Second Helping / Lynyrd Skynyrd

In 1976 or so, Bruce Springsteen brought his  Born to Run  tour to my home town of Chattanooga, Tennessee. Many have told me of being at this show, and many are liars; less than 700 people filed into the 5,000-seater to see the newly crowned savior of Rock and Roll. 

It was this way across the southeast. Much was made in the rock press about how Springsteen's "blue collar" ethic should be winning over the good folks in Dixie. 

What they didn't realize, these Yankee slickers, was that, good as he was, we didn't  need  Bruce Springsteen. We had Lynyrd Skynyrd. 

See, to grow up in the seventies and have a southern accent was an intellectual death sentence; you weren't going to be taken seriously. As Lenny Bruce said, in a particularly nasty and mean-spirited routine, "If Albert Einstein had talked like that, we never would have had the bomb". Many of rock's self-appointed intelligentsia, ascraven and bigoted as any slow-talking hick, considered even musical geniuses like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis to be savants, rather than true artists. Even the Allman Brothers were viewed grunting stoners who could barely string a few words together, and whose ability to play was the only thing keeping them from a lifetime of gas pumping and grocery bagging. 

Led by singer Ronnie Van Zant, Skynyrd was a three guitar army, a big sound that gave resonance to the themes of honesty, character, and freedom as very real personal affirmations and responsibilities, not some set of abstract, polyester buzz words to envelope or mask one's more selfish impulses. A brawling and stubborn man who wasn't afraid to use such cliched perceptions as both marketing ploy and aesthetic fulcrum, Van Zant was a writer of uncommon perception and honesty. 

Compare them to anybody thematically, it would be the Clash, an analogy that would probably piss off both sides. But both stood firm in their affirmation of dignity, personal freedom and integrity. 

"Sweet Home Alabama" kicks off the proceedings, the greatest "answer" song of all time. After Neil Young threw out the baby with the bathwater in "Southern Man" and "Alabama", statements that failed to achieve the precision Young was normally capable of hitting, Van Zant decided to take him to task for "shooting all the ducks in order to kill one or two". 

It may be the most misunderstood top ten song ever, at least until "Born in the USA" a decade later. Most missed the subtle put-down of the racist Alabama governor at the time ("In Birmingham they love the governor; we all did what we could do"), not hearing the disdainful refrain from the backup vocals, and preferring to think that the meat-headed southern boys were defending the bastard. And most took the line about "Watergate does not bother me; does your conscience bother you" to be a cry of proud apathy, rather than the indictment of personal disavowal it was. 

It’s followed by tales of swamp music, old blues singers, heroin, loneliness, and some more contrariness, mostly about being left alone or ripped off, delivered with a matter-of-fact growl over a bed of fluid Southern funk and slashing guitars.

It carries a subliminal defiance. No artist, not even the snide punks to come, picked a fight better than did Lynyrd Skynyrd. Years before Elvis Costello was to whine about wanting to bite the hand that feeds him, Skynyrd recorded “Working for MCA”, and actually did it.

Yeah, they flew a Confederate flag. It was marketing ploy, to a point, anyway; they were huge in Europe, where many saw the flag as some kind of cartoonish declaration of rebellion, a manifestation of the "crazy Americans". 

But there was also a sense of conviction, a willingness to flaunt the flag as cultural stigmata. It was indicative of Skynyrd's acceptance of the Southern mindset, warts and all. One of the differences between Southerners and some of our Yankee brethren is that we tend to embrace our contradictions, rather than try to constantly reconcile them.

A trait Van Zant shares with Mister Young

Skynyrd had far more in common with Young and his contemporaries than the rednecks they were often accused of being. They shared a work ethic and a sincerity associated with the term, but they were considered, in their part of the world, more hippie than redneck. They were certainly more socially in tune than the rednecks surrounding them in their hometown. Hell, they named themselves after a gym teacher who kept giving them shit about having long hair. 

Coming of age at the end of the Jim Crow era, and finding his voice in a time of civil unrest and shifting cultural values, Van Zant was a skeptic in a land of of biased moralists, and Second Helping is an unflinching glimpse into the psyche of an enlightened young Southern man of that time: conflicted, and not without sentimentality and gratitude, but ready for the world ahead. 

 

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