On a hoary Christmas morning over thirty years ago, my parents ignited one of the pivotal torches of my life journey: they bought me a boom box.
Until then, I had one of those tiny turntable stereos that provided all the volume and muddled sonic clarity that a ten year old needed. I had KISS’ Double Platinum album—a Christmas present from a year or so before—and a handful of other albums, and from that modest vinyl collection sprung the rhythmic madness that grips me to this very sentence.
The constricting limitation of this setup—and mind you, like those who thought he world was flat, I didn’t see any problems with my situation—was that my musical reach was limited to my personal collection. Despite several paper routes, I could only afford the odd album every now and then because in addition to my financial realities, there was the practical challenge of actually getting to a record store, which was the only place to buy music, or for that matter, to discover music. Whereas now I find myself on a constant search for a new album, song or band, back then, I was obsessively focused on the small cache of records I owned, poring over liner notes, album sleeves and lyrics with fastidious dedication.
Back to that historic Christmas morning.
I knew it was coming, but such advance knowledge failed to dim the thrill of tearing through the wrapping paper to find the boom box. Everything felt bigger at that age (and in the case of candy bars, they were), and this box was no exception. I’m guessing that it was not much bigger than eighteen inches long and maybe six inches thick, and it had the hottest technology of the time—a cassette deck attached to the radio. The significance of this feature cannot be overstated, because now I could record songs straight from the radio. Game changer.
At that time, the DJ would let you know what songs were coming up so you could get your cassette tape ready to go, and as soon as he began to announce the song, you could click “Record” and own a perfectly tasty copy of the song. Then you’d wait for another song that you wanted to record and over the course of a few days or a week, you had your own mix tape straight from the radio.
The songs all bore the verbal footprints of the DJ speaking over the music at the beginning or the end of the song, and often your recording would contain the beginning or end of the following song. After repeated listens to the song you recorded, you started speaking along with the DJ or humming the intro to the next song as if they were part of your tune.
And so on that epic Christmas morning, I dumped a handful of D batteries into the back of the box, loaded a sixty minute cassette tape (thankfully my parents included a package of three blank cassette tapes with the gift) into the front, turned on Boston’s rock station, WAAF and waited for a killer song to record. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular. Hell, I didn’t know was was out there. I just wanted my first song to be sufficiently cool. I didn’t care what it was, just so long as it grabbed me on a gut level.
I remember sitting in the front room with the box on my lap, as one song faded out and the next song opened with a bouncy mess of crunchy, filthy chords poured out of some guitar played by a person I couldn’t picture. I had no idea who the band was, and I didn’t even know the song; I just knew that whatever it was, I loved it.
I clicked “Record” and a few minutes later, I had recorded my first song from the radio: “Gimme Three Steps,” by Lynyrd Skynyrd.
The casino is forty-five minutes northeast of San Diego and about six thousand miles west of Boston.
Outside of the entrance to the massive casino was the box office to the outdoor theater behind the hotel. I gave the guy my name and slid my driver’s license through the little open archway at the bottom of the glass..
“Whose list are you on?” he asked.
“Skynyrd’s,” I replied.
He rose and went to the other side of the box office and came back with a sealed envelope with my name on it.
“Here you go,” he smiled. “Have fun, man.”
Opening the envelope, I found two tickets, two backstage passes and a note to come to the side of the stage at 7:30 sharp, to be escorted back before the show. At the bottom of the passes, written into a white box with a thick black Sharpie was the word “Colt.”
For Southern California, the weather was cool, although for the rest of the country, it was flip flop and daiquiri weather. We’re spoiled—what can I say?
The amphitheater had folding chairs stretching from the stage back to bleachers far to the opposite side of the area, with more bleachers on either side. Set into the mountains under a spectacular night sky, it resembled an outdoor hockey rink (but for the chairs where the ice would be).
I arrived at the side of the stage at the appointed time and after a bit of confusion with the venue’s security staff, who put no stock in the note in my hand, an older guy came over and asked, “You Joe Daly?”
“Let’s go,” he said as we crossed backstage to some trailers behind the massive stage. Standing outside the trailer, I watched the guy disappear inside when suddenly from over my right shoulder, a tall guy wearing all black, including a black fedora with bright feathers branching out, passed by.
“Johnny,” I said.
Lynyrd Skynyrd’s bass player, Johnny Colt, turned around.
“Joe!” he smiled, extending a massive hand.
I interviewed Johnny for a magazine a couple of months earlier and what was scheduled for a twenty minute chat stretched out into a two hour session that seemed to cover a little bit of everything. Skynyrd was going out on tour and we resolved to meet at tonight’s show—the band’s only San Diego appearance.
A wooden deck connected two trailers, between which stood a short guy with long hair and a beard.
“Joe, this is Johnny Van Zant,” Johnny said, and with a broad smile, the singer shook my hand and invited me to help myself to make myself at home. Johnny exuded a disarming vibe of authenticity; I didn’t feel like I was backstage at a concert; it felt more like Johnny Van Zant was having people over to watch some football and wanted to make sure everyone got what they needed before he sat down for the kickoff.
In the next ten minutes, I met every single member of Skynyrd, right down to the enchanting backup singers, who have always played a prominent role in Skynyrd’s live show. To a person, each and every one was down to earth, engaging, and everyone asked if I needed anything to drink, even as I held a bottle of water in my hand. Although the trailer was nestled into the side of a dusty California mountain, I was steeped in Southern hospitality.
When Gary Rossington walked by and Johnny introduced us, I felt one of those rare starstruck moments. Here was the only original member of Skynyrd left; the connection to those shit-kicking, anthem-writing Southern hippies who, over forty years ago, stamped a new face on American music. I remember seeing him play with Metallica almost a year ago, when I covered their 30th anniversary shows in San Francisco. When I mentioned that to him, he chuckled. Like the rest, he was the perfect gentleman.
Johnny and I chatted about basses, workouts, tattoos and other sundry topics before someone called him out to take the stage. Then he headed off to pay the bills and my friend and I walked out to the seats he left us—seventh row center.
Some say that the current lineup of Skynyrd isn’t the true Skynyrd because there’s only one original member left. I understand where they’re coming from, but I respectfully disagree. There’s only one Skynyrd and this is who they are. The rotating lineup of musicians is simply part of the Skynyrd legacy. That’s what they are. You can’t compare them to the Stones or Zeppelin or The Who. Skynyrd is an institution in its own right, and that band has survived an awfully long time thanks to the many men and women who have stepped into these hallowed roles and continued playing these songs that have become as much a part of American culture as baseball or bitter partisan politics.
They opened with the hit from their current album, “Last of a Dyin’ Breed,” before jumping into the classics, of which there are almost too many. The musicians barely stop playing between songs, riffing from one song to the other as if there were no time to waste.
They all smile, all show long. In fact, one can’t help but wonder if they’re having the best time out of everybody. There is showmanship, and there is authenticity, and either these guys are unparalleled showmen, or they really are having the time of their lives up there, delivering one legendary song after another to an audience of somewhat shockingly rich diversity. The buzz that these guys play to only aging rednecks anymore was destroyed by a multicultural crowd of seemingly all ages—high school to seventysomethings.
It was a fantastic, loose, fun show. One of the funnest sets I’ve seen in a year that’s included Sabbath, Metallica and KISS. The audience grooved, the band charged hard and even the balconies of the hotel next door rattled with guests rocking out to the fan-friendly set.
And then, after a good bit of between-song banter by Johnny Van Zant, Gary stepped out and unleashed the riff. That riff.
I looked over at Johnny Colt, beating away at his bass, and I turned around to see thousands of people behind me, dancing, holding up cell phones and singing the iconic first words to “Gimme Three Steps.”
What a long, strange trip it’s been.