Lynyrd Skynyrd: Remembering the Free Birds of Southern Rock by Gene Odom with Frank Dorman

by Gene Odom with Frank Dorman
Random House
October 2002, 201 pages, $22.95 (U.S.)

by Adam Cook

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Lynyrd Skynyrd: Twenty Five Years Later

“There’s my truth, your truth, and the truth.”
— Anonymous

Before it hits the shelves in October, Lee Ballinger’s Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History has already hit one out of the park, at least insofar as its release cannot fail to capitalize on a wave of ancillary, but pervasive, publicity for the band. Through a serendipitous turn of events, America is currently besieged by a national campaign that places Lynyrd Skynyrd and its music front and center in the pop cultural consciousness. And all this without anyone at XT377 Publishing shelling out a dime. How can this be? The curious need look no further than Hollywood and its first salvo of the autumnal season, namely, Sweet Home Alabama, a romantic comedy starring Reese Witherspoon. The title of the film makes explicit reference to the eponymous Skynyrd tune — one of their most popular — and a portion of the song plays in the opening sequence of the trailer. Ballinger must be ecstatic.

This is dual a review of Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History and of Gene Odom’s Lynyrd Skynyrd: Remembering the Free Birds of Southern Rock, two recent books on the group whose release is timed to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the plane crash that decimated the band and ended the lives of several key members. But spending a moment on Witherspoon’s latest vehicle provides a nice segue to commenting on the overall structure of both. The film pits the sophistication and culture of the North, with the aloof iciness of Northerners, against the slightly backward, frozen-in-time South, and the good-natured Southerners who manage to preserve the values that truly matter. In such a characterization, “being Southern” takes on an almost talismanic quality — it’s the lodestone that, when consulted, will invariably point to home, hearth, and happiness. In Witherspoon’s case, it also points to husband, but that’s a different review.

There just seems to be something about the south, or, more accurately, The South, that lures people to waxing nostalgic about it, and both Odom’s and Ballinger’s treatment of the band and its origins are no exception. The band’s southern rock status is prominent in Remembering the Free Birds . . .‘s very title, and in both books Lynyrd Skynyrd’s old stomping ground of Jacksonville, Florida and its early struggles are well documented and trumpeted as hallmarks of the band’s authenticity and scrappiness.

What is different about Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History is the very nature of Ballinger’s effort. Foregoing a traditional route like a biography, the book is, from cover to cover, a collection of quotes cut from interviews and personal recollections that were previously recorded elsewhere from the early ’70s to the late ’90s. The quotes are drawn from band members, managers, music critics, producers, fellow musicians and fans, and in total, they give the book a less authored than edited feel; Ballinger’s work consists in assembling and sorting the quotes, grouping like-minded sentiments under the same general chapter headings, and in this way relating the history of the band.

Such a strategy raises at least one pressing question for a reviewer: what do you review, exactly? As Ballinger’s direct presence only surfaces approximately 200 pages into the story, with a flurry of small editorial comments that explain or contextualize certain passages, it’s sometimes difficult to tell why he’s grouped certain quotes together or the point he wants to make in doing so. Other than his brief appearance two-thirds of the way into the story, the author is an invisible backstage presence, gamely but silently orchestrating the various clips and comments into a coherent narrative.

The best aspects of Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History come out in the machine-gun style of quotes that have been boiled down and reduced to their emotional essences. When band members and others talk about their experiences, the stark absence of editorializing exposes the rawness of their remarks and memories, from the joys of making music and getting paid to do what you love — in Skynyrd’s case, performing flawless shows in front of adoring fans — to their extreme anguish over the death of friends and the disintegration of the band after the crash on October 20, 1977.

For most of the book, then, a reader is left to her own devices in interpreting or attributing any larger significance to the quotes than what appears explicitly on the page. Maybe this is a healthy approach to a band that, by all accounts, played hard, practiced ferociously, and finally made it big while remaining true to their Southern roots and their enjoyment of uncomplicated pleasures. And, much of the time, it’s not too difficult to figure out how a certain quote or series of quotes directs the reader to draw certain conclusions or inferences about the band.

In both books, the principal person credited with the band’s success is Ronnie Van Zant, lead singer and something of a deity to most Skynyrd fans. Ballinger does little to dissuade the reader that Van Zant was a tireless perfectionist who held everything together, cared passionately for making music and pleasing fans, and possessed a lightening quick temper and bad-boy demeanor that was authentic to the core

In Remembering the Free Birds . . ., Gene Odom, boyhood friend of Van Zant, and Frank Dorman, provide a more traditional account of the band and its rise and fall. Odom’s recollections of squirrel hunting and fishing as a boy with Van Zant reinforce the Southern roots angle, and, even though these memories sound honest, there’s a forced quality to the recollections in the early portion of the book. Off the heels of the spartan Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History, Odom’s account of his personal adventures with Ronnie comes as something of a shock, and the ‘aw, shucks’ images of country boys hootin’ and hollerin’ fast becomes weary.

What’s surprising, however, is how the tone shifts, significantly, at a certain point in the tale, from blurbs and patter to an incisive, heartfelt, and unsparing look at the band and the effects of fame on the lives of band members. Once Remembering the Free Birds . . . attains cruising speed, Odom manages to maintain the momentum throughout.

Remembering the Free Birds . . . provides exactly the kind of intimate details and particulars to which Ballinger’s account often just alludes. In addition, since much of the material overlaps, it’s interesting to note a few conflicts between the two. One question immediately jumps out: what were the exact circumstances surrounding Van Zant’s death in the plane crash? Putting two passages side by side exposes a pretty glaring inconsistency:

Everyone was buckled in except Ronnie. He was asleep on the floor behind the cockpit. (Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History, 200)

We were falling at a fairly normal angle, it seemed, so I thought seatbelts might save us…I buckled [Ronnie’s] seat belt and yelled into his face, ‘The plane’s gonna crash; put your head down. (Remembering the Free Birds . . ., 8)

Now, there is a fact of the matter about this question: either Van Zant did or did not have on a seatbelt. Since there seems no way to settle competing memories about an event that occurred 25 years ago, we just have to relax our standards a bit and keep in mind the tenuous nature memory-based accounts, and be alert to the distinct possibility that other claims and observations made throughout both books may not track reality. But perhaps the real lesson here may be to relax certain critical standards and open up to the experiences and feelings both authors want to convey about a group of people they care deeply about, and be less interested in the veracity of every particular than in the overall story each wants to tell.

In general, Odom’s account strikes me as more evenhanded and less prone to exaggeration about LS’s upbringing, success, and self-destructive behavior, and more forthcoming about the details of their less savory behaviors, than Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History. Where Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History alludes to Skynyrd’s Who-like propensity to trash hotel rooms and a mean-streak in Van Zant that came out when he drank, Odom provides the details that make Van Zant and the band truly three-dimensional.

Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History quotes John Swenson’s (who traveled with the band in the ’70s) take on the band during their famous “Torture Tour”:

They were drinking a lot. They were fighting a lot. There was a kind of maelstrom around them. I’d been on the road with the Who, and it was kind of like a southern American version of that. (137)

And quotes Ed King (Skynyrd bass and guitar player) as saying, “I thought Ronnie had really gotten to the point where he was just downright abusive to band members, and when he became really abusive toward me, I just said, ‘Enough’s enough.'” (139)

Odom’s recollections put a face on some of the ugliness:

[Nobody] was laughing in November, when Ronnie pounced on Joe Barnes, the band’s highly valued stage manager, during a flight to Houston. The only explanation for this unprovoked attack — he’d never gotten violent with him during Joe’s four years with the band — was the fact that Ronnie was drunk once again. It had begun with a broken wardrobe case that Dean Kilpatrick had used as a bar, and Joe had thrown it away before someone got hurt handling it. Dean complained to Ronnie, who punched Joe in the face and then held him down and bit his stomach until somebody pulled him off. When the plane landed, Joe left and never returned. (150)

Such passages temper the hero-worshipping aspects both books are long on; the effect is to make Van Zant and others simply human, susceptible to all kinds of brute behavior when alcohol and drugs entered the picture.

These are two fine books, for very different reasons. The passages in Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History are powerful because they’re snapshots of people’s emotions and recollections, ones that, years later, still resonate with humor and sadness. Odom’s grittier account fleshes out the band and their story, though it’s focused on Van Zant almost to a fault. And the epilogue to Remembering the Free Birds . . . is heartbreaking; the disintegration, both personal and professional, of certain members is almost unbelievably tragic. Some members went on to thrive, but many spiraled out of control and never recovered.

Lynyrd Skynyrd is billed as the highest grossing act in the history of MCA Records — over 35 million records sold and counting. In a spate of seven years, they went from playing the local high-school circuit to making records with world-famous producers and hosting sell-out shows to audiences in the tens of thousands. Professionally, there seems no dispute that the band’s legacy is as strong and vibrant today as was 25 years ago. If you have never listened to the band, or if your experience is limited to the three or four radio numbers including “Free Bird” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” do yourself a favor: buy a record and listen to some good ‘ol Southern rock music.