Monday, January 16, 2012

Lynyrd Skynyrd and the prism of the past

What is it about Lynyrd Skynyrd? Someone says "Freebird" on Google+ (thanks for that, Summer Daniels) and I spend the next hour going through my music library, plucking out classics from Skynyrd and other Southern Rock greats, and another thirty minutes looking at YouTube videos of the same, while occasionally choking back a tear or two during some of the most moving moments.

Frequent readers might recall that I've brought up Skynyrd before. Once, I was merely riffing off of a song title, but the other time was actually about the themes inherent in many Skynyrd songs, and indeed in other classics from the genre (Southern Rock).

And building from that previous piece, there is no doubt that these themes--outllaw-ism, wanderlust, and individualism--appeal greatly to many people (like me). But there's more there, I think.

The tragedy of the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash looms large in the pschye of Southern Rock (and Country, as well) artists and audiences. Even people that were born after the incident recognize it and often--when they are artists--pay homage to that moment.

For those unaware, the date was October 20, 1977 (I had just turned twelve) when the Convair CV-300 took off from Greenville, South Carolina with the band. Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant was killed in the crash, along with guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister Cassie, and three others (an assistant road manager and the pilots). Other members of the band had severe injuries, especially Allen Collins and Gary Rosington. That was the end of Lynyrd Skynyrd for a decade, until the band was reformed with Ronnie's younger brother--Johnny Van Zant--as the frontman.

Those years, from the date of the crash until the band reformed in 1987, saw the legend of Lynyrd Skynyrd grow to unimaginable proportions. Freebird--already a classic--became one of the two great anthems of Rock and Roll, along with Led Zeppelin's Stairway to Heaven. Radio countdowns of the top rock songs of all time--typically happening on Memorial Day weekends--usually ended with one or the other at number one (I remember Born to Run occasionally getting to the top, though).

But whenever Freebird was played--on the airwaves or by another band--the plane crash was usually referenced, thus the song itself became something of a tribute to the lost members. Still, I think there's even more to it than all of this, a heavy load of symbolism and imagery for any song to carry already.

And yes, there are racist and misogynistic components to worry about, as well. That's not to say that either have anything to do--as a matter of course--with the band, the song, or fans of either, but only to recognize the cultural context of the song within the American South of the Seventies and Eighties, a region still coming to terms with changes to more or less uniform cultural norms through the last several decades.

In that respect, Freebird hearkens back to the Way Things Were, in the sense of an idealized version of the past. We remember--those of us born into this culture, anyway--what we want to remember, the best parts of the experiences we had growing up.

For instance, I remember my years in school--from grade school into college--through such a prism, wherein conflicts between groups are minimized, where there seems to be an order of things, timeless and wholly appropriate. Freebird and other songs from the same genre and era encapsulate this vision in my mind: wild-eyed boys engaged in horseplay, with cars and loud music, pestering the girls in tight jeans or short shorts.

And those times, of course, are a thing of the past, the idealized past. For the typical eyes of a teenaged WASP in the American South of the Seventies and Eighties are hardly unbiased, hardly a means of glimpsing the reality of clashing social and cultural institutions of a changing world.

Still, the loss of that dream of a world is something that must be coped with, both by understanding the feelings of loss and by understanding what was really happening. But a sense of loss is what it is, and the emotional imagery conjured up by the music of my youth remains ever-present.

Today is Martin Luther King Day, a day to recognize--in my opinion--the greatness of a man who led a movement to not only right wrongs, but to help us see the flaws in ourselves, our own failures in perceiving injustice for the sake of our own comfort, happiness, and memories.

But yesterday was Ronnie Van Zant's birthday. He would have been sixty-four years old. And I can still miss him, what he stood for, even as I recognize the change that had to come, the loss of old dreams for the sake of just ones.

Well done, Dr. King, thank you for your life's work and Godspeed, to you. And thank you, Ronnie, for the memories, for the dreams, and for the music. Godspeed to you, as well.

Cheers, all.

No comments:

Post a Comment