksonville, was an ambitious if not great singer with a simple but brilliant idea: to graft country’s (particularly the outlaw country of Merle Haggard) lyrical sensibility onto the English hard rock of the likes of Free and Cream and inject it with a little swamp juice in the process. The results won the band—whose name was famously a backhanded tribute to a hated high school coach, Leonard Skinner—regional popularity and the attention of Yankee superproducer Al Kooper. Under Kooper’s helm, Skynyrd produced the deceptively simple meat-and-potatoes FM staples (most famously, the overplayed “Free Bird” and “Sweet Home Alabama”) that would make the members stars but at the same time alienate numerous (mostly Northern) fans, who were quick to dismiss them for being unsophisticated rednecks, tolerating three guitar players, or just being some of the worst-dressed humans ever to walk the face of the Earth. (There’s no denying that last charge. The fellows in Lynyrd Skynyrd look like the victims of some unspeakable fashion Hiroshima. Check out the cover of Street Survivors—where Pyle sports a nipple-length beard, short shorts, and a pair of white tube socks pulled tightly up to his knobby knees—if you don’t believe me.)
The heart and soul of Lynyrd Skynyrd died on Oct. 20, 1977, along with Ronnie VanZant. Unfortunately, somebody failed to notify the other bandmembers, who, after various side projects of varying success, regrouped with Ronnie’s brother Johnny (there’s a Donnie, too) on lead vocals. Why Brant chose to go into such detail about Lynyrd Skynyrd II—which is out there today, shamelessly cashing in on past glories and desecrating the original band’s memory, despite the fact that only Gary Rossington remains from the original lineup—is a mystery. An argument could be made, a la John Strasbaugh’s recent Rock ‘Til You Drop, for writing a long screed about how the aging musicians who make up the present Lynyrd Skynyrd are representative of an entire generation of aging musicians who persist in trying to fool the public and themselves with transparent rationalizations (“We’re just honoring Ronnie’s memory” or “He wouldn’t want us to just quit”) in order to hang on to a paycheck, but Brant isn’t up to the task. Instead, she attempts to walk a fine line between the reverently pro-Skynyrd II camp and the folks (like me) who find it an abomination, and ends up pleasing nobody.
Ultimately, all a rock band can hope to leave behind in this world is a body of good songs that make people happy and a body of stories that are funny, except maybe to the people involved. Say what you will about Southern rock’s “three-guitar army,” Lynyrd Skynyrd achieved both. Why, just a couple of years ago, Courtney Love damned the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame “to the darkest belly of the underworld” for failing to induct the band, demanding that the museum return all of the material belonging to her and Kurt Cobain. More’s the pity, then, that greed is being allowed to poison Skynyrd’s legacy as one of America’s best hard-rock bands. In late June 2000, somebody vandalized Ronnie VanZant’s grave in Jacksonville—actually pulled his casket from his crypt. But if you ask me, his widow, Judy VanZant Jenness, is doing poor Ronnie’s memory a similar disservice with her constant merchandising of the dregs of the Skynyrd recording vaults. The past years have seen an endless procession of increasingly pointless Skynyrd releases, and there’s no end in sight. As Jenness herself sinisterly notes, “There’s still material that hasn’t been released. It’s not new material, but it’s different versions of stuff that’s been out. There’s a lot of stuff. It’s not like we’re at the bottom of the well. We still have footage, unreleased stuff. We have a lot of stuff.”
I don’t know about you, but that kind of talk hardly makes me want to say, “Turn it up.” Nor does Brant’s book, which is a workmanlike retelling of the story of a band that spent four years making great music and the next 34 living on the memories. Fact is, there’s something malodorous about Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ghoulish refusal to do the right thing and die. As Ronnie VanZant himself once put it, “Ooooh, that smell/Can’t you smell that smell?” CP