Whiskey Bottles and Brand-New Cars is not totally without merit. Mark Ribowsky is correct when he shamelessly steals a classic line from Don McLean’s ode to another era and uses it as his own when he writes that Oct. 20, 1977, is the day the music died. On that day the true Lynyrd Skynyrd met an untimely demise in a Mississippi swamp. The voice of the band, Ronnie Van Zant, and the brother-sister team of Steve Gaines and Cassie Gaines, died when the airplane they were riding to another stop on the Street Survivors tour crashed, effectively putting a stake through the heart of the band. The incarnations that followed simply did not live up to the legend.
Lynyrd Skynyrd provided the soundtrack for my high-school years in suburban Atlanta. In 1977 I was one year out of high school and facing the weight of adulthood when the music of my youth died. My friends and I listened to many artists — Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Zappa, Blue Oyster Cult and more — but every party and late-night car ride at some point seemed to find Skynyrd on the stereo. Vinyl or 8-track, it mattered so very little. No surprise there. I am Florida born and Georgia raised. Atlanta was the city in which I came of age. Skynyrd reflected my past and present. And Ronnie Van Zant … yeah, he was cool, as cool as the other side of the pillow. His home was not Jacksonville. No, he lived on Olympus. And Ribowsky throws Zeus down from his mountain and tarnishes a dead man. The other band members — Allen Collins, Gary Rossington, Bob Burns, Leon Wilkeson, Billy Powell, Artimus Pyle, Ed King and Steve Gaines — by association join Van Zant on the trash heap. Van Zant’s widow, to her credit did not participate in this sullying of a dead man’s life.
Perhaps the most-egregious shortcoming of the book is in the research. Ribowsky interviewed few people, and most of those from whom he did mine information could not or would not provide unbiased insights. Band members who were asked to leave, for example, might have an ax to grind. As a longtime former journalist I find the sourcing somewhat distressing. And more, it appears Ribowsky began his project with a pre-conceived notion and allowed nothing to stand in his way of finding someone to support his bent. There is no doubt that drugs and alcohol fueled the Skynyrd machine. The boys were brawlers who lived life on a razor’s edge. That is a common theme of the late 1960s and 1970s. Southern rock — courtesy of the Allman Brothers – was the king of rock ‘n’ roll. Lynyrd Skynyrd was the heir apparent, racing to the castle to claim the crown. Ribowsky writes about that, but there is nothing new in those assertions.
Ribowsky revels in creating controversy where little existed. For example, he devotes page after page after page to the concept of "Sweet Home Alabama" as a racist cry from the depths of Southern depravity. Likewise, the Confederate battle flag boldly flies for Riboswky to use as a symbol of a South that never rose. Riboswsky’s words chant the banal mantra of Hollywood elitists who refuse to allow the South to fly its true colors. Ribowsky used blatant stereotype and caricature to paint a picture of the typical outsider’s representation of Dixie. It is tiresome and quite false. Bigotry is not a regional phenomenon, or did Watts, Detroit and the 1992 L.A. riots occur in a parallel universe?
In fairness, Ribowsky opens a couple of small windows into the early days of the band and the struggles to climb to the mountaintop. He also shares some rather enlightening insights into recording sessions. Even here, however, there is an undertone of condescension. Van Zant is portrayed as an ego-driven despot who used his fists often and freely to bend the band to his will. If so, how and why did the band stay together? I suspect a wee bit of hyperbole finds its way into the mix.
Memories are the heart of reality, and because of that every person’s reality is different. Read Whiskey Bottles because you love Skynyrd. Discard the book because you love and trust your memories more. Despite Riobowsky’s rather long-winded diatribe, there is no need to cry for the bad man. In truth, he does not exist outside the pages of this book.