It was mid-July, 1973 and rain soaked the half-million people assembled in the rolling hills of upstate New York to hear the Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead and the Band perform at Watkins Glen. The people were drawn there by the glittering promise that had been glimpsed for years earlier at the Woodstock festival, the promise of a world guided by the rock and roll spirit into a better future. It was a myth whose power was shaken almost immediately by the decable at Altamont, and taken apart piece by piece in the ensuing years of political repression.
The Watkins Glen gathering was one of the few to come off relatively smoothly in the wake of Woodstock, but the ensuing years had turned the innocence of Woodstock Nation into a hackneyed set of rituals. The uninspired performances at the Glen, particularly by an Allman Brothers band left emotionally shattered by the deaths of Duane Allman and Berry Oakley, left no doubt that the event marked the end of an era.
Kooper had been at several crossroads in rock and roll history already, playing with Bob Dylan's first electric band on Bringing It All Back Home, as keyboardist and frontman for the groundbreaking New York band the Blues Project, then as the conceptualist who coined a commercial formula by meshing jazz and R&B horn charts with a rock band in Blood Sweat and Tears. So when Kooper boasted that he was sitting on a band that was going to be the next Rolling Stones, it was not hard to build up at least some curiosity to see what he was talking about.
The party was at one of Atlanta's hottest clubs at the time, a place called Richard's that was sardine-deep with 500 plus chili and fried chicken-eating, beer and whiskey-drinking music buisness people. The buzz of conversation fairly drowned out the first band. Elijah, and dimmed only slightly during Mose Jones' set.
Lynyrd Skynyrd, though, was about to put the down payment on a legend.
No amount of hype on Kooper's part could have prepared the audience for what they heard next. Lynyrd Skynyrd music roared through the room, riveting listeners with blood-curdling intensity. Guitar lines hung in the air like massive steel Calder mobiles propelled by the flailing rhythms. The set opened with "Workin' For MCA," which sounded more like a threat than a celebration.
The Stones were an interesting analogy, but there was something else about this band. Not two guitarists, but three - Gary Rossinton, the anchor, was definitely out of the Keith Richards mode; the electric-haired Allen Collins ripped out one Cream-era Eric Clapton solo after another; Ed King, the most technically polished of the three, tossed in deft fills and soloed in some impossible cross between flat picking and psychedelia.
Despite the roaring guitars, all eyes were riveted on the short, sandy-haired vocalist who whipped the crowd into a frenzy without moving from the center-stage spot from which he hurled his astonishingly menacing words. Though these guys clearly tokk their immediate inspiration from the British blues bands of the 1960s, lead singer Ronnie VanZant's delivery had none of the formalized, classicist distance from the material that characterized the British blues process. VanZant sang songs like "Gimme Three Steps," "I Ain't The One," "Things Goin' On" and "Poison Whiskey" with an innate familiarity with treachery and horror, the venomous warning and knife-twisting furry of Howlin' Wolf's scariest recordings.The depression at seeing the end of an era at Watkins Glen was washed away by the certainty that Lynyrd Skynyrd represented a whole new era.
It was not going to be an era of peace and love this time around, that was immediately clear clear. Lynyrd Skynyrd played music that fed on anger and transcended to some warrior's reward. Many of VanZant's lyrics were about betrayal, paranoia and the certainty of evil, balanced against his devotion to an innocent past and redeemed only by the moral courage of the band-against-the-world. He articulated the never-forgotten rage of a beaten South, a vision of rural America slowly being eaten up by concrete developments and pencil-pushing Washington bureaucrats.
Violence and death walked constantly through his writing, from the earliest demos to his final songs, as if he knew that the battles he was fighting had already been lost, and all that was left was to voice blind outrage at the result.
The Richard's show was one of those turning point events that swelled in significance with passing time. The depth of experience suggested by VanZant's writing and the spring-tight, maniacal intensity of the band's performance was the stuff of legend, more of a piece with Robert Johnson's fabled deal with the devil than the kind of rags-to-riches stories that clutter the standard pop biography.
The songs from the set weren't the whole story, either. The next day Kooper took some of the people up to his house and played a series of demos that didn't make it to the first album. One song in particular was more frightening than anything the band had played the night before. "Was I Right Or Wrong" capsulized VanZant's muse in one chilling statement. The moral ambivalence of the title represents the war that raged in VanZant's soul throughout his life, a struggle between adherence to the settled values of family life that he was raised on and the realization that his only way out of the dead-end prospects offered to him was to take to the outlawed world of the rock and roller.
The speaker in "Was I Right Or Wrong" leaves home to join a rock and roll band against the wishes of his parents. When he finally becomes a success after years of struggling, he returns home to show his parents that he had chosen the right path even though they didn't approve. But when he reaches his destination, he finds that his parents are dead and the old house is gone. He is left to sing his song to their tombstones. The imagery is as old as powerful as human language itself; the inspiration clearly autobiographical. "We tried to be right about what we were doing," said Rossington years later in trying to explain this song.
Their determination to play rock and roll against all odds provided the inspiration for much of the music released during the title more than four years that elapsed between their debut album and the plane crash that ended the era as dramatically as it had begun. This set starts off with a series of rediscovered demo tapes made during the band's formative years, and offers a number of clues to understanding the tumultuous forces at work during that formation.
The band had already heard the Allman Brothers playing local Jacksonville bars, an experience that at once discouraged them when they realized how far advanced the Allman Brothers were musically and inspired them to take their best shot at catching up. Echoes of Duane Allman's slide guitar technique are obvious here, and while the demo arrangement shows that the final guitar raveup coda was still being worked out, you can hear the direction they were headed in. This transitional version shows how key an influence Jeff Beck was on the band - the resolution of the instrumental passage is lifted right off of "Beck's Bolero". Before the song was finished, the transitional influence of Duane Allman would be complete. In live performances the song was always dedicated to the ultimate "Free Bird," Allman - until it became a tribute to VanZant himself.
The original idea for "Free Bird," like most of VanZant's early writing, was put together at the band's reahearsal studio in Green Cove Springs dubbed "Hell House". "Junkie," another track from the first demo, is strongly influenced by Clapton's Cream playing and features extended guitar interplay between Collins and Rossington, with Collins flashing "White Room"-style wah wah a la Clapton. The subject matter, like another early song, "Wino," was taken from the band's experiences hanging out on Jacksonville's skid row "He's Alive," is another of VanZant's ruminations about death and redemption. He sings longingly of a father figure who helped him through hard times and told him to place his faith in God.
"But now you have gone, and I'm on my own," VanZant laments. "I whish that you were here, right by my side. I would love to tell you, That I know he's alive." The tension between faith and despair, between the search for rocking liberation and the security of a settled life, between sinner and saved, would remain a central theme in VanZant's writing for the rest of his life. It was a dilemma he never solved, maybe because he knew there would never be a definitive answer.
Muscle Shoals Sound Studios producer Jimmy Johnson heard the earlier demos and was impressed enough to front the group enough studio time to make an album's worth or material they were extremely proud of. But the album was passed on by every record company in the industry, although a number of tracks were eventually released as Skynyrd's First And...Last after the plane crash.
"Gimme Three Steps" and "Trust" were also recorded at Muscle Shoals. Both songs emanate from the bleaker side of the scuffling rockers' existence, but "Trust" was the most paranoid of VanZant's early songs. The stark guitar scrapings add dramatic impact to his warning chords:"You can't always trust your woman. You can't always trust your best friend. Beware of the ones that you need, 'cause they might be the ones that do you in."
"Comin' Home" offers the flip side of the sentiment expressed in "Trust," the weary traveler's gratitude at returning to familiar surroundings after the rigors of life on the road. Here VanZant looks to the succor of his wife and friends to restore his flagging spirit.
This was the last track recorded at Muscle Shoals, and the intricacy of the arrangement shows how much Skynyrd learned about songwriting and studio work from Jimmy Johnson and the Swampers. Though the Muscle Shoals sessions began with a new rhythm section and only the two original guitarists, by this time the new bassist and drummer had completely integrated themselves into the band.
Ed King entered the picture later, but in 1975 overdubbed enough parts to be part of this music's legacy. The three guitars are used for a wide range of textures, from the country-style playing behind the vocal in the verses to the delicate slide figures, screeching feedback harmonies and blazing individual solos that power the song's instrumental momentum, highlighted by Rossington's exultant, jazz-influenced final run. The Billy Powell piano solo was overdubbed for the songs on First And...Last but fits so well it's hard to believe it wasn't part of the original plan.
When Al Kooper signed the band, he was impressed with the Muscle Shoals demos but wanted to record Skynyrd his own way. Unlike the student-teacher relationship the band developed with Jimmy Johnson, Lynyrd Skynyrd's dealings with Al Kooper were an explosive mixture of creative ferment and outright hostility from the very beginning Johnson helped the band realize itself as a recording group; he was far from interested in playing this kind of music himself. To add to his status as a father figure, he gave them free studio time at a point where nobody else in the buisness would offer a helping hand. Kooper was everything Johnson wasn't - a Yankee, a music industry wheeler-dealer, and a hotshot rock and roller to boot. Kooper knewhow to work with a rock band's public image and direction. Where Johnson taught them how to record a rhythm section properly, Kooper was interested in making them the world's greatest rock band.
"Kooper had a vision of the band," Ed King recalls, "that even the band didn't have." Kooper was well aware that he had a tiger by the tail as the fierce MCA demos he produced attest. "Down South Jukin'" is a joyous song as the band ever recorded, the kind of party anthem its fans seized on in later years as emblematic of its spirit. "Truck Driving Man" is a delightful honky tonk strut. The reason it did not appear on the first album is probably that it was seen as too "country" for a band being marketed to rock audiences in the early '70s.
On the stark "Mr. Banker," we get a glimpse of VanZant as a country blues singer. Once again the plea is given a macabre twist - the singer admits he owns nothing of value except a 1950 Les Paul guitar, but begs the banker to take it and give hime the money "to bury my papa."
The fire-breathing demo version of "I Ain't The One" sounds like it could have been the deal-maker of the bunch. The crunching guitars and VanZant's possessed vocal boiled down the group's gut appeal to a simple package. "Poison Whiskey," with its majestic, James Gang-inspired guitar arrangement, could only have added fuel to MCA's fires.
Bassist Leon Wilkesson, who composed most of the bass parts on the first album, (pronounced 'leh-nerd' skin'-nerd), left the band shortly before Kooper brought them into the studio. King, who the group had befriended when they met him on a tour with the Strawberry Alarm Clock, came in to play the bass parts as well as a guitar solo. The band convinced Wilkesson to rejoin after the record was finished and King assumed his role as third guitarist.
Pronounced is a turning point for Southern Rock, a moment when virtually all of the significant post-Allman Brothers advances in the music coalesced. Not only was it the powerful debut of one of the genre's greatest bands, it was also recorded at Studio One in Doraville, Georgia, home base for the only challenger to Skynyrd's position, the Atlanta Rhythm Section. Its house engineer was the brilliant Rodney Mills, who was involved in all the ARS recordings as well as some by 38 Special, the band fronted by Ronnie's brother Donnie. Mills specialized in getting guitars to speak for themselves, and never got a better opportunity to apply that skill than with Lynyrd Skynyrd, beginning with "Simple Man" on pronounced and throughout the remainder of their career.
Kooper was a virtual working member of the group on pronounced, and no song on the album bears his stamp more than "Tueday's Gone". Under the pseudonym Roosevelt Gook, Kooper played bass, mellotron and sang backup harmony on the track, which in fact did not use the Skynyrd rhythm section at all - Robert Nix of the Atlanta Rhythm Section played drums. Kooper's dramatic mellotron part adds an almost cinematic quality to the elegiac ballad, which is ostensibly about leaving a woman behind, but by the time VanZant's powerful vocal finishes becomes a song about loss and loneliness too vast to hold any single referent.
In "Things Goin' On," VanZant articulates his loathing of politicians in a slashing indictment. Though he expressed himself in only populist terms his political awareness was far more sophisticated than many analysts have realized. He simply did not fit in any easily defined conservative or liberal mode. The common misconseption is that he was some kind of Dixie reactionary, but in this song, his outrage is directed against a government that would rather wage war and send a man to the moon than feed its poor, hardly a position espoused by the conservatives of the era.
"Sweet Home Alabama," the opening track on Second Helping, is the song that most people use to define VanZant's politics, but those sands are just as shifty. VanZant's impassioned defense of the South, the bottom-line point of the song, has nothing to do with partisan politics. George Wallace is defended here out of sheer regional pride, just as Neil Young is attacked for the same motive.
Second Helping and it's followup, Nuthin' Fancy, represent crests of Skynyrd's popularity and creative enthusiasm. The three-guitar attack was cooking on a magnificent level as new material piled on the wealth of songs that band has already stashed away from previous years. No sooner did King take over as third guitarist than the songwriting hit a new peak. King remembers co-writing "Sweet Home Alabama" the day he joined in on guitar.
"I went home that night and dreamed the solo, note for note, in my sleep," he recalls. "The fingering techniques, chord changes, everything. I woke up right away and played it, and it worked. The first song I ever wrote, 'Incense And Peppermints,' was stolen from me, so I looked at this as a kind of payback."
"Sweet Home Alabama" was recorded at Studio One; the rest of Second Helping at the Record Plant in Los Angeles. "Workin' For MCA" turns on a killer double guitar lead from Collins and Rossington. Rossington's solo on J.J. Cale's "Call Me The Breeze" is another high point.
J.J. Cale wasn't the only influence the band paid tribute to on Second Helping. On "Swamp Music" VanZant likens the bowling of a hound to the blues moans of Son House. His ultimate tribute, though, is reserved for "The Ballad Of Curtis Lowe," a song about a black country store owner who used to redeem the deposit bottles the band often collected to support themselves. After they'd had their refreshments, a neighborhood bluesman would take out his guitar and play it for the boys, a gesture VanZant never forgot and finally found an appropriate response to.
If there was any wonder why yet another song about the perils of heroin use, "The Needle And The Spoon," appeared on Second Helping. VanZant eerie statement "I know, I know" toward the end indicates how personal an issue this must have really been. Collins offers his own observations on the subject with a vicious Claptonesque solo.
VanZant explored a parallel issue in "Don't Ask me No Questions," a song that expressed his irritation with the way friends back home treated him now that he had become a rock and roll star. His ambivalence with the result of stardom would gnaw at his writing until the end.
Nuthin' Fancy opens with another powerful rocker built around an Ed King riff, "Saturday night Special". Like "Sweet Home Alabama," the song was the only track on the album recorded at Studio One and stands out dramatically from the rest of the material. Recorded in a single night with Rodney Mills at the board, "Saturday Night Special" is the hardest-riffing single track the band ever cut.
Despite VanZant's reputation for hell raising and he same mistaken notions regarding his politics, "Saturday Night Special" took on a subject sacred to good old boys from coast to coast - gun control. No one has ever developed a more persuasive artistic argument against hand guns than VanZant does here in several gripping verses about senseless killings followed by the suggestion that all hand guns be thrown to the bottom of the sea.
"On The Hunt" and "Whiskey Rock-A-Roller" represent the new direction in VanZant's writing that took place about this time.
"The last five years the band was together, Ronnie seemed to write more... about us, or things that happened on the road," said Rossington. "On The Hunt" is a frank description of the band's post-show practise of sizing up the inevitable array of women who hung around to party; "Whiskey Rock-A-Roller" a heady celebration of the sheer exhilaration a hot rock band can feel as it heads from town to town.
Everywhere the band went thousands of kids flocked to the shows to party with Skynyrd. In the South, not even the Allman Brothers inspired the kind of intense loyalty that VanZant and his hard rocking cronies got from their followers. VanZant was a charismatic leader to millions of disaffected kids who rebelled against them, including the rock and roll establishment. He articulated the frustrations and aspirations, not just of those from the South, but the downtrodden everywhere.
Unlike Bruce Springsteen, who writes about the mythic desires of suburban American teenagers, VanZant expressed the bitter rage of a working class seething at the betrayal of broken utopian promises. For that reason, VanZant was the true voice of 1970s rock, a music and a lifestyle that was walking its last mile before the neat execution performed by the video revolution of the 1980s.
VanZant was aware enough to realize exactly what he was doing, but he also recognized that by setting himself up as a totem for his followers across the country he was losing touch with the simple human experiences left behind. Chief among his disappointments at the change in his life was the loss of good friends who treated him differently now that he returned home as a celebrity. Ostensibly inspired by the departure of Bob Burns, "Am I Losin'?" also works as a metaphor for VanZant's personal life.
The loss of friends made the band's internal bonds even tighter, and many hours on and off the road were spent jamming together and in the company of other close musician friends like the members of 38 Special. "Made In The Shade" approximates the feeling of these after-hours hoots. Played on acoustic instruments and a milk crate for percussion, the sides ewokes a backporch country feel and even induces VanZant to try a little yodelling. Jeff Carlisi, one of the guitarists with 38 Special and a close companion of VanZant's, would often jam with VanZant into the wee hours and work on song ideas.
By the time Gimme Back My Bullets came out in 1976 the band had spent nearly a decade on the road and was physically and phsychlogically beat up from the ravages of no-holds-barred rock and rolling. Ed King left after Nuthin' Fancy, forcing the band back to its two-guitar format. Drummer Bob Burns also quit, and Skynyrd parted ways with Al Kooper, who was replaced by Tom Dowd.
VanZant's songwriting on this album reflects the turmoil Skynyrd was undergoing. The title track sums up this feeling with its plea for a return to the headier days of commercial success before the band had spent itself with the shotgun blasts of life on the road. "Don't wanna see no more damage done," VanZant admits in the lyric.
There was, of course, no talk of giving up, but the devil-may-care attitude of previous albums was replaced by an admission of worldweariness. The VanZant who warned he would watch every nickel in "Workin' For MCA" now confessed in "Roll Gypsy Roll" that he knew was making money had gone "up my nose," a common phrase reffering to snorting cocaine. Touring was described as a grim job for a determoned gypsy rather than the lifeaffirming blast it had once seemed.
In "All I Can Do Is Write About It," VanZant sums up his philosophy, extolling the beauties of nature while warning that he sees them disappearing. But now he comes to terms with the futility of his once-furious reaction to this process. "Lord, I can't make any changes," he admits, "All I can do is write it in a song." Then, in one of the most powerful images he ever penned, VanZant wrote one of several phrases that could well serve as his epitaph: "I can see the concrete slowly creeping, Lord take me and mine before that comes."
The turmoil surrounding Skynyrd during this period began to affect the quality of the live shows, and the band looked to add a third guitarist again. After considering several big-name options, they settled on a relatively unknown picker named Steve Gaines.
Gaines was just the tonic Skynyrd needed. He provided Skynyrd with a dynamic boost, carrying live shows on the strenght of his effortless soloing strenght and eye-catching technique. Gaines virtually remade the band by adding its most versatile instumental voice ever. Though his greatest strenhgt was as a blues player, Gaines was also an awesome flat-picking stylist and knew enough jazz theory to apply some very modern concepts to what had become a fairly traditional approach to live arrangements.
One More From The Road, recorded in early july, 1976, just three years after the Richard's show, introduced Gaines on a record. He hadn't had time to fully integrate his style into the arrangements, yet he still stole the show.
Gaines became a major creative force in Lynyrd Skynyrd without changing its identity. His writing and playing fit perfectly into the Skynyrd ethos, making the one album he recorded with the group before the 1977 plane crash, Street Survivors, a musical high point in the band's career.
Gaines contributed two of the best songs on Street Survivors, the raucous guitar boogie "I Know A Little" and the soulful blues "Ain't No Good Life," and powered the band through an outstanding cover of Merle Haggard's "Honky Tonk Night Time Man". VanZant can be heard complimenting Gaines' stinging soloing with the phrase "Sounds Like Roy," comparing Gaines to the great country guitarist Roy Clark.
VanZant wrote the last and the most personal of his anti-heroin songs for this session, "That Smell," penned with Collins and very obviously aimed at one of the other members of the band. This goes down with Neil Young's "Tonight's The Night" as the most poignant anti-smack anthem in rock history. It took on a macabre reading when VanZant and Gaines were killed in the plane crash that occured while they were on tour in support of Street Survivors, but a careful listening reveals its true meaning and the ironic fate of both author and subject.
Gaines became VanZant's principal songwriting partner on Street Survivors sessions, co-authoring three numbers including "Georgia Peaches," which was released later as a part of the Legend package. "I Never Dreamed" revealed a side of VanZant's writing that had never surfaced before and a possible indication of one of the directions he was heading in. Here the singer adopts a new attitude towrd love, casting aside the cynical use-em-and-lose-em philosophy of his previous work and admitting his dependence on a longstanding love relationship. He begs a lover who's left him to come back in the song, admitting that he finally understands the meaning of love.
But VanZant was not all introspection this time around. He responded to the creative boost he got from Gaines by regaining his lust for the road and the rocker's lifestyle. The exultant Skynyrd stood for one last time, a defiant sign-off from a band that seemed poised for its greatest moments just as it was tragically snuffed out.
© Rick Clark
Thanks to www.skynyrd.com for some of the pictures
Information on this site were copied from the booklet that followed The Box Set