A poorly animated bald eagle soars across the jumbotron behind Lynyrd Skynyrd in a parking lot on Coney Island—that is to say, the nine people who tour and sell T-shirts under the Skynyrd namesake these days. Almost all of Skynyrd’s original members, and the ones who took their place, and the ones who took their place, are dead. After a brief piano intro, Gary Rossington, the sole survivor of Skynyrd’s original core, plays the familiar opening licks of “Free Bird” on slide guitar.
Knee-deep in the encore—because this is “Free Bird” we’re talking about, and the only time you play “Free Bird” is during the encore—the fans swaying in this decrepit, half-filled lot have been waiting hours (days?) to bathe themselves in the coming 14 minutes of unadulterated rock glory. And here’s this fucking eagle, with its stern gaze, sluggishly flapping its wings. It tears through the blue sky background, clutching an American flag between its cartoon yellow talons. It stares everyone in the eye. It’s a bird. Carrying freedom.
It’s hot in Brooklyn, even at the shore. Earlier in the day, it reached 100 degrees at JFK, some 15 miles from here, just across Jamaica Bay. Lead singer Johnny Van Zant, younger brother to the late Ronnie Van Zant, comments on the heat at least two or three times during the set. In the heart of the crowd, beer, B.O., tobacco, pot smoke, and stale fruit form a noxious cloud. Next to me, a man named Nick Cunningham wears a Confederate bandana that fails to keep sweat beads from dotting his forehead. The neckline of his U.S. Gas & Electric shirt is equally drenched. The bottle in the back pocket of his jorts is near empty. Nick could give two shits; this is his fifth Skynyrd show. He’s been to Florida and Alabama to see them, and he only had to skip down from Bay Ridge tonight. He’s 38, he plays the drums, he smokes Reds, and he lives in the same house he was born in. He pulls one of two flags out of a blue backpack during particularly kickass moments of particularly kickass songs. One is black and reads HARD KICKIN’ SOUTHERN ROCK. The other is a classic Confederate flag. Don’t ask Nick to name his favorite Skynyrd song; he likes them all.
Superfan Nick Cunningham. Photo by John Hendrickson.
Hours earlier, scores of Skynyrd fans were pregaming at the original Nathan’s Famous just down the street. They sat at shit-stained picnic tables under metal umbrellas in the shape of giant checkers. They took down chili dogs and cheese fries and Coors Light in yellow soda cups near the ominous “Clam Bar.” One lady flicked scraps of sauerkraut at the birds. The scraping roar of Coleman coolers along still-hot blacktop drowned out Skynyrd’s “What’s Your Name.” Over on Surf Avenue, Mister Softee peddled overpriced cones to poor kids on knockoff Razr scooters.
On the boardwalk, people set up folding chairs and watched the start of the show through a chain link fence. Skynyrd ripped through “Call Me The Breeze,” “Gimme Back My Bullets” and “That Smell.” Johnny Van Zant’s voice is deeper and more beer-soaked than his brother Ronnie’s once was, though it does lack that authentic weariness that made Skynyrd one of the biggest bands of the 1970s. The eight-piece band behind Johnny tonight—six musicians and two female backup singers—stayed deep in the pocket and barely missed a change or cue. Down on the asphalt closer to the stage, the three-guitar attack sounded as clean as any studio recording. The crowd was surprisingly mellow, though, and Johnny couldn’t seem to rile these Northeast members of Skynyrd nation.
“What’s tonight?” he beckoned. “Thursday? We need to make it a Saturday night! Are you ready? Let’s get ready to rummmbbllleee!”
A mom in a Moo Moo gently rocked her toddler. Bored teens thumbed smartphones. Various motorcycle gangs in made-for-TV leather vests (the Bridgerunners, the 69 Club, Hallowed Sons) rubbed elbows with potbelly dads in stretched out concert shirts.
And then Johnny started to talk about the troops.
The band unveiled a sprawling version of “Simple Man.” People rose from their bedsheets and dual cup holder camping chairs. Lighters flickered. A pink and purple sun began to set over the projects behind the stage. Images of soldiers and their families crawled across the screen. Skynyrd wailed. So what if it all felt like propaganda? It was propaganda. And it was working. People closed their eyes and waved their hands toward God as if inside a megachurch. This sort of was a megachurch.
Johnny saw what was happening. He grabbed the mic and hurriedly spat out another: “AGAIN, GOD BLESS OUR TROOPS!” More people stood. Clouds of smoke rose under floodlights above the port-a-potties. A teenage girl in rainbow cut off jeans gazed longingly in the distance. A dad with a kid on a leash let his grip go soft as he watched the final blistering solo. “Simple Man” is probably the most soulful, gospel-like song in Skynyrd’s catalog. It resonates for every race, in every time zone, on both sides of the Mason Dixon. And finally, near the end of the show, it turned Brooklyn into a borough of believers.
By now the set had reached its final sprint, the one-two punch of “Gimme Three Steps” and “Sweet Home Alabama.” Superfan Nick Cunningham removed the freedom flags from his backpack, and flew the red one above his head. When someone tried to sneak a picture, he turned directly into the camera and flashed his stiff double birds at the lens.
And now, again, there’s that fucking eagle.
Johnny’s back center stage with an American flag draped over the mic stand. The names of deceased band members form a halo around the soaring bird on the jumbotron. The song speeds up. Johnny throws the flag like a spear and somebody catches it. The eagle disintegrates into a blue vortex that looks like a Windows screensaver, or the intro of “Sliders.” A mirror ball slowly descends from the ceiling. The camera zooms in and out. A teen in a yarmulke is not amused. Nick is raging like there’s no tomorrow. There is no tomorrow, because he took off from work tomorrow to be here.
“Now I can die a happy man,” he says.
That eagle would be proud.