EXCLUSIVE: Excerpt from "Sweet Home Everywhere - Ronnie and Neil" Book Chapter
The Life and Times of an Unlikely Rock and Roll Anthem
by Jonathan Bernstein
There's a new eBook that has just been released titled Sweet Home Everywhere: The Life and Times of an Unlikely Rock and Roll Anthem by Jonathan Bernstein.
For our longtime, regular readers, you know that the subject of Ronnie VanZant and Neil Young is quite dear to us.
So when Jonathan Bernstein -- a freelance music journalist and fact-checker based on New York whose writing has appeared in Oxford American, Rolling Stone, Time, and American Songwriter, among others -- got in touch with us about his new eBook, we said "Sure!".
Here's the Amazon.com book description:
Publication Date: June 23, 2014When we saw the book cover, our first reaction was that the Confederate flag on the cover would be a bit of a red flag. However, on closer inspection, you can see that instead of the stars and bars, the stars have been replaced by hearts. So we think that's a nice touch and helps us avoid getting sidetracked on the imagery symbolism which we have delved into ad infinitum so many, many , many times before.
Released in 1974, “Sweet Home Alabama” has become synonymous with Southern rock. From its opening guitar riff, it is instantly recognizable, a raucous, irreverent defense of a Deep South state and its segregationist governor against the jabs of Neil Young. But the roots of Lynyrd Skynyrd's best-selling anthem go much deeper than regional pride or resentment of a fellow rocker. In this fresh take on the history of an oft-debated rock classic, journalist Jonathan Bernstein traces the tune's surprising centuries-old origins and incredible global influence, which continues to this day. Sweet Home Everywhere is the story of a song that has confused, enthralled, enraged, and warmed the hearts of listeners for 40 years.
So here's an exclusive chapter excerpt on one of our reader's favorite subjects on Lynyrd Skynyrd and Neil Young, the story of Ronnie and Neil.
Ronnie and Neil
A few months before Skynyrd hit the road with the Who, Ronnie Van Zant and company were back in Jacksonville, playing local shows, enjoying some time at home, and rehearsing at Hell House. One morning, guitarist Ed King, the band’s lone non-Southerner, brought the group a riff that had come to him in a dream the previous night. The rest of the band thought it sounded like a hit, and they made quick work of it, writing and recording a song around it in a matter of days. Released in June of 1974, “Sweet Home Alabama” quickly rose to No. 8 on the Billboard charts.
With its follow-up album, “Second Helping,” Skynyrd was already being hyped as the progenitors of a new subgenre, Southern rock. A newly successful single name-checking Gov. Wallace — a hero to racists and reactionaries in the South for his relentless opposition to desegregation — encouraged the band to begin aggressively promoting its Dixie roots.
But the Confederate flag-waving Lynyrd Skynyrd was in large part a marketing creation of producer Al Kooper and MCA Records, according to Mark Kemp, author of “Dixie Lullaby.” Kooper, the veteran session player and studio producer who took Skynyrd under his wing during the recording of “Second Helping,” thought the band should be promoted as a raucous group of bad boys. “I decided to paint a rough-house image for them,” Kooper, who personally designed the band’s initial skull and bones logo, writes in his memoir. Skynyrd didn’t exactly mind projecting this aura of rebelliousness for increasingly large crowds. Opening for Black Sabbath one night in 1974, the band encountered a hostile audience openly booing, eager for the headliner to take the stage. Bass player Leon Wilkeson, who had recently taken to wearing a holster on stage, pulled out a pistol and fired a blank, swiftly silencing the crowd.
By taking aim at a peace-loving Canadian hippie in its new hit single, Skynyrd had given Kooper and MCA plenty to work with. “I hope Neil Young will remember,” Van Zant sings in his laid-back drawl, “that a Southern man don’t need him around anyhow.” With that line, the Skynyrd brand — separatist outsiders, rebel outlaws, Dixie defenders — was set in stone.
Much has been made, ever since, of the alleged feud between Van Zant and Young. In what is perhaps his most famous statement regarding the song, Van Zant explained the genesis of his Dixie-defending hit to Rolling Stone by saying, “We thought Neil was shooting all the ducks in order to kill one or two.”
But as Young and Skynyrd diehards alike are quick to point out, the two singers were great fans of each other’s work. Young had even tried, in vain, to get Skynyrd to record a few of his songs. In 1977, three years after the release of “Sweet Home Alabama,” Van Zant would be photographed wearing a Neil Young T-shirt for the cover of “Street Survivors,” Skynyrd’s final album. Three weeks after the tragedy that took Van Zant’s life in October of ’77, Young was playing “Alabama” during a concert in Skynyrd’s home state of Florida. Toward the end of the song, Young’s band began playing an approximation of Ed King’s famous opening. Young then sang the refrain of “Sweet Home Alabama” a half-dozen times, paying tribute to a lost friend. “Shit, I think ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ is a great song,” he once said.
There’s even a popular legend that Neil Young served as an honorary pallbearer at Van Zant’s funeral. “Neil Young always claimed that ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ was one of his favorite songs,” says Patterson Hood, the lead singer of the Georgia-based band Drive By Truckers, in the song, “The Three Great Alabama Icons.” “Such is the duality of the Southern Thing.”
What for many was a direct, piercing political statement — be it regional pride or racism or blind resentment — was for Van Zant a clever mystery that he refused to help unravel. Many thought the case had been solved when, shortly after “Sweet Home Alabama” was released, Wallace invited the band to be honored by the State of Alabama. (After Skynyrd’s plane crash, says Gene Odom, Wallace sent each and every survivor a personal letter.)
But a 1975 Village Voice profile of Van Zant that addresses Wallace head-on does little to answer the riddle. Questioned about his invitation to meet the governor, Van Zant reacted defensively. “Of course I don’t agree with everything the man says, I don’t like what he says about colored people,” he said. “Chances are he won’t even want us, he doesn’t have much use for long-hairs, y’know. Course the real reason I’m doin’ it is my Daddy would whup me if I didn’t.” When pushed further by the reporter, Van Zant came to a typical noncommittal conclusion: “Aw shit, I don’t know anything about politics anyway.”
Hope folks enjoyed the chapter excerpt of Sweet Home Everywhere: The Life and Times of an Unlikely Rock and Roll Anthem by Jonathan Bernstein. Thanks to Jonathan, his publisher The New New South and Amazon.com for allowing us to share chapter.