“If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?” Freebird by Lynyrd Skynyrd
Let me first go on record as saying, “I am not Lynyrd Skynyrd fan.” But I have some things in common with those men from Alabama that defined Southern Fried Rock. They claim to have named the band after their gym teacher, a man named Leonard Skinner. I had a gym teacher in the early 70s named Leonard Wiester who we called Lynyrd. And despite the lyrics of their enduring radio hit “Sweet Home Alabama,” which vilifies Neil Young, the band’s late leader Ronnie Van Zandt apparently had deep affection and affinity for Mr. Young, as do I. And of course, like most music fans who have been attending live performances for decades, I am fascinated by the cult of Freebird–the most-requested song in the history of music. The song title that the most obnoxious or drunk audience member (usually the same thing) predictable shouts out during a concert’s most poignant or pensive lull, hoping to elicit mild and perfunctory amusement from his (and it’s always a “him”) fellow concert goers, if not the performers (who must absolutely hate the Freebird intrusion). The Freebird moment has long grown stale, if not putrid, to the point where its begun to wane. And despite decades of louts abusing the title, the song itself remains immune from any spill-over stigma.
Freebird– it’s the quintessential Southern Rock anthem. It begins as a meandering, sentimental ballad in which a commitment-phobic man voices his wanderlust against the thin and brittle strains of a slide guitar. Then, with the singer plaintively chanting “Lord knows I can’t change,” the tempo builds, then gallops into an extended three-guitar jam-packed with more virtuosic pyrotechnics than a Fourth of July fireworks extravaganza.
With Freebird, Skynyrd struck a chord that’s been sustained over five decades. It’s a bravura performance that cannot be ignored, even if we’d rather dismiss it as cliché or mock it as little more than redneck pathos drenched in melodrama. Simply put, Freebird rocks.
So when I recently grabbed lunch at a local salad production line (a place that minces lettuce and fixin’s nearly into a puree), I was struck to see that their organic, liberated chicken had a brand name–FreeBird chicken. Had Skynyrd gone into the poultry business? Unlikely, I thought. But still, using Skynyrd’s signature song title as a trademark without even paying chicken feed seemed oddly like plagiarism. And there is precedent for giving famous song titles quasi-trademark status. Years ago, Jimmy Buffett scored a legal win against a restaurant that wanted to call itself Margaritaville. Buffet’s trump card in that dispute was his plan to open his own chain of restaurants called Margaritaville. That fact, along with the distinctiveness of the name and the strong association between that fictional place and the musician who created it, gave Buffet a legal basis for calling “Margaritaville” his own.
Could Skynyrd marshall similar facts if it wanted to ruffle some feathers and start a legal faceoff with the FreeBird chicken folks? Surely, Freebird is associated as much with Skynyrd as “Margaritaville” is with Jimmy Buffett. But what about the restaurant angle? A quick internet search gave me hope. A news story announced that the band would have a stake in a Las Vegas restaurant to be called “Lynyrd Skynyrd BBQ and Beer.” And in fact, the joint opened in late 2011, earning some critical praise for both its food and rock and roll atmosphere. But Skynyrd’s box office cache did not translate to the highly competitive Las Vegas restaurant arena dotted with lavish establishments manned by Michelin Star chefs. Lynyrd Skynyrd BBQ and Beer declared bankruptcy and closed less than a year after it opened.
So today, you can dine on FreeBird chicken if you don’t mind it all chopped up in a melange of lettuce. But you can no longer dine to the strains of “Freebird” while enjoying deep-smoked savory meats and cold refreshing brews. Does it rankle the members of Lynyrd Skynyrd that there’s a brand of chicken called FreeBird? Do salad craving diners hum Skynyrd songs in their heads while they munch on arugula, kale, and romaine laced with shreds of FreeBird chicken? These questions are as imponderable as “which came first, the chicken or the egg?” Just as we’ll never know the answer to the enduring question posed in Freebird–“If I leave here tomorrow, would you still remember me?”
QUOTE OF THE DAY: “No bird soars too high if he soars with his own wings.” William Blake