Music, identity, and the teenage heart

Record and iPod

Whiskey bottles coverI just finished Whiskey Bottles and Brand-New Cars, a 2017 biography of Lynyrd Skynyrd by Mark Ribowski. I was 14 when the core of the band died in a plane crash on October 20, 1977, the real “day the music died” for my generation. I’m familiar with the broad strokes of the Skynyrd story, and even once saw the Rossington-Collins Band, one of the groups put together by the survivors (I was never lucky enough to see the real Skynyrd, and have no interest in the band currently using that name). I recommend the book to anyone curious about the band, their times, and their impact.

And it prompted me to ask my oldest son, about to turn 14, if he had a favorite song. He said dismissively, “Nah.”

“Do any of your friends have favorite songs?”

“Nah.”

He might have been deflecting; after all, at that age, who’s not self-conscious about their choices? Still, I wondered how common, and how true, that was for his generation. Because when I was his age, music was incredibly important to my sense of identity. You were what you listened to.

Ribowski’s book took me back to the Seventies when I first discovered Skynyrd, and rock music in general. Rock was divided by its own Mason-Dixon line among my friends: you were either into Skynyrd, or Led Zeppelin (also not long for the world; they ended in 1980 when drummer John Bonham died). You either sided with the high-pitched, vaguely effeminate* vocals of Robert Plant, or the growly drawl of Ronnie Van Zant. You either preferred the orchestral shenanigans of Jimmy Page, or the triple-threat guitars of Skynyrd’s Garry Rossington, Steve Gaines, and Ed King. Literary songs about Tolkien and bustles in hedgerows spoke to you, or you thrilled to songs of free birds and three steps towards the door.

Skynyrd's blistering guitar trio.

Skynyrd’s blistering guitar trio.

Now, you might think a bookish, nerdy kid like me would be in the Zeppelin camp, but not at all. I found (and still find) Zeppelin a self-consciously pretentious and artsy concern, and learning about their blatant theft of other artists’ work (see here) only made me dislike them more. While I confess an affection for Kansas and Styx (I remember thinking the “starship” reveal in “Come Sail Away” was SO COOL), ultimately my loyalties lay elsewhere.

In contrast to Zep, Skynyrd performed songs about people and places I recognized, and sang them proudly with undisguised regional pride (for a deeper analysis of this, check out Dixie Lullaby by Mark Kemp). They, along with Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, Heart, early Tom Petty and pre-Michael McDonald Doobie Brothers, fought the good fight against the creeping menace of pretentious, snooty bands such as Yes, Pink Floyd, and Jethro Tull (and before you rip me a new one for disrespecting your favorite band, I’m not saying I still think this way; this was my perspective back in the day).

But there were issues with Skynyrd as well. They were also the unmistakable voices of the redneck bullies who tormented me. Just as I couldn’t imagine doing drugs with Zeppelin, neither could I conceive of having a friendly beer with Van Zant and company (and Whiskey Bottles bears that out; no one had a “friendly” beer with those boys). Skynyrd sang both to, and for, cliques to which I’d never belong. It wasn’t until I discovered  Springsteen that I found a musical voice for the feelings I could not then articulate.

Which goes a long way in showing music’s importance at the time; it both embodied and reflected its listeners. Our teen years are when we’re most open to music, when we use it to express ourselves either by creating it or sharing it (remember mix tapes?). Popular music functions as a kind of societal glue, a shared experience (“You love that song? Yeah, me, too.”). 

At my son’s age, I would have definitely picked “Free Bird” as my favorite, although I wouldn’t now. And don’t get me wrong, I still love it. But also at that age, music was a hugely important part of my life.

So why isn’t it to my son, and his friends?

Either the music has changed, or we have. And either way, at the risk of sounding like an old crank, I worry something crucial and essential has been lost.

The prophetic "flames cover" of the final album by the real Skynyrd.

The prophetic “flames cover” of the final album by the real Skynyrd.

*although the girls didn’t think so, that’s for sure.

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