Sometime in late 1983 or early 1984—the chronology is a bit fuzzy these days—I walked into the Enlisted Man’s Club at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri and saw, for the first time in my life, an entire crowd singing along—somewhat drunkenly, it must be admitted—to the Lynyrd Skynyrd song “Freebird.”
Back in those days, the Enlisted Man’s Club—or EM Club, and I make no apology for the “sexist” term, since most soldiers in those days were men—was a big, wooden box, two stories, if I remember correctly, with white clapboard-style siding. It was one big room inside, for the most part. I wasn’t a drinker (yet), so I don’t remember where the bar itself was, but I think it was opposite the door, which, following military SOP, was in the center of the front wall.
To even so much as go to the EM Club, we had to don up in our dress uniforms, so when I walked in, all I saw were guys in Class A’s, jackets off, ties loosened, bellowing the lyrics at the top of their lungs.
I grew up sheltered, so seeing this phenomenon stuck with me. For one, I came of age in a dry county, so there weren’t any clubs to go to and see this kind of thing happening. And while I listened to rock music—I was a huge fan of Styx, followed closely by Kansas and some Journey (are you seeing a prog rock trend there?)—and no doubt had heard “Freebird” at some point—I know I was at least aware of Lynyrd Skynyrd at least peripherally because of older cousins and uncles who listened to them—I don’t consciously remember hearing the song before that time. I do remember feeling unfamiliar with it, so perhaps that was my first time.
Of course, it wasn’t the last, and it wouldn’t be just that song. By summer of ’84, I also went to my first concert—Night Ranger, with Tony Carey (“It’s a Fine Find Day (For a Reunion))—and had my first taste of beer in Germany that October—in Nuremberg, at Oktoberfest, of course.
Curiously enough, right at ten years later, July of 1993, I saw Lynyrd Skynyrd live (not the original band, of course, but close) and when they did “Freebird” as their encore, the crowd was dead silent, partly, I think, out of respect for Ronnie Van Zant, and partly out of reverence for the song. A good three-quarters of the crowd were bikers, though how much that had to do with it I have no idea. It was one of the best behaved crowds I’ve ever seen at a concert.
And while seeing Skynyrd perform the song live was a treat, and I still remember it, I have to say that first experience of seeing the way music bonds people, even if it’s only temporarily (I’m thinking of the fight I saw going on after seeing Iron Maiden in Providence, Rhode Island), has stuck with me as few other memories have. I can still remember looking around in wonder as who knew how many guys belted out those words at the tops of their voices, beers held high (for those who could drink them; we couldn’t being still in training), sleeves rolled up, ties loosened, competing quite handily with the club’s sound system.
I used to scoff at the way old people seemed to live in the past, but now I understand why they do. It’s not so much that they want to go back, but they certainly take comfort in those days. I’ve always loved music, figured I’d always keep up with whatever was the latest thing. But I think you have to be of roughly the same age as the musicians to get what’s current. For me, my best memories are of the eighties and the metal bands I loved. I even find myself listening to bands I wouldn’t have even considered back then, thinking they were too commercial, just because hearing their songs brings back memories. I think the music you listen to as you’re coming of age is the stuff that’s most special to you, so you get hippies who still love the sixties stuff, others who revere the disco era, and so on.
And that coming of age all started for me on that day long ago when I stepped into the EM Club at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and heard probably a hundred guys singing along lustily with Ronnie Van Zant.
And feeling more alive than anyone had ever been.