MY FAVORITE ALBUM ARTIST (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Just for fun (leaving comps and live albums aside as usual):

My favorite two-album run: Big Star (#1 Record, Radio City, 1972–1973)

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My favorite three-album run: Fleetwood Mac (Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk, 1975–1979)

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My favorite four-album run: The Rolling Stones (Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, 1968–1972)

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My favorite five-album run: The Byrds (Mr. Tambourine Man, Turn! Turn! Turn!, Fifth Dimension, Younger Than Yesterday, The Notorious Byrd Brothers, 1965–1968)

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My favorite six-album run: The Beatles (the UK versions of With the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles for Sale, Help!, Rubber Soul, Revolver 1963–1966, none of which I like as much as the US only Meet the Beatles, or the US versions of Rubber Soul and Revolver, but let’s not complicate things.)

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I know, I know. Very White, very Male (notwithstanding Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie) and very Middle Class–just like the overarching narrative says it should be.

But have no fear. You can file all that away.

You can also file away Elvis, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Merle Haggard, Curtis Mayfield (with and without the Impressions), Don Gibson, the Beach Boys, and others who made plenty of great albums but who I tend to know better through various comps and (especially) box sets.

Then, if your filing bio-part of choice (brain, eyeball, index finger, whatever else you might want to use) is still functioning, you can file away Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Lynyrd Skynyrd, War, Spinners, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, the Velvet Underground, and others who either were a tad inconsistent (Morrison, after the late seventies, Dylan, after about 1969), or just didn’t sustain long enough (the rest, with Hendrix, Janis and Ronnie Van Zant fully excused by that old reliable, early death).

Obviously, I like the canon. Just like most people. That’s why it’s the canon.

But you can file all those away, too, because none of them are my favorite album artist either.

To be my favorite album artist I have to think your albums are so consistently good that listening to a comp is faintly ridiculous and more than a little disorienting. I mean, you have to leave me feeling a little unfulfilled if that song doesn’t immediately follow that other song the way God intended. I have to think you consistently made coherent, self-conscious statements that avoided the pretension and self-indulgence which tend to define self-consciousness, not to mention “statements,” but still, by some miracle, continually either deepened or broadened what you had done before.

And, if you want to be the fave, you have to have made a whole lot of them. Preferably in a row.

It helps if you sold a lot of records.

Big Star and the Velvet Underground excepted, I’ve never been into cults.

So there’s the criteria.

Only two people ever met every standard for me.

Which means if you are going to be my favorite album artist, you have to be either him:

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Or her…

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Al Green or Patty Loveless.

Or, to put it another way: Al Green…or Patty Loveless?

I’ve been pondering this one for a couple of decades. I might as well work it out here as anywhere.

For a black guy and a hillbilly woman–definitive representatives of this land’s most despised Others–they have a surprising lot in common.

Green was born (as Albert Greene) the sixth of a sharecropper’s ten children in Forrest City, Arkansas and moved to the big city, Detroit, around the age of twelve, where he was doubtless mocked for being “country”.

Loveless was born (as Patty Lee Ramey) the sixth of a coal miner’s seven children in Pikeville, Kentucky, and moved to the big city, Louisville, at the age of twelve, where she was definitely mocked for being country. (In an interesting, perhaps not entirely coincidental. twist, on Loveless’s last album to date, the lead cut, “Busted,” recovered Harlan Howard’s original lyrics, which Johnny Cash, being from Al Green’s neck of the woods, had talked Howard into changing from a coal miner’s lament to a sharecropper’s).

As a teenager, Green, already a seasoned gospel and soul performer, was kicked out of the house for listening to Elvis and Jackie Wilson and ended up on the late sixties’ chitlin’ circuit.

As a teenager, Loveless, already a seasoned country and bluegrass performer, married against her parents’ wishes (she picked a drummer, doubtless her folks knew the long odds against that ending well) and ended up on the late seventies’ Carolina bar circuit.

After middling success on the singles chart, Green released his first major album just after his twenty-third birthday, found solid success with the followup and huge success with the album after that.

After middling success on the singles chart (at one point, her label held back promotion because they were afraid her latest record would be “too successful,” you gotta love the suits), Loveless released her first album at the age of twenty-nine, found solid success with the followup and huge success with the album after that.

Each would carry a deep memory of what they had experienced chasing fame, Green’s, “He brought me safe thus far, through many drunken country bars,” (a decade into his fame)…

bleeding into Loveless’s “I used to drink ’til I dropped,” (a decade into her fame).

Each was determined to both sustain and enlarge the great traditions they had inherited: for Green, Hard Gospel and Soul; for Loveless, Hard Country (especially honky tonk and bluegrass).

Each, without compromise, reached a level of commercial success no one really thought was possible for such singers without, you know, compromise.

Green had six gold or platinum albums and eight gold singles in the seventies as a hardcore southern soul singer steeped in gospel.

Loveless had eight gold or platinum albums in the eighties and nineties as a hardcore honky tonker steeped in bluegrass.

Uncompromised as they were, each owed much of their success to a unique ability to join the deepest commitment with genuine eclecticism: Green always ready to reach as far as this…

or this….;

Loveless the rare (only?) singer who could bridge say, George Jones…

and Richard Thompson (stay for the wild applause)…

(and never mind, for now, the night at the Kennedy Center Honors where she was the only person on the planet who could have bridged Loretta Lynn and James Brown without breaking a sweat….let’s stay on track).

Later, having climbed for a decade or so, and reached the pinnacle, each found themselves in the throes of a spiritual crisis that clearly caused them to question the value of what it had taken to stand on top of the mountain.

Each walked down.

In Green’s case a series of incidents low-lighted by a woman committing suicide when he refused to marry her finally led him back to the church, where he became the Reverend Al Green and recorded mostly gospel thereafter

In Loveless’s case, a failure to conceive a child with her second husband as nature’s time ran out (according to Laurence Leamer’s invaluable essay on her, which highlights his great Three Chords and the Truth, she saw it as a possible judgment on the abortion she had while married to her first husband….as he didn’t quote her directly, I don’t know his sourcing, only that the conclusion makes sense for anyone raised in Pentecostal air), finally led her into a “traditional” phase, where she increasingly recorded music so spare and out of touch with contemporary trends it amounted to a thumb in Nashville’s eye.

Each finally succeeded in defining the late phase of their respective genres so thoroughly that it became the last phase.

Thus, each has legions of imitators, some inspired.

Neither has a true inheritor.

Each was highly self-conscious about the journey they were on.

The way I know is, you can’t sustain their particular sort of brilliance any other way (for Green, 12 great albums between 1969 and 1978, following on those early singles that were collected on 1967’s excellent Back Up Train; for Loveless, 16 good-to-great albums between 1987 and 2009, abetted by duets and guest appearances that would probably add up to at least a couple more).

There are no weak tracks in either catalog.

One is hard-pressed to find a mediocrity.

It takes work to never, ever give in. But more than that, it takes vision.

And, as they went along, they each, without abandoning their basic approach, or chasing the radio (as opposed to letting it chase them), managed to stretch beyond all prevailing limits, into a place, abetted by style but rooted in the now-ecstatic, now-scarifying assumptions that accompany having to answer to God, where uplift and despair are eternally poised to swallow each other…

For all those reasons and more, it is possible to drive through any part of the South, listening to either, album after album, and feel a connection with what is outside the window, and what lies beneath, in terms of either time or space, that is beyond even Elvis, even the Allmans, even Otis Redding.

And, oh yeah, each was, year after year, Best Dressed.

No small thing for the audiences they cared about most, and who cared most about them.

They finally had so much in common that whatever separates them isn’t worth mentioning.

But all of that isn’t really a lot compared to being canaries in the coal mine.

I wonder if it’s really a coincidence that Al Green’s Detroit and Patty Loveless’s Appalachia are now the two most blighted regions in a land where blight spreads exponentially (while the stock market rolls merrily along, assisted by the state as necessary)? Or that the two-party-one-party state that stomps endlessly on, stomps hardest on the very places–the rural south and the inner city north–that produced the musical collusions which once represented the only real cultural threat the Man has ever felt in his bones?

Who really knows?

We all have our opinions.

You can probably guess mine.

What I do know is that it’s possible, in Al Green’s music, to hear the history of the crack cocaine epidemic that was about to descend on that part of Black America which carries southern memory with it wherever it goes a decade before it actually happened. You can hear it coming, you can hear it happening, and you can hear how hard it’s going to land on those left behind long after it has been explained away by the usual suspects. You can hear all of what you can only hear some of it artists as far-seeing as Sly Stone or George Clinton or War or Gamble and Huff.

And I know it’s possible, in Patty Loveless’s music, to hear the history of the meth epidemic that has now swept through that part of Hillbilly America which carries mountain memories with it wherever it goes, a decade before it actually happened. You can hear all of what you couldn’t hear a single bit of in the music that surrounded her on country radio in the nineties.

You can hear it coming, happening, landing….

In neither instance was the case made with words.

Canaries in coal mines are never concerned with lyrics. They’re concerned with sound. With hammering out a warning, as the old New Folk tune used to go.

The warning was always there in these two voices, right next to the exhilaration of hearing those voices meet and reach new standards that tended to transcend mere perfection even as they constantly redefined it.

But beyond all that, you can hear the push back, the constant reminder that only the path to Hell is easy–the Old Testament always looking over the New Testament’s shoulder.

It took courage to stay their particular courses. The boot isn’t really in Al Green’s face any more. And it’s not really in Patty Loveless’s face either. They’re free of those drunken country bars, have been since their first gold records. They were lifted out of hard lives–out of being born to be stomped on–by otherworldly talent which they, with conviction, would call God-given.

They aren’t the first or last who could say the same.

They are among the very, very few who never forgot, even for a moment.

I once either read or dreamed a scenario. I can’t say which, because, while my memory says I read it, some time in the late nineties, I’ve never been able to remember where. I any case, dream or experience, it went like this:

I was standing in a book store. I was at the sale table and there was a book on country music which I picked up and thumbed through (my memory says it was Leamer’s aforementioned Three Chords and the Truth, but I’ve read it since and couldn’t find the memory even though I was specifically looking for it, hence the possibility it was a dream). Whether dream or experience, there was a lengthy section on Patty Loveless which, since I didn’t have money to purchase the book, I read at length. It described her appearance at one of Nashville’s Annual Fan Fairs (just like Leamer’s book). She came on stage to perform at the end of a long day which had been filled with glad-handing super-slick superstars like Garth Brooks and Reba McEntire. who seemed curiously detached from the people who stood in the endless lines to shake their hands (just like in Leamer’s book).

It’s the next part I must have dreamed. Because when she stepped to the microphone, at the height of her own considerable fame (just like in Leamer’s book). a lonely Appalachian voice, exhausted by the day’s endless hype, called out in the night.

“Sing for us!” it said.

Sing for those of us who everybody else here has already forgotten.

Dream or experience, the voice was calling to the only singer it had a chance of reaching.

I don’t know if it ever really happened.

But I know that, if it did, she answered the way she always did and the way Al Green always did.

They sang for us.

Choose between them?

Might as well ask me to choose between my left eye and my right eye.

No thanks.

(NEXT UP: My Favorite Double LP)

MY MORE OR LESS FAVORITE ALBUMS BY ARTISTS WHO HAVE NEVER BEEN NOMINATED FOR THE ROCK AND ROLL HALL OF FAME (Volume 3: The Seventies, Amended)

Whenever you do this sort of thing, ad hoc, you’re almost bound to leave something out. But, while I haven’t had more than one or two pangs of regret over my sixties’ list, the deep and fundamental inadequacy of my seventies’ list started bugging me almost as soon as I posted it. I kept remembering yet another album that made me ask “How could I have left that one off?” Finally, when there were enough of them, I decided to put the eighties’ list on hold.

I’m not much into the old this “decade vs. that decade” disputes, at least not when the decades in question were indisputably great. But for rather obvious historical and demographic reasons, the seventies were certainly the most prolific decade for rock and roll. One fun aspect of taking the focus off the canon for a bit is exploring roads not taken or roads that were partially explored before being abandoned. More of that probably happened in the seventies with truly popular (and populist) music than in any other arbitrary ten year stretch. Some of what’s here “hit,” some didn’t. But it’s easy to think that any of it might have. And, in any case, it was fun to have an excuse to dig out the vinyl and just sit back and smile….

Brinsley Schwarz Despite It All (1970)

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Fake country rock…from England. Really, now, what other decade had that? Weird thing was, for the space of this album, it was convincing. Even Gram Parsons never did better with the concept. And, as we surely know now if we didn’t know then, that’s as good as the concept gets.

Pick to Click: “Ebury Down”

The Move Message From the Country (1971)

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In the later vinyl and cd era, re-releases of this album have always included “Do Ya” and some other fine singles recorded around the same time which were not on this album originally. But the original album was fine on its own. They morphed into ELO of course, but, believe me, Bachman Turner Overdrive took a few notes as well. If, like me, you cant that a good thing, then this is a kind of touchstone of a style of rock and roll that, unless “rock and roll” counts, was never hip enough to acquire a catchy name.

Pick to Click: “Until Your Mama’s Gone”

The Belmonts Cigars, Acappella, Candy (1972)

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I have to admit, when I put the original list together I left this off because I thought these guys had been inducted along with a lot of other famous backup bands/groups a few years back (Blue Caps, Miracles, like that). Seems they weren’t. Once again, you have to sometimes wonder what the folks at the Hall are thinking. Me, I’d put them in if this miraculous LP was all they ever did.

Pick to Click: “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever”

B.J. Thomas Billy Joe Thomas (1972)

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I wrote at length about this album’s most famous track here. There’s no way the rest of it could live up to “Rock and Roll Lullaby” which would pretty much upset the balance of any LP ever made. But Thomas was one of the finest studio singers of studio singing’s golden age and, as the title suggests, this is an attempt at the kind of cohesive statement studio pros weren’t supposed to be capable of (not being “soulful” enough presumably). Despite some occasionally pedestrian production, it largely succeeds. A vocal tour-de-force.

Pick to Click: “Rock and Roll Lullaby” (Following along with the “Drift Away” theory established in the “Volume 2, The Seventies” portion of our program….Of the album’s other cuts, I especially commend the closer, a version of John Sebastian’s “Stories We Could Tell” which, unfortunately, I couldn’t find on-line.)

Barry White Stone Gon’ 1973

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One of the things Rock and Roll America used to turn up on a fairly regular basis was voices the rest of America hadn’t been able to previously imagine. Believe me, you can find more precedent for Little Richard in 1955, or Jimi Hendrix in 1967, than you can for Barry White in 1973. This was his second album. It’s here because it’s the only non-comp of his I happen to own. I’ll need to correct that oversight some day. Just be warned that his habit on LP was to stretch his great singles to the breaking point and then surround them with the stuff the radio didn’t have time for…also stretched to the breaking point. I’ll just add that when white Englishmen took this sort of approach, it was always called “art” or “classical” and never once sounded either half as good or half as adventurous.

Pick to Click: “Never, Never Gonna Give Ya Up” (long version)

KC and the Sunshine Band Do it Good (1974)

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If disco hadn’t taken off the way it did, and they hadn’t played such a key role in that takeoff, then they would probably be recognized and celebrated for what they really were, which was a hardcore southern funk band whose leader, Harry Wayne Casey, was, as bandleader, frontman, writer, producer and arranger, the point man in changing the style’s deepest scene from Memphis to Miami.

If that kind of recognition should ever come, it might just get him and his crack band (along with his partner in enlightenment, Richard Finch) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, where they richly belong. All of their period albums are good, and their basic comp is essential. But not more so than their first album, which creased the R&B charts and presaged their breakout the following year. In a word, they did what a southern funk band was supposed to do and for half a decade they did it better than anyone else.

They stomped.

Pick to Click: “Sound Your Funky Horn”

Hot Chocolate Cicero Park (1974)

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Actually, every album they released in the seventies could qualify as one of my favorites for this list and just as superb albums period. They were basically unclassifiable, which may be why they’ve never quite gotten credit for being as great as they were. The vision was equal parts funk, rock, glam, reggae, sixties’ soul and social protest. Actually there once was a classification for that: Rock and Roll. Don’t tell the wrong people. They might swim over to your island and steal your Hot Chocolate records.

Pick to Click: “Changing World”

Wet Willie Keep On Smilin’ (1974)

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The Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd set the tone for most of Southern Rock. It would be rooted in blues and R&B, crossed with country and English hard rock, with (in the case of the Allmans) a little jazz thrown in. Wet Willie were hardly unmindful of all that, but they also gravitated toward blue eyed soul and hard funk and, at their best, it led to what I can only call gutbucket beauty. This is them at their best. If the title track were even conceivable today, it would be slotted “Americana” and have no chance whatsoever of being played anywhere except college radio. In it’s day it went Top Ten on the Pop charts. Tell me again why things are really the same or better now?

Pick to Click: “Keep On Smilin'” (live)

Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids Rock & Roll Forever (1975)

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This is a cheat. It’s a sort of comp, though sufficiently unusual for me to include it even if I didn’t have my reasons. It contains their first album, plus other stuff like the cut from American Graffiti (where they played the band for the high school dance) that threatened very briefly to break them out. They were neo to the core, of course. Throwbacks of a kind that normally aren’t good for anything more than the cheapest nostalgia. A decade later, bands like the Blasters made the throwback thing cool and the Stray Cats even made it commercial. But Flash Cadillac weren’t really like that. They were more like a group of guys who were genuinely caught out of time. They played and sang like the sixties had never happened. There were limits to the approach to say the least. But they, almost alone among the many practitioners of the ethos, found a genuine joy in it, too. Having never heard a single cut on this LP except the American Graffiti stuff, finding this in a used record shop in the nineties still put the smile of the year on my face. And taking it home and listening to it didn’t dim that smile even a little bit.

Pick to Click: “She’s So Fine”

Vicki Sue Robinson Never Gonna Let You Go (1976)

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Out here in the hinterlands there was a very long stretch, basically from whenever the single edit of “Turn The Beat Around” fell off the charts and took the LP out of your local department store’s record bin with it, until the mid-nineties CD reissue boom began taking hold, when, if you wanted to hear the incendiary long version of “Turn the Beat Around,” you had to get lucky and find this in a throwaway bin somewhere. (Oh yeah, you could luck into a 12″ white-sleeve single version…In North Florida…Sure you could. Just like you could see Elvis and Jim Morrison pumping gas across the street from the local Hardee’s.)

My copy was acquired in the late eighties. It still has the fifty-cent tag on it and, if memory serves, it was from a shop where the standard fare was more like fifty bucks.

Or it could have been from the one that was keeping most of their stock on dirt floors in an open-ended barn.

Have I mentioned previously that, sometimes, memory does not serve very well?

What I do remember was picking it up because I had kind of liked the single once upon a time, didn’t have it, but was having a bit of a love affair with old disco albums at the time, figured “Hey, it’s fifty cents. What can it hurt?”

What else I remember was playing the lead track–yes, it’s “Turn the Beat Around”–and being literally floored. There was a time when I obsessed on understanding the lyrics, especially the part where she started redeeming what I had previously considered the dubious history of any and all scat-singing that didn’t involve Louis Armstrong, before finally deciding it was pointless because she was obviously speaking in tongues.

Then, of course, Gloria Estefan came along and straightened it all out with her perfectly articulated 1994 version. I can’t tell you how I know this, and, of course it won’t really be my call, but you can rest assured that, on the Judgment Day, one Gloria Estefan will not be forgiven.

Yes, there’s a whole album and it’s a pretty darn good album. I especially like that fact that, according the back cover, one Vicki Sue Robinson both arranged and performed all that scat-singing herself, including the backup. And, of course, these days, the long version is readily available on YouTube, Amazon, etc.

But that’s really immaterial.

It would be immaterial if the rest of this album were Let It Bleed. Music’s an affair of the heart before it’s anything else. So’s record collecting.

Vicki Sue Robinson, come on down.

Pick to click: “Turn the Beat Around” (long version)

The Cars (1978)

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The album has nine tracks. Six of them became permanent radio staples, despite no single reaching higher than #27 in Billboard. It didn’t sound like anything else before it (even though everybody swore it did, because, well, it must have) and, except for other Cars’ albums, it hasn’t sounded like anything since. Maybe we should be thankful, because, before it’s anything else, it’s ice cold, the epitome of naked ambition. But it worked. And, when it works, ice cold naked ambition is as rock and roll as anything else in this vail of tears.

Pick to Click: “Bye Bye Love” (live)

Rachel Sweet Fool Around (1978)

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As I’ve said somewhere on here before, the missing link between Brenda Lee and Britney Spears. I bet Britney would have been better–and better off–if Rachel had been as big as either. Girl could have used a role model. (Britney, I mean. Rachel was a smart cookie. Went into TV, did just fine. Her lack of stardom was our loss, not hers.)

Click to Pick: “Who Does Lisa Like” (live…and absolutely smokin’)

Nick Lowe Pure Pop For Now People (1978) and Labour of Lust (1979)

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I should mention at this point that there are several albums here, including both of these, which have different tracks for English and American releases. My preferences are for the American versions. Sometimes this is simply because those are what I heard first. More often it’s because I just think the American versions are better.

Going back to the Beatles and Stones, the hard fact is that American record companies had a tendency to cut the fluff. I know this fiddled with everyone’s artistic integrity and all, but I think it also made for better listening experiences. Letting artists have complete control over their album content and sequencing was great in theory, just like letting movie directors have the final cut was great in theory. In practice, better movies and better albums got made when there was a hard won balance between what the artist wanted and what the suits wanted. Now, in the music business at least, we’ve managed the worst of all worlds. The artists are indulged and the suits could care less because there’s no real money in the recording subdivision of the multi-media conglomerate that controls the artist and reports to the corporate sub-overlords who report to the real overlords who keep asking why we really need to keep this music thing going anyway when there’s no money in it?

Case in point, the “bowdlerized” and “re-sequenced” American versions of these two LPs are swift and concise and perfect. The longer English versions (all that’s available on CD as far as I can tell, Pure Pop was originally titled Jesus of Cool) wander around a bit, never quite come to the point and leave no real indication of why this old Brinsley Schwarz hand and jack-of-all-trades record man should have been a much bigger star than he was.

If you can find the vinyl, the question will arise. Those albums were perfect in theory and in fact and, unlike, say, Elvis Costello, he clearly wanted the stardom that never quite came.

No better way to conclude an amended post on the seventies, then, than with the nearest of all the near misses…

Picks to click: “Rollers Show” (Pure Pop) and “American Squirm” (Labour of Lust)

I had some additional thoughts about Pure Pop‘s most famous track, among other things, here.

And I promise you I’m done with the seventies!

And that the eighties, being the eighties, won’t take nearly as long.

SOUTHERN MAN (Vocalist of the Month for 9/14: Ronnie Van Zant)

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(NOTE: This is getting to be more like “vocalist of the six months”….It’s been a busy year on a lot of fronts and I’m just getting back in the blogging swing so I hope to start picking up the pace, here and elsewhere. Meanwhile….This is a sequel to the piece I posted here.)

I suspect every white boy who was born around 1960 (like I was) and grew up in the South (like I did) has at least one Lynyrd Skynyrd story.

Most of us have a lot more than one. Sort of a routine litany.

Stories like mine.

There’s the “Come to think of it John, I never have seen you drunk on your ass,” story and the “You better not let any of those Alabama boys hear you say that” story and the high school talent show story and the “girls cried when Elvis died and boys cried when Ronnie died” story (now there’s one common to all!) and the speakers blasting “Sweet Home Alabama” in the softball field parking lot story and the “My second husband never listened to nothin’ but country and Lynyrd Skynyrd” story and probably a few others I’m not calling to mind just now.

But I’ll leave those aside and let one story suffice.

It’s the summer of 1979 and I’m working in the girls’ camp at the Southern Baptist Convention Center in Ridgecrest, North Carolina. Nice social experience, dreary job. There were five of us on that particular assignment (all college boys), plus two camp cooks.

The cooks were brothers–Texas born and raised, worldly, early thirties, mostly-reformed rowdies, a year or two apart in age. The older one was a Type B, cool, calm, collected. The younger was a Type A, charming, witty, talkative, possessed of a temper which he worked hard at keeping in check. (The one day he lost it, he took a swing at his brother, missed, then let go an animal yell and ran out the door. He came back about five minutes later, soaking wet. He had jumped in the lake where the campers took canoeing lessons, shirt, shoes and all, as we used to say. He apologized all around. Seemed to have gotten it out of his system. Us younger lads–when we got over our mild shock–sort of looked at each other and nodded rather sagely. No word needed to be spoken. He was clearly what we had suspected all along–even before we knew he and his brother had played in rock bands and once opened for the Animals in front of ten thousand people somewhere in Texas. He was, undoubtedly, a product of The Sixties!)

Type A going off and Type B’s modest reaction–“He gets a little belligerent some times but he’ll be alright”–were pretty definitive elements of their respective characters.

But what really defined them was that they had been intimates of Lynyrd Skynyrd–part of the inner circle via their friendship with Skynyrd’s last drummer, Artimus Pyle. The only way they could have been any cooler was if, say, one of them (Type B, naturally) had been asked to be the road manager of the band’s next-to-last tour–the one right before the one that ended in a plane crash that killed Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and his sister, backup singer Cassie Gaines.

Naturally, we all wanted to know why Type B didn’t take the gig.

There were two simple reasons.

Reason One was that his daughter had just been born and he wanted to spend time with her.

Reason Two was that he was told one of his main duties would be keeping Ronnie out of fights.

The way he told it, it was pretty clear Reason Two would have been enough, if Reason One hadn’t existed.

If he had been around enough to be asked to be their road manager, he had certainly been around enough to know that–at least some of the time–Ronnie Van Zant was who we all thought he was.

*   *   *   *

When Lynyrd Skynyrd released their first album in 1973 (Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd‘), Ronnie Van Zant became an instant, virtually official, representative of a part of the population which had been judged by the content of its character for at least a century before Martin Luther King said we all should be and been found permanently wanting by everyone but themselves.

Hillbilly, Redneck, Cracker, White Trash. Hard to find an honorific in there.

And that was just the neighbors talking.

By the time Van Zant died in a plane crash four years later, he and his band had managed to demonstrate just how difficult such stereotypes are to shake. Deepen them, shred them, laugh at them, live for them, die for them and still, your most devoted fans and your bitterest detractors will insist on thrusting them right back on you.

When the music was playing, though, Skynyrd transcended such contradictions again and again. Then and now.

Ronnie himself was the essential reason for the transcendence. And his singing–Chuck Berry’s sly intonations riding in, around, over and under the moral undertow of a Delta man, with the mythic weight resting now on the former, now on the latter, often within the context of a single line–was the reason within the reason.

Not to say that the whole package wasn’t definitive. We live now in an age when the likes of the Who or Led Zeppelin are routinely going around accepting things like Kennedy Center Honors. If Elvis Presley, or even Hank Williams, had lived long enough, it’s not hard to imagine them racking up similar signifiers of middle-brow acceptance.

I can even imagine a future where “hard-core” rappers get the same treatments. Ice Cube maybe. Or Chuck D.

And why not? Heck, George Jones made it that far, whiskey bones and all.

You can be sure, though, that if that airplane had somehow stayed in the air, no such accolades would have ever been in the cards for Ronnie Van Zant. Not even if he had tried.

Which he wouldn’t have.

*   *   *   *

Evidence?

Well, it’s always courting danger to ponder alternative universes, but, all in all, I’d say at least a few assumptions are safe.

First off, if your plane goes down the week you are releasing an album where you sing lines like “you won’t find me in an old folks home” and “whiskey bottles, brand new cars, oak tree you’re in my way,” and you are fond of telling anyone who will listen that you won’t see thirty, then a plane falling or not falling hardly means the fate you are courting won’t find you some other way.

Of course a lot of so-called punks, from Pete “Hope-I-Die-Before-I-Get-Old” Townshend on down, used to brag about being on the same sort of journey, and some still do. Some even follow through. But none of them were/are really philosophical (or any way off-hand) about it. Their brag came from a place Van Zant never thought of visiting. He didn’t say he wanted to die before he got old, just that he would–big difference, and, if you don’t want to admit it, wait til the next world comes and you can be sure that if the Void don’t care to explain it to you, then either John Calvin or Lucifer will be waiting to step up for a word with you please.

So much for “first off.”

Second off–and more significant–is that Van Zant grew up in my world.

Just the other side of the tracks I was just this side of, maybe–but my world all the same.

And I know this much.

You can run away from it. You can never really leave it.

It was a world where everybody had a more than sneaking suspicion that the Devil decides–and, if everybody carries certain sneaking suspicions around with them every single minute of every single day, then the habits of suspicion (and the beliefs those habits both spring from and reinforce) are bound to linger.

You can run away from all of that. Sure you can. Plenty have.

But you can never really leave it all the way behind.

Ronnie was definitive–definitively “us” even when “us” was me, who never did get drunk on his ass and learned to turn the other cheek when he was nine–because he never tried to leave anything behind–never once tried to run away from who he was, even though he knew what he was up against.

He had liberal views but none of the Liberal’s version of arrogance (condescension). And, lacking bluster (the Conservative’s version of same), he had no place to hide away.

So he was never going to be “home.”

Maybe that was why home worried him so much–became the source of his two great themes.

Home as haven. Home as trap.

In an age when nihilism was already running rampant everywhere except the middle of the road (which meant it wouldn’t be long before it was there, too–1980 to be exact), he clearly expected to pay for his sins.

Pay he did, ultimately.

Here’s what else he managed along the way.

*   *   *   *

In a little over four years, between 1973 and 1977, Lynyrd Skynyrd recorded five studio albums plus an epic live double and another album’s worth of out-takes and demos.

All were worthwhile, most were great. That string of rapid-fire greatness made them virtually the last mainstream rock and roll artists to work at such a white-hot pace while sustaining both a creative vision and a wide audience. The difference between their dozen or so radio staples–a number matched or exceeded by only a handful of bands in any form but especially in the “classic rock” format, where only Led Zeppelin (the Beatles of the form) produced so many in such a short span–and whatever you think their worst side is, was minuscule. The vision could seem narrow, no doubt.

But once you stepped inside it–once you got past the cracker facade–it was bottomless.

They set the parameters of that vision, and primed the expectations of their core audience, on the first two tracks of their first official release (Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd). “I Ain’t the One” was hard rock at its slyest (and hardest). “Tuesday’s Gone” was a wistful ballad, nearly as mythic as it was mournful and mysterious. Plenty of fine bands have lived on much narrower turf for decades. Skynyrd would be pushing and shifting and re-setting their turf–digging ever deeper–until almost literally the day they went down (in a plane Aerosmith had refused to fly in) and Ronnie’s death ended the band’s meaningful existence as anything other than a cash cow being milked for the very qualities–cheap nostalgia, boogie-for-its-own-sake–he had always disdained.

That urgency–the sense of constant movement within what seemed, on the surface of the very loud, often spine-rattling noise, to be such obvious restrictions–sprang almost entirely from Van Zant’s genius as a writer, bandleader and, especially, vocalist.

*   *   *   *

The writing part was, by all accounts, pretty mystical itself. Van Zant’s band-mates have described composing sessions as often amounting to them working up a riff while Ronnie wandered down by the lake and, at some point when they were getting on toward an arrangement, he would walk in and have the lyric in his head, ready to go. Working, in other words, the way Quincy Jones has suggested is more typical of jazz musicians and rappers, though, if you substitute arrangements for words, and the parking lot for a lake, it also sounds like a typical Elvis session.

There’s some significance to that, I think.

There’s a point at which this sort of “process” becomes well known and can be self-consciously imitated. In jazz, this had probably happened by the mid-sixties or so. In rock, it had certainly happened by the late seventies. In rap, maybe a decade later.

It might not be a coincidence that stories of loosely run sessions are found most frequently when the musicians spring from America’s two traditionally despised demographics–blacks and poor Southern whites–or from someone who is specifically trying to imitate them.

These are also the demographics where concepts like the posse, the gang, the crew, the extended family (which might be based on blood relations or simply communal associations, generally developed no later than high school), take their strongest hold. Among these two groups, that hold tends to trump everything that tries to break it–including fame, fortune and common sense.

That’s probably because they are the two groups who are most purely and deeply defined by a physical and psychic space they are bound to defend, generation after generation, in order to retain any cultural identity at all.

Better a cultural identity that catches you in a trap, the reasoning goes, than none at all.

Once an “out” group accepts that it can never really be “in,” then “we are who we are” tends to be the most reliable fallback position. Once the acceptance becomes truly ingrained, then you don’t even need to fall back, because the wall is something you learn to keep your back against to begin with.

Out of that, what are you going to get except the far edges of the blues, honky tonk, rockabilly, gangsta rap and, for the purposes of this particular discussion, Southern Rock?

And inside each of those concepts (yeah, they’re musical forms, too, but, at their furthest reach, never just that) you get an occasional genius.

Ronnie Van Zant ended up being the principal genius of Southern Rock in part because his singing brought so many vital elements of those other concepts together in one place to a degree that was matched by very few others–all of whom (Bessie Smith, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, Merle Haggard, James Brown, Al Green) have received far more accolades (not only from places like the Kennedy Center…and not only because most of them lived a lot longer).

That’s how it is with genius and concepts.

The concepts you can predict. The genius not so much.

It goes its own way.

*   *   *   *

Of course, as with all the others I mentioned, hanging a label on Ronnie Van Zant and his great band is a bit of a trap in itself. The labels end up being technically correct and fundamentally ridiculous in the manner of calling Romeo and Juliet a teen romance or The Searchers a western or Adventures of Huckleberry Finn an especially fine example of Southwest Humor.

Some artists are just born to turn the cliches of form and formula on their heads and, inevitably, to put new ones in their place.

The way Van Zant went about practicing his particular acts of subversion was always rooted in a voice that was a perfect match for his lyrics–lyrics that, like the now-lilting, now-growling, now-shouting voice, held edges that were forever cutting both ways. So “Lord knows I can’t change,” (from “Freebird,” the career-defining closing track from their first LP) seems almost mock-ably straightforward until you actually listen to it being sung, after which it becomes impossible to tell the difference between the brag it so obviously seems to be on its face and the somewhat (though only somewhat) bitter confession of loneliness and isolation it surely is underneath. And that’s before you get to the next album’s second cut, “I Need You,” which plays like a sequel that promises everything “Freebird” denied, unless, of course, it’s denying everything “Freebird” promised.

And all of that is before you even get around to singing, you know, “In Birmingham they love the governor–boo, boo, boo,” and having the folks who love you without reservation completely agree with the folks who hate you the same way that you must be a big fan of “the governor.”

So it goes

One thing you learn, hanging out in Calvinist air–love and hate never do much nuanced listening.

So what can a genuinely poor boy do?

Become the only white blues singer whose voice carried no hint of either strain or homage? Claim the music in the off-handed way that a dozen or more singers leading equally fine blues-based bands–singers as great as Gregg Allman or as committed as Eric Clapton, fronting bands as great as the Allman Brothers or Cream–could only dream about? Cry for home every time you hit the road and cry for the road every time you come home? Maybe at the very same time make it sound like you never cried in your life? Make it sound like you’ve lived every single moment in the moment and never regretted a thing….unless it’s every single moment you weren’t thinking about the past or the future?

Celebrate with warnings?

Switch sides in the middle of a song?

Make it sound like “oak tree you’re in my way,” is you talking back to somebody (some preacher’s kid maybe) who is trying to make you see the error of your ways and then make it sound like “one hell of a price for you to get your kicks,” is you talking to somebody you are tying to save–somebody who may or may not be your own self?

Well, you could do all that. If you happened to be one poor boy in particular.

It’s not something that could have been easily predicted. With “art” you only know what’s possible once somebody reaches the limits.

We know what a “western” can be because John Ford existed. That’s true whether you like John Ford or not. We know what “country blues” can be because Robert Johnson existed. Ditto and so on and so forth.

We know what a poor white boy can actually do with what he himself called “the black man’s blues” because Ronnie Van Zant existed.

Ditto.

And so on and so forth.

*   *   *   *

He couldn’t have come from anywhere else. God knows we know, because we know how many others–from here, there and everywhere–have tried.

He couldn’t have come from anywhere except the only part of White America which never expects to assimilate and the only part that knows that whether they just don’t want to or just don’t think it’s possible isn’t a secret they are likely to share even if they come to some conclusion about it themselves.

I don’t know whether Ronnie Van Zant came to any conclusions or not and I won’t pretend I could have found out by asking him in some parallel universe where he did live to see thirty and I used my contacts with the camp cook who almost managed one of his tours to meet him somehow. I doubt his ever-supple management of his own duality–the relationship that had to exist between man and persona that was probably necessary for him to get as far as he did, to claim any audience at all in his own moment or have any claim on the future he knew he wasn’t going to live to see–would have been set aside for my sake.

You live with your back to the wall and–live or die–you give up certain things to gain others. You can’t sing the blues the way Ronnie Van Zant did–the epic, eternal way–and retain your ability to let down your mask so you can explain things to the preacher’s kid.

Or live to see thirty.

*   *   *   *

The manner and timing of Ronnie Van Zant’s death worked to ensure that the element of caricature which clung to him in life–clung no matter how diligently he tried to shed it, how deftly he put it to use as necessary camouflage–clung ever so much tighter once he wasn’t around to be diligent and deft and nuanced about it.

You want a single, reliable watchword for the deep, abiding contempt that college radio, or hip commentary, or thousand-dollar-a-plate fund-raising dinner attendees for either political party or just plain old Liberals-Who-Aren’t feel for the great unwashed?

“Lynyrd-Skynyrd” is all you need.

You need a similar word for the “nostalgia” of second husbands, or Conservatives-Who-Aren’t, or for anyone who thinks they’ve found comfort for the world view that truly believes this world would be a better place if, for starters, black people and “pencil pushers” just learned to stay in theirs?

Say the same.

I suspect no amount of asking people to listen closer will ever change this.

The need to be better than someone else is deeper than any ocean and, sometimes, being the voice who warns ignorance against itself and turns every easy assumption on its head doesn’t mean you are going to reap any easy reward.

Sometimes it just means there is only going to be one of you.

And, sometimes, being the only one means there is no safe haven, even in death.

So forget the “punks.”

If you really want to know what it’s like to never quite fit in–and to know you never will–then Ronnie Van Zant’s your man.

Rest in peace if you can, brother.

Rest in peace if you somehow found a place where they’ll let you.

RONNIEVANZANT3