It’s two songs, really. The second part – the seemingly endless rounds of classic chord progressions and never-to-be-matched guitar wailing – made it what it is, arguably the greatest rock song of all time. But would it be remembered that way without the first part, that sweet, melancholic ballad written and sung by perhaps the unlikeliest of troubadours, southern rock badass, Ronnie Van Zandt? Personally, I don’t think so; it was that gentle lead-in, it seems, that delicate, textured slow burn and stark contrast to the ensuing wall of guitars, that allowed the sublime onslaught that followed to be so singular in music history.
Appearing on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 1973 debut album, “Pronounced ‘Lĕh-‘nérd ‘Skin-‘nérd,” the epic-even-by-epic-standards ‘Freebird’ was the final track, the record closer on side two. By historical criteria the unrestrained, over 14-minute live version from the band’s subsequent “One More From The Road” album three years later has almost assuredly become the definitive take, but let’s focus here on the lesser-heard and comparatively concise 9-minute, 7-second studio rendition. Produced with a deft hand by Al Kooper, the man who famously played organ on Bob Dylan’s ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ and French horn on the Rolling Stones’ ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want,’ the original ‘Freebird’ output was rather clean. It was actually pretty. You might even say it was elegant. For chrissakes, it had a string section! (I know, you probably don’t believe me, but it’s right there; go to 3:41 to hear it and remind yourself). Those first 4-plus minutes of Skynyrd’s studio recording, before it jarringly changed gears and took off forever for the stratosphere, were positively enchanting. And let’s not forget the simple beauty of the incisive lyrics, which began with a remark from the girlfriend of guitarist and co-writer Allen Collins, who asked him a question that became the song’s unforgettable and haunting opening line: “If I leave here tomorrow / Would you still remember me?” Van Zandt has said that the song, which has, of course, taken on such mythic proportion in the annals of rock music, was simply about “what it means to be free, in that a bird can fly wherever it wants to go.”
So, thank goodness the for-all-times legendary jamming was preceded first by its tender and pensive first half. And vice versa. If those two parts hadn’t been eternally linked together, if the song had somehow been structured differently, it would necessarily have left ‘Freebird’ a lesser whole, irredeemably altered. And as we all know, this bird you can not change.