Whiskey Bottles and Brand New Cars

Whiskey Bottles and Brand New Cars: The Fast Life and Sudden Death of Lynyrd Skynyrd
By Mark Ribowsky
[Chicago Review Press]

Why does one put a million-dollar band in a dollar-ninety-eight airplane? This answer and many more is uncovered in Mark Ribowsky’s new book Whiskey Bottles and Brand New Cars: The Fast Life and Sudden Death of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Apart from 1999’s Lynyrd Skynyrd: An Oral History by Lee Ballinger, Whiskey Bottles and Brand New Cars is by default the authoritative scholarship on one of America’s best-loved and most talented bands. Following the evolution of the boys from Jacksonville, Ribowsky demonstrates a deep appreciation and stern understanding of how Skynyrd became the juggernaut of rock ‘n’ roll that they were and his story is compelling, uplifting, provocative and sad. On numerous occasions his informal approach to what should be a formally respected subject dilutes the power of the story. Still, his commitment to research and knowledge of the subject matter allow for Whiskey Bottles and Brand New Cars to succeed and help illuminate a dark subject.

After climbing up the Jacksonville rock ladder Skynyrd ended up in Atlanta at Funochio’s, “a dim, suffocating cavern on Peachtree Street with a sign on it reading ‘Atlanta’s Original House of Rock.’” Alan Walden, brother of Capricorn Records chief and Allman Brothers Band manager Phil Walden, brought them up and New Yorker Al Kooper, known for his work with Bob Dylan, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, The Rollins Stones, B.B. King, The Who and The Blues Project, caught one of their Funochio’s shows. Kooper was impressed enough with the band to sign them to his new MCA subsidiary label Songs of the South. But they were also being lured by Capricorn. One night at 2 a.m. the phone rang and Skynyrd’s Ronnie Van Zant alerted Kooper about some bad news for them but potentially good news for Kooper. “Al,” Van Zant said, “our equipment van got broken into last night. We have engagements to fulfill and unless you send us five thousand dollars by tomorrow morning, we’re fucked!” Knowing this loan, paid back or not, would break the negotiation logjam with Capricorn, Kooper said, “Where do I send it, buddy?” This act of benevolence secured Lynyrd Skynyrd for Kooper’s Songs of the South. He had “gotten his Rolling Stones.”

Skynyrd’s story is a sad one and their ending is well known. Their existence didn’t fare much better. Violence, abuse and exhaustion rubbed up against their exorbitant talent in a manner that reduced their ability to do what they did best – play rock ‘n’ roll. “Touring England with Black Sabbath,” Ribowsky writes, “a drunken Van Zant got into an argument with Gary Rossington over how to pronounce ‘schnapps.’ He broke a bottle of whiskey and grabbed a shard of broken glass and began slashing at Gary’s wrists, leaving a deep cut on Gary’s hand – his left hand, providentially, not the one he played his guitar with. Gary, defending himself, grabbed Ronnie’s neck, choking him. But Ronnie, the fighter, broke free and continued his slashing, cutting both of Gary’s hands and breaking his own right hand in the process.

After returning from the hospital, Ribowsky writes, “both men had forgotten about the ugly scene, yet it left Ozzy Osbourne and his own prototypical band of mental cases baffled. Sabbath guitarist Zakk Wylde said, ‘All I remember was that the guitar player came out with a bandage on his hand and the singer came out with a bandage on his head, and they were hugging each other saying ‘I’m sorry, brother – I love you, man.’” Ribowsky’s loose grasp on some facts is evident here as one needs both hands to play the guitar and Wylde was never in Black Sabbath.

Another shared story is even worse. “Ronnie liked to fight a lot,” writes Ribowsky. “Guitarist Ed King tells of a frightful incident when Ronnie came into the hotel room they were sharing ‘dragging a young woman and beating her senselessly. He threw her head into a nightstand three of four times – I mean he really fucked her up.’ ‘Ronnie!’ Ed shouted at him. ‘What the hell did she do, man?’ ‘She swallowed my yellowjacket,’ he said, meaning a yellow-colored speed pill. It was as good a reason as any for Ronnie Van Zant, rock-and-roll star, to act like a raging, abusive asshole.”

Van Zant’s behavior was extant because it was his band. “In reality Ronnie’s word was law, or else,” Relates Ribowsky. “The Skynyrd ‘democracy’ was more like a banana republic. As drummer Artimus Pyle says, ‘It was his show, his dream – we were just renting space.’”

The story is compelling but the telling of it is distracting as Ribowsky takes too many liberties with language and the story. The conception of Van Zant’s first child is related as “when he knocked up Nadine.” Jail is referred to as “the pokey.” The photo section has an outtake from the first LP’s cover shoot. The caption says Macon but the photo was actually taken in Jonesboro, Georgia.

It is well known that guitarist Ed King, formally of the Strawberry Alarm Clock, “had been steaming since ’67 that the band’s producer had deprived him of a writing credit for [their hit] song ‘Incense and Peppermints.’” Later Ribowsky relates that “King had a bit of a cushion from receiving royalties on ‘Incense and Peppermints.’”

When talking about drug culture and the song “That Smell,” Ribowsky writes, “Before then, drug references begat in pop songs were usually metaphorical (‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,’ ‘Eight Miles High’).” It is common knowledge that neither of these songs is about drugs.

Getting past these lapses, Whiskey Bottles and Brand New Cars is a good read and worthy of the story it tells. The plane crash that killed Van Zant, three other band/crew members, the two pilots and others is skillfully recounted and terrifying. Read this book for the passion, the sadness and the humor. For the last quality look no further than roadie, friend and crash survivor Gene Odom’s claim that moments before the plane crash he went to the cockpit and told the pilots, “I hope you two sons of bitches live through this, so I can kill both of you.”