My first major breakup didn’t even involve me. My sister dumped Mike, no doubt for valid hell-raising reasons, but without considering me. How was I supposed to find my path to the Dixie Gem Garage — the hot spot for street races — without my travel guide? In whose Chevelle would I cruise The Beacon when my time came, a case of Bud next to me on the backseat? What the hell would I do without access to the crown prince of The Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam? Never mind that he just lived down the street, I was sure that I would never see him again.
She dated a handful of idiots after Mike. There was Mark, who was my bus driver in elementary school. I don’t know if this is common throughout the country or even throughout South Carolina, but during my childhood the school bus fleet was driven by high school students — the same kids who annually sacrificed at least one of their own to the DUI gods. But somehow it made sense to entrust a seventeen-year old with sixty-five school children in a rolling casket without seatbelts. I don’t remember any accidents, so I suppose the school board had it right.
Mark worked at McDonald’s now, and he loved to tell my gullible sister enormous lies like “there’s a swimming pool in the basement for employees.” As for me, I was just the pain in the ass younger brother.
Next was Steve, the first baseman for the varsity baseball team. He bore a passing resemblance to Greg Kihn, which let’s face it is nothing to brag about even if you are Greg Kihn. Steve’s schtick was to clown my gullible sister about her alleged stupidity, which even Alanis Morrissette would correctly identify as ironic since Steve was an idiot. As for me, I was just the pain in the ass younger brother.
And then there was Danny. Danny wore thick aviator glasses and suffered from a vicious case of acne vulgaris. He must have had game, though, as he managed to land my in-demand sister with lines like “you make my butt sweat.” (Kids: Danny was a professional. Do not try this line.) He was funny, so maybe Danny was proof that women love a sense of humor. This is hardly conclusive because Danny had something else going for him: He played guitar in a band, and he didn’t treat me like the pain in the ass younger brother.
“You play guitar, man?” Danny asked me.
“Yeah. I mean I have one but I’m not good.”
“Go get it, man. Let me check it out.” I ran to my room and fetched my plywood guitar with the buzzing pickups.
“Dang, look how high you have the action set. You’d have to be Conan to play this thing.” He fiddled with the bridge and tried to play. It sounded like tinfoil was wrapped around the strings. “The neck is warped, that’s why the action is set so high. I’ll be right back.” Danny left the house.
He returned with a guitar case. I had never seen a guitar worthy of a case. My world was populated with Hondos and Zapps, Memphises and no-name plywood department store guitars. Danny set the case gently on the floor, unlatched its three clasps, and slowly opened the lid. The souls of thousands of Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam poured out, circled the ceiling fan twice, and headed to the Dixie Gem. My dog stared too long into the case and her face melted, or maybe that was from a movie. Regardless, she eventually dug up the neighbor girl’s hamster and ate it so she probably should have met with some sort of supernatural punishment.
Inside the case rested a blond Gibson Les Paul Custom with gold hardware and white binding. Ace Frehley’s chosen weapon. Jimmy Page’s favorite axe. The “number 5” guitar Pete played in The Kid’s Are Alright. Just in case there was any doubt to whom this treasure belonged, below the tailpiece was a brass plaque engraved “Daniel Bishop” in Old English lettering. This was back when Old English was the epitome of class — crappy steakhouses and malt liquor, for example — rather than the preferred font for prison tattoos.
He gently eased the holy of holies from its sarcophagus, checked the tuning, and handed it to me. A beam of light burst into the room and bounced off of the Les Paul’s pick guard. My eyes chased it through the window where it landed on Bo Derek, nude atop a unicorn, crossing a double rainbow. In slow motion.
I picked out “Smoke On the Water” and it. Sounded. Fucking. Awesome.
“Do you know an ‘E’ chord?” Danny asked.
“I don’t know.”
“It’s this one,” he said, and tried to show me on my plywood guitar. “Learn that one, but learn it with these three fingers. Then when you put your index finger flat like this you’ll be playing a barre chord and you can move all over the neck. Then you can play anything. Do you know any other songs?” The only songs I knew were one-string “Smoke On the Water” and “Red River Valley,” the one tune I learned during my aborted guitar lessons. I started strumming “Red River Valley.” Danny watched my fingers and followed along on my warped guitar.
“You know part of ‘Freebird,’ man. Did you know that?” He took his guitar and finger-picked a beautiful version of “Freebird,” all the while speaking the chord changes: “G, D, E minor…we have to play this every…F…show or people….C….get pissed off.” He made his way through all of the verses, then stopped playing right after Ronnie would have wailed “I want to fly high / oh Freebird / yeah.” “I just make stuff up after that,” he said. “Nobody can play the fast part.”
After Danny Bishop told me that I knew “Freebird” I heard the song everywhere. Lee G and I went to the Battle of the Bands, where five in six bands closed with “Freebird.” Trident doesn’t even get that kind of play from dentists. I caught a 12″ single of Cheap Trick’s “Voices” thrown by the emcee between bands, ensuring: (1) This was the greatest night ever; and (2) Cheap Trick was the greatest band ever, at least for a little while.
The winner of the Battle of the Bands, though, was the sixth band, those Freebird-less heretics. Their name was Animation, and they were the coolest band in Spartanburg. They had their own merchandise (tee shirts silkscreened with the band’s logo and a lit book of matches); a light show (a blue police light mounted on the guitarist’s amp); and the best singer in town. His name was Chris and he sang in our high school’s choir, where he was a fag, and Animation, where he was a cool ass motherfucker. Context is everything for The Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam. That night they won with a note-perfect rendition of Styx’s “Lady” that still gives me goosebumps. I’m not sure that Styx ever played it so well.
Strange things happen in small towns. Big towns too, mind you, but small town weirdness has its own flavor. Perhaps it has something to do with the geographic sprawl required to work up a decent population density. For example: A business in Sacramento can get cheap advertising out of a guy in a Spider-Man costume dancing on the corner while spinning a sign. Try the same thing in Fingerville, South Carolina and Spider-Man will be bored out of his mind while waiting for a car to pass.
Small town businesses have to find their own strange ways to market where the people are, and so it was that the girls from Palmetto Gymnastics found themselves doing floor exercises one Saturday afternoon at Westgate Mall. But Mrs. Palmetto Gymnastics was no fool. She knew that no one would make a trip to the mall simply to watch a bunch of eight and nine-year old girls do somersaults, so she hired Animation to play a couple of sets.
It worked. The teeny boppers turned out in numbers to watch the dreamy Chris and his adolescent moustache power through covers from Styx, Foreigner, Journey, and local favorites Nantucket. Mike, the guitarist, shredded each solo note for note, and between each song someone in the crowed would scream “play ‘Freebird’!” Their covers were so spot on that it was like listening to the original records, only better because they were right in front of me at Westgate Mall. KISS wasn’t going to play Westgate, or Van Halen. But Mike, Chris, and the Animation rhythm section were two feet in front of me tearing up Nantucket’s “Heartbreaker.”
Mike turned off the K-Mart blue light on his amp when the song ended. “We gonna take a short break but y’all stick around. We’re gonna do ‘Freebird’ for you.” The band cleared out and the Palmetto Gymnastics staff laid out their mats. The students, who moments ago were a large part of Animation’s crowd, dropped their sweats and ran to the mats. They wore matching white leotards, and they organized themselves in a straight line from shortest to tallest.
The smallest of the girls was maybe six years old. She somersaulted toward the front row — meaning me — and the crowd applauded her cuteness. Down the mat came the tumbling elementary schoolers, the applause rolling along with them. Bringing up the rear was Lisa, a tumbling fish out of water. She was my age, and on the fringes of the Untouchables crowd. It made no sense that she was doing something so uncool and below her age group. What would the girls in the Calvins and the Gloria Vanderbilts think if they knew?
I quickly composed a back story that found Lisa in her eighth year of gymnastics, committed indefinitely by a domineering pageant mother who did not want to see her cute little girl grow up. And Lisa was indeed cute: curly, shoulder-length hair; olive skin; Campbell’s Soup Kid lips that ended in deep dimples; brown eyes that vanished when she smiled. Cute, yes. Little girl? Hardly.
Lisa developed early and well. Her white Palmetto Gymnastics leotard didn’t stand a chance. Thanks to her infantilizing mother or school policy, naiveté or a particularly accommodating god smiling upon me, her leotard was no match for her. The lack of support was clearly evident as she ran toward me and executed a perfect hand spring. The crowd applauded, I think. I left my body for a few seconds there.
The students performed a variety of bends, flips, vaults, and tumbles. I watched Lisa the entire time, trying my best not to expose myself as the creepy voyeur that I felt like. At the end of their collective routine, Mrs. Palmetto Gymnastics brought Lisa front and center:
“Lisa is one of our advanced students. She’s been with us a long time. You take it from me — you’re going to be reading about this young lady in the Herald-Journal someday. Before we go, Lisa is going to show y’all a floor routine. We’ll be over in front of Chess King after the show if y’all want to come visit.”
Bette Midler’s “The Rose” screeched through the P.A. and Lisa started a floor routine worthy of Cinemax. She rolled around and bent and stretched her gymnastic interpretation of love as a river, hunger, and flower, landing on her back directly in front of me, legs spread. Love may be many things, but on that day it was not a razor.
She held that particular pose for two seconds or seventeen hours, and my eyes refused to blink. Eventually I looked up from her heart afraid of dying. She was staring at me, too, but with a mix of anger and embarrassment.
I didn’t stick around to hear Animation play “Freebird.” I ran away as quickly and gracefully as an embarrassed kid with tight Levis and a boner can manage. Cool song, but all I wanted at that moment was to devise a plan to avoid eye contact with Lisa for the rest of my life. Thirty years have passed — so far so good.
Coming of age sagas aside, the whole affair was my introduction to the “play ‘Freebird’” phenomenon. I know that it is hard to believe in an era where pseudo-hipsters scream “Play ‘Freebird!’” at Arcade Fire shows, but there was a time — at least in the South — where this wasn’t cliché at all. It was sincere, and crowd pleasing bands accommodated even if their guitarists had to make up their own riffs when the fast part starts. We didn’t love the song ironically, nor was it because FM DJs played all nine minutes and ten seconds so that they could take a leak or get a blowjob.
I’m sure some us revered it because it memorializes the dead. This one’s for you, Ronnie! Others considered it a sort of Confederate national anthem, and no American is as regionally proud as a Southerner. Without question some identified with the wandering spirit of the lyrics.
For me I think it is some of each of the above but my affection roots primarily in the fact the “Freebird” is one of the great climbing songs, rivaled only by its FM coke and blowjob cousin “Stairway to Heaven.” “Freebird” drags me in slowly with those open major chords strummed on an acoustic guitar and those doleful organ drones that sound like Sunday morning services. The horse is out of the barn, but she is just warming up.
The almost human cry of the slide guitar introduces Ronnie’s hesitant lyric. He’s got to go, but he’s afraid his girl will forget him. But you know what? His independence is everything. Stop crowding him, woman — you know he can’t change. By the second verse he has made up his mind. The road is his real woman. It’s his fault, but it’s time to go. And for the last time will you stop trying to change him? It just isn’t going to happen.
Once the decision is final all hell breaks loose. Bob Burns and Ed King, the rock solid rhythm section chugging underneath it all, whip the beat up to a frothy pace, as if it’s the final furlong and the band is three lengths back. Gary Rossington and Alan Collins let fly with the Sistine Chapel of twin guitar leads. By the 6:30 mark the beast is wild-eyed and foaming and we’re on our feet slapping our own haunches, willing the steaming thoroughbred to the finish line.
If you are too damned hip to see the beauty in that then I say good day to you, but I was that tragically hip goon for many years. I can only hear a song so many times before it’s landscaping anyway, but as the Eighties progressed and I embraced a new era of epics like XTC’s “Dear God” or The Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?”, “Freebird” was a bit of a fucked-out embarrassment. It was an Evel Knievel stunt cycle — an artifact from my past that no longer related to me.
Skip ahead twenty-five years or so. I have just set up my long-stored turntable in the bedroom that I’ve turned into a music library. Aside from the stereo and the shelves of CDs and albums the room is empty.
“Let me show you how it works,” I tell my eight year old son. I randomly pull Lynyrd Skynyrd’s One More From the Road from the shelf, queue up side four, track three and drop the needle. My son and I sit across from each other on the floor, our backs to the walls. He watches the MCA label spin at thirty-three and a third, watches the light play on the grooves like moonlight on a pond.
“What song is it you want you to hear?” Ronnie asks from the grave. The crowd screams, that big church organ kicks in and I begin to cry.
“Why are you crying, Daddy?” He asks me.
“I don’t know,” I say. And I don’t.