Idle Words on Classic Music 'Idols'

By Leanne Potts
Of the Journal
    Way back in 1979, Greil Marcus, the dean of the first generation of pioneering rock critics, rounded up his peers and got them to write an essay on which album they would take if they were stuck on a desert island.
    The resulting book was "Stranded," a tome that's canonical for rock fans and music geeks like John Cusack in "High Fidelity."
    In 2004, Jim DeRogatis, the pop music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, rounded up a younger generation of music critics and got us to write an essay about which of the classic albums we loathe. The resulting book is "Kill Your Idols: A New Generation of Writers Reconsiders the Classics," (Barricade Books, $16).
    In this anthology, 34 writers opine about why allegedly great albums like "Tommy" by the Who, "Pet Sounds" by the Beach Boys and "Desperado" by the Eagles aren't as fabulous as the listmakers at Rolling Stone and VH1 would have you believe. DeRogatis calls the book the Gen-X response to "Stranded," a slap at the saccharine sea of boomer nostalgia that washes over pop culture.
    The goal of "Kill Your Idols" isn't to persuade fans of these records to throw them in a pile and burn them, but to get them to rethink why they think these albums are great. Debate is good for the brain, you know.
    The book also questions whether a genre born of obnoxious upstarts rattling the establishment should have a canon at all.
    I'll be reading from the essay I contributed to the book Tuesday at Bookworks. Here's an abridged version of my piece.
    Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd" (MCA, 1973)
    Most encyclopedias of rock will tell you as gospel that Lynyrd Skynyrd was the Quintessential Southern Rock Band, the triple guitar-wielding ambassadors of bubba. The entry will go something like this: "These kick-butt musicians combined swamp blues, country, and rock into songs about a pastoral place where skies are blue and necks are red. Their career was cut short in a made-for-'Behind-the-Music' plane crash. Fly on, free bird!"
    Well, I was born and raised in Alabama, y'all, and not once did I ever cut the rug at a colorfully named juke joint, hear any female referred to as a "little queenie," or go down to the swamp and watch my hound dog catch a 'coon.
    Don't tell that to Lynyrd Skynyrd. In Skynyrd's South, folks have escaped the dehumanizing forces of modernity and are still as one with the land. They fetch, yes, fetch their dinner with a cane pole; drink whiskey on Saturday night and are simple kind of men the rest of the week.
    Sounds like a right peaceful way to live, Ellie Mae, but I'm here to tell you the definitive Southern rock band is handing you an F-350 truckload of bombastic, sentimental baloney.
    Your exposure to the South would have to be limited to "The Dukes of Hazzard" to believe "Pronounced" was an accurate reflection of the region. By 1970, when Ronnie Van Zant was writing songs about trains and old black men who played dobros 'cross their knees, Lynyrd Skynyrd's hometown of Jacksonville, Fla., was home to more than 600,000 people. The city sprawled over 750 square miles because it had annexed the entire surrounding county to make it easier for the bulldozers to knock down the woods and build strip malls.
    Lynyrd Skynyrd's South certainly doesn't exist now. Jacksonville is home to more than 1 million people and 71 sites eligible for inclusion on the federal Superfund list. Wal-Marts line the Southern countryside from Little Rock to Charlotte, and you're more likely to get a drink at a TGI Friday's with a girl named Amber than at a honky-tonk with a girl named Linda Lu.
    Van Zant wrote the lyrics for all of the songs on "Pronounced." In "Things Goin' On," he sings, "Have you ever been in the ghetto?/ Have you ever felt the cold wind blow?/ If you don't know what I mean/ Won't you just stand up and scream?"
    Well, Ronnie, we don't know what you mean, and we'd like a more articulate explanation before we start shouting. What specific aspects of ghetto life are you citing as problematic?
    This is the same guy who expected the masses to grasp that the impossible-to-understand chorus, "Boo, boo, boo," negated praise for George Wallace supporters in "Sweet Home Alabama." Until I was in college, I thought those backup singers were saying, "Ooh, ooh, ooh."
    Most people, if they're honest, will admit they have no idea what Van Zant meant when he sang, "In Birmingham they love the governor/ Boo, boo, boo/ Well we all did what we could do/ Well Watergate does not bother me/ Does your conscience bother you?"
    There is more of Van Zant's lame narrative detail in "Gimme Three Steps," in which he tells us that the man who pulled a .44 on him at the Jug was "lean, mean, big and bad." Is the sort of man who totes a handgun into a bar and threatens to kill a fellow patron ever small and nice? And when he sings that the "water fell on the floor," does he mean the protagonist was sweating profusely or peeing his pants?
    "Free Bird." Where to begin? A bombastic and maudlin display of guitar excess. "A perfect example of technopastoral counterculture transcendence," blathered '70s rock critic Robert Christgau, whatever the hell that means.
    I say the song is just too long for the 21st century. Maybe it's time to pare "Free Bird" down to a more modern three minutes, deconstruct it into its essentials: Guy scared of commitment goes away; guitar solo.
    "Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd" is an album of backwards-looking music that was more reactionary than innovative. On it, Skynyrd pretends the '60s and the civil rights and women's movements never happened.
    In Skynyrd's fantasy, the world was still a paradise for manly white men with manly ways. Throw in all that Confederate flag waving and you have a band that is retro to the point of retrograde.
    "Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd" sold a myth of white Southerners as noble rustics to a nation weary of the '60s and ready for the false comfort of a bucolic fairytale. It's an image we reconstructed children of the South wear like an albatross, or a wife-beater with a Skynyrd logo on it.
    Boo, boo, boo, indeed.
Book reading
    "Kill Your Idols" reading at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande NW, 344-8139