The Needle And The Spoon (1974)
Arguably the best hard-rockin’ anti-heroin song there is. It’s classic Skynyrd through and through – wall-to-wall and tree-top tall – a triple-guitar barrage that goes balls-out from the steamroller opening riff to the slo-mo fade.
In between, guitar god (and junkie) Allen Collins – quite possibly the primary subject of the song – unleashes a blues-studded, wah-loaded Gibson Firebird solo that masters Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix would be proud of. Think “White Room” and “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” respectively.
Ronnie knew the band was living way too close to the edge
“The Needle” is a thundering wake-up call of a song – pounding away at the senses with a heavy, ominous guitar riff – all rushing on toward inevitable doom in just under four seemingly compressed minutes.
Like many of Skynyrd’s greatest, “The Needle” is deeply personal, torn and frayed with the kind of raw emotion that can only be realized if you’re living it. You can feel the situation coming unglued as frontman Ronnie Van Zant scrambled to contain the damage heroin and a smorgasbord of other “illicits” were wreaking on the seven-man, Southern blues-rock band (himself included) by the early-’70s.
I’ve been feelin’ so sick and tired
Got to get better, lord before I die
Seven doctors couldn’t help my head, they said
“You better quit, son before your dead”
Quit the needle, quit the spoon
Quit the trip to the moon
We gonna take you away
Lord, we gonna take you away
Skynyrd fell deep inside the party world like few other bands. If authenticity is what people demanded, these guys delivered a heavy surplus – and for a stretch, 1973-’77, Skynyrd’s large stage family straddled the thinning line between unearthly wealth and fame and complete disaster. Much of the mythic romance of the road is stripped away in “The Needle And The Spoon.”
This is a place where recreational drug users need not apply, and talk of death is anything but convenient hyperbole (just take a look at Allen Collins in any number of the band’s publicity photos).
The excesses of the Rock-N-Roll lifestyle – around-the-clock drinking (lots and lots of whiskey), hardcore drugging, trashing hotel rooms and bedding down throngs of willing groupies – had started to take their toll on the Jacksonville group by the time they released Second Helping in the spring of 1974.
Two years later, Skynyrd’s soaring fame and legendary hell-raising made them the Southern-rock equivalent to British-bred Led Zeppelin, whose epic over-indulgences (heroin included) have been extensively documented.
The boys rip it on the road
Smack continued to hound the band right up until the tragic October night in 1977 when their small CV-300 crashed in a Mississippi swamp en route to a show at LSU in Baton Rouge – killing three band members, including Van Zant, the heart and soul of the band, and the enormously gifted guitarist Steve Gaines.
Heroin-rife songs – filled with images of death – like “That Smell” (1976) and “Junkie” (one that flies well under the radar) signals that things may have gone too far leading up to the devastating crash. Here we get deep inside the bluesy, dark-side Van Zant-Collins playbook with a verse from “Junkie”:
Disillusions fillin’ my head
Never happy, I wished I was dead
Can’t remember things I used to know
Take another hit Lord, let the four winds blow
Junkie, junkie man
“Junkie” is slowed and pared down from the furious, tidal-wave sound of the “The Needle,” but the ominous, plodding, blues-torn desperation is the same.
“The Needle” arrives with an army of rockers: the triple threat of guitarists Collins, Gary Rossington and Ed King, who is also known for his founding work in the psychedelic band Strawberry Alarm Clock; Leon Wilkeson on bass; Billy Powell on keyboards; drummer Bob Burns and the strong, southernly soulful voice of Van Zant. His haunting, echoing “I know” departure as the song fades reflects the frontman’s intimate familiarity with, shall we say, “the challenges” of being a rock star.
It is jarringly authentic, hard-hitting anti-anthems like “The Needle and the Spoon” (not to mention “Junkie” and “That Smell”) that give us a candid, de-romanticized glimpse inside the conflicted, whirlwind world of a Rock-N-Roll band rising to its peak while at the same time desperately trying to manage the ravages of life on the road.
There was no veneer with Skynyrd or Ronnie. They spoke to people with a brutally honest, down-home appeal – and it resonated, deeply and refreshingly. Van Zant’s gritty, soul-searching signature made Lynyrd Skynyrd one of the best-loved bands of the 1970s and one of the greatest Southern-rock acts of all time – up in the same rarified air as The Allman Brothers Band.
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- “That Smell,” another song about overindulgences, was reportedly inspired by guitarist Gary Rossington when crashed his new car into an oak tree one evening in Jacksonville. Drinking and drugs were definitely involved.
- Second Helping, which contains “Sweet Home Alabama” in addition to “The Needle And The Spoon,” was released April 15, 1974. It was certified Gold (selling 500,000 units) on September 20, 1974, and Platinum (1 million units) and 2x Platinum on July 21, 1987.
- Junkie source: In the early 1920s, a group of heroin addicts in New York supported their habit by collecting scrap metal (or junk) from dumps and industrial parks, thereby earning the ignoble title “junkie.”