Sometimes your iPod knows things before you do. Last night I had it on shuffle for a couple of hours and it kept coming back to Lynyrd Skynyrd. Then I got home this afternoon and found out that Billy Powell died.
John Updike died yesterday. He was an amazing writer and deserved all the front-page obits. But when I look at the thing honestly I know that Billy Powell has meant more to my life than John Updike ever has.
If you think about Lynyrd Skynyrd at all, you probably don’t think about the piano player. They had Ronnie Van Zant out front and three guitars behind him. The band started out without a piano player; Powell was their roadie. The story goes that one night in Skynyrd’s early days, as they were setting up to play a high school prom, Powell sat down at the piano and played an intro to “Free Bird.” Van Zant heard it and put him in the band right there.
In our house, growing up, there was nothing but country music. When I was 10 I could have told you every one of Charley Pride’s hits but maybe only one or two of the Beatles’. Somewhere in there we went to visit one of my cousins. She must have been in her early 20s then — old enough to have her own apartment — and she smoked and wore cutoffs and had the first Skynyrd album on her stereo. I stared at those longhairs on the album cover and listened to the music and my life changed right there. I didn’t acquire great musical taste on the spot (some of my friends might say I never acquired it) but at that moment I knew there was a bigger world of music than I had ever imagined, dangerous and fun and beautiful and irresistible.
A lot of postmodern Southern boys are conflicted about Lynyrd Skynyrd. They used to hang a giant Confederate flag at the back of the stage, and they defended George Wallace, and they would no-show concerts or show up too strung out to play. That first album came out in 1973, and if you’ve read this far you probably know that Van Zant and two other band members died in a plane crash in 1977. Less than five good years. A new version with some of the old members (including Powell) formed in 1987, and still plays today, but to me that band doesn’t count.
I don’t know how to reconcile the flag and the drugs and all the other stuff with the beauty and power of the music. I’m not sure you’re even supposed to reconcile things when it comes to art. In the end you love what you love. All I know is that I love Lynyrd Skynyrd and I love to hear Billy Powell play.
You don’t even see him in this clip — the camera crew can’t seem to find him — but about halfway through it comes time for his solo and you sure enough hear him. Billy Powell versus three guitars turns out to be a fair fight. This, y’all, was one hell of a rock and roll band.