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October 27, 1976 - there was a near riot on that Wednesday night in the downtown streets of Waterbury, Ct – an old brass and copper mill town that had little to offer except the glorious Palace Theatre and plenty of Bail Bonds offices.
The Palace was a typical 1930’s multi-tasking venue that had a balcony, opulent chandeliers, a small lobby and antiquated bathrooms that were dreadful. Shows were General Admission and if you ran in and got the top balcony seats you were literally right above the bands and could see all the backstage maneuvering of musicians and technicians.
The old building was host to cheap entertainment in an intimate environment, bringing in a wave of shows to both washed up acts and bands racing up the charts. Queen’s first live performance of Bohemian Rhapsody was at The Palace a year and a half earlier. Acoustics were very good. Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert had Johnny Winter playing RocknRoll Hootchie Koo live on his hit TV series.
Lynyrd Skynyrd was in town and the heat was on – their new live album One From the Road had been released just a month earlier and it was getting serious airplay, especially their stunning jam on Free Bird.
There was a huge demand for the $7.00 tickets, especially in a venue with a capacity of around 2,500. Many had also come to see Skynyrd buddy and fiddle master Charlie Daniels who’s band were the opening warm up act.
Skynyrd had been sort of a cult band – everyone knew Free Bird and Sweet Home Alabama but their prowess as a live band was somewhat under the radar-especially in the North East…everything changed once they put out this stunning double live album that was recorded in the famous Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia.
We got out of school (high school) about 2 pm, hit the packie (drinking age was 18!) and made the 45 minute trek up Route 8 North along the Beacon Falls of the Housatonic River. Rock stations all over Connecticut were blaring Lynyrd Skynyrd and we were so fired up to finally hear Ronnie Van Zandt sing and his ten man band blow down the walls of the ancient concert hall.
We had been to a slew of shows there so we knew the procedure- get in the back of the line on the street, wait about 4 hours, sneak a couple of beers, and race in to secure the best seats when they finally opened the doors. There was always an upside and downside to General Admission.
But this nite was different from the dozen or so shows I had been to. The fans on the streets kept growing by the minute; a parade of long haired, tie-dyed teenagers all trying to keep there place in line as wave after wave of Skynyrd fans arrived, many without tickets and scheming to cut in line.
The dreaded A-Team security force were in charge of crowd control on the streets. . They were a hostile bunch of bikers types under contract with strict orders from the promoters to keep everyone in line; even it meant a beat down. Some of the Hippies and boozed-up rowdies were treated with the same disdain as a rapid dog…some deserved their wrath, most did not!
The A-Team was intimidating and they made it clear they would take no shit.. They knew the Skynyrd following would be rowdier, drunker and loud, just like the band they had paid to see. We called them the Street Nazi’s and they would be tested as the minutes ticked until showtime.
With the fever of anticipation growing, the crowd began to overwhelm the boulevard…a sudden jolt of mayhem exploded near the front marquee as impatient fans chanting “Open up the fucking doors!” were pushing in unison against the glass doors…It was exciting, dangerous.
Fortunately, the promoters (Jim Koplik and Shelley Finkel) had experience in this crowd-rush and smartly ordered to open the doors, creating an all-out rush as fans stampeded through the aisles to secure the best seats.. We were fortunate to get there early, elbowing our way to center seats about 25 rows from the stage. Somehow no one got seriously hurt.
It was a great show – Ronnie Van Zandt strolled on stage in bare feet, bell bottoms and a cowboy hat and made everyone feel special! – welcoming the audience and introducing their collection of songs and members of the band (including new guitarist Steve Gaines
and three very hot backup singers, The Honkettes)
Lynyrd Skynyrd was hot as a bonfire, playing a three hour show that mixed rock, blues, boogie-woogie jams, Merle Haggard-esque country and meaningful ballads. It remains to this day, the tightest band I have ever seen in person.
What was unique was that Van Zandt was in total control without any props, screaming or fireworks exploding. His singing and extraordinary songwriting, along with a phenomenal band, made the experience top shelf. You could clearly hear every word he sung in that great voice that reminded me of the great Paul Rodgers of Free and Bad Company.
And unlike Jagger or Bono, he didn’t prance around and pretend to know how to play guitar.
Drummer Artimus Pyle: “You’ll see a lot of singers-they’ll jump around stage, shake their body to the beat-they basically look like clowns! Ronnie would stand on stage and sing – he didn’t need anything else- he knew who he was and had an incredible stage presence and that came from his ability to write songs!”
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s big break was when Pete Townesend heard their debut 1973 album and invited them to open on The Who’s Quadraphenia Tour. Ronnie Van Zandt remembered his anxiety as the band got ready for sellout arenas all over America.
“We went on tour with The Who. Our first gig was at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Scared us to death but after we played again with them we never had stage fright. We became close friends with them – they respected us as musicians and tried to help us as much as they could”
Gene Odom: Ronnie Van Zandt’s personal body guard and Skynyrd security manager:
“Skynyrd got encores when no opening act for The Who had ever done (at The Cow Palace) …The Who couldn’t take the stage because Keith Moon had passed out. They were hoping Bob Burns (Skynyrd’s original drummer) could sit in for him, but by the time they had finished, Bob was too drunk to play anymore so The Who appealed to the crowd for help, and someone from the audience volunteered and became a one-night drummer for The Who!”
Even with an endorsement from The Who and a blazing debut album that showcased 9 minutes and 38 seconds of Free Bird, Ronnie Van Zandt and Skynyrd needed a significant hit to become a headliner..
Rock n roll history was made soon after as they started to lay tracks down for their 2nd album – Second Helping …guitarist Ed King remembers the evolution of the song:
“First day of rehearsal – I walked into The Hellhouse- Gary (Rossington) was there and as I plugged in Gary started playing the opening riff and Ronnie said ‘don’t stop that’’ and within 10 minutes Ronnie had the two verses of Sweet Home Alabama.. The amazing thing is he NEVER wrote anything down-it was in his head!”
Who has ever heard of a songwriter who didn’t need to write down his lyrics?! And Ronnie wasn’t signing about California Girls or Hot Fun in the Summertime…his material was much more personal.
Sweet Home Alabama
Big Wheels keep on turning
Carry me home to see my kin
Singing songs about the Southland
I miss Alabammy once again
And I think it’s a sin
Sweet Home Alabama – where the sky is so blue
Sweet Home Alabama-lord I’m coming home to you
Van Zandt then threw a hook at Neil Young, a transplanted Canadian who’s Alabama and Southern Man criticized the Confederate covenant.
Well I heard Mister Young sing about her
Well I heard ole Neil put her down
Well I hope Neil Young will remember
Southern Man don’t need him around anyhow!
Sweet Home Alabama was a top-ten hit- Skynyrd’s answer to the Allman Brothers swinging tale Ramblin’ Man…but they were marketed by their record company as brawling, red-neck, Southern Rockers…and they surely looked the part with Confederate Flags on stage and hair down their backs
Artimus Pyle : “Ronnie told me – he’s selling the southern man and the southern man is not to be blamed for something that happened like two hundred years ago-he’s telling Neil Young I don’t have anything against black people and Ronnie didn’t-Ronnie was not a racist.”
Even Young, heckled in the song, gave his stamp of approval: “ They play like they mean it..I’m proud to have my name in a song like theirs”
Ronnie Van Zandt was a master of message songs - many of his greatest songs were constructed from personal experiences gathered from his years on the road and growing up in the streets of Shantytown in Jacksonville, Florida where he was one of six children raised by his mother and father Lacy, a truck driver, who inspired many of his songs.
He sung about gun control (Saturday Night Special-which was in one of the opening scenes in the original The Longest Yard ), drug abuse (The Needle and the Spoon, That Smell), homelessness (Lend a Helping Hand) and preached about the right way to live (Simple Man…one of the featured songs in the rock classic movie Almost Famous)
“His vocals and words were from the heart and that has what’s lasted – not guitar players or drummers but Ronnie Van Zandt’s heart and soul in his writing. Ronnie-write or wrong put his feelings on his sleeve—I miss Ronnie man I really do”-Artimus Pyle
Success didn’t spoil Van Zandt and his band; instead he drove them harder, added new members and once toured 300 dates in a year…
“When we became headliners we really didn’t know how much we were making and really didn’t care—we were here for the people”, said Van Zandt
The 1975 song Gimme Back my Bullets (And name of their 4th album) is actually about the recording industry and not personal firepower. Despite being one of their hardest rocking jams on stage, Van Zandt banned it from the set list when it became dangerous to the band.
“We quit doing the song for about a month because every audience would throw out a hand full of bullets, like .38 slugs ..made me think going to rock shows these days you got to bring your own rocks!”
Gimme Back my Bullets
Life is so strange when it’s changing, yes indeed
Well I’ve seen the hard times and the pressure’s been on me
But I keep working, like a working man do
And I’ve got my act together- gonna walk all over you
Gimme back my bullets, put them back where they belong
Ain’t foolin around cause I done had my fun
Ain’t gonna see no more damage done
Tell all those pencil pushers they better get out of my way
Gimme back my bullets
Van Zandt was a notorious hellraiser but was also a disciplined, strict leader of Lynyrd Skynyrd – in the early days he made his mates practice for hours a day in an un-conditioned shack with a tin roof on the outskirts of Jacksonville they called The Hellhouse. There would be 6 am wake-up calls for breakfast and early jams, then a break and baseball games and then the band would resume rehearsals in the evening.
Just another reason to love Skynyrd-Stratocasters and hardball!
It was under Van Zandt’s rule that the band would have to adhere to his compliance. Members would be fined when they messed up bad during a live show or conduct detrimental to their touring team.
Two days before the Skynyrd concert in Waterbury, Van Zandt sat down with the LA Times ..here is an excerpt from that October 24, 1976 interview… “Most of the media people have consistently portrayed us as either children or a bunch of rowdy drunks. That may or may not have been true, but I know I’d much rather deal with the audiences that put us there..We like to have a good time and will raise hell, but I assure you there won’t be as much skull-busting going on anymore. There was a point when it looked like everyone was going to be a Keith Moon in this band. That doesn’t work. Televisions out the window, fighting over mistakes in the show. There was a time when I’d get really drunk in this bar and say, ‘Who is the meanest mother here? You got a date with me outside..just for the hell of it!” Now instead of punching each other out, we just levy a fine”
Gary Rossington was fined $5,000 after another night of drugs and booze led to a near fatal car crash. “ I can’t tell you how mad I got at him for that,” fumed Van Zandt
“He’s tremendously lucky to be alive but it was his fault. He passed out at the wheel of his brand new Ford Torino, with his foot on the gas. He knocked down a telephone pole, split an oak tree and did $7,000 worth of damage to a house. That’s just plain being stupid, I told him that on his hospital bed”
It was incidents like this that inspired great material for Van Zandt – coming up with another clear, chilling anthem- That Smell one of the many hit songs on 1977’s Street Survivor
Whiskey bottles and brand new cars
Oak tree you in my way
There’s too much coke, and too much smoke
Look what’s going on inside you
Oooh, Oooh that smell, can’t you smell that smell?
Oooh, that smell, the smell of death surrounds you
Taking a page from Neil Young’s The Needle and the Damage Done – Van Zandt doesn’t disguise his disgust for the destruction of drug abuse –sending a loud message in the 2nd and 3rd verses of That Smell
Angel of darkness is upon you..
Stuck a needle in your arm- you fool you!
So take another toke, have a blow for your nose
One more drink fool will drown you
Now they call you Prince Charming
Can’t speak a word when your full of ludes
Say you’ll be allright come tomorrow
But tomorrow might now be hear for you! Yea You!
Rossington remembers needing a song to fill out Gimme Back my Bullets and mentioned to Van Zandt that he just got busted for like the 5th time… “Ronnie said that’s nothing I’ve been busted 11 times! …Gary then told him ‘You must be double trouble!” and boom! Ronnie had another another theme to write about …Aretha Franklin had R-E-S-P-E-C-T and Van Zandt came up with this rocker:
Eleven times I’ve been busted
Eleven times I’ve been to jail
Well it seems to me that this ole boy just can’t fit in
Well I can jump into a rose bush and come out smellin like sh__
Double Trouble, that’s what my friends all call me
Double Trouble – T-R-O-U-B-L-E!
The evolution of Lynyrd Skynyrd peaked when the band hired Steve Gaines, younger brother of Cassie Gaines-one of the Honkettes, the backup vocal three-some that the band made members along with Steve Gaines for their first platinum album, a double-live album, 1976’s One from the Road.
Skynyrd was always a great live band, tight as a vicegrip and now they had a young picker who could jam and add fresh content to their set list. Gaines was an enormous young talent from Oklahoma and Van Zandt could imagine the contributions he would make as a fulltime member of Lynyrd Skynrd
“I expect we’ll all be in Steve’s shadow one day. This kid is a writing and playing fool. Just wait and see. He’s already scared everybody else into playing their best in years” Ronnie Van Zant, 1976.
Gaines returned Skynyrd to the 3-guitar attack that was missing after Ed King left the band due to the toll of constant touring. On Street Survivors, Gaines wrote Ain’t No Good Life, I know a Little and co-wrote and sung You Got that Write with Van Zandt
Artimus Pyle: “Steve and his family were the best things that ever happened to Skynyrd..Ronnie trusted him explicably! Ronnie would walk off stage in front of 120,000 people and let Steve sing..letting Steve sing a song alone with his band – no problem! Steve loved Ronnie- Steve made a big difference – he was incredible songwrighter’
Rolling Stone’s Cameron Crowe remembers Gaines: “ Steve was a sweet, quiet kind of guy, kind of a Mick Taylor kind of guy. What he played was as important as how he fit in. I remember being on a ‘plane with him once. And he just sat quietly there listening to some music on his headphones. I guess he was working on his own music. Steve was a band saver. And he came in a package with his sister (Cassie) who everyone loved. She was the kind of person who walks up to you, talks to you and makes you feel better just standing with her”
Just three days after the release of 1977’s Street Survivors, Gaines, his sister Cassie and Ronnie Van Zandt died when Skynyrd’s charter flight crashed on the way to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Artimus Pyle, a Vietnam vet, crawled out the wreckage and swamps and stumbled upon a farm seeking help. He suffered a gunshot wound from a farmer who felt threatened by him staggering around his property. Help finally arrive, the rest of the band barely survived, with pianist Billy Powell the only member healthy enough to go to the funerals.
Street Survivors went platinum, the original record cover with Gaines covered with flames was shelved and Skynyrd eventually broke up before returning 10 years later with Ronnie’s younger brother Johnnie as lead singer.
It has been nearly 35 years since that concert in Waterbury, CT…With respect to Ronnie Van Zandt, I have never again been to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert…it just couldn’t be the same
Here are my Top 10 Skynyrd songs
Free Bird (Demo 4 minute version)
T for Texas (live)
Lend a Helping Hand
Travelin Man (live)
Gimme Back my Bullets
Sweet Home Alabama (live)
One More Time