Hello Skynyrd Nation.
Besides being the newest member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, I also have a history as a conflict journalist. A passion for experience and sharing have always been the driving force behind my creativity. My love of music and words have compelled me to bring them together in a new blog dedicated to sharing the reality of life in the Modern Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Return to the Beacon
The Beacon Theater, New York City
The last time I stepped on stage at the Beacon Theater in New York City, I was so high on drugs that I ruined a night of live recording for my band, the Black Crowes. I had always given myself permission to do all the drugs I wanted, as long as I never let drugs ruin my musicianship. That night at the Beacon, I crossed the line.
After being up for days fueled by bottles of Jack Daniels and fistfuls of cocaine, I finally came unglued at the worst possible time—on stage and in the middle of the show. As my fingers stopped responding to the twisted messages being sent from my drug addled brain, my bass playing slowly unraveled and finally disintegrated. I collapsed somewhere near the end of the set. Like an airplane whose wings fell off mid-flight, I crashed, I burned, hitting my bottom right there in public under the white hot spot lights of the Beacon Theater.
It took days for me to fully sober up, and when my head finally cleared, I was mortified. Not only did I let my band down, but that night’s wreckage was recorded on professional Ampex 2 inch hi-fidelity studio tape. That recording, which cost the band $25,000 dollars in recording costs, was utterly useless. The truth had been captured in tragic, unimpeachable detail. What do you say to your band after that? What about your fans? More importantly, what do say to yourself?
Blowing a show because you’re high might sound like a totally rock-n-roll thing to do, like something from the pages of Up And Down With The Rolling Stones—but in reality, it just makes you an asshole.
If I didn’t have enough courage or self-respect to keep the straw out of my nose or the bottle away from my lips in order to play a great show, then I knew that I should put it down out of respect to the fans and out of respect to the legacy of the musicians who inspired me to learn music; musicians like the members of Lynryd Skynyrd.
Even back when I was eight years old, I heard about the perils of drug use in Ronnie Van Zant’s lyrics to the epic Lynyrd Skynyrd song, ‘That Smell.’ With vivid lyrics and an unforgettable story, one might think I would have absorbed its message to steer clear of drugs.
In fairness to myself, I was just a kid in my early twenties trying to imitate my heroes at the time I blew that Beacon show. The Beacon disaster showed me that music was no longer the guiding priority in my life. I had crossed the line and there was no going back. It was time to clean up my act and I was stunned to discover that unshackling myself from drugs and booze proved to be tougher than I could have ever imagined.
I have been in multiple bands since the Black Crowes and talking about the Crowe days can feel a little bit like talking about high school. Yet today I find myself standing backstage at the Beacon Theater for the first time since that dark and infamous night so many years ago. Only this night, I am member of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Isn’t Fate a funny thing?
There are a lot of members in Lynyrd Skynyrd and every damn one of them stands larger than life. The count down to show time means a crazy scene backstage for the band.
I pass by the Honkettes dressing room (Skynyrd’s famous female back up singers), and I stop to enjoy how beautiful Dale Rossington and Carol Chase not only look, but how much better their dressing room smells than mine.
A tight left turn and I am standing face to face with a man who embodies the term “larger than life,” Mr. Rickey Medlocke. I consider Rickey to be my brother from another mother. We hug like men do, chest in, hips out. Rickey’s ‘Indian’ tattoo wraps boldly across his forearm and pops out in sharp contrast to the dressing room’s muted tones.
I do not see our guitarist ‘Sparky’ anywhere, but If there is one man you can depend on to play his guitar right, every time, every night, that’s Sparky. No need to worry, Sparky will show up.
Outside the Beacon, Manhattan throbs loudly to the rhythms of the street. Inside the Beacon, I crowd into the main dressing room with our band’s drummer Michael Cartellone and pianist, the aptly-named Peter Keys. Michael warms up by drumming a migraine-inducing pattern on a rubber pad and cracking wise at passersby every few minutes. Michael’s sense of humor is lost on most, but he never seems to care, chuckling to himself behind his drum sticks. Meanwhile, Peter Keys is adding and simultaneously removing layers of clothing to his outfit for tonight’s show. Peter keeps pacing a hole in the floor with his bottomless cup of coffee as if movement and caffeine are the only two things harnessing his sheer, unbridled talent.
Gary Rossington, a legend and an institution all to himself, quietly slides into the room with the ease and grace of an elder statesman of rock-n-roll. Gary joins the action and starts talking shit with short snappy verbal punches.
While discussing the movie Lawless, Gary, Rickey and I tune our guitars as the conversation naturally turns to brass knuckles, throat punches and stories of past—fights that grow taller and more epic with the passage of time. We enjoy the refined air of totally bullshit that fills the room.
Johnny Van Zant suddenly blows through the door, bigger than life, and with a massive smile spread across his face. Johnny’s positive energy is instantly contagious. When I ask him where he’s been all night, he responds, “Been talking with fans and friends at the meet greet downstairs." If Southern Rock has a mayor, it is Mr. Johnny Van Zant. Johnny is the type of man who would pull his tour bus over to help a stranger change a tire. I shit you not friends.
The elevator arrives to take us down to the stage. We cram into the tiny box and I suddenly feel like I am gonna throw up on everyone’s shoes. The ghost of my Beacon show past has arrived and my nerves feel raw and frayed.
Tonight’s intro music blares through the theater’s sound system as we exit the elevator. Standing on the wings of the stage, we raise our right hands with fingers pointing to the sky. Johnny leads us in a Skynyrd tradition, a group prayer. As Johnny voices the band’s collective gratitude, I crack one eye open and look at the sold out audience. My feet feel glued to the floor and I feel my breath grow short as my mind flashes me back to that night with the Black Crowes almost seventeen years ago. The memory brings me to the verge of a panic attack.
The first notes the audience hear of tonight’s Beacon show is the signature sound of Gary Rossington playing slide guitar. Standing alone under a single spotlight, Gary breaks into the title track of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s latest record Last Of A Dying Breed. Seconds away from joining Gary and the rest of the band on stage, an inner voice—the one that loves to beat me up to convince me to give up and fail—grabs me by the shoulder, sticks out it’s forked tongue and says, "Hey asshole, you don’t deserve to be in Lynyrd Skynyrd...you’re just gonna blow it on that stage again and in front of all those people! "
I look up as a trio of spotlights now take aim at Gary and his Les Paul. The inimitable sound of his guitar and its warm, golden tone has the entire building transfixed. How can it be so difficult to be in this building and play this show. After all, shouldn’t I be taking comfort in the fact that I am about to walk on stage with the man that inspired Ronnie Van Zant to write “That Smell” as a warning about his drug abuse. If any one in this whole wide world could understand how I feel right now, it would have to be Gary Rossington.
So what’s it gonna be? I ask myself, will tonight’s performance be a redemption, or does my past mistake have the power to make me choke on stage?
Johnny Van Zant cues me with a nod and by the time I nod back, we’re walking on stage and under the lights. The first notes from my bass rumble across the floor like a depth charge. It is time to silence the voices in my head and put the anxiety to rest. It is time to get on with doing what I do best, and doing it as a member of one of the greatest rock-n-roll bands of all times.
Since I was a boy, Lynyrd Skynyrd vinyl spun around and around my turntable.
‘Angel of darkness is upon you
Stuck a needle in your arm
So take another toke,
have a blow for your nose
One more drink fool, will drown you ......
Damn Ronnie, how right you were. I wish I would have listened to you the first time, But I guess there are some lessons a man’s gotta learn the hard way.
...Thank you to Joe Daly & Rosie Colt for additional editing.