I remember exactly where I was the first time I heard “Sweet Home Alabama.”
I’d graduated from college only months before. Talk about a weird experience. What am I gonna do next?
In my case I was gonna be a ski bum in Little Cottonwood Canyon, i.e. Alta & Snowbird. My final year of college was the worst snow year in history, like Depeche Mode, I just couldn’t get enough, but that was years before that track came out.
My father had bought me a new car for graduation. I didn’t want one, I had a ’63 Chevy convertible, although I was a bit anxious about it, it didn’t have a low gear, so going down the canyon… And my father wanted me to get a Capri, which I did not want, he’d gotten screwed by the Lincoln/Mercury dealer, they’d sold him a lemon and he could squeeze out a good deal on the Capri, but I said no. And then one day my mother told me my father really wanted to buy me a car, which is how I ended up with my 2002, which was a demonstrator, even so, 6k was a lot of money back in ’74. And I insisted upon two things inside, a/c, since my father kept testifying about its necessity, and a Blaupunkt AM/FM cassette radio. Morris first balked at the a/c, which cost $600, which brought the price to said 6k, but the radio was included, and I made twenty four Maxell cassettes for my trip to Utah, but whenever I hit a metropolis I tuned in the local FM station, to find something new.
And this morning in St. Louis they were doing construction, and it was raining, and I was reaching to the dial, since that head unit had no push buttons, not that I’d know the stations in St. Louis, and as I passed a gas station on the left, that’s when I heard “Sweet Home Alabama.”
This was just when “Free Bird” was becoming legendary, but before Lynyrd Skynyrd had been inducted into the pantheon, after all, they were working for MCA, the worst label in the business, even worse than RCA.
And the reason I remember hearing “Sweet Home Alabama” that day was because the track was so great, no other band had three lead guitarists, oh, the Outlaws copied them, but this was a new sound, the Allmans might have had two drummers, but three guitarists, what was the point, Cream only had one, but they danced together, entwined each other, came up with a complex sound that was so simple.
One of those guitars, one of the writers of the song, was Ed King.
He’d started out in the Strawberry Alarm Clock, who I’d seen at Fairfield University, but I’m not sure he was in the touring group, but he probably was, this was right after “Incense and Peppermints,” another one listen track that sounded like nothing else, it was the organ and that spacy guitar, as well as vocals sung like the guy was gasping for air, like someone was pulling him somewhere else but he had to get the words out before he moved on. But this was the sixties, when the soundalikes were ignored and we were bombarded by new sounds constantly. Imagine what it was like to hear “Purple Haze” for the first time, nothing prepared you for it, we don’t have breakthroughs like that these days.
But by time Lynyrd Skynyrd came on the scene, times had changed. FM radios were prevalent in cars, and the Allman Brothers were the biggest band in the land, albeit after the passing of Duane, it was “Brothers and Sisters,” if I hear “Ramblin’ Man” one more time I’m gonna shoot somebody, but I cannot get enough of “Come And Go Blues,” with Gregg’s husky, soulful voice, I can’t believe he’s gone, if you survive the maelstrom, you’re supposed to last forever, if you made it out of the seventies, you should still be here, but Gregg is not.
And Lynyrd Skynyrd were perceived as me-too at first, and not in the sexual harassment way, even though that was rampant in rock and roll those days. They fought their way to the top, failed sessions in Muscle Shoals, but then Al Kooper signed them to his Sounds of the South label and they fought it out on the road. But, just after the first LP came out, while Al was still living and cutting in Hot ‘Lanta, he got a call from the band, they had a new song, could they come up and cut it.
That’s right, “Sweet Home Alabama” was cut in the fall of ’73, even though it was not released until a year later, it sat in the can. And I asked Al if he knew, what a monster it was gonna be, and Al looked me in the eye and said…IT WAS SWEET HOME ALABAMA!
Only the amateurs can’t tell a hit. You strive forever, trying to get it right, but when you hit it far over the fence, you know, even though it’s so hard to do. Casual hits may make it via accident, but the legends are inevitable, like “Sweet Home Alabama.”
They made a movie with that title, Kid Rock linked it with “Werewolves Of London” to dominate the charts in 2008, but the truth is the original is the apotheosis, a legend in a bottle, the lightning we’re always waiting to strike us.
“Big wheels keep on turning
Carry me home to see my kin”
I always thought this was a “Proud Mary” reference, even if unconscious. Those big wheels, on the water, on the interstate, lull you into a state of suspended animation, alternately frustration and bliss.
He heard Neil Young sing about her.
In Birmingham they love the governor.
Watergate does not bother Ronnie Van Zant.
He stood up to the paragon of rock, who entranced both the boys and the girls before Mr. Young alienated them with “Time Fades Away.”
We can analyze all day long whether Van Zant supported the governor or not. As for Watergate, this was written long before resignation, the point is can you let politics distract you from the business you’ve got to do, unfortunately today you do.
But it was the hook, the lyrics, the piano playing, nothing on the band’s debut had prepared us for this.
And Ed King quit before the accident.
And latecomers Steve and Cassie Gaines perished in that plane, as did Ronnie, and for years there was no Lynyrd Skynyrd, there was a Rossington Collins Band, and then the act reunited with bits and pieces until bit by bit, the originals who were left fell by the wayside, to the point the only one now left is Gary Rossington himself.
And Ed King was hiding in plain sight for years, no one ever talked about him, you’ve got to die to get recognition these days. But if you grew up in that era, if you were an avid reader of liner notes, you knew who Ed King was.
And now he’s gone.
But not only him. But an era where everybody wanted to play. Both on and offstage. Music ran the country, everybody was passionate, we judged you on your record collection, and if you made it everybody knew your track and when you went to the show it was clear who were the stars, the people on stage, not you in the audience taking selfies with your smartphone.
Maybe you remember.
Maybe you don’t.
But one thing’s for sure, the power and magic of “Sweet Home Alabama” maintains. From an era where a band from Jacksonville refused to be pigeonholed as dumb rednecks.
They pick me up when I’m feeling blue.
I know you feel the same way too.