REO Speedwagon Must Die 

How one man’s refusal to play ‘Free Bird’ killed his rock ’n’ roll dreams

About four years ago, upon hearing that Rick Montgomery, the other guitar player in my old rock ’n’ roll band, had died, daughter Jess asked me, “Daddy, which one of your bands was Rick in?”
About four years ago, upon hearing that Rick Montgomery, the other guitar player in my old rock ’n’ roll band, had died, daughter Jess asked me, “Daddy, which one of your bands was Rick in?” “Well, little girl,” I said, “that was the band that, if it weren’t for disco, would have made Daddy a rock star.” “Stupid disco,” Jess spat. “Stupid, stupid disco!” For more than 20 years now, disco has been my excuse for the band’s failure—well, disco and the general collapse of the record business in the late ’70s. Truth be told, though, the failure of my last good rock ‘n’ roll band was mostly my fault. After the band got a booking agent, and we set out on a tour of rowdy redneck bars, our mission was to draw crowds into those bars and play music that would make the crowds stay until they’d spent their last dollar on beer, whiskey and tips for the waitresses. In the mid-to-late ’70s, the way to do that was to play contemporary rock standards—cover tunes, as they call them in the bar-band business. My big problem was that I did not dig ’70s rock, and I flat-out hated disco. To this day, I’d rather drill out my eardrums than listen to Foreigner, Boston, Kansas, REO Speedwagon, Journey and the like. And I’d rather eat my own eyeballs than play their wretched songs, even if I got paid a dollar a note. Oh, wait. I take that back. If I could get paid a dollar a note to play Kansas’ hideous vanity opera, “Carry On Wayward Son,” I could retire right now. For those of you who remember ’70s rock music—and for the lucky ones of you who don’t—I’m talking about the bands and tunes that inspired This Is Spinal Tap, a parody of the rock ‘n’ roll business that was so achingly close to the truth, it actually became the truth. Mimicking ’70s arena-rock bands was an earthly preview of hell all by itself. Worse, though, was the fact that every redneck bar crowd in the South wanted to hear covers of Southern-rock bands. Every night, at least one drunk would stand up, click on his cigarette lighter and yell, “ ‘Free Bird,’ man!” Then the other rednecks would start buzzing like hornets flying out of their nest, and they’d all yell “Free Bird” until somebody by-god played “Free Bird,” even if it was just on the jukebox. Now, I don’t have a thing against “Free Bird”—except that neither of us guitar players played slide, “Free Bird” needed three guitars and a piano in it, and we were sick and tired of “Free Bird” and drunks who yelled, “’Free Bird!’” For weeks, I ignored the “Free Bird” chants. Then, one night, I walked up to my microphone and said something like, “I know all you people have got a tape of ‘Free Bird’ out in the car, right there next to your bag of reefer. Why don’t y’all do us a favor? When we take our break, go out to your cars, fire up the reefer like always, pop in your tape and let Lynyrd Skynyrd play ‘Free Bird’ for you. It’ll be bitchin’.” Well, don’t you know, the club owners didn’t really want me telling people to go out to the parking lot. And the band wasn’t going to play “Free Bird,” unless the other three band members wanted to do it as a trio without me. So I just ended up pissing everybody off. In the late ’70s, after disco hit, the bar patrons started yelling out, “Bee Gees! Play some Bee Gees!” One night, down in Birmingham, I walked up to my microphone and said something like, “If y’all have been listening, you’ll know that we’ve got three singers. I’m a baritone, and the two other guys are bari-tenors. We can all sing falsetto—even falsetto harmony—but we’re not going to, because it’s sissified. You’ll just have to be satisfied with James Brown.” We didn’t go back to Birmingham after that. Truth is, we were running out of places to go. So we took a little time off back in South Carolina. There, in our rehearsal shack, we decided to work up a few new songs. Somehow, someway, we settled on putting the Eagles’ “Best of My Love” into our set. After we tackled the chord changes, we started working on the harmonies. As usual, I took the high falsetto part. After about 10 minutes, I spoke up. “Guys,” I said, “I just can’t make the words, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, sweet darling,’ come out of my mouth. This is Ramada Inn lounge singing. My brain won’t let me do it any more than it would let me strangle a puppy.” Clearly, the band breakup was all my fault. I wouldn’t play “Smoke on the Water,” or “Cat Scratch Fever,” or “Stairway to Heaven.” I tried to play “Sweet Home Alabama,” but it just made me feel funny, like I had a live 9-volt battery in my mouth. Hell, I tried to play “Sweet Home Alabama” just the other day, to show daughter Jess that I could do it. “Don’t even try it, daddy,” she said. “It doesn’t sound like you. Play that Little Village song, ‘Don’t Bug Me When I’m Working.’ ” That, I could do. 

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