“Whiskey bottles, and brand new cars/Oak tree you’re in my way.” — From Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “That Smell”
There’s a tangible eeriness that pervades Skynyrd’s Street Survivors that goes beyond the infamous “band in flames” cover. The album that gave Ronnie Van Zant back his “bullets” also served as his swan song. It’s a document of personal and artistic tragedy, and one that walks a fine line between the here and hereafter. Is it coincidence that newly arrived guitarist Steve Gaines is wrapped in fire on the front cover, with his eyes closed?
In 1976, after the lackluster Gimme Back My Bullets, Lynyrd Skynyrd needed a kick in the shins. They would find it in guitarist Gaines, who was brought in to give the band a third axe to swing. With Gaines in the fold, Skynyrd was revitalized, burning up stages across America and writing their best songs since 1974’s Second Helping. What should have been a new chapter in the band’s career would be cut too short. Street Survivors was released just three days before Skynyrd’s chartered plane crashed on its way to Baton Rouge, La., killing vocalist Ronnie Van Zant, Gaines and his sister and background singer Cassie Gaines. These events still overshadow one of the band’s best efforts.
The hits came forth with the humorous “What’s Your Name,” the Gaines-penned swing number “I Know A Little,” a superb cover of Merle Haggard’s “Honky Tonk Night Time Man,” and the brash “You Got That Right,” with Van Zant asserting, “When my time’s up, I’ll hold my own/You won’t find me in an old folks home.” Most compelling is “That Smell,” a haunting warning about substance abuse with Van Zant’s most chilling lyrics: “Now they call you Prince Charming/Can’t speak a word when you’re full of ’ludes/Say you’ll be alright come tomorrow/But tomorrow might not be here for you.” Prescient words, indeed.