There was a bizarre post the other day on the velvetrope about the declining revenues of major record label Universal Music Group that concluded with this item:
“In a related story, VUE, unable to pay its management team’s salaries, held an emergency meeting of the VUE board of directors at the Eiffel Tower McDonald’s where the board unanimously authorized the sale of 3 million recently confiscated slightly imperfect Chinese bootleg copies of Lynnyrd Skynnyrd’s (sic) “Free Bird” to pay its management team’s salaries. While munching on a platter of Big Macs cut into tasty one-inch squares and served on silver plates, Board Member Hank Dubois said in between bites ‘I am pleased to be able to offer these rare collector CDs for sale worldwide of the greatest American rock band that ever lived on this planet ever. Please Monsieur, take as many as you like for your family and friends, a gift from VUE to you. That will be $50 Euros.’”
Obviously, just jokes, twisted humor indeed, yet revealing of the degree to which the classic rock band from Florida founded and led by the late Ronnie VanZant is iconic and their legend prey to diverse agendas. Lynyrd Skynyrd, effectively fronted today by Ronnie’s younger brother Johnny and still boasting mainstays Gary Rossington (guitar) and Billy Powell (piano), has been brilliantly eulogized in sound by their best hard rockin’ heirs, the Drive-By Truckers (whose frontman Patterson Hood is the son of one of Ronnie’s beloved Muscle Shoals “Swampers”, David Hood) on Southern Rock Opera. Still, Skynyrd’s beautiful and deathless anthem dedicated to southern immortal and fallen hero Duane “Skydog” Allman remains the bete noire of myriad rockist wiseacres who love to yell “Freebird!” and hoist a Bic at even the most unlikeliest shows (Pharrell Williams, would-be rock star dapper in his trucker caps and ice, probably hears it in the crowds).
New Rock City and its satellites solely fetishize the memento mori of garage, punk and early ‘80s New Wave. In their narrow, urban world of dress up in skinny ties and fingerless gloves (sartorial digressions I have not missed, as a veteran youth quaker of that era), these Gen Y pretenders have no room nor love for the Aquarian meets twang-tinged pastoral, hirsute potbellied men and quarter hour guitar solos. The new gods such as Karen O and Julian Casablancas have no place in the Dixie-fried buck & wing, although I rather suspect Josh Homme could be lured down the VanZant’s primrose path.
Of course, after the ‘80s happened the first time around, 1989 saw the reestablishment of the band who started it all—the Allman Brothers Band—and an unabated flowering of both the Redneck Underground and the heavy metallic (Gov’t Mule) or more jazz-inflected (the Derek Trucks Band) improvisational groups in their wake. Despite the tragedies and heavy losses, the South and Skynyrd always rise again, for they contain in their innermost core beliefs and essences that cannot be denied by callow youth or media-driven flash and filigree.
Yet the members of Skynyrd, like their followers, including the divine guitar goddess Ruyter Suys of Nashville Pussy, are confronted with a very different South today than the one from which they emerged and revolutionized with their paeans to “simple men” and old blues pickers redeemed in Jim Crow society’s jaundiced view by their talent. As the “New Nashville” boom of the last decade proved, increasingly, the Southland where “skies are so blue” is a dystopia of suburban angst and anomie, Jerry Springer pathology, willfully pimped heritage and the inexorable advance of Wal-Mart. On the other hand, high levels of illiteracy and other social ills (like, um, dragging innocent black victims to their deaths), as well as the stubborn persistence of certain regional peculiarities in life ways and the overwhelming popularity of NASCAR (somebody please get me the hook-up with Dale Earnhardt Jr.!), never fail to make it convenient for Yankees and other outsiders to scapegoat and exploit the South. I would love to hear Jim Goad’s incisive commentary on CBS’ recent plans to make a Beverly Hillbillies-style reality series featuring the “last known, toothless, backwater, Appalachian family in the land” and, now, Hollywood’s rumored intent to produce a Dukes of Hazzard feature starring Brad Pitt, Ashton Kutcher, Tommy Lee Jones and Britney Spears(!). [They are nowhere without Waylon.]
The majority white crowd (seemingly all but me and one venue staffer) at the PNC Bank Arts Center last week very clearly held dear the Myth of the South last effectively rendered for the masses by Ronnie VanZant’s potent vision in the 1970s, for all that most of the concert-goers appeared to have never been below the Mason-Dixon line, save the odd biker who had done Daytona. Nonetheless, “Rebel”-emblazoned baseball caps and gear abounded in the aisles; even I dared to don my confederate battle flag bikini. Singing songs about the Southland and cheers for big-ups to Georgia every time. The onscreen image of a XXX jug and Michael Cortellone’s thunderous kit raised high on wooden barrels promoted a ‘shine motif and underscored what realm we were dealing with. Skynyrd had come to the Land of The Boss to distill kick-ass working folks’ music imbued as ever with outlaw attitude, ax existentialism, minutely observed humanism and southern pride. “Sweet Home Alabama” said it all, with such compositional concision and emotional economy.
The most feeling, tear-jerking moments came from the dedication of “Simple Man” to not-so long departed brother Leon Wilkeson (he of the wonderful headgear) and Johnny V’s technologically enhanced “duet” with his late sibling on “Travelin’ Man”. To see film footage throughout of Steve and Cassie Gaines and my beloved Allen Collins was sad indeed. The enduring grace and passion of the songs is what made the proceedings bearable. Nothing but joy and a desire to move could result from hearing new favorites derived from the latest release, Vicious Cycle (Sanctuary), interspersed with classics like “Gimme Three Steps”, “That Smell”, and “Call Me the Breeze”.
These ears could not be reconciled to the deafening orgy of patriotic lust which sprung from the audience when the band delivered current hit “Red, White & Blue”. “My hair’s turning white, my neck’s always been red, my collar’s still blue,” goes the chorus. It’s fine for the VanZant brothers to pay tribute to their roots; I applaud them in it, but cannot accept the concert-goers’ apparent blind support of recent travesties in the name of American imperialism. Listening to Skynyrd’s Muscle Shoals debut all week (oh, “Wino”, “Was I Right Or Wrong” and “Ain’t Too Proud To Pray”!), I mused on the miracle that such masterworks should be created in such a unique and beautiful corner of Alabama where a pervasive if fragile racial peace has long survived. [And so some of us are very distressed by Muscle Shoals Sound being on the auction block via eBay. Cannot someone ol’ skool and music-first rescue this treasure from its fate???] Also, that album, Skynyrd’s First, was born out of an extremely turbulent time of war and civil unrest which is directly responsible for my “heretical” views about the nation. If the Great Ronnie was capable of anti-establishment whup ass in the vein of (my favorite) “Workin’ For MCA”, then it ain’t unreasonable to expect the Skynyrd of the ought-three to fight the power.
My hemmed-in and shackled desire had to be sated by smaller things: an enjoyment of my flamboyant “cousin” Rickey Medlocke and his guitar antics (flame-thrower leads, playing in a spin and on his back), being awed by erstwhile Outlaw Hughie Thomasson’s steel playing and handsome stance in his rose-embroidered shirt, Powell pulling out the stops one mo’ time on the undeservedly maligned “Freebird” and the ability at last to see Rossington do his thang in the flesh.
Stuck here in the dog days of summer, what I would not give to be out on that celluloid lake fishing with Ronnie, bless his heart. Deep down, I too am country and like basic things. Against all odds and across an almost insurmountable political and societal divide, the VanZants and their extended family persist for me as standard-bearers (as the facile exchange between battle flag and stars ‘n stripes—but, alas, no red, black, and green—showed) and torch singers for the idyll of American life to which we ought to all aspire. This concert, thirty years in the making, certainly reaffirmed for me that, in the words of the spurious Hank Dubois, Lynyrd Skynyrd is “the great American rock band that ever lived on this planet ever.”