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Most of Lynyrd Skynyrd Is Gone, But Who Cares?

Lynyrd Skynyrd: How many of these people played on the original "Free Bird?"
Courtesy of Lynyrd Skynyrd

On a recent trip to Oregon, I ended up at West Fest, an annual event aimed at drumming up business in the western outskirts of Salem, the state's capital. Both Boston and The Kingsmen were scheduled to play, so it sounded like it would be worth the $3 admission, even though I was pretty sure the Kingsmen broke up right after recording "Louie Louie" 40-something years ago.

We've all seen this gimmick: a band with one or two original members tours making a living on the fair and festival circuit. Imagining the current lineups of these bands, I shook my head. Maybe the singer's brother-in-law had taken over the vocals and the guy who was subletting the manager's condo had landed himself a gig behind the drums.

As it turned out, it wasn't even that legitimate. Both The Kingsmen and Boston are still touring somewhere in one incarnation or another, but not at West Fest. Instead, we got The Dennis Mitchell Band, named for the brother of the original guitarist on "Louie Louie," who is, like, Dennis, also a member of the band. Why the band isn't named after Mike, the guy who was actually in the band, I don't know. The Mitchellmen took the stage and offered up a workmanlike set of their older material along with some songs I didn't recognize.

Next, instead of Boston, it was a band called Cosmo, featuring Fran and Anthony Cosmo, a father and son who had both performed on the road with Boston at one point or another. The more I thought about it, the more I grew terrified of the upcoming Lynyrd Skynyrd concert at Celebrity Theatre.

You see, I fell in love with Skynyrd at the beginning of my high school classic-rock phase. In no time, I had collected all their albums and some rare vinyl, paid way too much to see them live, and alienated my college roommate by refusing to listen to anything else.

As time wore on, I realized that the lineup that bore the Skynyrd name was not the lineup I had fallen in love with. Everyone knows that the plane crash killed singer Ronnie Van Zant and half the gang, but since then, five more members have died, and now the band's only ties to the '70s include founder Gary Rossington, Ronnie's brother, Johnny, and drummer-turned-guitarist Rickey Medlocke.

When pianist Billy Powell died of a heart attack in June, Rossington was left as the only member of the band that recorded the familiar versions of "Free Bird" and "Sweet Home Alabama" that you hear on the radio.

The disconnect gradually turned me off, and I eventually adopted a more detached, somewhat ironic, appreciation for the band. And now I was going to be tasked with reviewing their show. Standing in Oregon, waiting for "Boston" to take the stage, I was having trouble reconciling what I expected to be writing in a month with what my younger self would have written.

Despite the fact that these acts were not the genuine article and despite the fact that the bands' claims to fame bordered on frivolous, West Fest was charging an admission fee for the first time ever, and this usually small festival instead saw thousands turn out to rock along with whoever the dude onstage was. Waiting for "Boston" to play the hits we all know and love, all I could think about was the fact that half the guys onstage looked as though they were young enough to be breastfeeding when the songs they were playing in 2009 first hit the airwaves. I was filled with resentment.

But I'll be damned if the resentment didn't melt away when they made the transition between "Foreplay" and "Long Time." Fran Cosmo didn't sound anything like Brad Delp, but really, rock 'n' roll has never been about vocal talent. The guitars were there, and they sounded like the guitars I loved. And every single person in the crowd was jamming along. I swear to God that I saw a 70-year-old blind woman put her orange-tipped cane in the air and start headbanging.

Suddenly, I was getting into it, and that's when I realized that even though you can't always get the band back together, it doesn't really matter. Concerts are about latching onto something tacitly connected to the music's source. When that happens, it's not hard to understand why the feeling seems to rub off on everyone onstage and in the audience. Maybe it didn't work for The Kingsmen, who had trouble charting with anything other than covers, but Boston built its fan base by writing rock epics and touring the hell out of them.

Suddenly, I wasn't stressing the Skynyrd show quite as much.

I've since asked Skynyrd fans about what keeps them coming back to see a band that bears little resemblance to what they heard when they first heard Skynyrd's 1976 live album. They told me about the music and how it had touched their lives this way or that, but I was frustrated that no one could really address the issues brought up by the band's revolving-door lineup.

It took a band member to put it in perspective. Enter Rickey Medlocke.

"As long as Gary, Johnny, and myself are there, I believe the fans really don't give a shit," says Medlocke.

Actually, the impressively concise Medlocke brings a unique perspective to this question. He's not a founding member of Skynyrd or an "original" member (in the way most people think of the term) but he's not some Johnny-come-lately, either. He played drums for the band in the early '70s but left to start Blackfoot a few years before Skynyrd released its debut album. After the band reconstituted, he signed on again to contribute to the signature three-guitar attack Skynyrd had since developed.

Medlocke says that the allure for the fans isn't about the personalities onstage — it's about the music, and connecting with it and the band while they still can.

"I think they come to see a part of music history, because the music is timeless," even though the band may have to hang it up one day. "That's what you work hard for — for them to love the music and get next to it so the band can keep going."

And maybe that's what separates bubblegum pop idols from rock gods. The screaming at New Kids on the Block concerts was a reaction to well-marketed heartthrobs, not the enduring relevance of "Hangin' Tough." But at a Skynyrd show, you take your Zippo out for "Tuesday's Gone" every time, not because you hope to catch Gary Rossington's eye and get invited to his dressing room, but because you feel that song, and you always will.

Skynyrd's catalog isn't infused with the mystique of Dark Side of the Moon or the depth of Abbey Road, but that's not what their fans are looking for.

They want music that speaks to their lives. For the average Skynyrd fan, life is, like the band's career, mostly a story about being knocked down and getting back up. "Simple Man"? You got the same advice from your grandma. "Free Bird"? You've probably heard it played at a funeral or two.

And when you connect on that level, who really cares whether it's Bob Burns or Artimus Pyle or Robert Kearns playing the drums?

Medlocke would probably tell you that anyone who wants to criticize the lineup can go to hell. He raises his voice when he defends Rossington's prerogative — as the last surviving founding member — to assemble the band as he sees fit.

"No one's bigger than the name Lynyrd Skynyrd itself," he says. "Gary has every right to put anyone along with Johnny and me in the band and call it that."

That defiant attitude is a hallmark of their music and part of the reason the fans stay engaged. You can kick this band while it's down, but don't expect it to stay down. Kill half of them in a plane crash? They'll take a break and be right back, because they're Lynyrd fucking Skynyrd.

"Time will catch up to everybody; it always does. One day, we won't be able to tour," Medlocke says. But the band refuses to go out on anyone's terms but its own. "The only thing left to throw at us is a major asteroid."


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