Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Interview with Lynyrd Skynyrd - May 31, 1975 (update 11/2014)

Updated 11/18/2014

By now, most of you surmised that I am not a young pup after reading interviews I've done with the likes of Arlo Guthrie sparking my own memories of Woodstock. So the fact that I interviewed the original Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1975 should come as no surprise.

Life was just a wee bit different in those days. I had a tape recorder, with a real tape in it, and batteries that were fully charged when I went into the penthouse suite of what was then the Americana Hotel in New York City. (This was the same suite I had been in the week before when I interviewed Barry Hay, the lead singer/songwriter for Golden Earring, a band most recognized for their hit song, 'Radar Love'.)

As soon as the publicist left the room, Van Zant jumped out of his chair to confront me. Although a huge presence on-stage, he actually stood 5’7” tall (with his boots on), towering over my 4’10” frame.

“I want you to know before we get started that I hate writers so whatever you have to say, say it quick!” he shouted in my face.

Standing nose to nose with him (I have always been pretty gutsy) I asked, “Why do you hate writers? You just met me. Why would you hate me?”

“Because writers lie. They take everything I say out of context and then print it to make me look ignorant,” he said.

“You see this? It’s a tape recorder,” I told him. “I intend to record this interview and when it is printed, if you are misquoted, taken out of context or made to look ignorant I swear I will never do another interview with anyone.” What was I thinking? I was very na├»ve, but I meant what I said.

Ronnie Van Zant
“Really?” he said. “Ya know, I kinda like you. And you're shorter than me, too. Sit down.” There was no place to sit but the floor so I made myself comfy on the carpet. (Yes, my hair was long and dark then and my signature felt hat was part of my identity.) He introduced his friends and when he got to the end, I said, “You don’t have to go any further. I know who Al Kooper is!” Kooper just looked at me silently, expressionless. I admit I was disappointed. I would rather have been interviewing him at that moment.

Van Zant proceeded to offer me a drink and I declined. He called room service and ordered screwdrivers for everybody. We chatted for awhile, conversationally, and then the tray of drinks was delivered. Van Zant placed them on his lap, offered them to his friends and after they declined he started drinking. Later on, the interview began.

Leon Wilkeson
Gary Rossington

The resulting article appeared in the front section of a magazine named SWANK. Yes, that’s right, my loyal readers. Susan Cross (under a pen name)had a short article that appeared in a magazine often found under the beds of teenaged boys. In my defense, I proudly am included in the same issue as author Henry Miller (Tropic of Capricorn) and Ed Naha (screenwriter who wrote ‘Honey I Shrunk the Kids’) so, yes, some people really did buy the magazines to read the articles.

The two hours that followed were very revealing but I was there for a specific reason—to ask about his relationship with Alabama’s Governor George Wallace who was well known as a segregationist.

In Skynyrd’s song, ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ there is a line, “In Birmingham they love the Governor, boo, boo, boo,” expressing the band’s opposition to the Guv’s racist leanings, although it is often taken out of context and misunderstood as a result of another line, “I hope Neil Young will remember, southern man don’t need him around anyhow.” Neil young was recognized for his anti-racist attitude. (There are plenty of explanations of this on the web so I won’t go into further detail here.)
Concert that night, May 31,1975

Following is the portion of the article as it was submitted and later published in the magazine.

WARNING: Ronnie Van Zant used blunt language which some people might find offensive. If you are one of those people, either stop reading or cover one eye and skip any words that start with the letter ‘f’ and end with the letter ‘g’.

So where does George Wallace enter the picture? It seems that each member of Lynyrd Skynyrd was presented with a plaque, technically making them members of the Alabama State Militia. In the past, this honor had only been bestowed upon country-western musicians making Skynyrd the first rock band (albeit ‘southern rock’) to receive the recognition.

How do the boys in the band feel about this honor? Ambivalent. The three musicians to whom I spoke, Ronnie Van Zant (lyricist-vocalist), Leon Wilkerson (bass guitarist) and Gary Rossington (lead guitarist) unanimously expressed their respect for the good Governor who had come forth announcing to the world during his campaign for re-election that he had experienced a change of heart.

“Van Zant expounded, “We respect him because he’s a man of principles. And he does stick to his fucking principles. He’s a tough motherfucker, and we respect him for that. But as far as going out and campaigning for him, I don’t want to go out wearing a bullet-proof vest when I get on stage to sing.”

As far as Lynyrd Skynyrd is concerned, in reference to Governor Wallace, nothing of any relevance has gone down between them. As spokesman for the band, Vant Zant goes on record as saying, “George Wallace don’t know any fucking thing about rock ‘n’ roll and I don’t know any fucking thing about politics.”

Meanwhile until George Wallace is seen and heard onstage, playing electric guitar and singing about some ‘pretty mama he knew for a night’ don’t expect any of the musicians in Lynyrd Skynyrd to be giving campaign speeches or running for office!


Jai Joshi said...

I just love reading about your experiences meeting all these artists. What a story!

And how cool of you to step up and challenge Van Zant's notions of what writers are and what they do.


Susan Cross said...

I was so young, Jai. My attitude has always been, so you're a musician and I'm a writer. I can't do what you do but can you do what I do? And I was a real Lynyrd Skynyrd fan. When the publicist called me I knew something was up because I was way down on the list of writers. Apparently everyone else knew that he was difficult and didn't want to do the interview. Hey, I'm not scared of anyone! Bring it on.

Bukowski's Basement said...

Great piece!!

Susan Cross said...

Thanks, Ant. Every writer has to start somewhere. My husband was a little taken aback when he saw the magazine cover but I assured him it wasn't me. Still...

Harry said...

Wow Susan,

That would have been a cool period to be covering the music scene. As far as the Swank thing goes, I think Stephen King had some articles in similar magazines before Carrie and tons of respected authors have been in Playboy. I'd pass 'em out at church if my byline was in 'em! :)

Susan Cross said...

I had no qualms about it then and really don't now. It's funny, Harry, sometimes you wonder how your readers perceive you in the blogosphere. I had to make a decision here and decided that I need to stop censoring myself. In some cases I may give "R ratings warnings" if necessary but ultimately this is my show and by golly I'm going to perform!

I can tell you one thing, my grandmother was very proud! And as I've said, there were some good writers in that issue.

Rosendito said...

So, where is the article? Anyone have a link to it?

Susan Cross said...

The interview is on this page. No link. It was in 1975 and I have the recording but not a hard copy. I transcribed. You can view the short interview THAT WAS PUBLISHED here. The rest of the day was conversational and not recorded at Ronnie's request. No link. If you follow this link on Google, you can see the photo my photog took on the left with Ronnie holding the glass in his hand.

Susan Cross said...

Sorry, Rosendito, I forgot to put the link to the Google search with the picture on the bottom. Here it is.
Or just Google Swank Magazine 1975 George Wallace. The article is not on that first page but the picture on my blog is at the bottom. My photographer took that picture.
Thanks for visiting my blog.

Susan Cross said...

Here is a link that shows the Swank article was published. http://www.lynyrdskynyrdhistory.com/readb.html

Read about halfway down the page. It was published in the May issue.

Anonymous said...

Wow this is awesome. I wish there were more and it wasnt so short. Care to talk about the "conversational" part? Thanks. -Jim

Tommy Bluestreetcar said...

Thank you Susan. I never read this article but I remember the day well.
I was married to Leon and am in this picture next to him.

Theresa said...

Thank you Susan. I never read this article but I remember the day well.
I was married to Leon and am in this picture next to him.

Susan Cross said...

Theresa, it was quite a day for me. I remember it so completely, the penthouse of what was then the Americana Hotel. Do you want a print of this picture? If you do, are you on Facebook? Look for me at www.facebook.com/susancrosswrites. I think that's how I'm listed there. You can send me a private message there. I don't post my email address on the blog but I believe I had some prints made recently when a very serious fan saw them and requested them. I remember you and everyone there and being stunned to see Al Kooper. Do you remember Ronnie standing up and screaming at me when I first walked in? Look for me on FB and send a friend request or a message

Wingnutt Rogers said...

If there was one man i wished i could rub a genie bottle an bring back to life an get to know would be,Ronnie Van Zant...

JR Harriman said...

Hi Susan, great article indeed. I wonder if this is the same interview that I had a copy of many years ago. One day when I was going to record it onto CD the cassette got eaten by the machine and ruined my only copy. Is there any chance to get a copy from you? I have been looking for years. I would greatly appreciate hearing back from you.

Susan Cross said...

Hi JR, The only part of the interview that was published was in Swank Magazine. It is noted above. At that time I was using the pen name Susan Joseph. Unfortunately, I do not have it in my portfolio. A few years ago I was able to find it for sale on some website but I can't remember which and I didn't buy it. It was just the short blurb about George Wallace. What I wrote above is the account of what happened that day. We had a great time and spent a great day together. The comment above is from Teresa Wilkeson (Leon's ex-wife) who is on FB as Teresa Wilkeson Bailey. I was amazed to be contacted by her as the woman in the picture. FB can be a wonderful place, as well as a dangerous one. The answer to your question is no, I don't have the interview on cassette (which also got eaten) or in print. I sure wish I did. I would post excerpts of it in his voice so that it could be preserved on the web forever. Teresa, above, remembers every detail which is how I knew she was really who she said she is.

Sorry, but thanks for visiting my blog and reading. It was a great day for me and a tragic one when the plane crashed. I was so hysterical when my phone started ringing from friends who had heard about the crash before me that I accidentally jumped out of a chair and knocked over a tiffany lamp, shattering it. That was not the great loss, though.

JR Harriman said...

Thanks Susan for replying and for the info. Awesome blog!!!

Anonymous said...

Great story! Interesting to see Al Kooper there with them. I thought their friendship was pretty much over by then.

If the interview took place on May 31, 1975, Ronnie was probably more defensive than usual because Ed King the guitarist had quit about 3 days earlier after one of Ronnie's drunken outbursts. Was that mentioned? Were you at the concert on May 31? Was it Buffalo or Utica or ??

Cheers, Dave.

Susan Cross said...

Hi Dave. Thanks for visiting my blog. I didn't know about Ed King being fired just before this and it wasn't mentioned. I tried to look closely at the pic to see who was drumming but I can't tell.

I learned later that Ronnie had a reputation for being defensive and difficult to interview. I was the 'new girl in town' and was shocked to be called to do this one, especially since it was as assignment from Swank, not just a freelance piece, hoping to get a bite and get it published. The reason they called me is because nobody else wanted to deal with him. Once we faced off in the beginning, things went fine. The day before I had interviewed Barry Hay from Golden Earring. Both concerts were in the Academy of Music in NYC.

As for Al Kooper, I had the impression that he was managing them or at least the interview. I had been a fan and knew that he had 'discovered' the band and given them their break. I remember going to the Blues Project Reunion, seeing LS as the opening act and almost leaving before the Blues Project came on. LS was a tough act to follow and even Al Kooper was disappointing after seeing Skynyrd. Kooper never said a word while I was in the penthouse, not even hello. If ever I was starstruck, though, it was by Kooper.