Lynyrd Skynyrd: Hell on Wheels Puts On the Brakes
When Lynyrd Skynyrd finally broke into the top 10 last month with its fifth album, “One More From the Road,” singer-founder Ronnie Van Zant could hardly wait to celebrate by canceling all future interviews. “The band doesn’t owe anything to anybody,” he declared happily. “Most of the media people, especially the press, have consistently portrayed us as either children or a bunch of rowdy drunks. That may or may not be true, but I know I’d much rather deal with the audiences that really put us here.”
After 10 grueling years of almost constant touring, Dixie’s Lynryd Skynyrd are anything but children. Their notoriously long record of pillage and arrest, however, does provide one thing. To the absolute delight of its hell-raising following, the band has boozed and brawled its way to top. But now, bolstered by the confidence that only long-sought success can bring, 27-year-old Van Zant is talking about changing that too.
“We like to have a good time and we will raise hell, but I assure you there won’t be as much skull-busting going on anymore.” Nursing a whisky in the hotel bar before Skynyrd’s recent appearance at the sold-out Starlight Amphitheater, Van Zant spoke in almost scholarly tones. “There was a point when it looked like everyone was going to be a (Keith) Moon in this bad. That doesn’t work. Televisions out the window, fist-fights over mistakes in the show . . . now, instead of people punching each other out, we just levy a fine. The best way to hit a man is in his pocket. Hitting him does no good. Breaking up a hotel room doesn’t change anything.
“Our manager hit me with a bill the other day for $29,000 worth of damages. Some people work a long time for $29,000 and I tore up that much without even thinking about it. I can’t believe it . . . and it won’t happen again. Before the success of the live album (“Once More From the Road”), there was a lot of heavy pressure on us, which is no real excuse, I know. But we’ve been trying very hard to become a little more professional in our business. Just in our business, though. We’d be crazy to start dressing up on stage. And the playing will be as rough-house as always. I promise you that.”
Formed while the members were still attending high school in Jacksonville, Florida, Skynyrd was the master plan of Van Zant and guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins. The name of the group comes from their gym coach, Leonard Skinner, who expelled them for long hair. Now a real estate salesman, Skinner introduced the band at a recent show in their hometown.
“The whole idea of the group,” recalls Van Zant, “was decided in the very beginning. We’ve stuck with it ever since.” It was, basically, to hone their hard rock and country-blues material into a dense three guitar attack. Adding former Strawberry Alarm Clock guitarist Ed King, keyboard man Billy Powell, bassist Leon Wilkeson and drummer Bob Burns, the band was complete. Their goal? Van Zant: “To have fun, what else?”
It was a good thing. During their six years on the Southern bar grind, there was little else to be had. “Talk about dues, we paid a damn ton of ’em,” cracks Van Zant. “So many that if things ever went too smoothly, it would ruin the group.”
Eventually, the huge breakthrough success of the Allman Brothers Band, another guitar oriented outfit from the South, paved the way for Skynyrd’s signing with MCA Records in the summer of ’73. Today, Gregg Allman’s recent bitter revalations that his band broke up this year with only $100,000 to split six ways have left Van Zant quieted by the ironic turn of events. “When Skynyrd is through, we will have probably quadrupled that per person,” he somberly reflects. “But if it hadn’t been for them, (Allman Brothers Band), we wouldn’t have gotten one penny.”
Van Zant also refuses to gloat over or publicize the fact that Skynyrd – with three gold and two platinum albums to it’s credit – is now easily the South’s biggest band. “If you ask me,” he says, “we’re closer to the classic British rock groups like Free then anything else.”
Van Zant even brashly dismisses the hit single “Sweet Home Alabama”, Skynyrd’s chest pounding reply to Neil Young’s “Southern Man” as “more of a joke than anything else.” He takes a gulp of of Jack Daniels, “Hey, I love Neil Young. My wife plays his records around the house all the time. He even dug the song himself. He understood that we weren’t serious. You gotta write about something. It’s tough.”
In the two years since “Sweet Home Alabama” though, writing has been the least of Skynyrd’s problems. Drummer Bob Burns – swiftly replaced by Artimus Pyle – was the first to bail out of the group’s never ending tour schedule. Integral writer and instrumentalist Ed King was next to leave in mid-’75, this time out of “total exhaustion”. Initially, the group attempted to restructure it’s sound around the remaining two guitars. Veteran producer Tom Dowd, (who has worked with everyone from Otis Redding to Eric Clapton), was called in to replace their original mentor, Al Kooper. The result was last year’s “Gimme Back My Bullets”.
While Dowd has made enthusiastic believers of the group, (“He taught us more then we ever thought we’d want to learn,” claims Allen Collins), “Bullets” remains the least successful of Skynyrd’s albums.
“Tom is still the best and only producer for this group,” Van Zant states flatly. “We were going for a completely different sound… and it didn’t work. We had always been so heavy and muddy, we decided to make a clean Lynyrd Skynyrd album. The material was good, it was just too… refined.”
The band learned a quick lesson about it’s fans. “We decided immediately to do an honest live album with three guitarists,” he continues, “and get back into the thing that had always worked so well. We had always been saving a Skynyrd live album as our trump. An intact recording of the band in concert. No overdubbing… no ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd Comes Alive’ for us. All we had to do was find a third guitarist.”
After auditioning such luminaries as Leslie West and Muscle Shoals session whiz Wayne Perkins, the band finally settled on Steve Gaines, the unknown guitarist brother of one of Skynyrd’s backup girls. “I expect we’ll all be in Steve’s shadow one day,” Van Zant boasts. “This kid is a writing and playing fool. Just wait and see. He’s already scared everybody else into playing their best in years.”
As for maturation of his fellow band mates, Van Zant is decidedly less sure. “We were babies when we started this band,” he states, “and, to me, the other guys still are. There was a time when I’d get really drunk in this bar and say, ‘Who is the meanest mother here?’ You got a date with me outside.’ For the hell of it. The other guys are mostly still at that point. They’ll learn.”
Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, both car crash victims last Labor Day weekend, were slapped with hefty fines. “It’s a terrible thing when you get behind the wheel and you’re so drunk that you can’t drive a car to begin with. Those boys will pay for it. Allen hit a parked Volkswagen and knocked it across an empty parking lot. That was just a fender-bender compared to Gary’s.”
Rossington’s well publicized accident forced Skynyrd off the bill with Aerosmith at it’s recent Anaheim Stadium show. “I can’t tell you how mad I got at him for that,” fumes Van Zant. “We’re glad he’s gonna make it, he’s tremendously lucky to be alive… but it was his fault. He passed out at the wheel of his brand new Ford Torino, with his foot on the gas. He knocked down a telephone pole, split an oak tree and did $7,000 worth of damage to a house. That’s being just plain stupid. I told him that on his hospital bed.”
Van Zant shrugs, “You know, the biggest change in myself that I’ve noticed is that for the first time I’m really thinking about the future. I’m 27 now and I’ve got a baby girl and I plan to stick around and watch her grow up. I also plan to collect for the last 10 years of self abuse.”
With “One More From The Road” only accelerating up the charts, there is still no end in sight. Future plans include a television special, the group’s promotion of a Toyota automobile named ‘Freebird’, (after their in concert tour de force), a country album from Van Zant, another Lynyrd Skynyrd studio album and, of course, a worldwide tour. Just how does a man keep his sanity throughout?
Ronnie Van Zant smiles softly to himself and calls over a cocktail waitress. “Bring me another drink,” he says.
Courtesy of the L.A. Times – Cameron Crowe – October 24, 1976