Power Chords of Memory
Lynyrd Skynyrd, from Sea to Shining Sea
By Charles Aaron
Reading time 55 Minutes
“Stay off the fucking tongue!”
Stay off the fucking tongue!
This was the one inviolable rule at the August 21, 1976, festival-style show held annually on the historic Knebworth House grounds an hour north of London. The Rolling Stones, cheekily wearing the crown of the World’s Greatest Rock ’n’ Roll Band (check the receipts, guys!), issued the decree to their five opening acts – 10cc, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Hot Tuna, and the Don Harrison Band (featuring ex-members of Creedence Clearwater Revival).
The off-limits appendage in question was an approximately 60-foot red prop attached to the stage apron, concealed by a blanket of black tarmac. This version of the Stones’ irony-devouring, Pop Art “Sticky“ logo was designed to rise and be revealed just as the headliners materialized. Such an oversize branding spectacle – the logo seemed to mock the turreted, Tudor manor in the distance – would enshrine the Stones, once again, as generational showmen nonpareil, comic Magus Luciferians proffering vaguely liberating expectorations.
Ronnie Van Zant was unmoved. The leader of Southern Rock tricksters Lynyrd Skynyrd was not a rule-follower. Nor was the stocky, sawed-off singer known to comply with the sort of authority conferred by straps of fast cash and media thirst, even if said “authority“ was deployed by the Rolling Stones, whose hit version of Irma Thomas’ “Time Is on My Side“ was purportedly the first song the kids who became Lynyrd Skynyrd jammed on in 1964 under a Jacksonville, Florida, carport. Van Zant was renowned for declaring possession of every stage he stalked – barefoot, of course – whether Skynyrd was top-billed or not.
But the ground under Lynyrd Skynyrd was shifting in 1976. The scrutiny, expectations, and substance abuse that followed 1974’s sly, both-sides-now Top Ten hit “Sweet Home Alabama“ had taken a toll. A stand-your-ground riposte to Neil Young’s early-’70s regional indictments – the righteous squalling of “Southern Man“ and the patronizing reproof of “Alabama“ – “Sweet Home“ gave the band a national audience, but politicized their already dubious media image as ornery redneck reprobates (the single’s artwork prominently placed the image of a small Confederate flag over a woman’s lips). Original drummer Bob Burns had a mental breakdown and left the group, and an artistically grounding partnership with producer/manager Al Kooper had soured. Peter Rudge, the Who’s manager and the Stones’ tour manager, a blustery hardcase with scant knowledge of Skynyrd’s band dynamic, took over. On the Nuthin Fancy tour, Ed King, the versatile and melodic guitar player who came up with the firestartin’ “Sweet Home Alabama“ riff, quit after an alcohol-and-drug-fueled spat with Van Zant.
The larger context for the band’s tumult was to be found in the hazy, precarious South of the 1970s. The Civil Rights Movement had made such historic advances that African-Americans began to remigrate after being driven Northeast, Midwest, and West by Jim Crow rule’s racist clampdown. Business and political elites fostered a boosterish fable that the Southern states had left behind the brutality of their systematically bigoted, rural/mill-village past for the shiny, racially progressive, federally bolstered Promised Land of a modernized urban-suburban “New South.“ This rejuvenated territory connected westward with Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona to form the “Sun Belt,“ incorporating the aerospace, oil, and defense industries, fueling prosperity for all.
Some of this was the bad-faith projection of greedy elites, but the South was undoubtedly transforming in fits and starts – so much so that some folks just called it “The Change.“ Public schools were increasingly being integrated, as were mills, factories, and the industrial sector. Black voting led to an immediate surge in representation, especially in state and local politics (the number of black mayors nationally jumped from eight to 135 between 1971 and 1975). An influential black feminist movement evolved out of the male-dominated Civil Rights and Black Power leadership, with Shirley Chisholm becoming the first black woman to run for president in 1972.
Perhaps the most substantial shift, though, was a retrenchment. White conservative Democrats who opposed the integration of blacks as voting citizens, now found common cause with the Republican Party. In fact, Richard Nixon’s successful 1968 Republican presidential campaign implemented the infamous “Southern Strategy,“ lifting segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace’s so-called “law and order“ platform, which scapegoated blacks and tried to scare whites shitless. In his 1994 The Haldeman Diaries, Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman quoted Nixon breaking down his philosophy: “[He] emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to… [he] pointed out that there has never in history been an adequate black nation, and they are the only race of which this is true.“
As Americans argued about the South, America was starting to resemble the South. Whites nationwide were hysterically worried about changes set in motion by the Civil Rights Movement, not to mention by the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April of 1968, and the widespread black uprisings that followed. Across the country, white families fled integrated schools and neighborhoods or sent their kids to de facto segregated private schools. Protests and court cases, often about the use of busing to achieve integration, were ongoing in cities from the East to West Coast – Boston, Detroit, Minneapolis, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, etc. Apparently, without Dr. King around to shame them – or inspire the better angels of their nature – when it came time to follow through, white people in large numbers plainly showed their asses.
White American men were experiencing their own particular identity crisis throughout the 1970s, just when Civil Rights advances really hit home. The Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision in 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, provided hope for more equal citizenship to black Americans, but also to movements led by women, LGBTQ people, Native Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, et al. While the national narrative was still normalized toward their point of view, white men felt threatened, villainized. Like rural or working-class Southerners before them, white men everywhere were not only asked to change, but to admit that change was necessary because of their selfish, often immoral behavior. Even if some supported gender equity as fair and necessary, or believed that a shake-up in gender roles or identities was valid, they were still unmoored. What were they supposed to do, or be?
Simultaneously, white Southerners’ discomfort if not blood-boiling resistance to “The Change“ helped create a national, voyeuristic fascination with the South and its fate during the 1970s. This fascination was partly about a general, insatiable American desire to escape the grind of productivity and consumption by feasting on the numbing balm of our fellow citizens’ flailings. It expressed a willful nostalgia for a still-romantic South, an exotic, unknowable hothouse of emotions and colorfully stubborn eccentrics, that thrived before all those black bodies were beaten in the streets, and black leaders gunned down with military precision. Finally, it helped that white outsiders who felt emasculated secretly respected how white Southern men stuck to their guns and threw up a middle finger at The Change.
A need emerged among fragile white men for a new masculine archetype to help them process the changing world. The New South gave rise to a New Southerner. It became fertile ground for an emergent group of white masculine heroes and antiheroes throughout the 1970s. This mythical New Authentic American, let’s say, took the form of a New Authentic Southerner at a time when a remarkable array of iconoclastic, sympathetic Southern white characters permeated pop culture. Lynyrd Skynyrd were the most volatile, urgent, and don’t-give-a-fuck charismatic of the bunch, but they had plenty of company. Not just “rednecks“ or “good ol’ boys,“ these New Authentic Southerners were wily but humble free thinkers who had a moral compass that tilted against corruption and hypocrisy. They respected Southern tradition, but never in a mean-spirited racist or sexist way. They defused confrontations with charm or humor, but knew how to throw hands or handle a firearm. They were restless, but mama’s boys. As the Allman Brothers’ Dickey Betts summed it up in the band’s 1973 No. 2 pop hit, ubiquitous in the South all decade: “Lord, I was born a ramblin’ man / Tryin’ to make a livin’ and doin’ the best that I can.“ Diminished expectations were also baked into the equation.
Here’s a condensed roll call of this New Southern Authenticity: Raucous, truth-telling Outlaw Country troubadours (Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, David Allen Coe, Guy Clark, the Flatlanders) and, to a lesser extent, Swamp Rock rogues (Tony Joe White, Joe South, Bobby Charles) were sold as an alternative to Nashville’s fussy countrypolitan pop; Burt Reynolds, a former football player and frat brother at Florida State in the late 1950s, broke out with nonstop star turns in Southern action films, from 1972’s Deliverance to 1977’s Smokey and the Bandit (which spawned two cheeseball sequels); in 1973’s crossover hit Walking Tall, Joe Don Baker made a national folk hero out of McNairy County, Tennessee Sheriff Buford Pusser, an ex-wrestler who carried an actual big stick to beat the shit out of local gangsters. In real life, Pusser and his wife were murdered in retaliation (two cheeseball sequels also followed); the CB-radio/trucker craze – spurred by long-haul drivers colorfully conspiring to evade a lowered speed limit after the 1973 oil crisis – spawned a No. 1 pop hit in 1975 (C.W. McCall’s “Convoy“) plus three No. 1 country hits in 1976 (Cledus Maggard and the Citizen’s Band’s “White Knight,“ Red Sovine’s “Teddy Bear,“ and Johnny Cash’s “One Piece at a Time“); CB-trucker films (Convoy, Breaker! Breaker!, High Ballin’) and television shows (Movin’ On, B.J. and the Bear) kept a-rollin’ throughout the decade, as did moonshine/bootlegger movies (often starring Burt Reynolds); The Dukes of Hazzard, a 1979 TV adaptation of 1974’s raw, bracing bootlegger flick Moonrunners(featuring Waylon Jennings), starred two genial, hunky bros who became pop pinups despite driving a car called the “General Lee“ with a Confederate Flag on its roof; “King“ Richard Petty was the crafty, careening force behind NASCAR’s transition from moonshine death-trap novelty to corporate-advertising cash cow and patriotic institution; Sam Ervin, a crime-fighting “country lawyer“ and North Carolina senator, gamboled through the televised Watergate Hearings that exposed President Nixon’s criminal activities; and in perhaps the apex of the New Southern Authenticity, Jimmy Carter, a God-fearing, small-town Georgia farmer-you-can-trust, won the 1976 presidential election, with support from the Allman Brothers Band and Skynyrd. He was the first president from the Deep South since before the Civil War.
In addition, so-called “hicksploitation“ movies – featuring a clown car of unhinged, sex-crazed, racist hillbilly kooks (Two Thousand Maniacs!, Shanty Tramp, Jackson County Jail) – were in relentless production throughout the ’70s, feeding a steady demand at both drive-in and indoor theaters. So, it’s no surprise that toward the end of the ’70s, even avant-garde gore auteur Andy Milligan concocted his own cockeyed vision of the South’s idiosyncratic psyche by returning to the Civil War era for the sprawling House of Seven Belles, which jerked from verbose delusion to almost slapstick satire. More on that later.
As Ronnie Van Zant prepared to take the stage
As Ronnie Van Zant prepared to take the stage at Knebworth Fair, he was not worried about Skynyrd’s mid-’70s upheaval or the decade’s knotty evolution, nor was he gobsmacked by Jack Nicholson turning up (with the Mamas and the Papas’ John Phillips) as the festival’s backstage weed carrier. Van Zant believed, with a scriptural certainty, that his band could still beguile or bulldoze any crowd, anytime, anywhere. Watching Skynyrd’s set now – on 1996’s Freebird… the Movie DVD or on YouTube – it appears fairly obvious that the singer is transmitting from a THC-fueled Discovery One spacecraft. But after gingerly squinting at the sun-baked, tightly squished, mid-afternoon throng (estimated at 150,000 patrons, it would swell to 200,000 by night’s end), Van Zant and Skynyrd immediately locked into a sneering buzz and howl. The crowd was notably stirred, though the shrouded tongue kept the band at an absurdly distant remove.
That was, until they cranked up always-and-forever finale “Free Bird.“ After Van Zant and guitarist Allen Collins (the song’s original writer) huddled back near a stack of equipment, Skynyrd casually rolled out the stately piano and doleful slide-guitar intro. Van Zant leaned into the sorry-babe-it’s-not-you-it’s-me verse/chorus with a raw purr, then wandered off, taking a slug from a bottle of wine and blessing the dead (“Play it for Duane Allman,“ he mused). But as the dramatic tension grew, he stood stolidly at center stage, confessing with a steely matter-of-factness, “Lord knows, I’m to blame.“ And by the time he hit the definitive “I can’t cha-eee-ayy-eee-ayy-eee-ayy-eee-ayy-eee-ayy-eee-ayy-eee-ange“ peak of the chorus, jaw jutted and teeth bared, he looked like a panther ready to strike.
Around the seven-minute mark, Skynyrd pounced. At Van Zant’s right stood Collins, a towering wraith in a red t-shirt and floppy red flares, his long mane of scraggly brown hair parted in the middle, framing his gaunt but animated face. He stepped forward onto the lip of the tarmac and unleashed the song’s signature guitar solo with a giddy snarl. The day’s muggy atmosphere seemed to shudder and energy whooshed forward like a gathering wave. Van Zant reached out his left arm like a drill sergeant putting a recruit into proper position and directed second guitarist Gary Rossington, his face also ghostly pale and framed by a tangle of wavy hair, up beside Collins. Then, with a grin, he pushed the duo forward, fully breaching the Stones’ Checkpoint Charlie and guiding them down the length of the stage. The sandblasted screaming blues and power-chord roar swirled up as if Van Zant, clapping along like a mischievous kid, had invoked a restless spirit that he had no intention of controlling. While he admired his occupation of the Stones’ terrain, third guitarist Steve Gaines scampered down, breaking into a sheepish Chuck Berry duckwalk along the way, and bassist Leon Wilkeson advanced as far onto the tarmac as his cord could stretch. Suddenly, a slaphappy Van Zant was leading a five-man squad into their hosts’ boudoir and reducing the dandyish décor to debris.
In my opinion as a white Southerner, it’s the greatest 14 minutes of live rock ’n’ roll produced by white Southerners in the ’70s. It encapsulates Lynyrd Skynyrd at its most powerful – a roiling rapids of vast, conflicted, heartbroken, and headstrong emotions delivered with a life-size, underdog howl. The tongue stunt’s implied message – “Top this shit, hoss!“ – registered with its target, Stones frontfiend Mick Jagger, who was indeed peeved about their violation of the stage edict. In the years since Skynyrd’s alpha-dog gamesmanship at Knebworth has grown from a footnote to a classic rock tall tale: North Florida swamp-rat delinquents kick the arse of World’s Greatest Band, verifying their rep as the wrong crazy white boys to fuck with! The real rebel vanguard shows everybody – from fancy-ass Europeans to snooty rock critics to scuzzy bicoastal industry hacks – where rock ’n’ roll really belongs: back home in the South.
Then, less than a year later and three days after the release of the Street Survivors album, Skynyrd was gone. Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister Cassie (member of the band’s vocal trio the Honkettes), and three others were killed when their plane ran out of fuel and plunged into a south Mississippi pine forest. Although most of the band members recovered, the band never healed. And due to the horrific circumstances, their history became another Southern ghost story.
Though various groups of crash survivors reformed in the ’80s and ’90s under the “Lynyrd Skynyrd“ name and a Rossington-led touring company still performs, the band exists primarily as a hotly contested myth and legend. The band’s intuitive, still-forming populism will forever bump up against its Confederate provocations. Though they praised the Civil Rights Movement, Southern Rockers were also bedeviled by it. They bristled when white Southern traditions or history were condemned; they clung to “Southern Pride,“ definition to be determined. Did Charlie Daniels’ Southern Rock anthem “The South’s Gonna Do It Again“ – his 1975 tribute to other bands of the genre–wink to the persistent white Southern fantasy of returning to an unspecified time of unchallenged prominence? Subliminally, of course it did, but it was such a blunt, almost inconceivable gaslight that Jimmy Carter was able to adopt it for his presidential campaign.
“Southern Rock“: a yawningly ridiculous marketing term (like “race music“ or “world beat“) that regurgitates the notion of hip white dudes brainstorming the hybrid of blues, gospel, country, R&B, and boogie which originally was“rock,“ even though it had been banged out in juke joints, clubs, and theaters from the 1940s forward by Southern men and women of color. From the start, Lynyrd Skynyrd were invested in the construction and branding of their image, especially after being shut out of Southern Rock’s first wave – Allman Brothers Band, Marshall Tucker Band, Wet Willie, et al. For whatever reason, they didn’t fit the marketing plan of Capricorn Records, the new Macon, Georgia, label devised by former Otis Redding manager Phil Walden and Atlantic Records’ co-partner Jerry Wexler to promote white regional bands they could sell as identifiably “Southern.“ Lore has it that Phil Walden trashed Skynyrd (who were managed by his brother Alan) as a wannabe Allman Brothers (who he managed), leaving the North Florida boys desperate to create their own identity. While Duane and Gregg Allman were hippie utopians, proselytizing across the land about the spiritual properties of blues and jazz, the younger, less-virtuosic Skynyrds hunkered down, imbibing the more straight-ahead, thudding blues-rock of the U.K. (Led Zeppelin, Free, Deep Purple). Rehearsing until the band was skintight, they developed a gut-punching power and surprisingly soulful honky-tonk drawl.
Boozing, brawling, feuding, gunplay, and men pursuing women like so much prey, has long been the milieu of Southern music. Slave, folk, minstrel, blues, country, rock, and rap musicians sang about society’s extremes to captivate listeners and support their artistic hustle. What’s unique about Lynyrd Skynyrd is that they turned this milieu into a combative, competitive sport between white bands. Van Zant and crew proudly played for Team South – humble, hardscrabble boys who wanted to rightfully reclaim the rock crown from Yankee/British/Topanga Canyon agitators, pretty boys, and industry plants. They boasted of the region’s gritty DIY swagger, which had been built, in fact, off slave and convict labor. They espoused the South’s vigilante-justice mentality, often acting like a bar fight between drunks was the ultimate court of redress when, in fact, that mentality perpetuated the South’s racist status quo, enabling extra-legal abuse, incrimination, and murder of black Southerners by both vigilantes andlaw enforcement.
Most notoriously, starting sometime in 1974 by various reports, the band began performing in front of a 40-foot by 40-foot Confederate Battle flag (there were at least five different flags of the Confederacy). To double down, they used a recording of “Dixie,“ the 19th-Century blackface minstrelsy standard and de facto Confederate National Anthem as their walk-up music, while Van Zant sometimes wore a grey Confederate officer’s coat and cap. Critics generally shrugged with bemusement. Of the flag and “Dixie,“ NME’s Chris Salewicz wrote in a 1974 live review: “Wonder how they’d go down at the Harlem Apollo?“ Apologists have claimed that the ’70s were a far different period culturally and, by then, the flag had evolved into a symbol of Southern pride and heritage, not division. As for the Confederate re-enactment, well, Southern boys will be Southern boys. It was just a tongue-in-cheek goof.
Even if I hadn’t grown up in the Deep South during this exact period, I’d call bullshit.
Displaying the Confederate flag or blasting “Dixie“ during the past 70 years – or at just about any time in the past 100 years, if we’re being truly honest – has never been just a proudly innocent gesture, although I’ve heard this defensive sentiment my entire life. Since so many writers, almost always white, still give themselves a hernia trying to avoid the obvious, let’s note some history of the flag.
In the decades after the South lost the Civil War, all versions of the flag were primarily used to memorialize the Confederate dead. But it took on a far more malicious meaning after Reconstruction was violently sabotaged by white merchants, planters, businessmen, and politicians, who quickly established Jim Crow rule. Then the flag’s popularity got a tremendous boost from two blockbuster Southern-themed Hollywood films – the pro-Ku Klux Klan tour-de-force Birth of a Nation in 1915 (co-written by white nationalist novelist/preacher Thomas Dixon Jr.) and 1939 Civil War plantation saga Gone with the Wind, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Margaret Mitchell (which Mitchell admitted was also inspired by Dixon’s work). Not only did these films glamorize the flag as 1) a symbol of white terrorism against blacks; and 2) a symbol of the Old South’s grandeur, it did so for a mesmerized, national mainstream audience.
But it was after World War II that the battle flag really spiked as a symbol of racism. President Harry Truman issued an Executive Order to end discrimination in the military, but when he was renominated by the 1948 Democratic Convention and further civil rights measures were proposed, 35 Southern delegates bailed, forming the States Rights Democratic Party, a.k.a. the Dixiecrats, who adopted the Confederate flag as their official logo and “Segregation Forever“ as their battle cry. At the same time, the KKK (which returned with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s) and Citizens’ Councils (founded in 1954 to oppose school integration) were a serious presence, using the flag in their literature and flying it at rallies.
Meanwhile, big Southern state universities – the funnel system for future businessmen, politicians, and other power brokers – entered their rapturous Confederate phase in the ’60s and ’70s. Fraternities, with their Old South nostalgia parties (led by the Kappa Alpha Order, whose “spiritual founder“ was Civil War General Robert E. Lee) regularly displayed the flag inside and outside their on-campus, white-columned abodes. With football in the South becoming a big-money battle for bragging rights, some teams’ fans displayed the flag, even for road games up North, despite objections from their host schools. When the Civil Rights Movement won its judicial and legislative victories, battle flags waved over state buildings in full-throated fuck-you as Southern politicians loudly protested the integration of black Americans as equal members of society.
Whites can say, “Oh, the flag was everywhere in the South back then and nobody cared,“ but “back then“ seems to creep forward when it comes to white racism. Just because a decade is pre-Internet doesn’t mean it’s prehistoric. The ’70s were not a “totally different time“; they were a recent, extremely relevant period.
Besides, people of color sure as hell cared. Black activists bravely protested its state-sanctioned presence all across the South. In 1970, black students at the University of Mississippi protested the use of the flag “as a booster symbol“ by burning a flag in the school cafeteria. The proliferation of flag license plates, jacket patches, baseball caps, t-shirts, and belt buckles during the ’70s was not because it had become normalized as a benign piece of historical memorabilia (though this was an ongoing effort in the South). The Confederate Battle flag was ubiquitous among kids and adults in the ’70s because many public schools and businesses had integrated by the late ’60s and lots of white people were pissed or, at the very least, unsettled. Along with official protests and court cases, displaying the flag was the most popular form of silent revolt. Clearly, the Confederate Battle flag has represented white racism and opposition to equal rights for black Americans for a long-ass time.
But why did Skynyrd identify themselves so strongly with the Confederacy’s white-racist history? Why was it plastered all over their album art and merch when, in the band’s songs (yes, even the coy spite of “Sweet Home Alabama“) and personal statements, they were far less judgmental or hidebound than many Southerners of the era? Their 1974 “Ballad of Curtis Loew“ pays tribute to a black blues “picker“ who was so good that the white boy in the song endured whoopings from his mother to go see him play. And not just that, he collected soda bottles to make money to pay Curtis for his music and scolded people – presumably white and black – for not recognizing his importance, even though he drank too much. In Lee Ballinger’s Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History, he quotes Van Zant saying that his George Wallace namecheck in “Sweet Home Alabama“ (“in Birmingham they love the Governor“) was misunderstood: “The general public didn’t notice the words ’boo! boo! boo!’ after that particular line and the media picked up only on the reference to the people loving the governor. I don’t agree with everything Wallace says, I don’t like what he says about colored people.“ Later, when Wallace tried to make Skynyrd honorary Lieutenant Colonels in the Alabama State Militia, Van Zant dismissed it as a “bullshit gimmick thing“ and Leon Wilkeson said, “I support Wallace about as much as your average American supported Hitler.“
There are several Skynyrd song lyrics that indicate Ronnie Van Zant was a humane populist whose sentiments transcended race. On “Things Going On,“ from the band’s debut, he sings, “Have you ever lived down in the ghetto? / Have you ever felt the cold wind blow? / If you don’t know what I mean / Won’t you stand up and scream.“ But those lyrics only had a fraction of the impact that the Confederate Battle flag did. So what were they doing? Simply trolling pious outsiders like Neil Young? At one point, Van Zant claimed that the flag had become an annoying distraction; why didn’t he just ditch it?
The members of Skynyrd, their manager/producer Al Kooper, and their biographers have all claimed, at different times, that different people first suggested the band use the flag. Skynyrd (and their supporters) usually blame MCA, the band’s label, or Kooper in cahoots with MCA, claiming they were pushed to emphasize the Confederacy angle. Kooper has said it was the band’s idea as a group; some have said it was Van Zant’s idea alone. Regardless, they used the flag backdrop on and off until the plane crash and members consistently wore t-shirts with its image. On the 1976 album Gimme Back My Bullets, there was a photo of Van Zant wearing a Confederate cavalry hat. On the inside gatefold of 1976’s live album One More from the Road, a Confederate infantryman’s cap was pictured.
Considering this, is it really so unfair to suggest that their Confederate shtick was willful, if not cynical? Maybe, to generate some attention for the band and the single “Sweet Home Alabama,“ at a time in 1974 when their career had stagnated, they engaged in coded messaging that got way beyond their control. Since “Sweet Home“ went on to become their first big hit and a (white) Southern anthem, they probably feared a backlash from their white fans. Take it further: As the battle flag became a rallying point for their fans and the press kept asking about it, Van Zant and the band became abashed and claimed that they were de-emphasizing it. Unfortunately, there’s plenty of evidence that well into 1977 they kept unfurling the flag live. Clearly, as stubborn white guys in their twenties who were being rewarded for acting like rebellious prats, they reacted poorly to being told what to do. Then their voice and leader died and the process of reconciling their actual feelings with the original decision never happened. In 2012, almost 30 years later, when Gary Rossington announced alongside Ronnie’s brother Johnny that Skynyrd would no longer fly the flag, fans staged an online insurrection and Rossington reversed the decision, issuing a weak Facebook statement: “We know what the Dixie flag represents and its heritage; the Civil War was fought over states’ rights.“ Oh, really.
From the start, the band has never reckoned with the powerful Confederate symbology, or the corresponding horror, that they’ve exploited. Over the years, more questions have been raised. Rossington was overwhelmed, because the argument over the meaning of the flag had already metastasized. As the Internet has allowed Skynyrd supporters and detractors to debate at length with fans around the world – joined by a gaggle of trolls and full-on racists – the core issues have become the subject of chaotic cross-talk. Meanwhile a surprising number of journalists, critics, and rock historians (most of them white men) have skirted the controversy, citing familiar facts or quotes, while declaring that the flag, and the band’s reasons for displaying it, were too complex or too much a product of their time to invalidate the music.
But as a white guy who grew up pretty damn close to getting burnt in the crucible of this music, my context is different. If I can’t come at Skynyrd and Southern Rock more honestly and thoughtfully on issues of race, which have come to define the band and the genre as much as the music, then I’ve failed myself as a writer.
This dilemma came to mind while watching Andy Milligan’s bizarre, incomplete attempt to use the post-Civil War South as a backdrop for his 1979 film House of Seven Belles. Shot at locales around Staten Island with a shambling cast of regulars from his Troupe Theater, Belles was frequently referred to as Milligan’s “lost epic.“ The troubled filmmaker’s legendary loathing for America’s pious, blood-lusting, homophobic, family-values circus was well-suited to dramatize the South’s psychosexual horror and twisted theologies. His famed maternal hatred was tailor-made to ridicule some Southern Christian matriarch who was self-indulgently lamenting the loss of plantation gentility, feigning concern for the future of her slaves. And while the film’s absurd series of vignettes never clicked and the film foundered, Milligan’s cavalier disgust for his characters and their fate as the war’s pitiful also-rans gave me an unexpected jolt.
Milligan, apparently, had little interest in race as a subject and the film features no real discussion of it, plus there’s not much acknowledgement of slavery, except for one faded belle who mentions that it’ll be lonely without “Hattie and ol’ Rufus and Nellie“ around and a town gossip who observes cattily that the main plantation house will surely fall into disrepair without the slaves to maintain it. The only black character is Hecuba, a witch who is the illegitimate child of a slave and an elder of the central family in the film, the LaFleurs. She advises the LaFleur sisters – the “seven belles“ of the title and only surviving members of the clan – that they’re still “good merchandise“ and should marry “whoever’s got the most money.“
Milligan’s double-dated costume drama – his handmade hoop skirts evoke both the Old South and a late-’70s masquerade ball – treats the defeated Confederacy as a dysfunctional debtor’s prison of arrogant white dimwits walking around proclaiming their superiority or babbling like chimps. A group of ladies at a sewing circle ramble on about Oktoberfest and a cake sale until there’s a gun blast and the head of one of their friends rolls across the floor like a bowling ball. Drifting through the deprivation and life-or-death uncertainty of the Postbellum South, Milligan’s cast of loony losers deny everything that’s happening around them.
As one of the seven belles muses hysterically, “They’re equal now, they’re paying us back. Everyone’s equal, the South’ll never be the same.“
But are white people today who still hesitate to identify the hypocrisy and racism of the Confederacy and its legacy, or dissemble about the war’s origins or meanings, or defend the Battle Flag as a symbol of heritage, or excuse Southern Rock’s coded pandering to all of the above, any less pitiful or delusional? For too many of us, the South remains an exotic costume ball of the mind.
“Play it pretty for America tonight”
“Play it pretty for America tonight.“
Johnny Van Zant, youngest brother of Ronnie, is inhabiting the ghost of his big brother once again. A crowdpleasing hambone with a raspy, wail, Johnny shepherds Skynyrd’s encore – “Free Bird,“ of course – with a paraphrase of Ronnie’s traditional “Play it for…“ line. At Knebworth, it was “Play it for Duane Allman“ and on the One More From the Road live album, it was, “Play it pretty for Atlanta.“ Tonight, although we’re in Cleveland, it’s “America,“ because Lynyrd Skynyrd are playing a veterans’ benefit on the eve of the 2016 Republican National Convention.
A spotlight illuminates a gold eagle statue, which has been placed on a grand piano, which has an American Flag painted on its side. The pianist, an extremely amped fellow who is most definitely not Billy Powell, the classic-era member who wrote the familiar introduction and interlude of “Free Bird,“ looks like he’s wearing a “Southern Rocker“ Halloween costume that a roadie picked up at Target. He pounds out faux-classical chords and embellishes them with ornate, melodramatic runs. The three-guitar army assembles – 64-year-old Gary Rossington, the band’s only surviving member; Rickey Medlocke, 66-year-old founder of Southern Rock second-fiddles Blackfoot; and 49-year-old Sparky Matejka, a former Charlie Daniels sideman who in 2006 replaced late Outlaws co-founder Hughie Thomasson, who in 1995 replaced Ed King, who quit touring after suffering an enlarged heart.
Two jumbo video screens behind the band project an image of a huge bald eagle in flight, clutching an American flag, as clouds bearing the names of deceased Skynyrd band members float above. Rossington’s Gibson Les Paul emits those iconic bird chirps, while Van Zant drapes an American flag around his mic stand. A fan throws some sort of military cap onstage. Van Zant puts it on and salutes.
Initially, Johnny Van Zant wanted no part of trying to replace his brother. Rossington and Allen Collins, who held the rights to the Lynyrd Skynyrd name, had signed an agreement in 1978 with Judy Van Zant, Ronnie’s widow, that the band was kaput forever. But in 1987, ten years after the plane crash, the band’s label MCA wanted the five surviving members to play a reunion show and hopefully rekindle catalog sales. Rossington and Judy wouldn’t budge. But the four other surviving members needed the money – Collins, for instance, was in a wheelchair, facing medical bills, after a car crash – so Rossington caved. Judy didn’t, eventually winning a lawsuit that set parameters for any further shows.
It was under these sketchy circumstances that Johnny agreed to front “A Tribute to Lynyrd Skynyrd,“ the legalistic name of the eventual show and tour. Just 18 when his big brother died, he’d diligently toiled at building his own career, releasing five albums of respectable, if commercially unsuccessful, pop-rock from 1980 to 1985. But by ’87, he was driving a truck, like the brothers’ dad Lacy, when Rossington reached out about the reunion. Since then, it’s been his main gig, despite deaths (Collins, Powell, Leon Wilkeson, Ed King), departures (drummer Artimus Pyle in 1991), and a revolving door of new and ex-new bandmates. Plus, there have been enough lawsuits to fill a decent-sized storage unit.
Johnny has become the post-Ronnie band’s driving force. Any queasiness about essentially portraying his brother in a theatrical production was put aside, as he did his best to sing the classic songs exactly like Ronnie, mimicking his stage patter and movements. But since the reformed Skynyrd was always about monetization, he was more genial and gung-ho, hyping the product and celebrating the fans’ enthusiasm like the keynote speaker at Skynyrd Con. 1988’s Southern by the Grace of God, a live document of the reunited group, featured a photo of fans in the audience holding up a big ol’ battle flag.
As manager Ross Schilling told The New York Times in 2004, ’’They make no qualms about it: they are definitely a Republican band.’’ That year, during the Republican National Convention in New York, they appeared at a party honoring Southern Republicans in Congress. They’d first played during the RNC in 2000, joining several campaign stops in support of then-candidate George W. Bush. Since then, the only year they haven’t played the RNC was 2012, when they had to cancel due to bad weather. Skynyrd’s fanbase are mostly aging white guys who identify as “working class“ or “blue collar,“ so I guess nobody should be surprised by this rightward tilt.
Like most country stars who coddle their fans’ conservative worldview, but try not to alienate anybody who might conceivably buy a ticket or t-shirt at some point in the distant future, Skynyrd play it close to their “Last of the Street Survivors“ black leather vests with an American Flag patch ($224.99 in the online store). I had a pre-show interview scheduled in Cleveland, but the band cancelled all availability. Some musicians had received criticism for playing what amounted to a coronation of Donald Trump, while others had asked the Trump campaign not to use their songs (Adele, the Rolling Stones, Queen, George Harrison’s estate, Aerosmith, et al). After the whole snafu about mothballing the Confederate flag, Rossington probably wanted no part of this mini-controversy. Johnny, on the other hand, might have mixed it up.
Various Skynyrd aggregations have released nine studio albums (plus five live ones) since the ’87 reunion, but of the dozens of new songs (many co-written by Johnny), very few ever make it into the live set. There are two reasons for this: 1) Skynyrd doesn’t get paid to play new material; and 2) The new material has been uniformly forgettable and unremittingly grim.
In his 30-plus years as frontman/songwriter, Johnny has pursued a consistent set of aging white-man concerns: America’s going to hell and he wishes life was how it used to be. During the ’90s, he claimed criminals were making our laws and crackheads were shooting up his neighborhood. “They,“ Johnny’s nemesis, wanted to take away the Pledge of Allegiance and take God off our money. One character, a bigshot who cheated the band, lands in a bleak, homophobic prison scene: “How does it feel to be a honey, man / Are you sure that you’re still a man / Aww, you’re dressed up like a little girl / Just shootin’ the breeze down on your knees.“ On “Kiss Your Freedom Goodbye,“ “they“ move into town and surround the narrator, selling drugs in the streets. These “new kids“ like to spray paint and “sure have a way with words.“ Alert Fox News.
The white-fear scenarios eased up in the late ’90s, but after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, Johnny and Skynyrd rolled out a new Southern Strategy. On “Red, White & Blue,“ a ponderous ballad from the 2003 album Vicious Cycle, Johnny stated his bonafides – neck, hair, collar, check the title – and clumsily toasted, with a domestic brew, a bunch of American randos (bikers, waitresses, Texas oil men, lawyers), which proved, I guess, that he wasn’t judgey about hanging out with white people. But this was all preamble to the big third-chorus poke in the eye. After some “Free Bird“-lite piano, Johnny recites blandly: “My daddy worked hard and so have I / Paid our taxes and gave our lives / To serve this great country / So what are they complaining about?“ Again: “they.“ Incapable of even wringing any cheap emotion out of this conceit, he drones on: “Yeah, we love our families, we love our kids / You know it’s love that makes us all so rich / That’s where we’re at.“ Honestly, did he get Alexa’s douchebag brother to write this? And for the capper: “If they don’t like it, they can just get the hell out!“ By this point, the video is all military footage; then, just as Johnny delivers that final, menacing, bombs-bursting-in-air flourish, a plane drops its payload.
That’s where the Skynyrd story still stands. Firmly stuck on auto-pilot as jingoistic hucksters, talking states’ rights, bullying dissenters, using the American flag as a cudgel, and supporting Donald Trump. Before the Cleveland show, a seemingly endless stream of Republican organizations and corporate donors scrolled on the video screen: General Motors, Amway, Verizon, AFLAC, White Castle, Radian, Microsoft, Monsanto, et al. On and on it went. Then the band was introduced by awkwardly jovial Ohio Speaker of the House Cliff Rosenberger, a 2012 Mitt Romney operative. Skynyrd, as usual, opened with “Workin’ for MCA,“ a record-label screed about getting ripped off by “Mr. Yankee Slicker.“ Less than two years later, Rosenberger resigned after being investigated by the FBI for his “lavish lifestyle“ and “relationships with lobbyists and donors.“
Even Ronnie would have to call bullshit on all that.
But the nonsense has only continued to ramp up during the Trump presidency. For instance, we endured a two-day media seizure in October 2019 over a satirical video produced by right-wing memelords TheGeekzTeam. The Geekz' mission statement: "This channel is dedicated to pissing off liberals." In their spoof, they did what they're known for doing: Superimpose the head of President Donald Trump on the body of a notably homicidal character in a scene from a Hollywood movie –Trump as John Wick, the Punisher, Thanos, etc.
This time Trump took the place of Colin Firth's dapper, brainwashed spy, in a scene set to the guitar-soloing frenzy of "Free Bird," from British writer/director Matt Vaughn's 2015 action bloodbath The Kingsman: Secret Service. In the film, Firth massacred a Kentucky church congregation—deploying a vast array of weaponry. But the Geekz replaced the congregants' heads with logos and signs representing "fake news" outlets (CBS, Washington Post, Politico, Buzzfeed) and activist groups (Black Lives Matter), or with the heads of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Adam Schiff, Maxine Waters, etc. Finally, after a triumphant Trump drove an axe into "CNN," he is shown wearing pixelated sunglasses as DJ Khaled's "All I Do Is Win" plays.
Not long after the video's posting in July 2018, it racked up millions of views and became a favorite of Reddit's pro-Trump community. By 2019, the Geekz had joined up with a crew of other Trumpist digital creators called Memeworld and examples of their work (including the "Church of Fake News") was featured in a minor exhibit at 2019's American Priority Conference, a sketchy collection of seminars and speakers (ranging from Donald Trump Jr. to alt-right radio goon Wayne Allyn Root, the man who crowned Trump as "King of Israel").
When the video was spotted at "AMP Fest," the media swooped in (of course, The New York Times claimed the “scoop”), pointing out that Trump had tweeted a similar meme showing him hitting a golf ball that plunked Hillary Clinton in the back and knocked her down as she boarded a plane. It's all thoroughly petty, silly, and meaningless, except that it further displayed Trump as a childish, violent, reactionary buffoon who lacked basic human decency. But that's his brand, as he's enthusiastically and repeatedly shown.
It reminded me of the opening of the film Despicable Me, where a tour bus of rude, gross, overweight Americans is visiting the Giza Pyramids in Egypt. As the bus runs over a shepherd and passengers spill out, what song accompanies them on the soundtrack? "Sweet Home Alabama." Pitifully, whenever anyone wants to stereotype Americans as childish, violent, reactionary buffoons who don't give a fuck about anyone, Skynyrd is the universally acknowledged choice. What's worse, they've got nobody to blame but themselves.
Charles Aaron is a writer based in Durham, N.C. He is the former Music Editor of SPIN magazine and Editorial Director of SPIN Media.