There is a 2018 documentary about the legendary Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd called If I Leave Here Tomorrow, which became available on Netflix last month. I hadn’t seen it yet, but having been born and raised in Alabama, I felt like I knew enough about them and the music they wrote and performed. When I finally watched the documentary (I’ve reached the halfway point twice now, and still haven’t finished it), I was able to get a little more information as it features never before seen footage and never before published stories that made me appreciate the musicians and their art that much more.
My dad was in a classic rock band called High Noon, birthed in Mobile in the 1980’s- just like yours truly. They did a lot of cover songs, as well as original tunes, even cutting an entire album called It’s About Time. They played gigs every weekend, and would invite other musicians to pick and grin with them on stage- including members of Wet Willie (Keep on Smilin’).
Many of the stories my dad likes to recollect revolve around those times- the times before the happy accident came along and complicated those visions of almost fame. One of my favorite stories to hear involving the band is- without a doubt- my dad’s all time favorite story to tell. (I’ve heard it more than twice.) It involves a stage in Mobile, Alabama, a crowd of twenty thousand people, and the song Free Bird.
Free Bird is a song that probably almost every person on the planet has heard at least in passing. Nine minutes and eight seconds of pure, raw, hard, Southern rock. High Noon played several Skynyrd covers, but on this particular night, they took a chance. Twenty thousand mostly drunk or high (likely both) long haired Southern rock ‘n’ rollers were dancing their asses off and getting wild. Mobile’s finest approached the stage to tell High Noon- “Hey, we can’t control this crowd- wrap it up so we can all go home before it gets out of control.”
“Alright, we’ll play one more and it’s over.”
After informing the crowd this would be the final song of the evening and then everybody needed to get on home, without even introducing the song, they began playing Free Bird to an already feelin’ good crowd that, upon hearing the first chord, went absolutely ballistic. They got about twenty-two minutes into it before the cops unplugged their amps, forcing them to abruptly end the best performance to their biggest crowd of their collective music career. And that was that.
Two and a half years passed and after my sister had been born, my mom had had enough of the parties and the drinking and the gigging and was ready to reprioritize. That’s when we moved five hours north. My ditch digging dad’s dreams of being a professional drummer for a Southern rock ‘n’ roll band were scrapped. He became a Deacon, and our lives completely changed. He didn’t know it at the time, but my mom would later settle in Jacksonville, Florida- the very birthplace of Ronnie Van Zant, the great Prophet and (forever, in my book) front-man of Skynyrd.
If I Leave Here Tomorrow allowed me to get a backstage pass to get to know a band I thought I knew well enough. I always appreciated their musical and writing abilities, but didn’t think too much about their views or personalities or personal lives. The documentary allowed a peak into this secret world of Skynyrd I hadn’t known before. I finally understood what my dad had been hyping my entire life. He had been desperately trying to get me on board this ship that I couldn’t be a part of first hand back in their hay day in the late ’70’s. I finally understood what he was talking about when he described the experiences in seeing them live (countless times). The crowd- the energy. The fact that a Rebel flag was the backdrop to a band playing for a crowd full of mixed races and faces. Based on the things I knew and studied in the classroom, this scene was confusing to me. I had always tried to get a picture in my head, but after seeing footage from the rock doc, I finally understood what I’d been missing my whole life. I also reflected on what (and who) I’ve been missing as of late.
The first half of the documentary more closely represents the South I know and love. When you are born of artists and musicians, you tend to gravitate to others like this. I’ve touched on this before, so if you’ve been reading, you know how important music is to my family and me. Something magical happens when you surround yourself with people like this- the diamonds in the rough who would rather quit school than give in and cut their hair to meet the school’s dumb requirements. We are the ones who fell through the cracks and landed in some trippy place, unknown to the others. We are the rebels with or without a cause, and either way- it don’t matter, we’re just here for a good time.
One thing that always bothered me about being born and raised here is that no matter how hard we try, we are misunderstood to anyone who was not born and raised here. It’s as though we’re trying to kill everyone with kindness, but instead give off an odor that says “We’ll kill you with guns if you trespass here.” This is not so for the overwhelming majority of us in Alabama. It sucks when one or two people have to go and pull the plug to a good time. But this is something I’m more aware of as time goes on.
I’d like to finish the documentary, and I probably will at some point. For now, I’ve reached the bit about Neil Young singing Southern Man and Ronnie Van Zant sitting at the edge of the swamp, writing a rebuttle in his mind, Sweet Home Alabama. I cried twice. Because I finally understood.
If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?