“Well I’m sittin’ down in San Anton’, Waiting on an eight o’clock train, My woman left me here last night, Things ain’t been quite the same, I gotta get back to Dallas, And tie up a few loose ends, I’m gonna work a week make a hundred dollars, Aw and hit the road again” – Marshall Tucker, “This ‘ol Cowboy”
In 1975 I was fourteen years old. The bands Lynyrd Skynyrd and Marshall Tucker were playing at the Charlotte Coliseum and I convinced my parents to buy me and a friend two tickets so we could attend. We also needed a ride, so my Mom would have to take and pick us up after the concert. Mom was reluctant to let me go, knowing that we would be exposed to all matters of Rock ‘n’ Roll indulgences, beer, liqueur, and the choice of contraband I was most interested in at the time marijuana. She was right and the two fourteen year olds were not disappointed.
Marshall Tucker, a band from Spartanburg, SC just an hours drive from Charlotte, was the opening act. They lit up the stage like so many joints being passed up and down our row. At the time, I was more of a fan of Marshall Tucker than Lynyrd Skynyrd. We considered them local boys because they were from just up the road and I knew every member of the band and every song they played that night.
The Tucker Boys tore it up and I remember thinking Skynrd better bring their A game tonight. Certainly it helped that whatever ganja was being passed around that night was in stoned parlance “good shit” and I had a major buzz going by the time Lynyrd Skynyrd hit the stage.
By 1975 Lynyrd Skynyrd was already a Southern Rock legend with hits like Sweet Home Alabama and Free Bird dominating the airwaves. They were a guitar heavy, loud band with a rough and tumble, take no shit attitude lead by a charismatic singer named Ronnie Van Zant.
That night Van Zant come on stage with a half empty bottle of whiskey and not long after, I mean like two songs into the set, fell off the stage breaking his arm. The Coliseum lights came on, the band stopped playing, Van Zant was attended too and the band walked off the stage. It appeared that the party was over before it had even started.
After about ten minutes the lights went down again and both Lynyrd Skynyrd, less Ronnie Van Zant and Marshall Tucker came on stage and proceeded to play an hour-long version of Free Bird. It was in a word spectacular and I was there, in all of my stoned fourteen year old glory to witness it.
Two years later, on October 20, 1977 Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister, singer Cassie Gaines and members of the flight crew were killed in a plane crash after playing a concert in Greenville, SC. That was forty years ago this past Friday.
I was sixteen years old, driving around in my 1968 Ford Mustang with an 8-track tape player pumping out tunes through my Jensen Coaxial speakers that cost me a fortune. I had just bought their latest 8-track, Street Survivors whose cover had an eerie photograph of the band standing in front of a background of fire. The record company changed the cover after the crash.
It is hard for me to imagine sometimes that forty years have passed, to remember how simple life was back then. To laugh about what was important to me, my car, smoking a little dope, chasing it with a warm cheap beer and trying to find some girls to talk too.
The music of Lynyrd Skynyrd marked many moments in my life, moments of innocence that many of us spend the rest of our lives trying to recapture. We can’t, but fortunately the memories live on, memories of 8-track tapes, cute blue-eyed blondes, and a faithful night in 1975 when a fourteen year old got to hear Free Bird played like it has never been played or will ever be played again.
“If I leave here tomorrow, Would you still remember me? For I must be traveling on now, Cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see” – Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Free Bird”