Tuesday, November 13, 2018
Pop Culture

Flags, farewells and Florida: Lynyrd Skynyrd goes deep on their controversial history

ATLANTA — Johnny Van Zant swings his arms out wide, chopping the music to a halt.

"Hold on, hold on, hold on," he says, turning to face the rest of Lynyrd Skynyrd. "Right there, it falls apart."

The singer meets guitarists Gary Rossington and Rickey Medlocke at center stage. It’s hours to showtime in the ornate, burgundy-walled theater in Atlanta’s tony Buckhead district, empty but for the scuttle of roadies with tags and keys swinging from their belts. They’re kinking out a new cover of the Allman Brothers Band’s Midnight Rider, a tribute to a fellow Southern rocker, Gregg Allman, who died last May. And something in the bridge isn’t clicking.

"You two are clashing," Medlocke tells a couple of the newer Skynyrd guys.

"C’mon, guys, this is a simple part," Van Zant says. "Jump in this time. Play it like you mean it."

The band has to get the song right today, because they’re running out of tomorrows. A half century after Johnny’s late brother, Ronnie Van Zant, formed the band in Jacksonville, Lynyrd Skynyrd will this week launch a farewell tour in their home state, including a May 5 concert in Tampa.

The world Skynyrd is leaving in 2018 looks little like the one they entered in the ’60s. They’re one of the biggest bands ever to come out of Florida, with a sound and style that spread a controversial image of the American South all around the world: Defiant, rebellious and more than a little dangerous. After the deaths of Allman and Tom Petty, they’re the last great dinosaurs of Southern rock, a genre Floridians perfected, if not outright invented.

But more than 40 years after the plane crash that killed Ronnie and shut the band down for a decade, Skynyrd’s identity remains inextricable from topics — the Confederate flag, race and class in rural America — that are as heated today as ever.

With the final screams of "FREE BIRD!" nigh, it’s time for Lynyrd Skynyrd to unpack their complicated history, to assess whether Southern Man still needs them around, anyhow. Turns out they’ve got a lot to say.

But not until they nail this bridge on Midnight Rider.

"Let’s do it one more time," Van Zant says, cueing the music back up, "and then we’ll go."

FAREWELL TOURS: Elton John, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Slayer: Here’s why the farewell tour is so hot.

• • •

There’s a new Lynyrd Skynyrd documentary called If I Leave Here Tomorrow making the festival rounds. Like most Skynyrd retrospectives, it covers their early days, lionizing their ferocious reputation — in their prime, they could hang with the Who and the Stones — and the dark-prince mystique surrounding Ronnie, their uncompromising, at times dictatorial leader.

It also feels a bit like an elegy, edifying how its living members wish to be remembered.

They were kids when they met, teens when they started playing together out of Jacksonville’s Robert E. Lee High School, adopting their name from a gym coach there named Leonard Skinner.

Ronnie, tough with a grimy molasses drawl, led marathon rehearsals in a sweltering shack dubbed the Hell House, deep within the moss and mosquitoes and moccasins off a creek of the St. Johns River. By the time they released their debut album Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd in 1973, its final track, Free Bird, was already a finely calibrated monster.

What shot them to superstardom was their first real hit, 1974’s Sweet Home Alabama. Penned in response to Southern Man, Neil Young’s stinging critique of institutional Southern bigotry, it includes the line, "In Birmingham, they love the governor / Boo, boo, boo!" Fans could interpret whether Ronnie was supporting or booing Gov. George Wallace’s segregationist ways (the band has said they opposed him). The song became an unofficial Southern national anthem.

Rossington is Skynyrd’s sole remaining original member, the only one left from the crash. He is the reason Lynyrd Skynyrd still tours: Per a 1988 agreement with Ronnie’s widow, any band calling itself Lynyrd Skynyrd must consist of at least two pre-crash members. Rossington and Medlocke, who recorded a bit with the band in the ’70s, are it.

For the past 15 years, Rossington says, his doctors have been urging him to quit. He’s survived quintuple-bypass surgery ("I’ve had heart attacks on stage a lot," he says) and takes a battery of nitroglycerine pills to stay alive. If I Leave Here Tomorrow shows Rossington visiting his plot in the same Jacksonville cemetery where Ronnie is buried.

"That’s why I was calling it a farewell tour — I don’t know if I’ll be here," Rossington says. "I don’t want to just say, ‘Well, we’re never going to end,’ because I don’t want to die and then it end that way. Which is a heavy thing to talk about, but I have to."

Death is an unavoidable topic when you talk about Lynyrd Skynyrd. Three of the band’s original five members are dead. Five of the seven who recorded their debut album are dead. Six of the nine in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are dead. When Ronnie sang That Smell on 1977’s Street Survivors, the smell he referred to was death, of a band rotting from the inside out.

Yet when they played St. Petersburg’s Bayfront Center just days before the crash, "we felt 1,000 percent," Rossington said.

"We were refreshed and ready to go. Ronnie had quit drinking, was working out, and me and Allen (Collins, a fellow original guitarist) were calming down on drinking. We were growing up and getting a little older in our mid-20s — you kind of realize you got something going. I think it’d have been great if we could have kept going and writing."

In a way, they have. Since the survivors reunited in 1987 with Ronnie’s kid brother Johnny on lead vocals, Skynyrd has released nine more albums and toured consistently. Johnny has now been singing for the band longer than Ronnie was even alive.

This latter-day Lynyrd Skynyrd is its own thing. They play their hits for families at fairs and food fests, and even take the odd corporate gig. They’re more sanitized than Ronnie’s Lynyrd Skynyrd, but also more accessible and crowd-pleasing.

But they still have to reckon with the past.

• • •

The story Skynyrd’s always told is that their label, MCA, made them adopt the Confederate flag. They could slap it on merch, brandish it on stage, co-opt its symbolic power to instill loyalty. And it would brand them as Southern to the core.

But it’s not quite that simple. Their use of the flag was controversial then, and even more so long after they’d gotten big enough to ditch it. While its presence has diminished over time, the band has defended it well into this decade. After a 2012 CNN interview in which Rossington distanced the band from the flag’s extremist undertones, he turned to Facebook to clarify: "We know what the Dixie flag represents and its heritage; the Civil War was fought over States rights."

The band’s feeling on the flag remain complicated.

"Race just ain’t even in our damn cards," Johnny says. "For me, what the hell the Confederate flag stands for is the beauty of the South. It doesn’t stand for all that hate. It does not, to me. And I understand people that (say) it might have affected them — if you’re black or whatever — yeah, I hate that. But go down to Alabama, and you’re going to see it everywhere."

"It’s not about race and about black people," Rossington says. "It’s about being from the South and telling people from the ’70s, when we came out, ‘This is where we’re from.’ And that’s what the South was about back then."

In the ’70s, fans around the world might not have fully appreciated the flag’s connotations in America — it was a symbol of the Southern flair and culture. It’s harder to argue that today, when hate groups fly it alongside Nazi flags in places like Charlottesville, Va.

"Groups like the skinheads and KKK and this bunch and that, they kidnapped the Confederate flag for their look, like they were rebels," Rossington said. "That’s not what this band was about."

The band still supports some divisive Southern symbols. Medlocke, who is of Native American ancestry, points to the removal of Confederate statues and memorials, which have become flashpoints for protests: "It’s a proven fact, if you go to erasing history, history’s going to repeat itself."

It may no longer be possible to separate Lynyrd Skynyrd’s music from the political haze that surrounds them.

"It’s put on them, isn’t it?" says Stephen Kijak, the director of If I Leave Here Tomorrow. "You’re sitting there going, ‘But we’re a rock band!’ ‘No, you’re a Southern rock band.’ ... Musically, it represents things about the land, the culture, the people, despite a lot of politics of it."

Even if "the iconography read and could stand differently in the ’70s as it might today," Kijak says, "that’s not an excuse, either ... because there’s still a lot that’s contradictory and slightly disturbing in the imagery and all that."

The band thinks they’ve been misunderstood. The documentary and farewell tour, they hope, will clarify their legacy. Until then, "you know what Lynyrd Skynyrd is?" Johnny asks. "It’s music for the common people. That’s what it is. It talks about every subject, from drinking to having a good time to God."

And after 50 years, he says, they really shouldn’t have to explain that.

"I think if you’re a true fan," Johnny says, "you know what the hell the band stands for."

• • •

A queue is forming outside Atlanta’s Fox Theater, where Lynyrd Skynyrd is about to play an intimate show sponsored by SiriusXM. Near the front is Jonny Brown, a warm, soft-spoken beer distributor from over in Rome, in an old Skynyrd shirt and NRA hat.

He’s seen Skynyrd at least a dozen times since the ’70s. One time in Macon, he and a buddy snuck up on stage with Ronnie. When drummer Bob Burns died a couple of years ago, the funeral happened to take place at his church. He went.

"You say Southern rock, and Lynyrd Skynyrd comes to mind," says Brown, 58. "You could relate to them, being a Southern boy or a man. You’d go into a Skynyrd concert, you could almost smell the testosterone. It was by-god, in-your-face Southern rock ‘n’ roll.

"Hell, it’s my favorite band. I don’t know what I’m going to do without them."

Backstage, Medlocke is leaning on a wardrobe case, still in his stylish tortoiseshell glasses, creamed-up coffee in hand. A manager’s young son is down on the floor, picking at Johnny’s shoetips. The comedian Jeff Foxworthy is in the house; he stops in to invite the band fishing at his farm. At its core, Lynyrd Skynyrd is still kind of a family business — Johnny’s daughter works with the band; Rossington’s wife is a backup singer — and the pre-show mood is warm and familial.

In September, Lynyrd Skynyrd will headline a huge hometown show at EverBank Field, where the Jaguars play. There’s no telling how many friends and family will come out.

"We just want to be able to spend more time at home and not hit it so hard," says Johnny, who still calls Jacksonville home. "We might make a special appearance here and there, who knows. We might do three more records. But we’re just not going to hit it like we’ve been hitting it. We just can’t do it no more."

"I don’t know if I’ll last three more years," Rossington says. "It’s up to the Lord. I could last 20 more, and still want to play."

The concert is loaded with all Ronnie’s old hits — What’s Your Name, Saturday Night Special, Gimme Three Steps, Tuesday’s Gone. Midnight Rider, the song they rehearsed over and over at soundcheck, goes off just fine.

The plucked-out riff that signals Sweet Home Alabama still jolts the crowd. Johnny grins, playing into their territorial pride.

"I hope Neil Young will remember…" he sings, flipping a bird to the air, adding: "Sing it with me, Georgia!"

The crowd roars: "Southern Man don’t need him around, anyhow!"

Before the encore there are chants — not just cries, but chants — for Free Bird. Then it comes, a 13-minute, 20-second barnburner, with Rossington thrusting out power chords and Medlocke screaming through the endless solo at the close.

Van Zant waves a flag, then hands it to a beaming fan down front. It’s the same flag on the breast of his vest, the one whose stars and bars fill the giant band logo behind the stage. It’s a tradition the band won’t let go.

Thing is, the flag they now wave isn’t Dixie. It’s American.

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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