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Why I Love "Free Bird"


Lynyrd Skynyrd's Second Helping album This is what I learned from the Lynyrd Skynyrd song " Free Bird": The long road from cool to silly is paved with time.

Take heed, young 'uns.

I grew up in the rural not-too-deep south. My family rocked a trailer in the woods 10 miles south of Gore, Va. Google Earth that place. And like many mid-Atlantic hillbillies, career opportunities propelled our brood to the big city, or at least to some outlying tenements thereof.

Who first discovered Skynyrd in the gang of neighborhood hoodlums whom I subsequently took to spending my leisure hours with? Someone with an older brother probably.

Keep this in mind: Growing up, "Free Bird" was never on our "heavy" rotation--it tested below "Saturday Night Special," or "The Needle and the Spoon," as far as Skynyrd went. It kicked later. But at the time, it served as fine accompaniment for the usual bonding rituals of the pre-mated.

Those were the days. La Grande, as we used to say! But where was I? Sorry, I'm prone to wander off course. "Main point, you're in my way."

Now, saying you like Skynyrd today is showing you're down with your alt-country roots. But admitting you like "Free Bird" just shows you're some sort of loser, man.

The song is now a punchline of a rock club joke that itself is two decades old (Sullen IndieBand confers on what song to play next; Lurking hipster yells "Free Bird!" thinking its "ironic").

The song itself sounds bland. It starts with a slide solo and piano accompaniment that rather crassly evokes the days when Duane Allman could make everything seem ok. It ends with a three-guitar wank-off longer than any highway you'd care to mention. Crushed in the middle is a simplistic, somewhat sappy, lament. It's like "Layla" in reverse order, played by monkeys.

Seriously, we admitted "Free Bird" was formulaic even back then. At least three dozen major-label boogie bands must have been working that very recipe out on the floor-boards, night after night. The various combo platters of drugs that the kids fed upon left them agreeable to such surge-y noises. Tickles the neurons or some shit.

But why did people kept hollering for "Free Bird" specifically?

I'm gonna tell you why I think that was. Pretty soon.

Now, "Stairway to Heaven"? That's a pretty song. And a rockin' song too. But country gentlemen know it ain't hobbits that inhabit the woods.

"Free Bird" starts off nicely enough. Getting bird calls out of a slide guitar? Pure American folk art, sappy and clever all at the same time. The song gets noticeably darker though. Ronnie Van Zant keeps wailing "Lord knows I can't change." "Lord knows I can't change," Sounds pretty good after a week of work at some incredibly fucked-up job, with no prospects in sight. "Lord knows I can't change."

Free bird? Yeah, fucking right. The title itself is a cruel joke. Free to work the rest of your life at some carpet warehouse for $4 an hour. Free to buy a used car that stops running before you pay it off.

Ronnie's first line is "If I leave here tomorrow..." He KNOWS he can't go anywhere! So its only drunken speculation after that--Ronnie's, yours, mine and anyone within range of the jukebox in that shitty bar where too many of the off-hours are being spent listening to these types of songs. There, we can all mouth into our mugs that rock-star gentle "There's-too-many-places-I've-got-to-see" fuck-off-fair-lass line all we want. It's the only places that line'll get used, however semi-audibly.

By the time the Skynyrds work up to their ending rally--by first erupting into the closest melodic approximation of violence you'll ever hear in a moderately-civilized drinking establishment, and then breaking into the momentum of someone hauling-ass from the law--you can, if you're in just the right sort of crappy mood, end up banging your mug against the table in unision: Each beat more intense than the last, each one with the hope that ride will never end.

And for just over seven glorious minutes, it doesn't.

And there it is. If you follow the song down the path it offers, you'll find the Holy Grail of Rushes, the one that keeps giving. Not for 40 seconds, or a minute, but for a full seven minutes. For seven minutes that song gives you the freedom from whatever shithole-of-a-life that you've dug yourself into.

Granted, you must have some pretty heavy grievances to work out if you need to bang glassware on a public tabletop for seven whole minutes.

But man, if you do, Skynyrd will get you through...

Now, what song was it that you wanted to hear?

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