The last surviving original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Gary Rossington, purveyor of very pretty guitarwork and some of the best long hair in rock and roll, passed away on the 5th March 2023. It is a strange and disorientating sensation when every last member of a band passes onto the great beyond. It is something that we are all going to have to get used to as the hero generation of Rock and Rollers ages and moves on to whatever is after this mortal coil. When the last surviving Ramone died it felt like the end of an era, and it was. There is something final about a group of people who worked so closely creatively together, collectively being no more upon this earth. It feels as if what was part of our collective consciousness has passed into history. It is an eerie feeling to know that Gary’s delicate guitar work will never again be heard live, inspiring lighters held aloft and that feeling of nostalgic longing to know that even if we are gone, we will be remembered. Gary made sure that even though he has left, flown the coop, he will always be remembered for the rest of our tomorrows.
Gary Rossington was good at cheating death, and making sure he got his full three score and ten. He first cheated death in 1976 when high on cocaine and heroin, smoke and goodness knows what else and drunk on booze to boot, he accidentally drove his new Ford Torino into a tree, inspiring the song That Smell. I can’t imagine how it must have felt to have been Gary, listening to his friends sing him a new song they had written about their “Prince Charming” friend, brother and bandmate, and the fact he was – the entire band were – killing themselves with excess of drugs and alcohol. That Smell is not just a song – it is an act of great love towards Gary.
After all we only go to extreme lengths to try and wake up the ones that we really care about. We only put that much effort in when we are terrified that if we don’t do something before it is too late, our crazy partying loved ones might hurt themselves or worse, die as a result of their wild ‘free bird’ ways. Gary was the sparkplug of the band, he was the electric current that set off that Lynyrd Skynyrd chain reaction that proved so popular and so profitable, and not only that provided a sound-track for a generation of young people who were emerging out of the 60s bleary eyed and blinking at the failure of it all. It was time to party: changing the world had failed. The order of the day was hedonism, not activism. Yet this hedonism came with a huge price.
In 1977 Gary survived once more when the plane that the band had chartered to take them from Greenville, South Carolina to Baton Rouge, Louisiana ran out of fuel over Gillsburg, Mississippi and crashed into trees, killing lead vocalist and co-founding member Ronnie Van Zandt, guitarist and vocalist Steve Gains, backing vocalist and Steve’s elder sister, Cassie Gains, road manager Dean Kilpatrick, and both the pilot and copilot of the plane. Twenty others survived, including Gary, who regained consciousness only to find the plane’s door on top of him. This happened only three days after the band had released their album Street Survivors. The band reformed 11 years later in 1988, with five major surviving members of the pre-crash band returning to join Ronnie Van Zandt who took over lead vocals and songwriting duties from his late brother. You can’t deny how important Lynyrd Skynyrd was as a band, and as part of the cultural lexicon of America. It sets off an emotional cascade to listen to their songs, that recalls a better time, warmer summers and milder winters and days when everything was bright and breezy and fun.
Gary Rossington and the band he stuck with until the very end, made people happy, he made people feel, he broke open our collective dullness and freed a whole lot of caged birds, and made a lot more at least dance in the aisles for a while. Skynyrd made music to feel alive to. Gary made that music pretty.
Free Bird is a shout of defiance that half became a joke amongst meatheads that didn’t understand the significance of the song. Lynyrd Skynyrd were a southern band of rebels, but not of the politically dubious kind. The band’s philosophy only went so far as to drink hard, get high, drive fast and try not to die young, whilst making iconic music that people loved. They were primo examples of young men who refused to be chained down or controlled or restrained and instead did what the heck they wanted with their lives, as short as some of them were. Free Bird has a unique place in rock and roll mythos as perhaps the most requested song of all time. Even bands who were unlikely to have Free Bird in their repertoire have heard the audience yell to the stage requesting to hear it. “Play Free Bird” is a philosophical movement, not a request.
Even Nirvana, during their Unplugged performance responded to the ‘play Free Bird‘ standard yell from the audience with a quick slurred burst of the song. No one has ever been disappointed to hear those elegiac first notes drift from the PA system to the ears of the audience, and it was Gary’s guitar that made it so beautiful. His guitar sang sweeter than any human voice can manage: it wails and cries and fluidly soars in a way that a guitar only can in the hands of a man who has truly suffered loss.
Free Bird, despite its ubiquitousness, is one of the greatest songs of the 1970s. It is a quarter of an hour-long party, a declaration that the singer is ‘free as a bird’ and cannot be constrained by love affairs or sexual entanglements, alongside a wistful wondering if he will be remembered by her once he has hit the road and gone on to another show, another town, and another girl.
The song became something else after tragedy struck the band twice in two years. What was a declaration of independence and wild untamable feral boyishness in 1976 was an elegy to the bandmates and friends who had flown off to the great beyond of heaven in 1977 after tragedy struck the band in the form of a fatal plane crash. Free Bird is a song of extremes. It is an ode to extreme willful independence that leads young men into chasing that party that never ends with all the groupies and the coke and the heroin and the booze and fast cars. What it became after that fatal plane crash, like a phoenix from the flames, was something more beautiful and meaningful – a metaphor for the soul flying free of the body.
Gary’s soaring wild-man guitar solo of 1976 where he pinned his colors to the flagpole of freedom, illustrated by his clear as a bell, racing, soaring gorgeous guitar that makes the blood rise and the head swim, fell silent after the crash for a few years. All his exuberance had been temporarily quietened by death and the ultimate end to all tomorrow’s parties. The innocence had bled out of the song. When he picked up the song once more, it had changed, become something more of longing. It had turned into a memorial for his friends, and an assurance that the soul flies free like a bird after death, Now Gary has passed away, I long for nothing more for him than his soul to be flying free as a bird now, free as his guitar solos.
Gary as a human being seemed to be as free as the music that he gave to the world alongside what was not the coolest band in the world, but what might be the most sincere.
Some play the guitar pretty like Peter Green with that tone that only the most sensitive hands and souls can wring from electrons, some play the guitar wild and mean and free and biting and soaring like Hendrix but very few guitarists do both simultaneously, and Gary was one of that very rare breed of craftsmen that pull off that rare feat successfully.
It almost felt as if Gary would live forever, and he will continue through the music that he was such a big part of. Some men never learn the lessons they need to learn in order to survive the hard-living rock and roll scene. Before the plane crash, the band were literally on a high, despite Gary’s car crash. Their records sold millions, their tours sold out, and the band was one of the biggest things of 1973-1977. Everybody loved Lynyrd Skynyrd. I love Lynyrd Skynyrd, and I particularly have a lot of respect for Gary’s guitarwork. Some guitarists make or break a band and I honestly believe that without Gary there was no band to carry on, because he was the heart of all that was special about their music. RIP Lynyrd Skynyrd. The boys are back together now, you know what they say about birds of a feather flocking together. Rest in peace, Gary. Fly free with your friends now.