Free Bird & Midnight Rider, Southern Rock in Jax

by Tim Gilmore, 6/26/2020

1. Lyn Free / Bird Nyrd

I couldn’t have said what made the difference. In high school, in the early 1990s, my friends and I hated Lynyrd Skynyrd, but not the Allman Brothers Band.

Everybody, anywhere, has “an accent,” but people who’ve never traveled sometimes doubt they do. Gregg Allman had no less a hick accent than Ronnie Van Zant singing “Free Bird.” Even the electric guitar, which we loved in aggressive San Francisco Bay Area “thrash metal” bands like Metallica and Exodus and Slayer, sounded backward and whiney when Skynyrd sang, “I’m as free as a bird now.”

I only half understood it had something to do with the Confederate flag, with how my fundamentalist Baptist parents had sheltered me from rock music, how, shortly after my mother died when I was 12, when I first explored music beyond gospel and country on my own, my father called Stevie Wonder and Kool & the Gang “nigger music.”

2. Mayor Lenny Skynyrd Won’t Get Off My Back

They’ve followed me. I probably heard “Free Bird” before my early teenage friend Monica’s father was murdered, before “Free Bird” was played at his funeral, before Monica played the song over and over again for weeks.

In high school, it was a joke that when anyone said something schmaltzy, or waxed too exuberant over nothing very special, you pretended to hold up a cigarette lighter, wave it side to side over your head as if you were at a concert and yell, “Free Bird!”

I remember Kurt and Frank and some of my high school friends who played in a thrash metal cover band, out in the courtyard at the school named for the early KKK leader at lunchtime, joking about some bootleg pornographic home video featuring Lynyrd Skynyrd bandmates. I don’t remember the jokes. I remember pretending to laugh. I remember being depressed by what was supposed to be funny.

When I rented an apartment in Five Points, ceding the house to my first wife, going through that divorce, my downstairs neighbor was a high school music teacher, bald on top with hair long in the back, with a Lynyrd Skynyrd cover band who practiced underneath my kitchen.

When I lived on the Northside, in a mostly black neighborhood a few blocks south of the Trout River, the family in the house across the street hung a Confederate flag with Lynyrd Skynyrd emblazoned on it over their window-unit air conditioner. The man who lived there once shattered a window by throwing his dog through it. The boy who lived there yelled, “Nigger” at a couple of black boys walking down Clinton Street and minding their own business.

The only times anyone seemed to know the name “Jacksonville” in another city, if they asked me where I was from, at a Midwest Modern Language Association conference in Milwaukee, at a Popular Culture Association conference in San Diego, they knew it, with a chuckle, in relation to Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Then there’s the sitcom The Good Place, which somehow purports to be a daft exploration of different schools of philosophy played out in the afterlife and its character from Jacksonville. He says Jax is “one of the top 10 swamp cities in Northeast Florida,” that monster trucks are used as taxis, that the airport is Randy “Macho Man” Savage International, and that he graduated from Lynyrd Skynyrd High School.

The school, he says, was “was really just a bunch of tugboats tied together.” When another character asks if students got seasick, he says, “No, they were tied together in a junkyard. It wasn’t a very good school. For most of my classes, we just sold dirty magazines door-to-door.”

To which I respond (1) How dare provincial New York and Hollywood comedy writers stereotype a place they don’t know that I’ve known all my life inside out? (2) How dare Lynyrd Skynyrd make this city so worthy of insulting? (3) How dare Mayor Lenny Curry not support a half-cent sales tax to make basic repairs to public schools that embarrass this city’s kids who attend them? (4) Maybe Mayor Lenny Skynyrd graduated from Lynyrd Curry High School.

3. Mosh Pit Southern Amygdala

So at 16 years old, I launched myself skinny and angry through mosh pits at concerts for Megadeth at the Morocco Shrine Auditorium on St. Johns Bluff Road South, Kreator downtown at the Milk Bar, and Anthrax at some small club in Orlando. (They were touring with Iron Maiden, whose vocalist Bruce Dickinson, we’d heard, had a sore throat; arena cancelled, Anthrax found a club.) What songs Kreator, the best of the Big Four of Teutonic thrash metal, performed, whether “Ripping Corpse,” “Death is Your Savior” or “Pleasure to Kill,” I can’t recall, but I said for years that wherever I went in that small club, singer Mille Petrozza’s eyes seemed constantly to look into mine. Friends said the same. We wondered at this uncanny ability to look into so many people’s eyes individually at once.

My friends and I performed in Airband two years in a row. “Airband” was “air guitar,” pretending to play the guitar with nothing but air, multiplied by the whole band. The drama teacher, or “drama coach,” Jon Nerf, sponsored it. I was all tall skinny limbs, long hair down my back. One year I played the bassist for Dirty Rotten Imbeciles, another year the singer for the thrash band Testament. A cheerleader told me later, “You looked cool,” but the “jocks” who ran the school threw ice and booed us and drowned us in disapproval.

Well before we drove down to Orlando in 1991 to see Jane’s Addiction and Siouxsie and the Banshees and Henry Rollins and Ice-T’s band Body Count and Nine Inch Nails on the first Lollapalooza tour, I’d decided Lynyrd Skynyrd was next to the last band I’d ever willing hear. Even as I dove from the stage to the top of the crowd and moshed and felt the crowd was crushing me, some nebulous idea congealed, somewhere between cerebral wiring and my eager-anger chimp amygdala, that Skynyrd was backward of backward, but the Allman Brothers had talent and at least a sophisticated knowledge of the roots of their own music. Didn’t care for ’em, but I had to admit respect.

4. Jumpin’ Jack Beulah ’lanta

Surely it never was fair. I’ve never liked Southern Rock. When I was 13 years old, however, I dug it when Steve Dozier at Blanding Boulevard Baptist Church sang songs that blasted out the amps. He sounded like Molly Hatchet’s singer Danny Joe Brown, though singing, “He’s alive, He’s alive. My sins are all forgiven and I’m bound for Beulah Land.”

Later, at a church camp on the St. Mary’s River, he coached us to shoot his shotgun, which kicked so hard it almost knocked me down. I swam from Florida to Georgia and back and wondered, as I’ve wondered a thousand times since, how you could know, if you fired guns in the woods, that you hadn’t just killed somebody in the distance.

At some point, and I don’t know when, it seemed to matter that Lynyrd Skynyrd performed with giant Confederate flags on the stage behind them, giant Confederate flags in their hands, giant Confederate flags on their hats. At some point in the early 1990s, Southern kids in the city took to understanding those brandishings of Confederate flags as badges of ignorance and quite likely stupidity.

Though my father made fun of my Stevie Wonder and Kool & the Gang cassette tapes in 1987, telling me they sounded “like a bunch of niggers yellin’ at each other,” and though James Robinson, an ancient cousin of my father’s whom we met in Macon County, Georgia in the late 1990s, showed us his father’s Confederate battle flag and laughed about a time in the 1930s when his father encouraged him to tackle a “nigger” and “cut his head off,” not that he did it, though my father’s favorite uncle, Phil Gilmore, a police officer in Montezuma, Americus and Oglethorpe, Georgia, fired his pistol through his own hand once and killed a black man, told my father how he’d knock his nightstick into black boys’ legs when he found them walking impudently on the sidewalk next to whites…

Nobody told me directly what to think of Confederate flags, and I got sick enough of them on my own. My high school was named for the first “grand wizard” of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest. In the 1950s and ’60s, public schools across the South took the names of Confederate generals in response to the Civil Rights Movement and efforts to desegregate schools. All students at Forrest had to take Physical Education, where coaches called “jumping jacks” “Johnny Rebs” in honor of the school mascot, a red-mustached, pistol-toting Confederate.

Every now and then, I’d hear Allman Brothers’ songs, “Midnight Rider” and “Ramblin’ Man” and “Hot ’lanta,” and that was okay, and I might get lost in the noodling guitar, though always I thought they sounded too hick, but hearing Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” curdled something dead in my heart and my head.

5. Burn Every One of ’Em

Though Lynyrd Skynyrd made the Confederate flag their symbol, the Allman Brothers abandoned its use as a symbol of rebellion early on. It wasn’t enough that people called it a “rebel flag.” The questions were what that rebellion stood against and why you wouldn’t rebel against that rebellion. Johnny Lee Johnson, his name later changed to Jai Johanny Johanson, the drummer known by the name of Jaimoe, a black man, helped found the Allman Brothers Band.

“I was taught to play music,” Gregg Allman said in July 2015, “by these very, very kind older black men. My best friend in the world is a black man. If people are gonna look at the flag and think of it as representing slavery, then I say, ‘Burn every one of them.’”

I’m down with visiting Willowbranch Park in the middle of that old Jacksonville neighborhood called Riverside, a couple blocks from the big Victorian house where the Allman Brothers formed, Willowbranch where the band played in the late 1960s before they’d settled on a name and hippies passed joints back and forth and stoned the tall pines out of their minds.

Across the country, across the South, across Jacksonville, protesters have taken memorials praising the Confederacy down. I’m ready to burn its flag in this central park and release the South from the stranglehold of the 150-years-dead corpse called the Confederacy. I’m still not quite ready to stomach the twangy simpering whiney sounds of Mayor Lenny Skynyrd as he laments, “If I stayed here with you, girl, / Things just couldn’t be the same. / ’Cause I’m as free as a bird now, / And this bird you cannot change.”

I’d never wish to change a bird. I doubt any bird would acknowledge my wish to change it. Still, if Lynyrd Skynyrd had any effect on birdsong, I doubt any of them had read (or even heard of) Rachel Carson’s culture-rerouting 1962 book Silent Spring. In the October 4, 2019 issue of the peer-reviewed scientific journal Science, the study “Decline of the North American Avifauna,” quoted from abstract, said, “Using multiple and independent monitoring networks, we report population losses across much of the North American avifauna over 48 years, including once-common species and from most biomes. Integration of range-wide population trajectories and size estimates indicates a net loss approaching three billion birds, or 29 percent of 1970 abundance.”

So there you go. Burn the flag. Free the bird. Fund the schools. Play the song. Burn the flag. Cede the house. Love the dog. Free the bird. Teach the child. Vote the good. Oust the bad. Burn the flag. Praise the house. Tell the story. Burn the flag. Love the dog. Teach the child.

And as the song winds into itself and winds down, its wailer whines, “And this bird you cannot change, / And this bird you cannot change, / Lord knows, I can’t change, / Lord help me, I can’t change, / Lord, I can’t change,” and if he can’t and won’t change, our only kindness is cutting him loose, letting him crash, mourning his fatal flaw, riding with him his wings to the ground and asking him all the way if he’ll consider re-righting, cutting the winds back upward, all the while charting his rigid and predetermined course down into his own stubborn fixed flames.

What you won’t see in the morning is only a skewing in perspective, decidedly toward the tragic, admittedly empty of anything but the anxiety deferred toxicologically from brain chemicals alone tonight, mattering not that graves dig through new furrows in forehead, for it’s her birthday.

It’s her birthday and she’s better. She’s her own woman because she’s her own woman. She’s better and it’s her birthday. She’s my child but she’s not my child because she’s her own woman. She’s not you and she’s not you and she’s not you. And even better, she is whom she is as whom she is as whom.

She is. She. Is. She’s. She. She. Is.