For Better or for Worse:
Lynyrd Skynyrd lives on
By Emily Ness
Beyond the beauty of the South remains a deep history of nationalism rooted in supremacy, where many believe that one is dealt the cards they’re dealt, and that is that. In this red region—framed by white walls and fueled by blue collar jobs—it is only through practice that one can learn to play their cards right, and it is only through resiliency that one can rise above their circumstances. This old-fashioned conviction is representative of rock ‘n’ roll royalty, Lynyrd Skynyrd, a band whose cards have been dealt in ways that have left them in a constant shuffle of their deck.
From heaven’s highest hopes to hell’s heaviest hardships, no one—whether they vibe with the band’s beliefs or not—can deny that Lynyrd Skynyrd is resilient. From the moment that they first played together, Lynyrd Skynyrd has been determined to succeed.
On Friday, October 5th, Lynyrd Skynyrd bade farewell to fans at the Xcel Energy Center for their “Last of the Street Survivors Farewell Tour,” which kicked off in May.
The show, which was complete with vintage merchandise, household hits, and regrettably, appearances of a confederate flag, came at a time in which politics throughout the nation have been especially heated.
Though softened with poetry, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s lyrics about liberty, simplicity, and Southern hospitality have long been political. This, which has been evident for the entirety of their career, was also prevalent at their concert.
Here, 10,000 fans flocked in like “free birds,” pulling up on Harleys dressed to the nines and running 92 KQRS’ pre party dry of beer. In their defense, this was a celebration. After all, Lynyrd Skynyrd had exceeded everyone’s expectations in terms of not only how long they’d last, but of how successful they’d be—both of which they attribute to the “American Dream.”
Numerous times throughout the show, lead singer, Johnny Van Zant, who was chosen to replace his brother following the band’s deadly plane crash, made references to America’s Greatness, asking the audience if they believed in America and encouraging them to continue making it great.
These current political statements have a long history that can be traced back to the band’s inception. And, more specifically, to the band’s first lead singer, Ronnie Van Zant.
Daring, self-assured, and musically gifted, many claim that Ronnie Van Zant could see the future; he claimed that he “hand picked” his bandmates, who went on to become incredibly successful, and he predicted his own death.
For a young man who grew up fatherless in the South, Ronnie lacked guidance. Hungry for fame and fortune, some say that he cheated the game and sold his soul, along with the souls of his bandmates, to get it.
In fits of rage that worsened with drugs and alcohol, Ronnie threatened to kill his bandmates during rehearsals more than once. On one occasion, he held a gun to drummer Robert Burn’s head. On another occasion, he knocked keyboardist Billy Powell’s teeth out. Though this behavior was unacceptable, few men in those days spoke about feelings, especially in the South. Instead, they picked themselves up by their bootstraps and kept going.
So, despite the fact that Ronnie confided in those in his inner circle that he didn’t think he would make it to 30, he didn’t receive the help he needed. Although a plane crash was what ultimately killed him, who knows if he would have been on that plane if he had gotten help, whether that be counseling for his inner demons or treatment for his extensive drug and alcohol use. Instead, he used music as an outlet to share his beliefs—beliefs that to this day, are filled with anger and hostility.
In the song “Sweet Home Alabama,” for example, Ronnie criticizes the song “Southern Man,” written by Neil Young in opposition to the racist practices of Alabama, singing: “Well I heard Mister Young sing about her. Well I heard ole Neil put her down,””her” being the state of Alabama. “Well, I hope Neil Young will remember,” Ronnie continues. “A southern man don't need him around anyhow.” In other words, Alabama is fine the way it is and needs no new game plan for the horrible injustices taking place against minorities.
When asked about this in interviews, Ronnie said that he didn’t have a problem with Young and simply thought it was funny. Other songs would suggest, however, that even if he did have a problem with Young, he didn’t care to explain why. In the song “Don’t Ask Me No Questions,” for example, Ronnie sings: “Well everytime that I come home nobody wants to let me be/It seems that all the friends I got just got to come interrogate me/Well, I appreciate your feelings and I don't want to pass you by/But I don't ask you about your business, don't ask me about mine.” In other words, one’s personal beliefs are cards that should be swept under the table.
A few other more famous examples of the ways in which Ronnie’s music impacted the world of politics are the songs “Simple Man,” in which he sings of finding joy in simplicity and “Free Bird,” in which he sings of finding beauty in freedom—both of which were adopted by the KKK, though Ronnie has said that this was never his intention.
Still, one has to wonder whether the bad energy that Ronnie put into the world came back around.
As he and his band played a final game of poker on their tour plane, nicknamed “Free Bird,”sudden complications caused the plane to plummet from the sky into the swamps of Gillsburg, Mississippi, killing Van Zant, along with guitarist Steve Gaines, vocalist Cassie Gaines, Assistant Road Manager Dean Kilpatrick, the pilot, and the copilot, marking one of the darkest days in rock ‘n’ roll history.
It was not until ten years later that they returned to the game. In light of the trauma that they experienced, this was understandable. The fact that they have even returned at all is admirable.
In 1987, the band made a brave and bold return with five original members, voiced by none other than Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie’s little brother.
From here, they have continued to play on and off, rotating players and adopting new game plans. In the midst of all of this though, one has to wonder how much they’ve evolved, and whether their lack of evolution has led to more hardship.
After all, since the dreadful plane crash, nearly every band member has had something terrible happen to them, whether that be the loss of a loved one, severe mental health problems, paralysis, or death. Could this be the curse Ronnie left them with? Or could the curse be their inability to speak openly and authentically about their thoughts and feelings, to love one another without barriers, and to seek the help that they may need? Could their true curse be rooted in their tough Southern upbringings and in their refusal to acknowledge other ideas?
Though resilience alone is admirable, it not possible or plausible. True strength—strength that will uplift not only the band, but everyone and everything that they represent—comes from admitting that.