5 Q's: Mark Ribowsky, author of "Whiskey Bottles and Brand-New Cars: The Fast Life and Sudden Death of Lynyrd Skynyrd"

Today, "Five Questions" are put to Mark Ribowsky, author of the recently released "Whiskey Bottles and Brand New Cars: The Fast Life and Sudden Death of Lynyrd Skynyrd." Ribowsky has also written books on Otis Redding and Stax Records (Dreams to Remember: Otis Redding, Stax Records, and the Transformation of Southern Soul), Stevie Wonder (Signed, Sealed, Delivered: The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder) and Phil Spector (He's a Rebel: Phil Spector: Rock 'n' Roll's Legendary Producer).

Lynyrd Skynyrd pretty much stuck to the tried and true subjects for many of their songs — dues-paying, women, boozing —but they got more political or pointed with one of their signature songs in “Sweet Home Alabama.”  They took on Neil Young’s “Southern Man,” Governor George Wallace, and Watergate, albeit a bit cryptically. They seemed to be saying "keep your nose out of the South's past" while at the same time being critical of some issues that were present in the South during their lifetimes and yet again, sort of dismissing them with “we did what we could.” Did the band realize the contradictions? Were they purposeful and what is the legacy of this political contradiction?

Skynyrd walked a risky high wire. They were playing to at least four distinct audiences – their “backwoods, redneck” home turf, the national market that had no particular affection for Southern norms, the cognoscenti of rock critics, and the industry that saw Southern music as merely regional and not “serious” players, even as powerful brokers in New York (Ahmet Ertegun) and L.A. (David Geffen) looted, respectively, Stax/Volt soul and then country rock. The multilevel nature of their music reflected a painful attempt to redraw regional lines and form a “New Confederacy” while still remaining loyal to the conditioned behaviors of the Old Confederacy. Thus, “Sweet Home Alabama,” one of the most distinct Southern songs, is also one of the most prone to exploitation. This was Ronnie's fault, being too cute by half about Wallace and Watergate, etc., without thinking through the repercussions of praise for a racist governor (twice, he sang Wallace “was true”) and feckless Southern hubris. With Skynyrd, however, it's not possible to denigrate their music and influence from 1974-77. They  not only actualized the brooding, self-made Southern man ethos of Ronnie's writing and singing, but also covered Jimmie Rodgers, Merle Haggard, and JJ Cale, and opened a raw,  visceral byway within the soft country rock parameters of their era. And that simply has not been repeated, nor will it ever be.

What are your thoughts on Lynryd Skynrd’s uncomfortable embrace of the Confederate flag, which is in the news a lot these days. Did it hurt or pigeonhole them, either short-term or long-term, or did it simply help sell out stadiums and ensure their place in history?

Whoever hatched the idea to embroider the act with the insidious symbol of American treason and slavery – and that ball has been passed a few times – and no matter how effective a marketing tool it was, Skynyrd alas sowed the seeds of the horrid carnage at the AME Church in Charleston. While there would be squawks about it from band members – Artimus Pyle once said the flag on the wall behind his drum kit made him physically ill – no one ever took a rebel stand against the Stars and Bars. Once in England, when the flag dropped to the ground, they burned it in a solemn ceremony in accordance with Confederate flag protocol. They even donned Confederate uniforms at some shows, though again claimed it was just for “fun.” They also accepted “commissions” in the Alabama National Guard from George Wallace. Worse is that they still haven't learned the lessons of ducking this issue, and in their current cheapened state of being have continued to fly the “Southern Cross” while still denying responsibility and parroting the old, discredited “heritage” argument. One can use a little wishful thinking and imagine that Ronnie if he had lived would have, as Hank Williams sang, seen the light. The others, as Bobbie Gentry sang, never had a lick of sense.

Does guitarist Ed King get the respect he should in helping to define the band’s songwriting, sound and success?

There are those who insist King was the real hidden hand behind the band maturing from backwoods to baronial. Others insist he had a hidden agenda to control the workings and direction of the band. King, a New Jersey native who tasted the sweet life in L.A. with a number-one record (the exquisite “Incense and Peppermints”), from the start felt he was the classic outsider among a clique that had grown up together in Southern Man poverty, and solidarity. Just as he believed he never received proper credit for writing “Peppermints,” he believed he was kept from props for the immortal guitar licks of “Sweet Home Alabama.” As a New Yorker most of my life, I feel for King, since I have been vilified by some in the deranged postmodern culture of Skynyrd fans, for somehow “denigrating” the band's legend (an absurd notion given their deliriously self-destructive behavior), I can imagine King's life being made miserable by these same brain-dead “fans.” I also was stunned to learn that Ronnie, whose epitaph was that he never feared anyone, actually tried to get King to tell the band's manager Peter Rudd that the band wanted to cancel what remained of a bummer tour. However, much as I admire King, and made some additions for the paperback on his request, I found racist remarks he made about Trayvon Martin to be execrable, and unforgivable, and made me wonder if the worst traits of Skynyrd, which included conditioned racist parlance, were infectious germs in the air.

Ronnie Van Zant’s father Lacy is an interesting character in the book. He’s clearly a motivational force behind his son yet also comes off as simply an opportunist. What’s the story with him?

Lacy was the kind of Southern man Hank Williams and Willie Nelson sang about, the archetypical truck-drivin' man who never wanted more out of life than four solid walls and a roof. He worked hard, providing a work ethic and a fighting spirit in his oldest son Ronnie, who growing up would don Lacy's boxing gloves and go at it with someone, anyone, who wanted to fight. However, Lacy never saw eye to eye with Ronnie, who constantly disappointed him by dropping out of school to pursue a crazy dream of rock and roll stardom, and knocking up a teenage girlfriend. Not gaining that respect from Lacy was an undercurrent of Ronnie's life and music, with guilt and regret regular themes of his work. Once Skynyrd became a success, Lacy did an about face and adopted the identity of “the Father of Southern Rock,” at once identifiable by his long white Santa Claus beard. But the fissures between them never quote healed. When Ronnie died, Lacy was inconsolable, angrily saying that his son was the victim of “a jealous God, taking him for reasons I don't know.” That was a requiem shared by hordes of Skynyrd fans to this day.

In your book, the circumstances of the plane crash that took Van Zant, Gaines and others seem painted as nothing less than stupidity or carelessness on several levels, from the manager to the pilots. Fair?

Absolutely fair. Perhaps never have two pilots been as incompetent and as blithely unaware of the consequences of it. Clearly unqualified to fly a plane that archaic — one that Artimus Pyle later said “looked like it belonged to the Clampett family” — they ignored that one engine had broken into flames on a previous flight and that they could not get that engine to start up the morning of the doomed final flight. Worse, members of the Skynyrd party found them getting stoned in their hotel room the night before (though allegations that they were snorting cocaine during the last flight were unfounded). They had no idea how to transfer fuel from the working engine to the one that flamed out over Mississippi nor were there working fuel gauges. However, the real culprit may be Peter Rudge, who leased for one of the world's biggest bands a plane that had been junked by Aerosmith months before, when their pilot told the group's management that if that plane was used for one more flight, he would quit. The pity is that while several people in the Skynyrd circle felt the same way, they believed the pilots knew what they were doing. The sad  irony was that Otis Redding — who was managed by Alan Walden, Skynyrd's manager before Rudd —  had died ten years earlier when his outdated plane went down in a river in Ohio. And just as Otis's demise killed Southern soul, the crash in Mississippi killed Southern rock.

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