How I ended up in the back of a car being driven by Lynyrd Skynyrd’s drunken bassist Leon Wilkeson, sat next to two speed-crazed bikers, one wielding a gun, eludes me even today.
It was October 1976 and my third encounter with these hell-raising southern rockers. Here I was in some low-rent bar in Concord, California, seeking solace in Leon’s company. The fact that the larger-than-life bass player always sported eccentric headgear, wore bikers’ patches and either had his face buried in a mound of narcotics or was suckling a bottle of bourbon, didn’t ring any warning bells.
I was just 20 years old, and being invited to a speed chemist’s birthday party at a biker clubhouse seemed the most natural scenario in Lynyrd Skynyrdworld. Which was how we ended up hurtling the wrong way down the highway in a car captained by a ferociously inebriated Leon, accompanied by a loud, dwarfish photographer by the name of Randy Bachman (no relation), a hysterical biker’s girlfriend who’d just celebrated her 21st birthday in the bar, and the two bikers in question: Joe and his amphetamine chemist pal, Stinky.
What had seemed like a good idea was losing its appeal the further we got from our hotel. Stinky and Joe now decided that they wanted the girl for their own personal entertainment. Meanwhile, the photographer’s mouth was running away with him: “You guys eat shit!” he screamed at the bikers. Joe’s response was swift and violent: “Shaddup, you short-chord cocksucker or I’ll throw you out of the goddamn window.”
“I’m mad, real mad!” declared Joe, as if any of us needed confirmation. “I ain’t scared of using this,” he frothed, waving his artillery. “How many times have I used this, Stinky?”
The pair only briefly stopped their ranting to compliment me on my Motörhead T-shirt. Strangely enough, as my only experience of guns until then had been limited to TV and movies, I remember finding the whole situation amusing, even when the cold grey barrel was pressed next to my skull.
The situation descended into further chaos until a seemingly calm Leon took control and we somehow managed to lose Stinky and Joe at a gas station and made a desperate dash back to the hotel. The bikers were later picked up and held overnight – long enough for Leon and I to be escorted out of town by local police, afraid that there might be further reprisals. “The next time I go on stage, I’ll be thinking there could be a guy out there who wants to shoot me,” said Leon.
You’d think that would be enough southern rock for me, but my second assignment to the US was in April 1977 to do an interview with the Atlanta Rhythm Section, a soft-rock option to Skynyrd, who were promoting their sixth album – A Rock’n’Roll Alternative – when I went to see them. The band comprised of session musicians from two successful groups: Classics IV and Roy Orbison’s backing band The Candymen, and it soon became obvious that they were split into two very different camps. There were the hellraising, battle-scarred veterans of Orbison: Robert Nix (drums) and Dean Daugherty (keyboards), who were quite intimidating in both size and demeanour, and who became more unhinged as the night progressed and the alcohol continued to flow.
Rumour has it that no amount of booze could entice any member of Skynyrd to fight Nix, who during the course of the evening offered to take Daugherty out for a ‘tussle’ after the inebriated ivory tinkler went on a glass-smashing spree. “One punch is all it would take,” he mumbled, sounding like a punch-drunk killing machine. Daugherty sensibly declined the invite.
The wild bunch were countered by a more subdued quartet: guitarist James Cobb, a polite southern gentleman who had the confidence of a competent songwriter with a career of chart singles under his belt; Barry Bailey (guitars), a laid back muso type; painfully shy vocalist Ronnie Hammond, who it transpired, was battling with chronic alcoholism; and bassist Paul Goddard, a man who had a few resentments to share.
I interviewed Goddard in his Pittsburgh motel room after a successful show at a Pittsburgh campus. Outwardly laid-back and introverted, Goddard was a stout fellow with bottle-lens glasses who looked more like the owner of a Games Workshop store than a member of a carousing rock’n’roll outfit.
The interview started off quite innocuously – a serious musician, he was a huge fan of Kansas (who he ended up playing with a few years later) and constantly down-played his role in ARS. As the evening progressed and the drink was beginning to take over, it was obvious something was awry. Goddard started looking restless, uncomfortable, shuffling awkwardly in his seat like he was bursting to say something.
“Ahh hate that mother Robert Nix!” he blurted. “He’s made mah life hell.”
I felt the best tactic was to ignore this tirade as you would an outburst of Tourettes.
“The guy’s a motherfucking bully and deserves to die!” now Goddard’s voice is wavering between tearful and fearful.
“If I had a gun I would go downstairs right now and kill that fat, drunken motherfuckaaahhh!” screams the bassist, trying to get his torso vertical.
Uh-oh. Where is he going with this?
“Ahm gonna get me a Saturday night special and shoot that piece of shit and do everybody a favour!”
Suddenly the phone rings and the momentum of this insane scenario momentarily subsides. Goddard picks up the phone.
Who is it? Is it a dealer offering substances that will make him even crazier? Another band member who also hates Nix and offers to provide a weapon? Or is it Nix, ready to take up the challenge of the duel?
Goddard listens intently, occasionally muttering, “Ah understand” and “You’re right”. With a face like a chastised schoolboy, he continues to listen and miraculously calms down.
He then passes the phone over to me: “It’s Ronnie Van Zant,” he says. “He wants to speak to you.” I take the phone. On the other end of the line all I can hear is hysterical cackling from the Skynyrd frontman.
“What the hell is going on?” exclaims Van Zant, almost crying with laughter. “Last year you almost put an end to Leon [Wilkeson]’s career and now you’re trying to get another southern bass player killed!”
It transpires that a member of ARS had heard Goddard’s outburst (apparently they were a regular occurrence) and called Van Zant (who was back home in Jacksonville, fishing), asking him to defuse the situation. I explained the chaos around me, setting off another bout of hysterical cackling.
“Welcome to America, boy!” said Van Zant, and then hung up.
This feature originally appeared in Classic Rock 151, in November 2010.