Saturday, October 20, 2012

"Turn It Up!" by Ron Eckerman

Thirty-five years ago to the day of this review's posting, Lynyrd Skynyrd lost its leader and three other family members when the band's private plane crashed in a forest outside McComb, Miss.

Ron Eckerman, author of "Turn It Up!" was on that plane, but lived to tell this lively story of what he called, "an extraordinarily talented band of misfits that had managed to define Southern Rock."

This is an era of rock remembrances. Greg Allman and Keith Richard come to mind and one can expect there are more on tap as the hippy generation continues its look back on the old days.

"Roneckerman," as he says the band referred to him ("Roneckerman where's my per diem?"), provides here, not an overarching look at a lifetime, but a recounting of approximately three dizzying years with a legendary touring band.

His being pulled into their orbit had everything to do with Lynyrd Skynyrd's soaring prospects at the start of 1974 as did a 14-year old highwayscribery's jumping on the band's wagon.

Skynyrd was getting big, reaching beyond its southern base, and needed more help, which Ronekerman provided as road manager, in this case a grueling combination of on-the-fly accountant and babysitter to some very bad boys.

"Turn It Up!" (the title taken from a cue uttered by singer Ronnie Van Zant in the intro to "Sweet Home Alabama") is a calendar-like recall of an exhausting whirlwind of tours that took him on plane and bus rides to small gigs on the chitlin' circuit, and stadium shows at which weaker rock rivals were dispatched with a stunning three-guitar attack.

Ronekerman has to maintain receipts for expenses yet honor the boys' requests for cocaine money. He has to watch the players drink themselves into unconsciousness and violence, and then pay for the destruction they wreak.

There are drugs up and down this book and it looks far from attractive in hindsight. But if you were not of age in the early 1970s, it would be difficult to understand the druggy zeitgeist afoot in America at the time.

Narcotics were draped in a glamorous halo and there was no virtue in turning one's nose up at them for moral or health-rooted reasons.

The sixties were the time of cultural battle, and the seventies were when some gains from that battle were enjoyed by those of alternative stripe. Add to this the decade's penchant for excess and you get the Lynyrd Skynyrd lifestyle.

And, for highwayscribery's money, it was that lifestyle as unsupervised mad hippies that gave the band its allure, not the redneck brawling they so openly embraced and showcased.

There was a lot of social freedom to the decade and "Turn It Up!" captures the vibe beautifully.

When Skynyrd rolled into the Beacon Theater during the autumn of 1975, the scribe's mom approved not only his attendance, but that of his seven-year old brother. Dad drove us into the city, did the drop-off, and then went to find a drink in the Manhattan neighborhood.

A scandal by today's standards, yet we are all still here.

While out-of-control, the Skynyrds were also sensitive artists kind enough to insist their road employees be paid while the band was not touring.

The author knew the numbers and knew this brew of drug accounts, damage payouts, and rock 'n roll welfare meant the band, hugely popular, must stay on the road to stay afloat.

Roneckerman stayed with them.

His portrait of Van Zant, the band's leader, is the fullest and most complex. Ronnie is an almost grown-up antidote to the juvenile antics of his band brothers and the one who plots the players' course as a collective. Van Zant is the rooster who rules. The high school friend who gained respect the hard way, and continued to do so.

During one of the many blowouts between members documented here, guitarist Allen Collins asks the singer, "Who the fuck do you think you are?" and gets knocked out with a cross to the forehead in response.

Discussion over.

Van Zant could be a vicious drunk, but he is rendered here as highly intuitive, a student of human nature, and manipulator thereon, who took his motley crew to the top of rock.

Roneckerman provides a running account of how all this plays out in his personal life, a subtext that lends real context the story.

Although his first wife sounds like no bouquet of roses, the author's absence nine months out of the year are hardly defensible for a married man. When matrimony fails, he is granted another go at family life and recognizes the strain his career puts on home life.

This time he cares. Maturity begins to set-in as the band lines up for a definitive run at The Big Time by limiting abusive habits and focusing on the prize they've worked so hard to bring within reach.

Roneckerman tries to balance the ageless tension between that desire to roam and be free, and the longing for hearth and home.

He is getting neither rich or famous. He's what they call "below-the-line" on a Hollywood set, a behind the scenes guy. And though he's a happy warrior, it is hard to conclude that the job is something he enjoys.

What he does enjoy is the band and its night-in-night-out ability to shed the dysfunction backstage and blow their fans away. With significant road miles behind him, Roneckerman knows he is part of something special and sticks it out.

During this comet's ride, the band transitions from small venues, to opening act at larger venues, before finally headlining their own stadium shows.

There is no end to the author's claims that, as a warm-up act, Lynyrd Skynyrd was the most merciless in the game, guilty of upstaging the Rolling Stones, ZZ Top, and Peter Frampton to name a few unfortunate headliners sharing the bill with them.

Is the author partial?

highwayscribery can weigh-in here as something other than a book reviewer, and more like a fan, in attesting to having witnessed the band blow the Doobie Brothers out of New York's Nassau Coliseum in 1977.

It was the habitual finale that had done the damage and sent half the arena home happy before the headlining Doobies even came on (the rest left after). The scribe heard one of their fans say that the closer was all Skynyrd had to recommend itself, but nothing could have been farther from the truth.

Lynyrd Skynyrd was armed with two inspired guitarist in Collins and Gary Rossington, along with a catalogue of finely arranged and crafted songs. The picture of shabby long-haired chaos --"dirtbags" (in the North) and "freaks" (in the South) -- their work was regularly lauded by the most respectable tribunals in rock as boogie that could be sophisticated and even elegant.

The band had complete credibility as composers and musicians and, on top of that, had "Freebird."

At the aforementioned Beacon show (covered in this book), we had never heard the piece and were quite impressed at the pandemonium of those drunk and stoned that broke out as it took off. To this day.

If drugs were big in the seventies, so was the electric guitar and there wasn't a rock 'n roller around who could resist the cutting assault launched by Collins in the band's masterpiece rave-up.

Again and again, throughout the road-tour-that-wouldn't-end, Roneckerman reports Skynyrd's ability to break down the most resistant audiences when taking off on the wings of "Freebird."

His proof is the band's trajectory, which could only be halted by that plane crash.

"Turn It Up!" follows a straight, never-deviating chronology through the period covered. There is but one nod to poetry here. It is found in the author's memory of the crash, which he breaks up into pieces and applies as chapter openers to sobering effect.

Roneckerman does not want you to ever forget that all the frantic brawling, drinking, road-going, politics, and marvelous music he's going on about are unfolding beneath a merciless and mighty hand of destiny.

The plane ran out of fuel. The band and crew knew for about fifteen minutes they were headed for a crash. Total silence reigns in Eckerman's account as all are prepared, heads down between legs.

One can only imagine what these young people, with so much zest for life, and so much to be hopeful about, were thinking during the slow, engineless descent through the twilight.

"Hopelessness," is what Eckerman remembers, "...a gut emotion that can rip your heart apart. If you've never felt it, it's difficult to explain. It's a primordial feeling, an instinct, and it pervades your being far past the 'fight or flight' syndrome that's taught in Psych 101. It's past panic, past any emotion I've ever felt. It's a feeling that can't or shouldn't be thought about, much less experienced. It will grab your mind and twist it until you're incapable of reasoning or thought."

Also lost in the crash were back-up singer Cassie Gaines and her brother, guitarist Steve. Roneckerman's account highlights how much fresh creativity the recent addition had brought to the band and is pat in his characterization of the ill-fated musician as a "genius."

"I think about them every day of my life," he writes, "and will be haunted by this unfortunate incident to my death."

Ron Eckerman can rest assured that "Turn It Up!" is  an insightful  and engaging account of life on the rock 'n roll road, a valuable remembrance of a great American band, and worthy tribute to those who haunt his memories still.