Last week, the Friends of the (Riverbend) Festival not so triumphantly announced that this year’s lineup would include Lynyrd Skynyrd—again. One of the most tragic Southern rock stories of all time for a multitude of well-known reasons, Skynyrd is apparently still hobbling along the well-traveled road of countless has-been classic rockers who seem predestined to hold the Coca-Cola Stage hostage each year. And once again, I’m not surprised.
I was sadly mistaken to find the Friends had not learned their lesson after last year’s booking of the remains of Foreigner, whose current lineup is comprised of complete foreigners to the original group. With the exception of guitarist-songwriter Mick Jones, who couldn’t even make the gig due to “urgent, urgent—emergency” heart surgery, the band is a tribute act. But enough pot shots at our beloved riverfront funnel cake fest. Let’s just talk Skynyrd.
For a brief five-year period in the 1970s, Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the most influential bands to emerge from the South in a long time. Peers like the Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker, Charlie Daniels and countless others couldn’t hold a candle to these high school dropouts who could write a killer song paired with exceptional musicianship the likes of which were unmatched—period. Hell, even super-songwriting giant Neil Young had to admit these guys could turn goat piss into gasoline. They were a force to be reckoned with—until Oct. 20, 1977.
That’s when the whole thing literally went up in flames. At the height of their career, just five dates into what was looking like the band’s most successful tour ever, a chartered plane ran out of gas and crash landed in rural Mississippi. Pivotal members Ronnie Van Zandt, Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines all died. Fans everywhere were stunned and saddened by the loss, and while we all knew that the band’s legacy would last, Lynyrd Skynyrd as we knew it was no more.
Ten years later, surviving members Gary Rossington, Billy Powell, Leon Wilkeson, Artimus Pyle and former guitarist Ed King decided it was time to break the silence and give the people what they wanted—more “Freebird.” A fitting replacement for Skynyrd’s irreplaceable singer was found in his little brother, Johnny. Original guitarist Allen Collins was alive, but just barely. A car crash in 1986 left him paralyzed, so he chose friend Randall Hall to fill in. Collins acted as musical director for the ’87 tour, making brief appearances at each show in his wheelchair—usually during the anti-drug song, “That Smell,” which was written about him to explain to diehard fans why he wasn’t able to perform. Despite many reservations, the tour was pretty awesome. I saw one of the shows myself and can attest to that fact.
The new Skynyrd continued to tour and record—it’s latest is aptly titled Last of a Dyin’ Breed—despite the deaths and departures of its remaining cast. Pyle quit in 1991. Randall Hall and Ed King were forced out of the band in the mid-’90s. Wilkeson died in 2001, followed by Powell in 2009. Only one original member, Gary Rossington—not counting Johnny Van Zandt’s honorary status—remained. While this may not matter to those who still like to answer the question, “What song is it you wanna hear?” with the predictable choice, it is somewhat disconcerting to me.
Bands have a place in time. The smart ones know when enough is enough, but the allure of nostalgia never dies. There’s too much money (and ego) involved. Death can’t compete with Riverbend’s thirst for classic bands and the crowds they draw.
The Beatles broke up before any of its members died, but wisely rejected all offers to perform as something less than the whole. Would The Doors be The Doors without Jim Morrison? No. The Who were crippled by the death of Keith Moon and carried on, but were never really The Who again. Led Zeppelin disbanded after the death of drummer John Bonham and have reunited only for sporadic gigs. Nirvana couldn’t possibly go on without Kurt Cobain.
So why do the remnants of Foreigner, Journey and Skynyrd deserve to be recognized as anything more than tribute bands? So-called “music” festivals like Riverbend figure they’re likely to bring in the biggest crowds and best returns. Everyone knows the music, if not the artists, and, hell, they’re all drunk anyway. So why not?
The truth is we wouldn’t be enjoying the likes of the Foo Fighters today if Nirvana had enlisted substitutes. Even Paul McCartney understood that. The road is long and winding and only the good die young, or so I’ve heard. And while you see tribute bands everywhere these days, the real acts with only one original member are, in fact, tribute bands to their former incarnations.
But if the Friends wants to pay top dollar for that brand of “star power,” so be it. I can’t wait until next year. Maybe they’ll talk Led Zeppelin into reuniting with Zoso. Rock on, Riverbend.
Chuck Crowder is a local writer and man about town. His opinions are his own.