This is the first time that I print an article with those Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd. This was in print a couple of years before their unfortunate plane accident that killed two of the band members. I guess life became quite different afterwards for the other members of the band that were badly injured in the crash. But they never quit, and are still an ongoing and popular band. These guys really know how to give a great live concert, so check them out if they are playing somewhere near you soon.
I see the bloodbath that was Hamburg
When a band start slashing each other`s wrists before gigs you know they`re confident.
Tony Stewart applies the tourniquet to Lynyrd Skynyrd on the eve of their British tour.
Obviously no-one is quite certain how the opening night of Lynyrd Skynyrd`s Euro-tour will go – because first concerts are notoriously precarious occasions. But equally, it comes as a surprise to encounter a bulletin of probable doom as soon as we walk through the hotel doors in Hamburg.
First clue is the miserable disposition of bassist Leon Wilkeson, who`s slumped despondently in an armchair facing the entrance. Then keyboard player Billy Powell rushes over before we`ve even laid down our baggage to tell a story which could cause the gig to be a disaster or maybe a cancellation.
What`s happened? There was a fight last night. Vocalist Ronnie Van Zant has, according to Powell, bust his fist, guitarist Gary Rossington apparently managed to get both his wrists slashed; and a bottle bounced off a roadie`s skull.
It seems like Rossington`s in no condition to play, and matters probably won`t improve before nightfall.
Nobody seems to know how it started. Or, if they do, they`re not saying.
Leon wanders over to join the conversation and mentions that booze may be at the bottom of it all. But he`s not certain, because he had a quieter evening, preferring to visit the infamous Reeperbahn to investigate what is politely referred to as relief massage.
Yup, Skynyrd are a bunch o` reeel wild Southern honkies.
Understandably, one of their co-managers, Peter Rudge, shows signs of vexation and apprehension as he gets down to business with the German promoter Fritz Rau in the hotel restaurant.
Skynyrd, one gathers, are constantly at each others` throats when on the road, and their reputation has preceded their European visit. In fact there`s one alleged story that former guitarist Ed King is currently in the slammer on a manslaughter charge.
“But,” comments Rudge, “they didn`t have to fight before the opening of the tour. It`s stupid.”
When we reach the Hamburg concert hall in the evening we`re expecting the gig to be pulled. But it isn`t.
Instead a jovial Ronnie Van Zant is swaggering around the backstage corridors, warmly throwing his arms over peoples` shoulders despite the fact that one hand is so swathed in bandages that it looks like he`s wearing a white boxing glove. And in Ronnie`s case that`s a suitable comparison.
Just getting to the stage is some achievement considering two of the band look as though they`re on an invalids` outing. Rossington has both his hands bandaged, with only his fingers peeping through. And there`s Ronnie.
With the exception of the lanky, cumbersome guitarist Allen Collins mincing it up at the front of the stage the other members look miserable – Particularly Leon, who`s wearing a white London policeman`s helmet and a completely mean and sour expression.
Early in the set the lethargic stance is reflected in the music. Perhaps because of the agonising pain Gary`s experiencing (Every time I played a note it felt like a knife was being stabbed in my hand,” he later commented) he`s unable to embellish the licks, and the whole band find it hard to get it on.
Even so Allen Collins whips the chords enthusiastically out of his guitar. Drummer Artemus Pyle, along with Wilkeson, kick the dust off the amps, while some fine honkytonk piano is pushed through from Powell at the back. Ronnie takes care of the vocals well.
Basically Lynyrd Skynyrd are a boogie band, playing some good music on such things as their own “The Needle And The Spoon”, “Saturday Night Special” and a coupla tracks from their next album, as well as J.J. Cale`s “Call Me The Breeze” and “Same Old Blues”.
Perhaps it`s their physical condition, or maybe the usual lack of response from a German audience, that keeps the set on too much of an even keel without a great deal of sparkle until they reach “Sweet Home Alabama”.
For this the Confederate flag at the back of the platform is blazed in lights, apparently stimulating them to buckle under and hit out harder.
Too late at the last number, they realise from audience response that they are going down moderately well, and return to lay down “Freebird” with Rossington tossing out patterns against Collins until his fingers bleed. And here you see Skynyrd in a totally different light – and understand why they`ve achieved so much success in America.
Playing a gig reasonably well isn`t enough for them, it transpires as we all make it back to the hotel bar to drink some white wine.
Leon sits against the wall, still wearing his helmet, with his arm around a young German miss who`s been picked up en route, and on the other side of him is Peter Rudge. Ronnie slouches angrily in the bench seat, with Billy and Gary at the other end, facing Leon. MCA press officer Geoff Thorn, another writer and myself jostle for space facing Van Zant.
Ronnie`s like a poolroom rumbler with an irrepressible tongue and a highly volatile temper, and he`s continuing an argument with Powell which originated immediately after the gig, in the dressing room.
Van Zant insists the show was so bad that all the kids had been given their money back, and that a chief cause of it being loused up was the overbearing volume of Powell`s equipment.
As the anger increased and the invective becomes stronger, Rudge tells them it`s their own stupid fault they blew the show – because they were so bust up from fighting the previous night. And he makes his exit.
Ronnie quietens only briefly then takes up the same line again, while Billy seems to accept the criticisms meekly, barely raising his voice to explain his case simply and relatively unemotionally.
“And anyway,” Ronnie eventually tells him, “we`re gonna tape down the controls on your equipment, so then you can`t turn up!”
Rossington, his bandages soggy with congealed blood, just ignores the argument and toys with an electronic lighter. Leon observes but keeps his mouth shut. Until he announces he`s off to revisit the Reeperbahn.
What seems to concern Van Zant is that `Duane would have said the gig was horseshit`. The late Duane Allman that is, who appears to be Ronnie`s hero. It is for Duane that Lynyrd Skynyrd keep the music flowing under the Confederate flag.
“To `Duane!” Van Zant declares, raising his wine glass in a toast now and again. “Here`s to Duane!”
But the chauvinism runs deeper, as many of Ronnie`s comments illustrate.
“We`re the best band in the South,” he announces. “An` ah can sing better than Gregg…”
Allman that is.
“… You just gotta put me in the right ring at the right time.”
Considering this opinion then it`s understandable that he should be enraged over what he considers a bad performance… even though it wasn`t half as awful as he sees it. Trouble is, he never once considered that the fight of the night before could have any bearing.
Another explanation for what seems like irrational criticism is that ten years ago Van Zant had a dream, following which “Ah hand-picked all these boys to play for me.” In short, it`s his baby, and a bad reflection of the band`s music is a bad reflection on him.
And that dream?
“To be,” he says quite immodestly, “the American equivalent of The Rolling Stones.”
Then as more wine appears and disappears down our throats, Van Zant`s anger is spent on other people, voices are raised faster than the glasses, and eventually the barman hustles us all out.
Next morning the receptionist to trying to check out where certain members of the band are. Apparently she can`t locate them, and there`s some urgency in her tone.
“You see,” she explains in remarkably good English, “they called a doctor and he`s on the phone now.”
I have personally transcribed this from the original paper and you are free to use it as you like. If you use it on your own webpages – please credit me or put up a link to my blog.
This number of New Musical Express also contains articles/interviews with these people: Black Sabbath, Elton John, David Bowie, Roxy Music, I Roy, Steve Hackett, Milt Jackson, Mason, Larry Coryell.
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