Floyd and Freebird at Fifty

Lest we never forget, the rock gods have a way of drawing our attention to seminal moments in music history when we least expect it.

Earlier this month the world lost Gary Rossington, the last surviving, original member of Lynyrd Skynyrd.  Rossington is most known for his signature slide guitar work on Skynyrd’s legendary hit “Freebird.”  You may not be a fan of Rossington, Skynyrd or southern rock in general but any fair reading of rock history would place “Freebird” on the list of the top 10 songs of all time.

Freebird was released as a single in 1974, but it was part of Skynrd’s first album which came out fifty years ago, in 1973.

As it happens, the day before Rossington’s death I read a piece about another important 50th anniversary in rock history.  In March 1973 Pink Floyd released “Dark Side of the Moon.”  Again, Floyd may not be your thing, but there’s no denying the band’s epic achievement with “Dark Side” – 973 weeks on the Billboard charts, 14 times platinum in the UK, the top selling album of the 1970s and fourth most in history at 45 million copies.

It turns out 1973 was one helluva a year in the history of music.  The Who released “Quadrophenia” (a topic for another blog but all the answers to life can be found on side 3 of this double album). Elton John released “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road.”  Zeppelin released “Houses of the Holy,” just to name a few.

Lynyrd Skynyrd and Pink Floyd are about as far apart as one can get on the spectrum of rock music.  “Freedbird” is a poignant anthem about fading love meant to be sung out loud with friends late night at a bar with ample supplies of beer and whiskey.

If I leave here tomorrow, will you still remember me?

For I must be travelling on now, ‘cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see

“Dark Side” is an ethereal, other-worldly musical tour de force about madness, death, greed, and the passage of time that’s best experienced in a dark, smokey room under the influence of your mind-altering drug of choice.

And if the dam breaks open many years too soon

And if there is no room upon the hill

And if your head explodes with dark forebodings too

I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon

To further prove the point. at an event with a live band no one from the audience pleadingly yells “Brain Damage” like they do “Freebird” to get them to play the song. (This actually worked for me once years ago at a family wedding. Sorry again to my wife’s cousin, I didn’t think they’d actually do it.)

Yet in some strange way I found it fitting that when life’s hour-glass emptied for Gary Rossington it coincided with the 50th anniversary month of “Dark Side.”  Genius is a word we throw around too easily these days, but very few people truly achieve it for even a single moment in time, let alone a career. And while 1973 might as well be 1773 to many people today (after all life didn’t really begin until the advent of the Internet, the smart phone and social media), it’s important we do not forget true geniuses like Floyd and Skynyrd whose work meant so much to so many.

Despite their stylistic differences,“Freebird” and the best songs on “Dark Side” share points of commonality. “Freebird” is close to ten minutes long, as are are many of Floyd’s songs. Even in 1973 producing songs this long was considered commercial suicide. No radio stations wanted songs longer than four or five minutes. This is even more true today where social media and short form video have further eroded our attention spans. Yet no fan of Skynyrd of Floyd would have it any other way. In that sense this anniversary has been a rsad eminder of what we’ve lost in the swipe and tap era of content consumption.

What really connects this music, and all the best art in my view, is it brings to the surface the sense of longing and search for meaning that exists inside each of us.  Whether that longing be for freedom from a failed relationship, like in “Freebird,” or rapidly fading youth, like in the track “Time” from “Dark Side” – they touch on emotions all of us can relate to.

Now don’t worry, I’m not going to get carried away and suggest that Floyd and Skynyrd truly hold all the answers to life or are a replacement for deeper spiritual practices.  But part of the genius of their music is its ability to transport us to a different place and provide solace, joy, and perhaps even hope, in times of need. 

Very often we connect with bands or songs when we are young and are just beginning to confront the world and all the good, and bad, it has to offer.  That was the case for me.  These days I find however that a lot of the music from my youth holds no interest or relevance in middle age.  But the best music, like “Freebird” and “Dark Side,” still resonate, albeit in different, sometimes more poignant ways.  In the end I think that is a sign that one has been touched by genius.  That’s worth celebrating, even 50 years later. Rest in peace, Gary.

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