Not long ago I had to fly somewhere and I’m a nervous flyer. I usually dread getting into a plane but I was determined I would enjoy this flight to Texas and then Colorado. We got into the air with my right ear-popping like crazy and I decided to listen to an audiobook once we were flying. I opened my audible library selection and just picked one at random. Well, needless to say, I picked this one. I was 30 minutes into the book before I discovered the irony of the situation. I quickly picked another book (Grateful Dead bio) and listened to that but…I finished this one on the way back while… driving safely on the ground.
This is not an autobiography of the band… it is an account of their mid to late-70s tours. The book was written by an insider (the road manager) book from 1974 to the 1977 plane crash. Lynyrd Skynyrd was a wild bunch who was ruled by lead singer Ronnie Van Zant with an iron fist. It was partly about babysitting a bunch of up-and-coming rock stars and yes…very entertaining. These guys learned from the best… they had opened for The Who on the Quadrophenia tour in 1973. Keith Moon showed them the path to destruction in hotels across the globe. They took it to a new level though…not only fighting with people who annoyed them…they fought each other. Contrary to popular belief…most of them were well-read and intelligent men but with a wild side.
The band was managed by Peter Rudge who was known to be very cheap with bands. He also managed the Stones and The Who. It was Ron Eckerman’s (tour manager) job to collect the money and figure out the most economical way of traveling. In early 1977 he saw that traveling by plane would be cheaper than by bus. The band toured constantly and was rarely at home adding to the short tempers. They lost their guitar player Ed King in 1975 because of that plus madness exploding out of pure exhaustion. Keeping a road crew together while you are not touring was near impossible unless you play over 200 – 250 shows a year.
Reading this book is truly like being transported in time back in the seventies rock world. It was back to a time when bands had to build up an audience. It didn’t happen with a youtube video or a Facebook page. There were no auto-tune or backing tracks to save you in concert. Lynyrd Skynyrd was one of the best live bands around. They played at Knebworth in 1976 and were heralded in the press as the next great band in league with the Stones and Who. They never got that chance and were different than most bands. They had no production values at all…just a mirror disco ball. Ronnie Van Zant did not dance around like Mick Jagger or Steven Tyler…he was more like a field general directing his troops to conquer the audience.
After losing Ed King, a great California guitarist… they picked up Oklahoma native Steve Gaines who would have had a chance to be a huge star. Gaines was an absolute phenom on guitar and had he not died at 28 in the plane crash, he might well be a guitar legend now. The book is hilarious in places but you know what is coming. They climbed the rock ladder and the new album Street Survivors showed what they might do. The album was not a “southern rock” album…it was a rock album by a band from the south.
They never would get a chance to fulfill their promise. The new album was their biggest yet and in two weeks’ time, they would have headlined Madison Square Garden for the first time. It really did look like they were about to be elevated to the top bracket of touring rock bands.
I was a kid when all of this was going on but I am amazed at how much the world has changed since then. If a band, no matter how successful, would do what they did in today’s world…the band would be in jail and shunned. Not only Lynyrd Skynryd but Led Zeppelin, The Stones, The Who, and a host of other rock bands. The book will truly transport you back to that time. Even if you are a fan or not…it’s worth a read. Ron Eckerman was in the plane when it crashed and his description is truly chilling.
Eckerman took the blame for the crash but it wasn’t one man’s fault. A short while after releasing the book he died of acute myeloid leukemia. His wife said he never got over the guilt for the crash and he died three years after the book was published.