Whenever our schedules come into some harmonic convergence, the spousal unit and I, in order to save on gas expenses (thus lowering credit card bills and hopefully guiding us one micron closer to clamping down on the higher-than-I-care-to-think-about debts incurred in our student and my adjunct years), ride together to work. While the spousal unit puts the finishing touches on her morning routine, I stumble into the still-dark outside frigidity, crank up the car, turn on the defrost, install my coffee in the cup-holder, and set about scraping the ice off the windows. Then we pack up the car, climb in, turn on the music, and hit the road
Last Thursday, rather than put the mp3 on random, I asked the spousal unit to just pick an album. I sipped my coffee, she scrolled through the list before eventually settling on a selection. A compilation of Lynyrd Skynyrd non-radio songs began to play. I wasn't expecting this. Suddenly, my mind was wandering through reminiscences fractals, wading through iteration after iteration of Skynyrd memories.
As a beginning guitar player, having friends show me the chord structure of "Sweet Home Alabama," while assuring me that, as we lived in Skynyrd's hometown of Jacksonville, this was a mandatory skill.
Sitting in a garage with an acoustic, some fairly drunk friend of my friend's dad insisting "Tuesday's Gone" was a double-time, almost bluegrass number, and that I, by adopting a bluesy approach, was playing it "all wrong and horrible"...all while blowing smoke in my face.
Master guitar player friend sitting in my bedroom, picking up my crappy Japanese strat, and playing "The Ballad of Curtis Loew"...me mesmerized by the dripping tale of an unappreciated artist.
Out on my dad's boat, fishing, radio quietly playing some of the more acoustic Skynyrd, aforementioned master guitar player friend commenting on "the perfect fishing music" as I got snagged in the weeds.
Hearing "Four Walls of Raiford" for the first time, wondering why the radio didn't play some of this awesome stuff instead of sticking to the same five overplayed songs...as this one perfectly captured hopelessness and crushing loneliness.
My brother's guitar player/1957 Cadillac owner telling us about playing in a bar, having someone requesting "Freebird," him making the flicking-the-middle-finger/"here's a free bird" joke, and having the requesting patron throw a 1 1/2" thick glass ashtray across the bar at his head in response.
Coming from Jacksonville, I have particularly complicated relationship with Lynyrd Skynyrd. Yeah, I know that every aspiring musician has to deal with their hometown successes, and I'm sure there are, for instance, a thousand Detroit-area guitar players whose stomach turns when someone requests Bob Seger (as, incidentally, would mine). But for us North Floridians, Skynyrd is a bit different. Pre-Jacksonville Jaguars, Skynyrd is all anyone knows of Jacksonville. And the image they have? Rebel flag-waving, George Wallace-supporting, "Freebird" yelling whiskey drunks. Jacksonville is way more complex than this. Hell, Skynyrd is way more complex than this. But the image, thanks to "Freebird," "Gimme Three Steps," and "Sweet Home Alabama"-obsessed radio programmers, persists. To this day, I have a friend who has, to my face, brought up the "southerners = Lynyrd Skynyrd = Klan members" equation.
I left Lynyrd Skynyrd behind long before I left the South, but eventually, thanks to Drive-By Truckers and a clever "Simple Man" placement in season one of My Name is Earl, I eventually found my way back. But I was living in Ohio by then, in completely different surroundings, a Southerner unrecognizable as such (thanks to my lack of accent). Lacking the Jacksonville context, Skynyrd just became a reminder, just something to occasionally prompt fuzzy nostalgia.
Last Thursday, though, hearing them out of the blue...it was different. The surroundings might've sported snow accents, but the bleakness remained. I was still driving through desolate landscapes (albeit without trees). After I dropped off the spousal unit, I crossed through an industrial zone full of warehouses, and save the cold, could've been on Beaver Street. A certain emptiness and despair entered the surroundings, and my mood altered itself to match. I was struck by how much of "is this all there will ever be to my life?" dug its way into my brain, and how strong was my desire to drown that feeling with whiskey. For the brief drive, Skynyrd became the over-saturated soundtrack of hopelessness, of ashtray-throwing critics, of fishermen and drunks.
Upon reflection, things are very much different for me now. I'm living in a much better place, with much closer friends, doing a job I love instead of merely tolerate, living with my true love instead of dwelling in emptiness. While it's true my life hasn't ended up how I expected, I am intently happy...and if this indeed all there will ever be, I will, 90 times out of 100, be perfectly fine with that.
But for one day, Skynyrd changed that. Hell, it's not even like it was in Lynyrd Skynyrd itself...they're too concerned with money, drugs, and sex...but that's where I saw it anyway. Maybe this says something about me.
I guess next time I should just focus on the endless guitar solos.