Lynryd Skynryd’s story is the dark side of the American Dream. Climbing out of poverty, delinquency and dependency, these badasses from the wrong side of the Florida tracks fought to the top of the homegrown heap of Seventies rock ‘n’roll, only to have it literally come crashing down around them. The singer and soul of the band, and the promising new guitarist were gone in an instant, and the abyss the survivors of that plane crash were thrown into was deep and dark. Most would never recover.
Most people think “Southern Rock” when they hear the name Lynryd Skynrd and it’s a label the band would awkwardly embrace, although it’s fair to say it was more aggressively foisted on them by management and label marketing people. However, the baggage that came with the term would prove problematic for the band. It’s also one of the problems with Mark Ribowsky’s book Whiskey Bottles and Brand New Cars: The Fast life and Sudden Death of Lynryd Skynryd.
The band’s story, however, is fascinating and tragic, which helps to make Ribowsky’s account worth a look. There’s definitely stuff here I was unaware of and insight from critical accomplices like Al Kooper, the Walden brothers, Ed King and Artimus Pyle. It’s difficult to discern how much of this is for Ribowsky’s book and how much is simply sourced. That’s frustrating.
More frustrating, however, is the author’s insistence on trotting out terrible Southern clichés while trying to make the point that the band rose above many of these stereotypes. Ribowsky calls Van Zant “a redneck and an anti-redneck” and I think he’s right about that; Skynyrd was always a bit smarter than they got credit for. I always thought their music was more blues-informed than country, although there certainly was some of that. Likewise, the “Southern rock” thing was way overblown from a musical standpoint; they shared some of the blues/hippie heritage of the Allman Brothers, but comparisons to Marshall Tucker, Charlie Daniels and Wet Willie are way off base, in my opinion.
Ribowsky clearly comes from a fan's perspective; he states the plane crash that wiped out the band was the “real day the music died.” That really shortchanges the tragedy that took Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, but to each his own. However, the Acknowledgements and Introduction sections were so full of clichés I almost stopped reading before I got to Chapter 1. Ribowsky tells of the research he did, comparing himself to a miner. Yup. You guessed it — here comes the Neil Young reference – on the very first page of the book! There are countless more, whether it’s referring to the band as “southern rock polecats,” to actually using the expression “not for nothing,” and being able to “stay on the horse, without being thrown from it.” And if you think Ribowsky would not end a section with “Lord knows they won’t change”…well, he does. Excruciating.
There aren’t a lot of books out there that tell the band’s story, due in part to the extreme control that Ronnie Van Zant’s widow and guitarist/survivor Gary Rossington exercise over the Lynyrd Skynyrd estate and brand. Those that are out there are mostly by fellow crash survivors, former managers and “insiders,” making them less than balanced and authoritative. There’s also the little problem that 6 out of 9 major band members are now deceased, making it difficult to navigate all of these conflicting accounts, personality issues and egos.
There’s a good story here; unfortunately the storyteller insists on trite writing, and recycled clichés, which undermine the fascinating dichotomy that was Lynyrd Skynyrd.