Saturday, November 1, 2014

Not Pronounced Lie-Nerd Sky-Nerd

 Having Lynyrd Skynyrd's song "Simple Man" going through my head all week, I figured it was the right time to look into the band whose name is/was synonymous with bad luck, to take a closer look at things I know about the band: the 1977 plane crash, the car crashes, and the feud with Neil Young.

Before the band was called Lynyrd Skynyrd (LS),  Allen Collins married Kathy Johns in 1970.  Allen Collins was one of three high school buddies - along with Ronnie Van Zant and Gary Rossington - who formed a series of bands with names like "My Backyard", "The Noble Five", and "One Percent".
 In 1969 the three core members (Allen on guitar, Gary on guitar, Ronnie on vocals) decided to name the band after their high school PE teacher who hated long hair, Leonard Skinner.  Leonard later became a realtor and friends of the band.  This photo is of LS band members.  Ronnie is front row center.  Allen is back row far left.  Gary is third man of four in the back row.

Ronnie, Allen and Gary eventually released five albums as a band [Billboard peak](names of popular songs)
1973 - Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd [27](Gimme Three Steps, Simple Man, Free Bird)
1974 - Second Helping [12] (Sweet Home Alabama, Don't Ask Me No Questions, Call Me The Breeze)
1975 - Nuthin' Fancy [9] (Saturday Night Special, On The Hunt)
1976 - Gimme Back My Bullets [20] (Title Song)
1977 - Street Survivors [5] (What's Your Name, That Smell, I Know A Little)

The band members, especially Ronnie, were notoriously heavy drinkers and fighters with rumors of Ronnie being capable of lashing out at any time.   As one would expect this led to problems and, in my opinion, is the root of their "bad luck".
 On Labor Day weekend in 1976, Allen and Gary were involved in separate auto accidents.  Gary was driving his new 1976 Ford Torino Brougham (similar to shown except with darker roof) after drinking and taking Quaaludes.  He fell asleep and crashed into parked cars, a house, and an oak tree.  This served as inspiration - and warning - documented in the song "That Smell" released on their next album.  His recovery forced the band to cancel several concert dates and the band fined him $5000 for it.
 On October 17, 1977 the band released their fifth album "Street Survivors" and were touring to promote the new album.  On October 19th the band flew in a Convair CV-300 (pictured).  During the flight, flames from the engine were visible to the band members on the plane.  For the next leg on October 20th to Baton Rouge, LA, several band members refused to board the Convair and decided to ride in the band equipment truck.  Ronnie convinced some to fly anyway, stating "if it's your time to go, it's your time to go."
 The plane crashed outside of Gillsburg, MS about 50 to 100 miles short of Baton Rouge.  The crash appeared to be due to fuel starvation, and the cause of that has several theories.  The crash killed six people including Ronnie and severely injured many more including Allen and Gary.  The doctors wanted to amputate Allen's arm, but his father refused.
 The crash site is at the center of this photo, about where the words "Easley Branch" appear right-most.

Lynyrd Skynyrd as a band broke up for awhile but then was resurrected.  It was never the same after the plane crash.  Allen and Gary formed the Rossington-Collins band while Allen's wife Kathy was pregnant with a third child.   Kathy died of hemorrhage during the pregnancy.
 If Allen wasn't a heavy drinker before, he surely became one now and his antics are legendary with many tales of dangerous behavior especially behind the wheel.  On Wednesday January 29, 1986 Allen and his friend Kent left his house on Julington Creek Road in Jacksonville to get more whisky at a liquor store.  He chugged the bottle and returned home.  Allen and his live-in girlfriend Debra Jean Watts argued and then left Allen's house together in his new Thunderbird.  Less than a mile from his house, Allen's car left the roadway.
 This was Allen's house on Julington Creek Road that they had just left.
 This is where the Thunderbird left the road.
 The car hit the driveway bridge over the ditch and ejected Allen and Debra.  Debra died on the way to the hospital, and Allen was left paralyzed from the waist down.  This led to physical complications that eventually killed him on January 23, 1990 - almost exactly 4 years after the accident.
Allen's black Thunderbird was similar to this.

I've always had this theory that most great bands only have three maybe four good albums in them.  I'm not sure if they run out of ideas or maybe the environment that produced such rich artistry dissipates, but for some reason three to four is usually it.

If you look at their five albums, their best stuff was on the first three.  I rank their best songs as Simple Man, Free Bird, Call Me The Breeze, Sweet Home Alabama, Gimmee Three Steps (in that order).  And they didn't write Call Me The Breeze - it was written by J.J. Cale of Escondido, CA.

So to my eye, it appears the band was running out of ideas already - the loss of future musical classics was probably not that great.

But the personal losses certainly were.    Mostly due to bad behavior it seems, with one very unfortunate pregnancy complication and one bad decision to fly on a plane with known problems.  I surely wish none of these things had happened to them.

Now, the feud with Neil Young.  I've poked into this a bit, and I've found it is urban legend.  No such feud existed. There are interviews with both Ronnie and Neil Young and they both say there was no feud.

Ronnie claims the Sweet Home Alabama lyrics were written in jest and that many of the lyrics are misinterpreted.  Looking at the evidence presented on multiple websites, I would have to agree.

Let's start with the song Sweet Home Alabama.  It contains the lyrics:

In Birmingham they love the Governor
(Boo, boo, boo)

This refers to the black children killed in the Birmingham church bombing and the racist governor George Wallace who helped fuel the situation.  The "boo, boo, boo" voices LS's displeasure with the situation and helps point out that while Sweet Home Alabama expresses fondness for the south and Alabama,  the band members knew there were certainly problems with the south too.  Ronnie even stated that his problem with Young's "Southern Man" was not the thoughts expressed, but that it made it sound like all southern men were that way.  They were not then and are not now.

If that's not proof enough that the feud did not exist,  consider that Ronnie is wearing a Neil Young t-shirt on the cover of the last album Street Survivors.  This was a failed attempt to quash the feud rumor once and for all.  The Skynyrd-Young feud myth continues to this day.


Jason Stewart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Brent said...

Jason, your research I think is very accurate. It is sad that no one in the overall Skynyrd family has taken the opportunity to write/publish more about theses young men and their personal lives. As fans for decades we have had to rely on the same recycled urban legendary stories. A few books have been published but are limited to largely well know facts and spin.

Ronnie and Allen (Steve and Cassie too) obviously died too young. Bad luck had little to do with lives. In fact they were blessed with ultra-good luck in some ways. I find it to be an unfortunate reality that the children of Ronnie and Allen have not done something to promote a deeper legacy of the their fathers. Ronnie's music lives on as does Allen's, however their dark side killed them, selfish and suborn they were at times. Their lack of education, personal issues, coupled with their success is the true story. A true lesson for the young and reckless among us today.

Artimus is a bitter man over his issues and the selfishness of his existing ex-band mate, and others closely associated with the "Skynyrd Family." To me, Ronnie's ex, his daughters, and many others should step up to the plate and round-out the deeper story and legacy of their lives. The good parts have been told, the deeper selfish side engrained by emotionally abusive fathers, the aftermath of the same would go a long way to build the bridge so many of those who not just served the band but suffered from the fame and lack of parenting. These guys were not role models. In the public domain it appears some of the off-spring have followed in the same pathetic footsteps. Ronnie nor Allen, if alive today, would have wanted that. No doubt Allen knew he ruined his life with his behavior, he literally sat in his waste by product as a result. Ronnie had a good heart, he was a mean drunk (where did he get it from? I have a good guess). Gary readily admits they had next to no education, they had egos that came with success and a domineering boss, who based in part on lack of education, got onto the plane with the rest following like lemurs. It wasn't the first rock-star plane crash or the last but it was totally avoidable. There lies the untold story. Boys coming out of no-mans land and making it to the top of the heap and no sooner getting there and it all taken away. Sadly, those who shared their lives with Ronnie and Allen are either dead, or in several individual cases, are too self-absorbed in keeping a façade on the legacy the benefits they reap to do the courageous thing and tell the true story of what happens when kids are raised without guidance needed to make it to true adulthood. Many of them were emotionally abandoned as kids, they left the same for their own.

ray clark said...

"I rank their best songs as Simple Man, Free Bird, Call Me The Breeze, Sweet Home Alabama, Gimmee Three Steps (in that order)."
Must disagree. Not a bad song on Street Survivors. For my liking I chose the songs on this album. The songs you list are great...but BEST is a big word. My 2¢