This intimate story of Lynyrd Skynyrd tells of how a band of lost souls and self-destructive misfits with uncertain artistic objectives clawed their way to the top of the rock 'n’ roll world. Based on interviews with surviving band members, Whiskey Bottles and Brand-New Cars shares how lead singer and front man Ronnie Van Zant guided the band’s hugely successful five-year run and, in the process, created not only a new country rock idiom, but a new Confederacy in constant conflict with old Southern totems and prejudices. Placing the music and personae of Skynyrd into a broad cultural context, this book gives a new perspective to a history of stage fights, motel-room destructions, cunning business deals, and brilliant studio productions. It also offers a greater appreciation for a band whose legacy, in the aftermath of their last plane ride, has since descended into self-caricature.
|Publisher:||Chicago Review Press, Incorporated|
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About the Author
Mark Ribowsky has written 12 books, including widely praised biographies of James Taylor, Tom Landry, Howard Cosell, Phil Spector, and Satchel Paige. He has also contributed extensively to magazines including Playboy, Penthouse, and High Times. He lives in Boca Raton, Florida.
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Whiskey Bottles and Brand-New Cars
The Fast Life and Sudden Death of Lynyrd Skynyrd
By Mark Ribowsky
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2015 Mark Ribowsky
All rights reserved.
LORDS AND MASTERS
Most men are a little better than their circumstances give them a chance to be. And I've known some that even circumstances couldn't stop.
— William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses
During the nascence of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the nuts, bolts, and guts of which were assembled at a typical sort of titular hallmark of the Old South — Robert E. Lee High School, a squat building still standing on McDuff Avenue in southwest Jacksonville, Florida, seven blocks from the Saint Johns River — Ronnie Van Zant was already a compelling fellow, if not always for the right reasons. In 1965 at the age of seventeen and soon to be a dropout, he stood five foot seven and 160 pounds, built like a fireplug, his face round as the moon, his wavy blond hair streaked almost platinum by the hot sun, and his handsome features usually bloated from the steady stream of beer and junk food he shoved into his mouth or from a fat lip he proudly displayed.
Because of his unrelenting confrontational attitude — his own mother called him the meanest kid in the neighborhood, a good thing to be on the hard-scrabble streets of Shantytown, as it was called — he was in scrapes all the time. He was also a crafty, advanced sort of redneck. For one thing, he was sharp — smart and calculating. When he wasn't bored with school, he made the honor roll. But he was bored and could regularly be found in dive bars, hanging with the real rednecks, sneaking beers, and looking for a fight.
When he got one, picked over some imagined slight or challenge, he would sometimes deck the other guy with his bare knuckles. Other times, having been taught to use his dukes by his father, he'd arrange a bout on some dirt road somewhere. He'd go home, get two pairs of boxing gloves, his and his old man's, and then give his father's gloves to his opponent to use. In these matches, with no referee, Ronnie almost always won, pounding away until the other guy cried uncle. Afterward, they would both return to the bar, the loser buying drinks.
As Van Zant described his home turf, "it was rough ... like the ghetto, black and white, and there was a lot of street fighting, a lot of adventure. ... Lynyrd Skynyrd are nothin' but street people, right straight off the streets, skid row. It's very easy for us to relate to that. We can relate to that much more than anything else." The way he said it, he was the "Street Fighting Man" that Mick Jagger had sung about in his famous detour from "palace revolution" to "compromise solution." For Van Zant, there was no such thing as compromise solution.
* * *
To his classmates, Ronnie was a short stack of mercurial impulses and moods, with ambitions that seemed to change by the day. It wasn't that he had a thing for violence or wanted to hurt people; it was just his way of blowing off steam and winning a personal challenge, something he seemed to need to allay his own insecurity and to constantly prove to himself that his father would admire him if he were the toughest kid in town. As a result, even his friends knew they had to be aware that Ronnie might be apt to come up to them willy-nilly and pop them one upside the head.
That was, however, just one side of him — one of many. The last thing he wanted was to end up a thug or be seen as an ignorant redneck with shit for brains. Rough-hewn traits aside, he was a peripatetic figure around Shantytown. He was a marvelous athlete who seriously went after a career as a professional baseball player. He worked at an auto body shop where the foreman recalled that the kid had a photographic memory for the minutiae of car parts.
He was whip smart and cocksure; he could express himself and could sing on key and with feeling, which he did in the mid-sixties with a band he got together at Lee High. He called the group Us, which he thought sounded hip, similar to the folk-rock group the We Five, who had a hit called "You Were on My Mind." Us was just one of numerous ragtag bands who used the gym to practice. Another was an instrumental group in the mold of the Ventures called You, Me and Him; it was led by Gary Rossington, a skinny kid with Botticellian curls, who was two years younger than Ronnie and, frankly, scared to death of him, a common reaction around town. "Everyone knew Ronnie in Jacksonville because he was Mr. Badass," Rossington said. "He would just stand on street corners flipping people off."
Months later Van Zant's band had trailed away, and he and Rossington crossed paths after a Babe Ruth League game they played in down at the sandlot. Ronnie only knew Gary in passing, but he knew enough: Gary could play a mean electric guitar, and a couple of other guys in his band, called You, Me, and Him, drummer Bob Burns and bass player Larry Junstrom, who also played in that Babe Ruth game, could keep a tight backbeat. With no warning, Van Zant had some startling news for the younger teen. Commencing that day, he informed Gary, "I'm gonna be your singer."
As was usually the case with Van Zant, there was no discussion. What he said went. He was so adamant about it, in fact, that the four of them went right over to Burns's house and, without changing out of their dirty uniforms, began jamming. Ronnie pronounced quick judgment. "When we started playing," he would recall years later, "we were just terrible."
It didn't take long before the band was in his control, reliant solely on his full-throated baritone voice, which seemed to seamlessly shift from mellow to bellow but could tire easily and start to crack. Accordingly, he kept it in a tightly controlled range, never launching into a falsetto flutter or twang. Like Gregg Allman's vocals on the big Allman Brothers hits to come, there was no obvious connection of voice to region beyond that flat northern Florida drawl. He wasn't Elvis or Conway Twitty. This wasn't Nashville; it was Jacksonville.
Ronnie knew exactly what direction he wanted for the band, which would go through a half dozen names before finding the right one. That direction was rock and roll, not country — and no one would argue the point with him. Clearly the future of the group, which added one more guitar player, Allen Collins, was going to be determined by one factor: Ronnie Van Zant. He had the attitude and presence of a good lead singer. Knowing he had two left feet, he didn't try to prance around like Mick Jagger. He would stand there, erect, foursquare, under his Stetson, pouring out the words he composed. His aura projected an animal magnetism, his guise as a prowling lion enhanced by the sincerity of his voice, the cock of his head, the wink of his eye. He bit off the words of a song in earnest and sometimes in anger. He was, well, different.
He was, wrote one chronicler of southern culture, Mark Kemp, "at once honest and wily, good-hearted and mean as a rattlesnake, sometimes innately progressive, other times as reactionary as George Wallace." Undeniably, there was something about him, something that pulled people into his world without giving them the feeling that they'd been dragged in. And, by instinct, he was prepared to go to the mat, down and dirty, to make this project a success. He would fight with his voice and, if necessary, with his fists to convince people. To be sure, one could call Ronnie Van Zant many things; but "harmless" would not be one of them. Thank God, too, because all that was dangerous and excessively redneck about him was the propulsion that sent Skynyrd skyward and kept them flying higher and higher for as long as the devil allowed.
* * *
At seventeen, Ronnie Van Zant was a young man on the make, with a battle plan in his head. He also was a young man with a range of feelings and loads to say. For more reasons than he understood, he had a hard side and a soft one, the latter rising up when a girl he was sweet on, Nadine Incoe, a classmate at Lee High, entered his life. Actually, no one girl at a time was enough for him. Always on the prowl, he also took up with another girl at the school, a redhead named Marie Darsey. How he was able to pull that off no one knows, but each of the girls believed she was the only one. Both saw the charmer in him, probably because they received the same love letters, with only the names changed. One that Darsey has kept to this day reads, "I would really love to have a date with you. I think you are very, very cute. I really crave red hair." Perhaps leaving himself some wiggle room, he added that, most of the time, "I just want to be alone."
When Ronnie and one of the girls were together, it was usually in the front of his '65 Mustang or in the dark of the neighborhood movie theater. It mattered little what film was playing; tough guy that he was, Ronnie didn't mind if it was Doris Day up on the screen being virginal. Darsey laughs, "He even took me to see Mary Poppins." All that mattered was that he could let his hands roam without interference. For the record, Darsey reports, he was "a good kisser" and "a sweet, caring person."
Coincidentally, most every girl or woman he made time for gave the same kind of verdict. He was that good at playing the game, though it bit him when he knocked up Nadine and, in the noble tradition of courtly southern manhood, married her — at least until they inevitably divorced soon after. But his talent for heartfelt poetry and not a little bullshit became transmuted from love letters to song lyrics, much of which would be inscrutable but irresistible.
As he moved forward, the fighter moved with him. Charlie Brusco, who managed the first Skynyrd reunion band in 1987 and ensuing editions until 1999, was absolutely riveted and sometimes repelled by him. "There was a lot to Ronnie, which was the reason he could write so many songs with different emotions and topics," says Brusco. "He was both the sweetest guy in the world and the biggest prick in the world. He would tell you how much he loved you, then take a swing at you for no apparent reason other than he just had to. But he kept that band focused all the time, man. And he was absolutely magnetic, a fascinating guy. A very odd character and a very complicated person, sometimes a very confused and angry person, and I don't think anyone ever figured him out, and I don't know if he ever figured himself out. But this was something that doesn't come around often, a meteor, an unexplainable force field that needed to be around longer than he was. A lot longer."
* * *
No richer trough of Gothic culture, whether in the written or sung word, has ever existed than the American South. Indeed, though many have tried to alter its fundamental genetic underpinnings, no one ever has. The cultural ingredients of the continental shelf that sits below the Mason-Dixon Line down through the sleepy, dusty Delta, the contours of the Gulf, the jagged Florida panhandle and peninsula, and the massive sweep of high plains and low swamps that is Texas have not only been ingrained in the region but have seeped, in the blood of the spoken and sung word, into every other region across the continent. Not by accident did a man like Levon Helm, the heart, soul, and comforting beat of the Band, a man from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas, a man for whom every minute of his seventy-nine years on earth was a revelation and a life lesson, make his mark in music in Woodstock, New York, collaborating with men bred in the Great White North of Canada.
In the Great White South of America, such expatriate reverse flow was common. Many artistically bent southern men took to the road, dating back to the Delta bluesmen who migrated to Chicago in the 1920s, and their work bled from border to border, enriching the cultural stock that congealed in ensuing decades, giving identity to genres not homegrown. In fact the exile of nativist southern music is almost alarming in retrospect, seeming to foretell of a southern civilization shorn of its glory and its honor. Even with the shield of Jim Crow to deflect the sting of Reconstruction, the Confederacy was dead, and rather than a grand society and an American Rome, there were white hoods, colored-only fountains, and bumper stickers crowing that The South Shall Rise Again! — none of which could alter the basic geometry, the fatalism that declared that the glory of the South was never to be again.
In the absence of revival and with the gradual eroding of the topology and psychology of the South came imagination and longing. Through this looking glass, like the lost souls of Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, southern men were no longer plantation swells but weary, guilt-scarred, middle-class survivors dealing with morals and conundrums. This was the South from which the new generation of artists and musicians would come in the 1960s. Through heredity, they would carry the glory of the Old South within them, as well as the innate fear that stoked almost parodic hubris. As weathered and withered as they were, Southern Men — that is, southern white men — were, as regional historians Anne Goodwyn Jones and Susan V. Donaldson write, "still 'lords and masters' at home in the South, regardless of class," even if only in their minds.
One heady example of the cultural clash and angst-ridden pride within the New South was a rock band from the prosaic streets of Jacksonville, who would flourish as the vanguard of southern pride and rebirth by recasting the ethos of the Southern Man in all his glory and anguish. It was quite a ride they got themselves on. But, inevitably, it was an illusion, a devil's bargain, for them and the new Confederacy.
* * *
Far from Jacksonville's booming downtown corridor of corporate skyscrapers, waterfront hotels, the University of Florida campus, and the NFL Jaguars' home turf at EverBank Field, the old Van Zant homestead still stands today as it did half a century ago, buried deep "across the tracks" on the city's west side. They don't call the neighborhood Shantytown these days; it just doesn't sound appropriate anymore — though, given this conscience qualm, it is ironic that one can find the name Shantytown, as if given éclat by the band that hailed from these streets, far from its original latitude, on a bar in the chichi Springfield downtown section. Fans of the contemporary music culture of the city also know Shantytown as one of the scene's clique of native rock bands.
Back where time has stood still, however, in an area no one would ever call an American Rome, the Van Zant place is, as it was back then, a one-story white, wood-frame house set back behind shrubbery at 1285 Mull Street near the junction of Woodcrest Road. The place has been remodeled a few times, but one can easily imagine the Van Zants' quotidian activities here. In the backyard, wash hangs on a line. Bikes and toys are strewn on uncut grass. Old mattresses are stacked high outside a shed in the corner of the yard. A pickup truck is parked in the driveway. A Room for Rent sign sticks out of the ground. Dogs bark. The sky is bright blue; the sun shines. Faint music streams from a radio somewhere inside the house.
In the rootstock of mid-twentieth-century civilization, this milieu and not anything close to a manor house was the South and, thus, the only life that Ronnie Van Zant knew and could write songs about living in and getting away from. As Ed King, an early, vital member of Lynyrd Skynyrd who added the signature third lead guitar to their congealing sound, recalls the band's sine qua non: "When you get right down to it, Ronnie was a country singer fronting a rock band. He was writing country songs, because that's what he knew. His musical roots were very southern."
This was something Ronnie had no compunction about owning up to. His music may not have been in the mold of George Jones or Lefty Frizzell, but his blood ran with the same genetic code. When he sang openly of this in the self-explanatory "I'm a Country Boy" on Nuthin' Fancy, he did so with a defiant chauvinism:
I don't like smoke chokin' up my air
And some of those city folks well they don't care
I don't like cars buzzing around
I don't even want a piece of concrete in my town.
Van Zant's world was one in which he didn't feel concrete under his feet when he trod his streets, headed somewhere through abandoned properties and weed-strewn lots or, later, down the roads in his red Mustang, usually way too fast. The west side of Jacksonville, which can't really be called poverty stricken, is typical of much of the bowels of Florida: hard-working, lower-middle-class men and women happy to be given a mortgage and to have enough to put on the table for their families. For them, as for Ronnie's father, who spent twenty years providing for his wife and six children by driving a truck through the snakelike interstate highways of the South, having an old pickup on a dirt driveway is the definition of contentment.
Lacy Van Zant certainly was content right where he was — even when his boy was a millionaire, living in splendor several miles away, with a pool in the shape of a guitar, Lacy would refuse to budge the family from the house he considered his homestead. But that was not the life that Ronnie dreamed of, and he was determined that it would not claim him as it had Lacy.
Excerpted from Whiskey Bottles and Brand-New Cars by Mark Ribowsky. Copyright © 2015 Mark Ribowsky. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 Lords and Masters 1
2 A Different Light 17
3 Need All My Friends 29
4 "They Sound Too Much Like the Allman Brothers" 43
5 Down South Jukin' 61
6 Enter Roosevelt Gook 79
7 "Chicken-Skin Music in the Raw" 93
8 We All Did What We Could Do 107
9 You Don't Get Nothin' 125
10 Torture Tour 125
11 "We Done Things Only Fools's Do" 147
12 100 Proof Blues 157
13 Soundman God 165
14 Better Get Outta My Way 175
15 T-R-O-U-B-L-E 185
16 Look What's Going On Inside You 195
17 Striking Fire and Drawing Blood 207
18 "Plane Crash!"219
Epilogue: A Sort of Hereditary Obligation 229
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Well done, Mr. Ribowsky! As a longtime fan, I breezed through this book learning many new details along the way. I knew about the drugs and booze, was unaware of the toll it took on their relationships. The chapter concerning the plane crash was exemplary. “A million dollar band on a $1.98 plane.? I was well aware of the effect Ronnie Van Zant's death had upon Skynyrd. This interesting read got me thinking about what might have been.... I would highly recommend.