Thursday, January 29, 2009

"Billy Powell...On the Piano"

Billy Powell, the keyboardist for Lynyrd Skynyrd, died this week at the age of 56. That’s him, with the bird in hand.

Skynyrd has seen more tragedy than the Kennedy family. Ronnie Van Zandt and Steve Gaines died in rock and roll’s second most famous plane crash in 1977. Guitarist Allen Collins was paralyzed in a car accident in 1986 and was dead from complications four years later, at 38. Bassist Leon Wilkeson was found dead in his hotel room in 2001, age 49, from “natural causes”. Powell becomes the 5th member of the band* that won’t qualify for a senior discount at the movies. That’s a high mortality rate, even for a band that had 7 members in its standard lineup.

Lynyrd Skynyrd is the anti-Spinal Tap. Whereas Spinal Tap’s drummers die in large numbers, in Skynyrd everyone but the drummers die. Bob Burns and Artimus Pyle continue to march to their own beat.

* My definition of “the band” includes any one in the lineup for the 5 studio albums and 1 live album released between 1973 and 1977. The army of players that have joined the group since its reformation in 1987 do not qualify. In fact, with Powell’s death, only one original member is in the band that calls itself “Lynyrd Skynyrd”. Can we please stop this charade now?

I met Billy Powell once. It was the fall of 1981 and my friends and I went to see the Rossington Collins Band at the now-defunct North Stage Theater on Long Island. I grew up on the Island, and for some cultural reason I can’t explain, Long Island was a big fan base for Southern Rock* bands. The Allman Brothers famously did an annual New Year’s Eve concert at the Nassau Coliseum. Marshall Tucker’s last performance together was on the island. Even minor southern rock bands like .38 Special would sell out the Coliseum.

* Southern Rock as a term was always a bit of a misnomer. The three aforementioned bands, for example, are all quite different in their influences. The Allmans were very much a blues rock band, Marshall Tucker almost a straight country group, and .38 Special more an 80’s pop band. The Allmans had more in common with Eric Clapton than they did with Marshall Tucker and .38 Special was closer to Bon Jovi than Skynyrd. Bands like Creedence and the Eagles shared a lot of musical territory with so-called Southern Rock bands but came from California and avoided the tag. Another example of why musical labels are ultimately useless.

Where was I? Right, the North Stage theater, November 1981. My friends and I got there early and found ourselves in an alley next to the theater, ogling the tour bus. Suddenly, the stage doors opened and out walked…The Lynyrd Skynyrd Band! Sure, technically, it was the Rossington Collins Band but RCB was formed by the surviving members of Skynyrd and they were all there. Gary Rossington, Allen Collins, Billy Powell, Leon Wilkeson.

Remember, this is 1981. MTV had aired its first music video in August of that year but hadn’t made their cultural mark yet. It was 15 years before internet ubiquity, 20 before Wikipedia, and 25 before YouTube and concert sites like Wolfgang’s Vault. Even VCRs were rare, so concert movies like The Last Waltz and The Song Remains the Same could only be seen in rare midnight shows at select theaters.

So if you loved a rock band – and I loved Skynyrd – the only source of information was the albums. We would study the liner notes and stare at the pictures, filling in gaps with bits of information we picked up in Rolling Stone or the radio. Except for monster acts like the Beatles, the average music fan had seen very little video footage of their favorite acts.

And suddenly these people – these people whose pictures I had stared at for hours on end – were walking right by me! Right by me and into the diner next door!

What to do? We didn’t want to interrupt our heroes, but we also couldn’t let this moment pass. Luckily one of my friends, Brian Buchauer, had courage for the rest of us. He walked into the diner, up to the table, and introduced himself to the band. The four of us shook the hands of whichever band members were in reach. And the one who stood out the most was Billy Powell – for the simple reason that the same fingers that played the legendary piano piece on Freebird live – not to mention my all-time favorite piano solo on Skynyrd’s cover of J.J. Cale’s Call Me the Breeze – were covered with rings.

I’ve seen some famous people in my life. I was in a store with Julia Roberts. I rode an elevator with Pete Townsend. I had a 5-minute conversation with Joe DiMaggio. I even spent the weekend with Miss America (true story, but for another day). But that moment will remain my favorite brush with fame.

Brian Buchauer, rest his soul, was killed a few years later in a motorcycle accident. Fitting, perhaps, that I’ll always associate him with this band that has seen so much tragedy.

[hat tip to Brian's science fair partner Windex, who was with me in that diner 28 years ago (damn we're getting old!) and had some input on this piece.]

More blogs on Powell:

- this one, on Paste Magazine, contains links to some of BP's best solos
- from Ginger, who worked with BP

Most of the other blog posts are useless. Quick re-hash of the news accounts and an embedded YouTube video...

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