A look at life, liberty and lucidity with Lynyrd Skynyrd
By J.T. Ryder
We may view our lives as a linear passage of time, as if we were tiredly gazing through a car window as the lackluster landscape of our lives flies by, a vista of relatively repetitive sameness that is only occasionally broken by the intermittent roadside sign or mildly interesting landmark or two. We make stops along the way, from mildly significant sojourns to epochal events that change the course of our lives. There are very few things that can bring back the memories from the past with any clarity. It’s like trying to remember the innocence of your first kiss and, the more desperately you try to bring it into focus, the quicker it blurs and skitters away into an aching sense of loss.
Conversely, the wafting scent of perfume, a distantly echoed giggle or the chorded melody from a long lost song can pull you backwards suddenly, forcing you to relive that moment. Most of our lives are lived with a barely audible soundtrack, a constant companion that etches itself within the furrows of our minds and, when a song from our past comes on the radio, we remember with utter clarity the first time we heard it, maybe coiled beneath the covers with a transistor radio drawn close to our ears allowing a world bigger than our own to enter our consciousness.
I remember the first time I heard Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” I was sitting on the porch of an abandoned farmhouse near my home with a Realistic AM/FM radio echoing past the nonexistent front door and inside the vacant structure. I had previously been occupied with doing a good amount of nothing and had planned on extending that agenda far into the afternoon. The sun was high and the day’s warm breeze caused the chest high (to me … I was about nine years old) bearded grass to brush against the rusted remnants of discarded washers and dryers that had been unceremoniously dumped in the overgrown driveway, resulting in a sound not unlike a brushed high-hat … nature was accompanying my musical selections.
“Free Bird” came on with no announcements or warnings: just a stark, church-like organ slicing through the midday haze, sounding ominous and comforting all at once. The building of sporadic percussion and straying strums of the guitar ended suddenly with the moaning slide of a Coricidin cough medicine bottle along the neck of a guitar. I was hooked. I listened raptly, through the pining lyrics, past the pressure cooker build up and all the way through the violent release of triple lead guitars, all the way to the fade and into the hissing open air of real radio. I sat through an interminable amount of commercials, waiting for the DJ to come back on and tell me what I had just experienced. Of course he didn’t and I was left clueless until I sat in a friend’s basement and he handed over the still glossy cover of an album mysteriously titled Pronounced ‘Lĕh-’nérd ‘Skin-’nérd, which I still managed to mispronounce because I suck at phonetics.
Over the years, that song will come on the radio and, regardless of what I am doing, I will crank it up and listen to it until the fade out (unless some industrious DJ manages to put on the version from Skynyrd’s Innyrds, which has a more bombastic ending altogether). The keening wail of the guitars, the simplicity of the message and the organic way in which it all fits together seems to take me back to a time of innocence. Not necessarily my own, but a more overall innocence. A time before record companies created cookie cutter hit makers and still allowed their artists to create. A time when AOR (Album Oriented Rock) radio stations ruled the airwaves and would allow the DJs and the listeners to dictate what was played, as opposed to being spoon fed the latest popular pabulum. It was a time of originality and exploration, instead of following a format or a formula to dispense with the next grandstanding standard.
I was able to talk to Rickey Medlocke (one of the original drummers for Lynyrd Skynyrd, guitarist in the current line-up as well as creator, guitarist and lead singer of yet another monster Southern rock group, Blackfoot) several times over the years, which has been both daunting and exhilarating. One of the things that I wanted to ask him was whether or not I was romanticizing the era, extrapolating my own innocence onto a whole decade or if there has been a shift within the music industry.
“You got to realize, I was there for some of the stuff because I was one of the original drummers, so I was there and saw how stuff went down, and it went down so innocently and so pure,” he said. “We just wrote songs and had a magic about ourselves.”
Expounding on the music scene now, Medlocke said, “Nowadays you’d be hard-pressed even find a band that even practices their instruments on their own. I’m a guitar player and I’ve had a love affair with my instrument ever since day one, and that’s what it’s all about. I didn’t get into this business to become a rock star; it just happened because we had great music, you know what I mean?”
Running with that line of thought, Medlocke went on to say, “Well, you’ve got to understand, when we decided to do what we did for a living, it was two-fold. Record companies signed bands to create two careers; the record company’s and the band’s. They signed bands to build us up, which in turn built the record company’s career.”
Comparatively, Medlocke said, “Nowadays, it’s not about that anymore. First of all, you don’t have near as many record labels as you used to; everything is Internet. People want self-satisfaction right away. I look at it like this, back when I got signed and the band was formed, we looked forward to a good record company. Now, the only thing that you sell records for anymore is for tickets and merchandising.”
In speaking with people worldwide, it has surprised me somewhat that Lynyrd Skynyrd is regarded as the definitive American sound, along with other genres created by the surf groups and country and western. Lynyrd Skynyrd has always had a prideful side when it came to their roots and country of origin, which comes out not only in their music, but in the core beliefs. Like the lyrics in their songs, Medlocke’s views on the country he loves are very direct and to the point.
“I mean, the one thing that I do know that’s going on in this world today is everything is so polarized, you know?” said Medlocke. “It’s a damn shame. It seems like our country is being pulled completely apart and, for Lynyrd Skynyrd, we’ve been the American band for all these years and it’s really sad for us to see how this country is being so polarized and pulled apart. When in reality, a few short years ago, you couldn’t break this country apart … I mean, it’s interesting. Now, it’s like everybody’s losing their damn balls, man, and nobody wants to stand up and do anything. So, you know, that’s the whole thing about it; instead of getting stronger, instead of having some damn balls about ourselves, the country’s getting softer, being weaker.”
Medlocke said he doesn’t like to use the band as a platform to talk about politics. “… I think that entertainers should definitely stay the hell out of politics,” he said. “Because entertainers … we got our own kind of gig and a lot of Hollywood … those people don’t know what the hell they’re talking about when they get into politics. But the point of what I’m getting at is instead of pulling this nation apart, we should be pulling it together. Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat or an Independent or whatever, we’ve got one of the best countries in the damn world, and guess what? It seems like the damn thing’s being ripped in two.”
Paradoxically, the image of an airplane factors into the separation of both America and Lynyrd Skynyrd: a division of time wherein there is that hardscrabble climb out of the rubble to rebuild the icon that once was. In Lynyrd Skynyrd’s case, this epochal event came in the form of a Convair 240-passenger airplane ill-fatedly nicknamed Free Bird, which plummeted out of the Mississippi skies in 1977, killing Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary and co-pilot William Gray. The remaining street survivors of Lynyrd Skynyrd chose to stay the course in spite of their grave losses.
For a long period of time after the death of lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, a lone, empty microphone stood, speared in the spotlights as the rest of the band played an instrumental version of “Free Bird.” This tradition lasted until 1989 when Ronnie Van Zant’s brother, Johnny, stepped in to quell a near riot almost caused by fans needing the words to be sung, for the role of a leader to be filled. Since then, arenas have been filled, records recorded and an homage paid to the creators of the most emblematic music to be pressed into vinyl and into the public’s consciousness.
At the end of each concert, Lynyrd Skynyrd plays Free Bird and the audience erupts in unity. Lighters (or cell phones) are held aloft and one wonders if it is to pay tribute to the musicians, to guide those who are lost or who we have lost, or perhaps to try and light the image of our innocence, so that we may see it in utter clarity one more time.
Lynyrd Skynyrd will be performing at the Fraze Pavilion with special guest Frankie Ballard on Friday, September 2 at 8:00 p.m. This concert is sold out. For more information, go to www.fraze.com or call (937) 296-3300.
Reach DCP freelance writer J.T. Ryder at JTRyder@DaytonCityPaper.com.