Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Lynyrd Skynyrd and the ship of Theseus

So, I was surprised to see an advertisement on the big flashing billboard next to the ShoWare center in downtown Kent that Lynyrd Skynyrd are performing there on Sept. 27th. I'm old enough to remember the night their plane crashed (we were spending hours in a bus on a band trip, as I recall) back in '77, killing lead singer Ronnie Van Zant and putting an end to the group (several of whom were badly injured and years in healing). They were already fading as a group at the time, but the tragedy bestowed a 'legendary' status on them, as it so often does (cf. Stevie Ray Vaughn, Jim Croce, et al.)

I knew about the Rossington-Collins band the survivors had briefly formed (circa '79-80), which was pleasant enough but not memorable: their instrumental version of "Freebird", for example, felt meandering and unfocused. It turned out, as is so often the case, that the singer/songwriter lead vocalist is the one member a band can't do without.* And I was vaguely aware that more recently some (not all) of the survivors had re-formed years later for some special event, with Van Zant's little brother standing in as their vocalist. But I guess I hadn't realized they'd stayed together after the tribute was over.** A little checking online revealed that of the six band members who'd been alive after the crash (guitarists Rossington, Collins, and King; pianist extraordinaire Powell, drummer Pyle, and bassist Wilkeson), only three are living now (it has been thirty-five years ago, after all, and the southern rock lifestyle does not encourage longevity): Rossington, King, and Pyle. And of those three, only one is still in the group (Rossington).

Which raises the question: is a band with only one original member still the same band? At what point does it become "those people touring the local casinos as 'Lynyrd Skynyrd' " rather than the real thing?*** How big a role does continuity play (e.g., the Rolling Stones only has three of its original members; the newly reformed Beach Boys only two, Pink Floyd only one****)?

It turns out there's a classical precedent for this, the so-called paradox of 'the Ship of Theseus', which goes something like this:

Plutarch writes that even in his day (1st century AD) the Athenians still had on display the original ship Theseus used (presumably in his famous voyage to and from Crete some twelve hundred years before, the one that ended badly when he forgot to swap-out his black sails). But it'd needed maintenance over the centuries, with rotting timbers replaced by new ones as needed, until there was actually no piece left of the original ship. The question: is it still the same ship, or not?

In the philosophical conundrum, it depends on whether you value the whole or the parts, the ideal or the material, the continuity or a particular moment in time (and, if so, which).

In the case of the band, I think the announcement that Lynyrd Skynyrd is scheduled to play the Republican national convention later this month answers that question: I don't think the band that wrote and recorded "Things Going On", not to mention the denunciation of Wallace and Nixon in "Sweet Home Alabama", their most famous song, wd be a good fit for the gathering in Tampa. Which leads me to think, in this case at least, the answer is No: Not the Same.

--John R.

P.S.: Thanks to my sister, who gave me a copy of Skynyrd's SECOND HELPING just before I moved to Fayetteville, telling me it was so I'd listen to something else besides the music I usually listened to (Captain & Tennille, the Beatles). I still have that album, and still listen to it once in a while (though more often to the version on Itunes). At Fayetteville I added SILVER AND GOLD (which I think had been recommended by my friend Franklin; I know I got it at the Record Exchange, where he was working at the time) and a cassette of their first album (which also, amazingly enough, still plays just fine, over thirty years later). Music and Memories: how well they go together.

* cd. INXS for a more recent example.

**which apparently violated an agreement they'd all made with the widows of two members killed in the crash, that the survivors wdn't use, and thus cheapen, the name 'Lynyrd Skynyrd'.

***a question people used to ask about Jefferson Starship, with its endless shifting line-up.

****although in the later two cases one of the 'replacements' has been with the group since very early on (mid-to-late sixties)


Ed Pierce said...

For the record, the recent Beach Boys reunion includes three original members: Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine, as well as two members who joined within the next four years after the band formed (guitarist David Marks, who joined in 1962 or 1963, and played on several of the group's albums before departing in 1964; and Bruce Johnston, who joined in 1965, and has been with the group for most of the time since then). Original members Dennis Wilson and Carl Wilson have passed on.

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear Ed
Thanks for the corrections and additional information.
I had been going by earlier reports that Jardine wasn't interested in a reunion; glad to hear that isn't the case.
Who would ever have thought that Brian Wilson wd be the last surviving Wilson brother?
I suppose they cd have asked Glen Campbell, but I hear he's suffering from Alzheimers these days, unfortunately.

Ed Pierce said...

Yes, it's somewhat ironic that Brian Wilson has outlasted his brothers. It's especially a shame that Carl Wilson is no longer around to participate; he was the best singer in the group (especially after Brian's voice started deteriorating in the early 70's).

I think Glen Campbell's tenure in the band lasted about 6 months or so (or maybe it was less); but of course as an LA studio musician he played on quite a number of their hits.