ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, NOV. 21, 2002
By Steve Newton
On their latest CD, Southern Rock Opera, alt-country reprobates the Drive-By Truckers combine sociology, history, and musicology to deliver a concept album about southern rock, and the band they focus on to get their ideas across is Lynyrd Skynyrd. For the uninitiated, Skynyrd was a gang of rough ’n’ tumble partiers from Jacksonville, Florida—led by a gruff-voiced, good-ol’-boy vocalist named Ronnie Van Zant—who came to fame with a rowdy, triple-lead-guitar sound. Riffing out on the Lynyrd Skynyrd legend, the Truckers use tunes like “Ronnie and Neil” (about the misunderstood friendship between Van Zant and Neil Young) and “The Southern Thing” (which decries the widely held notion that the Confederate flag–waving group was racist) to get to the heart of what it means to be a hard-core Skynyrd fan.
Now, even though the sprawling Southern Rock Opera clocks in at over 90 minutes, you still won’t glean as much inside information about Skynyrd from its two discs as you would from Lynyrd Skynyrd: Remembering the Free Birds of Southern Rock (Broadway Books, 218 pp, $34.95 hardcover), Gene Odom’s new book about the scruffy septet. You’ll just enjoy the experience a lot more.
While Odom’s status as a childhood friend of Van Zant’s, and later on Skynyrd’s long-time security manager, leads to some interesting insights into the group’s history, the bad news is that Odom also writes like a security guy. He lacks any literary grace, and his attempts to describe the music are downright feeble. You keep wishing that he’d just skip the critiquing and recount a few gory details involving his role as the band’s protector. He goes on at length about how prone Van Zant was to fisticuffs—even to the point of slugging his guitarists if they got too pissed to practise—but doesn’t mention what degree of violence was required to control Skynyrd’s notoriously rowdy fans.
Where Odom does succeed is in his retelling of how a determined young Van Zant handpicked his players from the longhaired teenage delinquents in his neighbourhood and whipped them into shape, convinced that long hours of arduous practice and nonstop gigging would ultimately pay off. It did, of course, but the group’s relentless drive to keep touring also led to the tragic 1977 accident that took Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his backup-vocalist sister Cassie Gaines, and road manager Dean Kilpatrick at the peak of their success. Odom spends a lot of time revisiting the plane crash and pondering what could have caused it; most evidence points to the 1947 Convair 240 just running out of gas, if you can believe that. He also recalls how passengers had seen flames shooting out of the engine on the previous flight, and how the pilots had shrugged off the plane’s obvious need for servicing.
Odom’s examination of the self-destructive route that guitarist Allen Collins took after the plane crash makes the Lynyrd Skynyrd story a pretty depressing one. After drunk driving led to the death of a friend and Collins’s paralysis from the waist down, the “Free Bird” creator eventually passed away from respiratory failure due to pneumonia at the age of 37. Then, just last year, 49-year-old bassist Leon Wilkeson, a heavy drinker and smoker, succumbed to chronic liver and lung disease. Other downers for the group include the 1992 arrest of 44-year-old drummer Artimus Pyle on charges of sexual abuse of a minor, and the desecration of Van Zant and Gaines’s Florida gravesites in 2000.
The only really good news for Skynyrd diehards is that guitarist Gary Rossington and keyboardist Billy Powell are still keeping the spirit of the band alive, recording and touring with a lineup that includes Van Zant’s younger brother Johnny on vocals. So, if the current Lynyrd Skynyrd ever comes to town, you’ll still have that momentous opportunity to hold your Bic lighter on high and bellow “Free Bird”! at the top of your lungs.