What song is it you want to hear?

Thirty years ago this week, I was living away from home for the first time, going to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

Marty, one of my high school pals, was my roommate. We had a tiny three-room apartment in the back of an old house off campus. Living room, bathroom, kitchen.

Whatever we paid to rent 547B Niagara St. was too much. We had a bunk bed in the living room. College juniors, mind you. The bathroom floor was uneven. Our toilet tilted. You leaned to the left when you sat on it, to the right when you stood in front of it.

Having a stereo and our albums from home made things a little more livable. And back then, FM radio was still decent enough that you could listen to it if you’d heard enough of the albums.

We always had some kind of noise — tunes, radio or TV — going, if only to drown out that one song played incessantly in the front apartment. Another story, for another day.

One of the albums we played was one I’d just picked up that October week, maybe with one last check from Pizza Hut. I immediately dug it.

A couple of days later, on the third Thursday of October — Oct. 20, 1977 — Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane went down.

When I heard band members Ronnie Van Zant, Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines (and three others) were dead and the 20 others on the plane were badly injured in the woods near McComb, Mississippi … well … wow.

I never looked at or listened to “Street Survivors” in the same way again.

My vinyl copy of “Street Survivors” is the original issue, with the cover showing flames surrounding the band. In the middle, Steve Gaines stands with his eyes closed, enveloped by flames.

skynyrdssflameslp.jpg

After the crash, that cover was recalled. The new cover was the old back cover, with the band standing against a black background.

skynyrdssblacklp.jpg

Looking at “Street Survivors” the other night, I was reminded of how quickly I’d snapped it up earlier that week, and of how quickly thereafter the band was silenced.

Inside that album is a glossy red sheet with the credits and liner notes.

On its flip side is a list of dates for Skynyrd’s 1977-78 tour. They made it to four shows — the last in Greenville, South Carolina, before the plane went down on the way to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (They were to have played the Milwaukee Arena on Dec. 16, 1977. I doubt I could have afforded to go.)

On one side of a second, beige-colored sheet is a marketing survey that today seems quaint: Have you seen us live? What’s the best way to let you know when we have a new album? (Radio ads? Magazine ads? TV commercials?) What’s your favorite radio station? What’s your favorite magazine? What’s your favorite TV program? Which of our albums do you have? (On album, 8-track or cassette?)

skynyrdsleeve.jpg

On the other side of that beige sheet, you could order a T-shirt for $5.98, a pendant for $5 or a 24-page booklet for $3, all by mail.

The three items are advertised as the Lynyrd Skynyrd Survival Kit.

I imagine they took that out of the reissue, too.

In the years since that October day in 1977, some of the cuts off “Street Survivors” have become classic FM radio staples: “What’s Your Name,” “I Know A Little” and “You Got That Right.” They’re upbeat, sly, enjoyable.

Then there’s the tune that lingers as the bitter soundtrack to that day.

“That Smell,” written by Allen Collins and Ronnie Van Zant, is really a warning to those who abuse drugs and alcohol.

Still, how could you not think of the crash when you hear:

“Ooooh, that smell/Can’t you smell that smell?/Ooooh, that smell/The smell of death surrounds you.”

“That Smell,” Lynyrd Skynyrd, from “Street Survivors,” 1977.

As vividly as I associate “That Smell” with that time, I’m glad to say I have many more pleasant memories of Lynyrd Skynyrd, having seen them twice.

The first time, in 2001, was most enjoyable. Yeah, it was a thrill to hear “Free Bird” and see it played live. Yet barely two months later, bassist Leon Wilkeson, who survived the plane crash, was dead.

I saw Skynyrd again two years later, their powerful three-guitar lineup of Gary Rossington, Rickey Medlocke and Hughie Thomasson intact. Still spirited, still most enjoyable. And now I read that Thomasson, who left Skynyrd in 2005 and led the Outlaws, died last month.

Yet if Skynyrd comes our way again, I’ll go see them. They’re still that good.

10 Comments

Filed under October 2007, Sounds

10 responses to “What song is it you want to hear?

  1. Brillant post ! The way you talk about your private stories mix perfectly with the tragic events that occured to the band. The song you have choosen is perfect and the anecdotes about the 2 covers and the ads are original, interesting and give food for thoughts.

    Bravo ! I will certainly come back to read your writings again.

    Keep on !

    Phil from Paris (France).

  2. hum… to say it in a more simple way : I Loved It !!!

    Thanks for this little moment of pleasure.

    Phil

  3. jb

    Another fine post, Jeff. I need to adopt somebody else’s memories of the Skynyrd crash, because (oddly enough) I don’t seem to have any of my own.

  4. Hi Jeff, great post. Being local Jacksonville, the band still has a fairly strong presence here. I live right aroung the corner from Freebird Live, a beachside club founded and operated by Judy Van Zant (Ronnie’s widow). As a matter of fact, Tom Wills from local channel 4 covered the crash in 1977 and is still on the air here today.

    http://www.freebirdlive.com/

  5. michaelo

    Great stuff, Jeff – as usual. I had tix to see Skynyrd and Ted Nugent together at Madison Square Garden 3 weeks after the crash. Seeing the Nuge was a highlight of my 14 year old existence but I really wish I could have seen Ronnie and his band. Thanks for the story – and that album insert picture, which definitely jogged the memory.

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  7. Shark

    Jeff–
    Great post! The story takes me back to that Thursday night in October, 1977 when I was a freshman in college. You can read my account of it at JB’s “The Hits Just Keep On Comin’.” One of my favorite memories of “Freebird” is one summer Sunday night in the late 80’s when I was traveling back to my job in Waupaca, Wisconsin after visiting my parents in Darlington, Wisconsin. It was late at night and I was listening to a radio station from Stevens Point while traveling on Highway 51. They were airing a “great groups in concert” program featuring Lynyrd Skynyrd. At the end of the show, the band played a completely instrumental version of “Freebird” as a tribute to Ronnie Van Zant. It was awesome…and it was about 25 minutes long!

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  10. Hi, I’m a tad late here, I was looking to see if the Nugent/Skynyrd concert at the Garden happened as there is a ticket stub on Ebay. This blog came up.

    Just one sad note to your story: The gal modeling the shirt is Cassie. I have both the shirt and the pendant.

    Unfortunately, Ronnie’s most prophetic words come in Free Bird and All I Can Do Is Write About It: “If I leave here tommorrow would you still remember me?”, and “Lord take me and mine before that comes.” It has come, and tho many fans remember, Skynyrd has become a punchline to many clueless ppl.

    He also was quite prophetic with “Things Goin On”.

    Myself I can’t stand the post Ed King ‘Tribute band’ era. Medley’s??? There are no medley’s in Skynyrd. I also find the guitar playing of Ricky lacking, and his on stage antics annoying.

    1991 and The Last Rebel were not quite ‘Real Skynyrd’, but they had that flavor. Everything since Ricky sounds like Blackfoot. What really made me stop seeing them was they totally stopped playing any of those songs after the refused Ed back in, they kept him out of Skynyrd History in ‘Free Bird: The Movie, and on Tuesday, Dec 11, 2001, Johnny taunted a NYC (Beacon Theatre) crowd 3 months to the day after 9/11 that they were going to play Tuesdays Gone, and played a Christmas Medley instead. Never again.

    THIS IS NOT SPAM JUST A HEADS UP. There is a Survivor shirt on eBay right now I’d highly recommend, as it’s only going for 99.00 start. I paid 250 for mine, and that’s the average price…2-250. Also, a good friend of mine owns the rights to the Pepsi Tribute made just before the crash and released before ‘Grease’ in theatres. He sells them at a good price. Remastered, a nice piece.

    Peace, and long live The Lynyrd Skynyrd Band(Est 1966).

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