The Best Biography of Lynyrd Skynyrd to Date

The cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Street Survivors, which was released three days before the 1977 plane crash that killed several members, including leader/singer Ronnie Van Zant (third from left) and guitarist Steve Gaines (fourth from left). This eerie, flaming cover was immediately recalled by the record company.
The cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd's Street Survivors, which was released three days before the 1977 plane crash that killed several members, including leader/singer Ronnie Van Zant (third from left) and guitarist Steve Gaines (fourth from left). This eerie, flaming cover was immediately recalled by the record company.

Whiskey Bottles and Brand New Cars: The Fast Life and Sudden Death of Lynyrd Skynyrd By Mark Ribowsky Chicago Review Press, 288 pp., $27.95

Of all the major American classic-rock bands, is there any more steeped in legend, lore and a perfect fit for a Shakespearean story than the ragtag group from Jacksonville, Fla. named for the high-school coach who at one time terrorized them?

Ribowsky, who has previously penned bios on Phil Spector and a forthcoming tome on Otis Redding and Stax Records, does a solid job of weaving through the legend of Lynyrd Skynyrd, giving equal credence to both music and mischief-making. He is particularly good at discussion the at-times odd balancing acts by the band members in their personal and musical lives.

Lead singer Ronnie Van Zant could be a violent, mean son of a bitch, at one point knocking the literal teeth out of keyboardist Billy Powell's mouth and another time slashing the hands and arms of guitarist Gary Rossington -- after an argument about how to pronounce the word "schnapps." But he could grow weak and teary-eyed seeking the approval of his father. And many of his blows were chickenshit sucker-punches.

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What the Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood called "the duality of the Southern Thing" on the Skynyrd-inspired Southern Rock Opera ends up being a recurring theme of Whiskey Bottles.

The backdrop Confederate flag was heritage, not hate, though Ribowsky also points out it was a marketing gimmick. The band members wanted to prove to the world that they weren't just a bunch of rowdy, drunk, misogynistic Southern rednecks, he writes, and then would go out and act just that way.

The LSD and the Jack Daniel's. The gun imagery from the band who wrote the anti-gun "Saturday Night Special" and "Gimme Back My Bullets" -- which wasn't about guns at all; rather, the "bullets" referred to notches given to rising records on the Billboard charts.

Of course, central to any Skynyrd story is the tragic 1977 plane crash that took lives including those of Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, and backup singer Cassie Gaines, and really fucked up the bodies and minds of the survivors. The prose here is riveting as the pages turn to what every reader knows is coming.

Story continues on the next page.

 

Whiskey Bottles carries on through the latter-day hiatuses, lawsuits, offshoots, hurt feelings, and claims to the band's legacy and name. In fact, the 2015 version of the group has only one actual original or classic-lineup member -- guitarist Gary Rossington. Yet at every Skynyrd concert to this day, thousands still gather to unironically scream for "Free Bird!", and love every minute of it.

Ribowsky's text does occasionally falter when he tries to bring in unnecessary discussions and comparisons of seemingly every other rock act of the '70s, as if wanting to name-check them all. And while there are some original interviews, including pre-crash members guitarist Ed King and the recently-deceased drummer Bob Burns, there is also a lot of clip-job compilation.

And with due respect to memoirs by managers/road-crew members (and plane-crash survivors) Gene Odom and Ron Eckerman, as well as Marley Brant's 2002's Freebirds, Whiskey Bottles is the most complete telling of the Skynyrd tale to date. a rollicking read about a band who wanted to take on the world and the music industry...when they weren't fighting each other.

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