Although it was recorded primarily between 1970 and 1972, this isn't just a relic for Lynyrd Skynyrd fans. One of the best albums the band ever made, Skynyrd's First and...Last ranks either a notch above (better material) or below (slightly poorer playing) its first two records, Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd and Second Helping. A triumphant but ironic final chapter, it measures the extent of the tragedy of the group's demise.
Historically speaking, the LP is hardly revelatory. If the band's English roots are showing — "Wino" is a cop from Jack Bruce's studio songs for Cream — it's mostly because Ronnie Van Zant hadn't yet mastered the Southern idiom that was to become the focus of many of the group's most familiar songs. But the density of the guitars/drums/vocals interplay, and the raw edge of intensity that dominates everything here, are simply Van Zant and Company at their peak — which is about as good as American rock has gotten in this decade.
As guitarist Gary Rossington has claimed, Skynyrd's First and...Last contains some of the band's finest material, much of it revealing. If Van Zant seems less determinedly Southern than he later would, he appears even more quintessentially American. While the naiveté of some of the album's political songs ("Lend a Helpin' Hand," "Things Goin' On") would normally date them, they serve here as examples of the forthright exposition of American working-class attitudes.
The very plain-spokenness that was Skynyrd's glory, however, was also what kept them from critical acclaim: they always seemed too vulgar. Mostly, the group's music is about simple pleasures and grim problems, but if the songs are realistic, a romantic's vision has shaped that reality. In the main, Skynyrd's First and...Last has more in common with the films of Clint Eastwood — it's easy to picture Ronnie Van Zant as the vengeful apparition of High Plains Drifter — than with any rock & roll of its era.
In fact, the record's best song, "Was I Right or Wrong," is a similar kind of fantasy. Had it been released earlier, it might have become their anthem. The story is classic. Against his parents' wishes, a young rocker sets out to seek his fortune. His dreams come true, but when he returns home to see his folks (the people he most wanted to convince of his abilities), he learns they're dead. There's an archetypal starkness to this tale — comparable only to Bruce Springsteen's "Adam Raised a Cain" — that makes it hard to believe the song is only a fantasy. But Van Zant didn't even have a record contract when he wrote it.
Much more than "That Smell" or even "Sweet Home Alabama," "Was I Right or Wrong" offers the perfect epitaph for Ronnie Van Zant and his band:
When I went home
To show they was wrong
All that I found was two tombstones
Somebody tell me please
Was I right or wrong...
Well, first I got lost
Then I got found
But the ones that I loved were in the ground
Papa, how I only wish that you could see me now.
This is great music, not only for those who loved this group, but for everyone who's ever endured a painful, inarticulate relationship with his or her parents. It's exactly the sort of thing Lynyrd Skynyrd deserves to be remembered for.