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