The name Artimus Pyle conjures up the image of a guy in cut-off jeans all frayed at the ends, hair hanging down the middle of his back, tucked under a wool hat, and a long, long beard that hides half a face and frames a pair of very intense eyes. In short, Artimus Pyle looks crazy and nasty. This was the Artimus Pyle we saw with the Lynyrd Skynyrd Band. And it was with hesitation that I interviewed Art. I took along Paul T. Riddle for security, and because he’s been Art’s friend for a long time.
I was right and wrong about Art. He isn’t nasty, but he is crazy in that he’s out of the ordinary. He moves like a thoroughbred itching at the starting gate, impatient to run the race. His intense eyes are windows to a thunderstorm. And it seems like the only time that thunder is released is when he’s behind the drumset. Yet, I’ve seen Artimus in the calm eye of his storm. Paul, Art and I were sitting poolside, conducting this interview. Art was telling us the story of the plane crash that cut short his career, but mostly took the lives of people he loved. And he started to cry. That was the eye of his storm.
In East of Eden, John Steinbeck wrote a philosophy that Artimus might agree with: “It seems natural and good to me to ask myself these questions. What do I believe in? What must I fight for and what must I fight against?
“Our species is the only creative species, and it has only one creative instrument, the individual mind and spirit of a man. Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations, whether in music, in art, in poetry, in mathematics, in philosophy. Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything.
“And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any idea, religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. I can understand why a system built on a pattern must try to destroy the free mind, for this is one thing which can by inspection destroy such a system. Surely I can understand this, and I hate it and I will fight against it to preserve the one thing that separates us from the uncreative beasts. If the glory can be killed, we are lost.”
Artimus, this free-spirited individual touched me in many ways. One evening Artimus called my home in New York City from South Carolina so I could hear his new Pearl drumset. For 10 minutes I held the phone to my ear while Art was saying,
“Now, this is my 20” floor tom-tom. Listen to this. “BOOM! “These are the three mounted toms.” BOOM-BOOM-BOOM. And I know that if I were in a situation where I had to fight ten guys with bats and chains, Artimus would be right there with me, even though he knew we hadn’t a prayer, just because he was my friend.
SF: Can you pinpoint a person, place or thing that made you decide to be a professional drummer?
AP: My father, banging on the dashboard of a 1950 Ford to Glenn Miller, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Les and Larry Elgart—all the old big bands. This was in Tennessee where I was raised. That kind of got me into it, and I’d start banging on Mother’s Oats boxes; anything round that looked like a drum. I didn’t actually get a drum, per se, until I was about nine years old and I got a set of bongo drums.
In a way, I’ve never really taken it too serious. I can keep a beat, but I’m not what I’d consider a World Class technique drummer. I like to play. I have fun doing it. It comes pretty natural. When you do anything everyday, you get better at it.
In the sixth grade I went into the school band rehearsals. I asked the band director, “Do you have bongo drums in the concert band?” He said, “No bongos.” I walked out and went back to my class and started thinking that maybe I could diversify a little bit. I got into the school band playing snare drum.
I took one drum lesson from a guy for a half hour one time. He was teaching me, mama/dada, mama/dada. I had already picked up a “feel,” I guess, from my Dad’s banging on the dashboard, the bongo drums and all the different influences— Gene Krupa, and Joe Morello was an influence later, but I’d heard about the guy and I knew he was a monster.
My Dad pushed me up on stages. “Hey, my son plays drums. He’s going to jam with you.” I’d get up there and play, and mess up and turn the beat around. After so many times of embarrassing yourself like that, you get to the point where you really think about what you’re doing. You think, “Well, I’m going to play this right. There’s a wrong way and a right way and I’ll try to come out the right way.”
The Artimus Pyle Band is a lot of fun because I’m able to write my own parts. By no stretch of the imagination am I saying I’m a writer! I used to read music in concert band, but my background has basically been whatever comes natural. The hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do was copy another drummer’s lick. I get a mental block. When I first got with Lynyrd Skynyrd they had had two previous albums and I had to learn Bob Burns’ parts. It wasn’t natural. Up until that point, in all of the songs I’d played in copy bands, I would approach the drum parts similar to the song. But I would never really try to copy the part exactly. With Skynyrd, that’s what they wanted. They wanted songs like “Sweet Home, Alabama” and “Free Bird” cut and dried the way it was on the album. I could see their point. That taught me a lot about song structure.
In this group now, I play whatever comes out of my mind and whatever fits. Afterwards I trim it down a little bit be cause the first time around on a tune I overplay. One of my influences was Keith Moon. He’s just like Mr. Roll.
Listening to cats like Paul putting parts into songs that he was instrumental in coming up with, helped me a lot. Now I’m freed up a little bit and I trim my parts down; I can play them without even thinking about it because I came up with the part.
SF: What kind of reading did you do in the school concert band?
AP: It was snare drum on one line. Bass drum on another. Cymbals. You go along and count 32 measures and then play a cymbal crash. I’d get to about measure 29 and forget where I was and throw in the cymbal crash anywhere I felt like it! The band director would stop the whole band. “Now, Mr. Pyle? Mr. Pyle, uh . . . that’s wrong.” I’d get demoted from snare drum to bass drum; then from bass drum to cymbals; then they’d put me on woodblock. Every once in a while we’d play “Western Skies,” and I’d have a woodblock part.
SF: You did a lot of bouncing around as a kid.
AP: I was born in Louisville, Kentucky in 1948 and moved to Tennessee. My father was a builder/constructor. He followed the building boom in the ’50s that went north. We got as far as Columbus, Ohio’ and that’s where I graduated high school. Then I went to college at Tennessee Tech University for about a year. I studied prelaw but I made terrible grades. I was never a good student. I have to pick it up natural or it’s not happening. I don’t retain things too well when I read them. I stayed in school about a year and then the Dean of Men called me up one day and says, “Why are you here? All you do is ride your motorcycle in front of the girl’s dormitory and drag your wing tips with the heel taps and make sparks! What’s wrong with you?” So I went home. I left that school in
Tennessee and was going to join the Navy. The Navy Recruiter said, “With a name like Pyle, you ought to join the Marines!” So I said, “Screw you.” And I walked across the hall and joined the Marines. I got out as Sergeant. My father was killed in a mid-air plane collision in Alburquerque, New Mexico while I was still in the Marines in ’71. They let me out on a hardship discharge. They gave me a big break. They let me out like three days early. I really realized at that point that drums was what I really enjoyed doing the most. It wasn’t just because it came easy. It was because I did have some real magic moments and it felt good. So, I got in a band called The Next Voice. We went up to Martha’s Vine yard and played three months and then went down to New York and recorded a little. Then the band went to five different states, and I came to South Carolina.
My wife, Patricia, had gone to school with some of Paul’s constituents from the Marshall Tucker Band, and introduced me to a couple of guys.
PR: Artimus used to come by our house. My wife, Holly, and I had a house in town before we moved out to the country. Artimus would always come by close to the weekend in his Volkswagen van, with his drums in the back. I’d give him a pair of new sticks if I had some.
AP: Or he’d leave them on my doorstep. I’d open up my screen door and there’d be whatever I needed that I didn’t have.
PR: And he’d never ask for anything. But, he’d come by every weekend on his way to Atlanta. He’d go down to all the clubs that were happening in ’72 and ’73 and knock on doors. He’d walk in there and say, “My name’s Artimus. My drums are in the car.”
Meanwhile, Ronnie Van Zant asked me, after Skynyrd had been on the road with Marshall Tucker for a while — “I’m having troubles with my drummer. Man, I need a drummer.” I said, “I got a guy. I swear, man, there’s a guy that’d be here tomorrow with his drums on his back! Just give him a shot. I think he’s exactly what you’re looking for. This guy is a strong player. He’s a man.”
AP: That’s the kind of support I had. One day I was working construction and Tommy Caldwell [original Tucker bassist] called me up and says, “Charlie Daniels is looking for a drummer.” I called Charlie in Nashville. He said, “Meet me in New Orleans and I’ll audition you.” I put a new clutch in my Volkswagen and drove on down. Charlie is one of the finest cats in the business. He had two drummers and the not to. I said, “Charlie, what’s the deal?” He said, “It’s exactly this. I’m in the middle of promoting an album. The drummer that was going to quit didn’t quit. If I had to take the time out to train you and work you in, it would really hurt my album sales and really hurt me right now. But, I do know of a band that needs a drummer.” And he gave me the numbers for Lynyrd Skynyrd.
This is the clincher: Paul invites me to this big jam in Atlanta with Wet Willie, Marshall Tucker, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers. The Tucker Band was going to drive their bus in; I was going to follow them, and Paul was going to introduce me to the Skynyrd boys. I got down there and all the guys from Skynyrd had just been in a treacherous fight in San Francisco. Ronnie had two black eyes. Billy Powell had a big gash. They were a mess. Ronnie says, “Alright. Y’know we’ve got five drummers. We’re going to audition all five drummers.” This big deal. I says, “Cool.” I think on the strength of Paul’s backing, Tommy, George McCorkle, Charlie and everybody — I got a call three days later from Ed King. He was the original guitar player in The Strawberry Alarm Clock. He wrote “Incense and Peppermint” and he also wrote “Sweet Home, Alabama.” He said, “Come to Atlanta.”
I packed my drums up and drove down there. My bus broke down a block from the gig. I stopped right in the middle of Peach Street, turned on the emergency flashers, took out all my drums and put them on top of my trap case and was rolling them down Peach Street. I made two trips. I just left my bus there.
PR: I told them, “I’ve got a guy that’d bring the drums on his back.” And that’s exactly what he did.
AP: I auditioned with Ed and Leon Wilkenson. I got the gig on the basis of a lot of cats getting behind me. Nobody had really heard me play that much! But, I guess they felt, “Well, this guy’s nuts enough. He’s hyperactive enough and he’s got enough adrenalin pumping. He might be a good drummer.” I worked out. For a year it was hard for me trying to learn song structure.
SF: You had no concept of the AABA form?
AP: Right. And how to keep it in context. For a year I turned the band around a couple of times while trying to keep my parts. Also, if I would play a 16th-note roll where Bob Burns had played an 8th-note roll on the record, the whole band would turn around and look at me. “Oh, my God! He’s jamming!” And I was a jamming fool. But, it took me about a year to really learn how to play in proper perspective with that group, and to see what a great band I was playing with. Those guys were everything and they were called a lot of different things. But, they were one thing. They were a World Class rock ‘n’ roll band. My favorite record of the band is their first, Pronounced. And I didn’t play on it. It was an absolute masterpiece.
I gave the band as much of my energy as I could. But, I felt a lot of times I could’ve been a lot better. My meter is erratic sometimes. I love playing and I take it serious enough to try to approach it like a pro—whatever that is — but, I’m not like one of those really steady cats. I have my un nights. It’s just not consistent. I could be, but if I get going or I’m excited or I’m really into the show, or something is happening— I’ll speed up.
PR: Artimus taught me more about playing rock ‘n’ roll than anybody. He showed me a way of playing it tastefully. I’ve always said he’s my favorite rock ‘n’ roll drummer.
AP: But, I picked it up from cats like Charlie Watts.
PR: You’re a great rock ‘n’ roll drummer. You play tastefully and you’re not a banger.
AP: I am a banger!
PR: It helped me a lot listening to those Skynyrd records and listening to Art playing live. It used to be that I couldn’t play that stuff. I didn’t feel comfortable playing it. I didn’t know how to go about laying it down.
AP: Ronnie and the band always wanted me to be aware of space. Tom Dowd, our producer, would come in and help me a lot with that. But, when the guys wanted me to rock steady, Ronnie would always say, “Play like Simon Kirke would play, man. Play like Simon.” He’s with Bad Company. I’d say, “Okay. Now I know what you mean.”
SF: How were you making a living prior to Lynyrd Skynyrd?
AP: I’m a carpenter. I was working construction. Also, I was working in Oar Aviation in Spartanburg Downtown Airport. Then the fuel crunch came and the airport laid me off.
I was working construction when Tommy Caldwell called me and gave me Charlie Daniels’ number. It’s some of the greatest memories of my life when I was just going for it at that point. When I did get a break I worked real, real hard at it and tried to deserve it. Now as I get older — I don’t deserve nothing! Now I’m having to work for it.
My wife has always been totally behind me. She has never complained one time. I’m serious. She has never one time bitched about 25 dudes spending the whole weekend at the house, eating everything out of the house; making noise 24 hours a day. She’s always been behind me. She’s great.
Now at this point, with the Artimus Pyle Band, nothing goes on the pass. You’ve at least got to always keep reproving that you deserve to stay in the business. I’m still supported by Pat. My friends are still behind me. It’s not going to be like, “Okay. I’m Artimus Pyle. I played with Lynyrd Skynyrd. Hand me my stuff.” It’s not like that. That’s something I found out. I really wasn’t thinking, “Well, all I’ve got to do is slap my name on this band and we’ll be tight.” I never thought that one time. But, I think in the back of my mind, I thought, “It’s going to be step by step, but it’s going to be easy.” It’s not easy. It’s starting all over again. All I have to do is maintain myself and this band will be fine. I’m the weakest link in the band as far as keeping my shit together. I’m playing with some strong people. All you’ve got to do is stick it out and stay together long enough to prove to somebody that the band is a real band; that it’s not going to stay together eight months and break up. Darrell Smith, our lead singer, was in The Next Voice. John Bursner, our redheaded guitarist, was also in that band. I go back with Steve Burlington, my bass player from the first time I came down to Spartanburg. He’s my strength. He keeps a positive attitude. When I’m bitching, he keeps me together. He was into jazz/fusion. A lot of his original pieces have real “out” time signatures. Now he’s writing more in context for this band. He wrote a tune called “The Road Never Ends” off our first album that’s an absolutely beautiful tune.
My career as a drummer has not been based around a technical approach. It’s been based around being given opportunities to play with so many different types of groups with different styles. Paul and I get together and talk about every drummer. We talk about jazz. We listen to cuts of “out” stuff like Elvin Jones. Then, both of us are in totally different kinds of bands. My drumming is just something I picked up. Sometimes people think that I’m putting myself down. I’m not. I’m just being honest. I’ve stolen, picked up or copped licks from every drummer that I’ve ever listened to. Even from cats who aren’t drummers. All the guitar players in our band play a little drums. I’ll pick up a little technique from their nimbleness. Even Karen Carpenter! She’s incredible. From Joe Morello to Ginger Baker.
I’ve got a ten-year-old son who’s a monster drummer. Christopher Chapel Pyle. To show you what I think about the Marshall Tucker guys and Charlie Daniels — I named my youngest son Marshall Daniel Pyle! But, I’ve picked up licks just watching Chris play. I’ve never tried to teach him anything because I’m not a good teacher. I’m not the kind of guy who could go out and give somebody a clinic on drum technique. But, if I ever let anybody give my son lessons, it’s going to be Paul Riddle, because he’s patient and he has the background and knowledge of the drums.
SF: And he charges less than anybody else in town!
AP: He charges a lot less than other guys and besides, he gives me drumsticks! I’m not going to make Chris be a drummer. He already is. He can use it if he wants to. He can shave his head and be a fullback and go into sports or do anything he wants to. But he loves music. And Marshall is going to be the singer of the family.
SF: Have you experienced anything — particularly on the road — that you would caution your son about?
AP: At the right time, I would like to say to my son, “Man, excess of drugs and alcohol is nowhere. It is absolutely nowhere.” I’ve never put a needle in my arm. That’s the one thing I can proudly say. I’m an extremist. It’s either all or nothing for me, which can be very, very dangerous. Cocaine, amphetamines, downers—all that stuff can really screw you up and make you lose perspective of what you are doing.
Then you get to a point where you’re in concert, playing your music, looking out into the audience and seeing the majority of the audience so out of it. You know they’re not enjoying the music. You know they probably won’t get home safe. But how can I stand onstage and say anything? Somebody who does not practice what he preaches? I do stay away from those things, but that doesn’t make any difference because other people are other people.
I’m doing real good because the drugs, the exposure and the temptation is always there. But, when I get onstage and I’m not able to play my best, I still want to be able to play as good as I can. I’ve gone out to play a few times and not really been able to. It sucks and its a bad feeling. That would be the only thing I would tell my son if the time was right, and it wouldn’t sound like, “Do as I say, not as I do.” The road has so many other pitfalls and pratfalls but it also has much beauty. I love to travel and I’ll probably always be into the road. The road never ends!
PR: I’m enjoying the road more now than I ever have. I guess I’m comfortable with me more than anything else. So, that makes the road better.
AP: That’s another thing. Not only have I been influenced by Paul’s drumming, but also as a good friend. Paul’s been through it all too. He’s not been into any heavy thing, but he’s experienced all the bullshit of the road. He looked at it and said, “This is the best way to do it.” That’s been helpful to me too. There’s a wrong way to do it, a right way, and there’s an in-between way. But that in-between doesn’t leave very much room for good performances.
SF: You were in a major motorcycle crash and a major plane crash. Was there ever a time when you asked yourself, “Maybe I’m doing something wrong”?
AP: I’ve had about eight major car wrecks. The only thing I have left is if I’m laying on top of an Amtrak and a helicopter drops a rickshaw on my face. I’ll tell you what my final analysis was. I was taking things for granted, I suppose. I lived through the plane crash and was able to walk out of it. I walked out of about two miles of swamp. We landed in the middle of a Mississippi swamp. Pine trees tore the plane completely limb from limb. The big gest piece of the plane left was what I was strapped into. I fought to get out of it because all I could think of was, “Okay. The plane’s going to catch on fire.” Little did I realize when we spiralled in from 9000 feet that we had run out of gas. We were 60 miles from Baton Rouge and we’d just left Greenville, South Carolina. Ironically, that’s where I played my first gig with Skynyrd in front of about 6000 and the last gig in front of 5000 or 6000.
We had taken on 400 gallons of fuel in Greenville, but we didn’t top off the tanks. Our old pilot told our new pilots to never trust the gauges on an old aircraft. Always take a wooden pole and stick it down in the fuel tanks and check the fuel level. We were groovin’, man. We had a gig to go to. We had our own plane with our name painted on the side. We didn’t ask questions. That’s where we made our mistake. We asked for it as much as anybody. The pilots paid the dear price. They screwed up badly and they were inexperienced and that cost the lives of some other people. But, I don’t hold it against them because we were just as blind. We should’ve been more aware of our transportation situation.
I think God let me walk out of that because… out of twenty-six people on the plane, twenty people survived, which was a miracle. The plane was just completely torn to pieces. I got out of the wreckage and looked around and saw that there was just one thing that was needed: Medical people and bucker bars to pull metal apart. I could see that that was the only thing that was going to help, and that they needed it right NOW!
There was no fire and it was just at dark. I saw a Coast Guard helicopter way off. Going down, we were sending in a mayday. This Coast Guard chopper was looking for us. The whole time I was walking out of the swamp there were two things going through my mind. One was to get to someplace so I could lead people back to where the wreckage was. The other thing was that I’m down here in the darkness in the swamp, looking up through the canopy at this damn chopper who was hovering, frantically looking for us, but couldn’t find us because there was nothing to see.
I got out to a field and I saw all these cows. I jumped the fence. In the wreckage my shoes had come off from the impact. It took us about ten seconds to stop from about 250 miles-an-hour at a forty-five degree angle. When I got out of the wreckage I looked back through the trees and saw the angle that we came in, because we just sliced right through. I saw the angle and the last thing the co-pilot said was, “We’re headed for a highway or a field.” So I knew that they were headed for civilization somewhere. I got my bearings and the pilot and the co-pilot were the first ones I found. They were definitely dead. And I just yelled out as loud as I could to whoever could hear me, “I’m going for help. I’ll be back.” A couple of the guys were wandering around out of the band crew. These guys were telling me, “I can’t do nothing man.” The guys were really battered. I said, “Go sit down by that tree and hold your wounds and cut off your blood vein. Do a tourniquet.” There were a couple of other guys there and I said, “I’m going.” My socks were like six inches over the edge of my feet! So, I couldn’t walk too good through the briars and the brambles.
I found a farmhouse and the guy thought I was an escaped criminal because I was covered with blood. He came out with his shotgun. He was protecting his family. He came out and fired a shot into the air. I yelled as loud as I could, “Plane crash.” I couldn’t yell too loud because all the cartilage in my chest had been ripped. The guy goes, “Is that what it was?” He threw his gun down and he ran and he embraced me and I said, “No. no” because of the pain. I walked into the house and I went right to his telephone and dialed direct to Pat. I said, “Pat, there’s been a terrible plane crash. I’m someplace in Mississippi. There’s been people killed. I don’t know who yet. Don’t call anybody. I’m okay. Goodbye.” About that time high way patrol cars started sliding up and all kinds of people started coming in. There were about fifty cars there. They had just rehearsed for a disaster! It was incredible. All these people started coming up, medical people and it was the best feeling in my life when I took them back to the corner. We busted through fences with this whole entourage of ambulances and trucks and pickups and four-wheel drives and I took them right to the point, and the highway patrolman says, “Now, where are they?” I said, “Okay. If you take a baseball and throw it about as hard as you can ten times — go pick it up and throw it again, you’ll be right on top of them.” Right there, about seventy people with flashlights just went right through the woods. It was the greatest feeling. Then they threw me in atruck and took me to the hospital. The point of the story is that I feel like I was spared for that reason.
Then I got kind of cocky. I thought, “I’m Mr. Vegetarian Superman. I can live through anything.” I didn’t really think that or say that. But it must’ve been on my mind. At that point I got on an ego trip. I had to have me a Harley-Davidson. I had to be a big, bad asshole. I had the biggest bike that Harley-Davidson made. I bought it two days before Rossington Collins was going to start. I was going down the road and a drunk pulled out in front of me. I hit him going about 80 miles an hour. I tried to miss him. He lurched forward and I hit him, broke my leg and splattered myself. At that point, that really taught me, “Look man. You can be hurt. You can be slapped down.” And that slapped me down for a couple of years.
That was my breaking point. The doctor wouldn’t prescribe anything to really take the pain away. So I started going to street drugs. I stayed numb a lot. I used to take a lot of Quaalude. Anytime somebody would give me a toot of coke, I’d take it, because it would kill the pain. At that point, for that period of one year—it took me more than a couple of years to really get back to where I could walk—I had to relearn how to walk. I had to relearn how to play drums.
I lost a lot of speed in my right leg. But I think my left leg got smarter. I think my hands got smarter because my right leg was busy going “ouch.” I wasn’t too hard on myself for my physical addiction at that point because I was in intense pain.
I think my doctor had a master plan. He wasn’t going to say, “I’ll give you anything you want. Stay numb.” It was like he was saying, “You’re going to have to bear with it, boy. You’re going to have to know where you hurt.” I like to know where I hurt now. I like to know where the pain is so I can concentrate my energy there. But, for a while I was in a pretty low state. I was a pretty disgusting human being. I still do get disgusting at times. My children were going through a period. Marshall was freaking out because he just didn’t know what his Daddy did for a living. Chris knew because I’d taken him on the road with me.
All of a sudden I started getting back into drumming again. My Godsend is my band. These guys have stuck with me. Because I’ll get outside and talk some bullshit and they’ll still keep with me. At least they have so far. It’s given me something to really get back into. Not to mention Doug Gray, George McCorkle and Jerry Eubanks, the present team of cats that got behind this project. I’ve just got to play drums, do good and the thing is going to be successful.
SF: Were you the first-choice drummer for the Rossington Collins Band?
AP: We were going to start Rossington Collins. After the plane crash it took Gary and Allen two years—at least—to heal up. It only took me about a year. I started a band called Studebaker Hawk that had Darrell Smith on lead vocals, Steven Burlington on bass and Barry Harwood on guitar. I was also doing an album for Mercury records called Contraband. The name of that band was Alias. Gary and Allen came in and produced it and Barry came in and played guitar.
At that point, Gary and Allen saw what a monster Barry Lee Harwood is. We decided to start the Rossington Collins Band. I bought the motorcycle. We finished the album and I drove the bike up to the mountains. Two days before I was going to start rehearsing with Rossington Collins, I hit the car. The whole band flew up to see me in the hospital. Leon couldn’t make it because he was in Miami having surgery on his arm from the plane crash. The band said, “We’re going to wait for you.” I told them, “You cannot wait on me, man! You’ve got to get another drummer. Get Derek Hess. Barry Harwood had a band with him down in Florida. You know he’s good. You guys have been waiting for two years. You can’t afford to wait anymore. Go ahead!” They said, “No. We’re going to wait on you.” They were using me as an excuse.” I said, “Don’t wait.”
Six months went by. My leg was still splattered in twelve places. No real healing had taken place in that period of time. I had a special cast built with a heel plate so I could move it a little bit. I was trying to play bass drum and hi-hat with my left leg. I arranged a rehearsal up at Bat Cave, North Carolina. It was perfect. We had the whole Rossington Collins organization. Fourteen of us for nine days. The crew and everybody.
I saw that I was not inspiring the band at all. I said, “Boys, you’re using me as an excuse.” That’s when I really freaked them out. I didn’t care. I said, “Man, y’all ought to get another drummer, and I’ll see you on down the road.” But no.
A weekend came up and the whole band drove to Florida. I called Allen about a half hour before they were leaving to come back to the Bat Cave for rehearsal. It was like the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life. I said, “Man, I quit.” He says, “What do you mean you quit?” I said, “I quit. Read my lips.” He said, “Can’t we talk about it?” I said, “No, man. I quit the band. I’ve got other things to do. Call Derek Hess right now or you’re nuts!” And I hung the phone up and just sat there and cried. Allen told me that half an hour later they called Derek and started rehearsing.
As soon as Rossington Collins got their material together they went and recorded their album. I could see that the band was kind of scared to see what the public was going to think about them. The public loved them! The unfortunate thing about it is that Allen Collins’ wife died under very unfortunate circumstances. It tore Allen up just terrible. It tore the whole band up. I think that was the main downfall of the group and it was not their fault. There was just too much tension. Too many mind things. I wish them all the success with their new bands.
SF: Were you contemplating putting together your own band?
AP: All I could do was lay in a hospital bed and heal up. After I got on my crutches and Rossington Collins had recorded their first album, they came to the Superdome in New Orleans with Willie Nelson, Jimmy Buffett and Crystal Gayle. I couldn’t play at that point. I couldn’t even walk! But, I wanted to be around my boys. They had two warm-up gigs in Florida. I went to the gigs and started feeling a weird attitude. Something in the air. The soundman told me, in so many words, that I wasn’t welcome. I picked up my crutch and was about ready to wrap it around his head and he just walked off. I was getting these weird vibes like there was something that I wasn’t being told.
I went to the gig in New Orleans. The band was talking about me coming back in when I could play auxiliary percussion. I said, “Yeah. I can do that even before my leg completely heals.” I was getting really excited about it.
After the New Orleans gig I got in my car and drove 20 hours towards home. The band had already flown into the studio in Atlanta. I vectored through Atlanta and had three more hours to home. I’d been driving all night and day, and I was really tired. I’d been partying at the Mardi Gras. I’d seen the band play. I was proud of them, man. They were some scared dudes when they went out on that stage.
So I stopped by Studio One. All I wanted to do was put my leg up a little bit, kick back and just rest my eyes so I could drive home. I’m sitting in the studio and Billy Powell comes up to me drunk. He said he wanted to talk to me. I got my crutches and walked outside. Billy says, “Artimus. I hate to tell you this, but the new drummer for Rossington Collins Band is Derek Hess.” I said, “I know that. I turned you on to him. What are you telling me?” He says, “The only drummer for Rossington Collins is Derek Hess.” I says, “What are you talking about, man? I won’t even be able to play for a year! Is the popular consensus that I’m hanging around trying to get my gig back?” He says, “Well, everybody’s been kind of feeling like . . . ” I said, “Hold it! Man, am I barred from the studio?” He said, “No, man. It ain’t nothing like that.”
I got on my crutches and kicked the studio door open. I was seeing red because I’d been told all this stuff in New Orleans about auxiliary percussion. I’d mentioned it a couple of times to a couple of band members, and they’d taken it like I was scheming to come back in the band and kick Derek Hess out. I had made a sacrifice when I quit the band. It hurt me badly to have to do what I did just to get them off their asses. Then they’re turning around like I’m intimidating them. I went into the studio and saw this champagne bottle, took my crutch and shattered the thing. I said, “I’M GOING TO KICK SOME ASS!”
I busted into the control room and Allen and Gary jumped right into the corner. Two security guys got me and put my arms up behind me. I pushed them back and jumped across the damn control board. I said, “You sons of bitches. You guys tell me one thing and lie to me and then tell me another. You hurt my feelings.”
I got in my car and I was so tired and bummed out. I put my little diesel on autopilot and woke up the next morning about 30 miles from my house, sitting in the middle of the road, not even in my lane, in the middle of a two-lane highway. The car was in park. The diesel was just purring. I’d put my seat all the way back and fell asleep. I’d airlocked the car completely. I must have been asleep a couple of hours before the heat from the sun woke me up.
I drove home and got on the phone and called the President of MCA records in L.A. I said, “MAN, I DON’T WANT NOTHING TO DO WITH THOSE CREEPS. I MIGHT BE DOWN NOW AND I CAN’T PLAY AND MY LEG IS SCREWED UP, BUT BY GOD, I’LL BE BACK SOMEDAY AND I’M GOING TO HAVE THE BEST DAMN ROCK ‘N’ ROLL BAND YOU’VE EVER SEEN. YOU JUST WAIT, GODDAM IT!” He says, “Okay, Artimus. Okay.”
When Cathy Collins died I went down for the funeral. I went up to the limo that the whole band was in. I didn’t say a word. I just stuck my hand in and shook Allen’s hand. He told me later that that meant a lot to him. We just had eye contact and that’s where we made up. Because I love those cats. I miss them badly, but at that point it was just a very freaked out time in all of our lives. There was just so much confusion.
SF: What were the biggest challenges in getting the Artimus Pyle Band to where it is today? Where do you see the band heading?
AP: We have a five year, seven-album contract with MCA. Including maybe a live album and a greatest hits if that ever comes to pass. I see us fulfilling that obligation. I can’t tell you how hard our triple threat production team of McCorkle, Gray and Eubanks have worked. When we went into the studio, each one of them took a facet. It’s out of my hands now. All I have to do is sit back and play drums and be a good boy. I mean, I’m 33 now. If I don’t know now how to control myself, I need to just cash my little wimp ass in, and go ahead and check on out.
I’d gone into the studio with Darrell and did some demos. Doug Gray picked up on the tape and liked the music. The tape got pushed on through. You’ve got to push a tape. It’s not just all based on, “God, these guys are incredible musicians! Listen to that music! It’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard.” No. It’s just music. It’s just more tunes. They start. They stop. They get fast and slow. They’re loud and they’re soft. It’s just like any other band. We’re not that much different. There’s nothing in credible about it. It’s just that there are not that many people that do it. There are a lot of bands. But the number of people to be entertained and the number of entertainers—I think the ratio is more correct than people think.
I’ve been very, very fortunate. The right people at the right time. Making sure I was at the right place at the right time. It’s not all just happenstance. Like Paul told you. I used to carry my drums in the back of a van, ready to make a fool of myself anywhere.
SF: You’re still ready to embarrass yourself?
AP: I’m ready to embarrass myself anytime, anywhere and make a mistake and drop a stick. If I can learn from it, then I’ve picked up a lick. Right now we’re having to start over again. That’s the hardest thing about it. There are so many facets of this past ten years with all these incredible bands. I’ve gone places I never dreamed I’d see, due to people, and not just my talents. There’s guys who play like me under every rock. There are incredible guys. I know you know this. I’m not telling you anything that you don’t already know. There are cats on every corner who are just as good as me.
SF: How come you’re where you are and they’re still under rocks or standing on corners?
AP: Maybe because they’re happy hammering nails or building or doing another gig.
PR: It’s because you had the balls to jump deep. That’s the truth.
AP: I really feel like there are cats who know how to play just as good. But they don’t know that they know. I know how to play drums a little bit and I took it. I can run a bulldozer, fly an airplane, wire a house, or plumb a damn toilet. I can do anything you want. But what I really wanted to pursue was the drums. I feel like I’m being allowed to do what I want, which is to play and stay in the business. I feel like I went to college. L.S.U. Lynyrd Skynyrd University. Professor Van Zant and his boys. I learned a lot. I would hate to take that knowledge that I’ve learned from all these people and just sit on my butt at home, feeling sorry for myself, complaining and doing drugs.
SF: Did you pick up anything about being a bandleader from Ronnie?
AP: No. A leader I’m not. Ronnie was. Ronnie was the man in that band. We went to Fist City a few times because I didn’t agree with some of his approach. I could disagree with him 24 hours a day, but it was his band. But, when he started abusing the other members of the group…he would literally just punch them out. He was just like anybody, man. He was a street fighting dude. When he was straight he was a gentleman. And he was a real good person. But when he was drunk it was Jekyll and Hyde. He was just vicious. He would tear into somebody in the band or start browbeating them, or smacking them around. I’d jump in there. I wouldn’t al low that to happen. And he’d go for me. Me and him would go around and around until we saw blood. Then it would snap both of us out of it.
But, I did have a lot of respect for that cat. We were two different people. I think he had a respect for me too. We were kind of a check and balance for each other. I think that’s why he kept me in the group, because I wasn’t the greatest drummer in the world. I made mistakes. I forgot parts sometimes. I’d screw up. I’d start tunes backwards.
SF: Who’s the leader of the Artimus Pyle Band?
AP: I’m the leader, but it’s democratic. I learned from Ronnie that there was a happy medium. It’s not a happy situation when everybody’s having to browbeat or beat physically. But, in Skynyrd sometimes Ronnie had to. Sometimes that’s what the guys needed to snap them into re ality. Because my boys were wild in that band. I started off on an even keel. About the last year there were two things I did if I wanted to get back at the band. I’d take LSD and go onstage and play and jam my butt off. Ronnie always told me, “Man, if you’re going to adlib—go for it. But, don’t miss!” Then I stopped doing it. I never did a lot of it. About the last six months, if I wanted to fight back I’d walk into the bar where we were staying after the gig and say, “Give me two triple Tequila Salty Dog’s and two Heinekins.” In about ten minutes I’d be shitfaced, and I’d be on their level. Then I could relate to all of them.
In the very last, our New York manager pushed very much the image of alcohol and Jack Daniels. I can’t even talk about him because of his ruthlessness.
SF: Was there a time when you stopped being yourselves and started being what you thought other people’s image of you was?
AP: In Atlanta during the torture tour of 1975—the end of 88 cities in 92 days—we were staying at the Omni. Our manager was there. He never showed up at any of the bullshit gigs. Only the big gigs where he could be seen.
This is a prime example of what you’re asking about. We’re sitting in the dressing room and there’s a bottle of Jack Daniels there. Our manager cracks the seal on it and pours half of it into a planter and gives the bottle to Ronnie. “Ronnie, take a couple of slugs of this and get it on your breath.” Ronnie says, “Sure.” He takes a couple of swigs and our manager goes and brings the interviewers in. Ronnie’s sitting there with a half-empty bottle of Jack, maintaining with it on his breath. That was the image.
I called our manager right after the plane crash. Our crew was having trouble getting money for doctor bills. I said, “Can you help me get some advance money on my royalties into a fund that the guys can draw from?” He said, “Hey Artimus, Lynyrd Skynyrd is yesterday’s news. I’ve got other things to do.” That was about a month after the crash.
SF: What’s a drummer’s role in a band?
AP: In my band I’m freer than I was in Skynyrd. I don’t try to exceed my bounds by saying, “I’m the drummer and this is my band and I’m going to play drum solos between every tune.” I hate drum solos unless they’re tasteful. My solos would be more or less a freight-train-coming-through- the-middle-of-a-house effect. But, I hate drum solos by drummers like me. I’d like to get more into singing. I love to sing and I get a chance in a couple of songs.
SF: Is it hard for you to sing and play simultaneously?
AP: Levon Helm is a monster at that. I’d love to have the knack of singing lead and playing drums like he does. But, I’ve got to be playing in 4/4 or I can’t do it.
SF: Give me a rundown of your drums and cymbals.
AP: The drums are Slingerland. I have a new drumset ordered from Pearl and I ordered new cymbals too. I used to use a lot of Paiste cymbals. I broke two full sets because I set them up real high. Now, my main ride is a 22″ Zildjian. I’m into the Pangs. I bust them. I used to use 15″ Zildjian hi-hats, but now I’m using 14″ Paiste Sound Edge hi-hats. My cymbals are just a potpourri of whatever I can get.
SF: When did you start using double bass drums?
AP: I was in the Marines and a Captain had a set of drums that his son was selling. I bought them. Then I got out of the Marines and picked up the same style kit in Spartanburg. I put the two kits together, stripped them and covered them with red, white and blue crushed velvet. I called them my Buck Owens set. I had two 24″ kick drums, two rack toms and two floor toms. Then I bought a set of jazz/rock Slingerlands that were silver chrome. I was influenced by Ginger Baker. I really didn’t have a correct approach or training on the double bass drums. I’d just have them for volume, especially with Skynyrd. Now I use my bass drums a lot more for intricate “in-the-tune” playing with APB. In Skynyrd, I’d use them at the end of a tune for volume, for a big rise, especially on “Free Bird.” I like a hot rod kit though; a little small kit. On the demos for our record deal with MCA I used Paul Riddle’s little hot rod kit he built for the studio. I used one bass drum, and for the double bass drum parts I’d play them on the floor tom. We actually had the album done before we even got the deal. We never had to ask MCA for anything except support, which we’re going to get maybe.
With Skynyrd I went from nothing—not even having mic’s for my drums—to a World Class band. That was a wild experience. Going from no manager to supposedly the hippest dude on the continent. Going from not making a cent to making a fair living. But, the main thing was I got to watch some monstrous bands—Edgar Winter, Johnny Winter, The Allman Brothers. All these different groups all over the place. Foreigner. Journey. I watched those guys go through their stages before they made it. Journey used to open up for us. Foreigner used to open for us. Meeting Aynsley Dunbar, who I used to love with Zappa. It’s given me an opening into the world I wanted to be in. I’ll never forget that heritage and I’m going to use it. My name is Artimus. If they say, “Artimus Pyle, formerly of Lynyrd Skynyrd,” that’s okay, because that’s a fact. I was the drummer for the band and I’m proud of it. I’m not ashamed of it. I’m not going to deny it. But, I don’t like it to be overly used to try to bring people in.
I walked into a club one time in Tennessee and they had little 3 x 5 cards that said, “Artimus Pyle and his new band. Sole surviving member of the tragic Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash.” We packed up our shit and left. Now I don’t like to do that. I know people got hurt because they wanted to come and hear the band. But, I wasn’t going for it.
Recently we played this place and I was advertised as “Former lead singer for Lynyrd Skynyrd.” I said, “Where do these people come from?” Why don’t they just open any magazine and check it out? And Lynyrd Skynyrd’s always spelled wrong. It’s a weird spelling, but all they have to do is a little research. That’s all the negative side. It’s really been a good experience. I love music and I’ve always wanted to meet all these different cats. That’s why I’m not going to get out. Maybe my inspiration was when I couldn’t play and people were telling me, “Hey, you won’t be able to do this anymore.”
SF: After you were laid up in the hospital, did you become more aware of the spiritual side of yourself?
AP: Yeah, man. I think about that a lot. After the plane crash a guy walked up to me at the hospital and he looked right in my eyes, right through me, and he says, “I want you right now to get down on your knees and thank Jesus Christ, man, that you’re still here. You’re here for a reason, man.” This guy laid a heavy, heavy trip on me and I had just about ten minutes earlier found out who had been killed in the crash. I was in a lot of pain but I got up and walked outside and this guy was out in the parking lot. He says, “Get down on your knees.” The sequence of things just blew my mind. I said, “I know I’m lucky to be here, but I’m not getting down on my knees.” I always remember that because—well, you’re talking about the spiritual side of it and do I think about it. I think about it a lot. Then I think, “Well, damn, man. I’m still screwing things up a lot in my own life.” I love my family more than anything else in the whole world, but sometimes I go off on a binge or something. Over the past few years of all the accidents I’ve been through, I’ll get depressed and go off on a binge and they don’t understand. See, I was so stupid I used to think, “Yes, I can drink Tequila and eat a handful of Quaaludes and feel no pain and really be grooving and drive a car because I’m Superman.” It took me three car wrecks to prove to my stupid self that I cannot do that. That I was going to kill somebody, if not myself. That’s a stage of my life that I can proudly say is behind me. The intense side of it has long since gone. But, for over a year I couldn’t go for more than two or three seconds without it feeling like somebody was stabbing 25 ice picks in my leg. Every time I took a breath. Every time I pumped blood into my leg it was intense. Poor little me. I was trying to numb myself out completely. It took me a long time to get out of that syndrome.
I’m a negative person in many, many ways. Especially under the influence of some kind of bullshit. But, basically I really believe deep down that I have good intent. I would like our music to portray that. A lot of people have misinterpreted Ronnie Van Zant’s tunes. Kids come up to me all the time and say, “Yeah, man. ‘Needle and The Spoon.’ Take a trip to the moon. Snort coke. Shoot it up.” I say, “Listen to that tune, man. Listen to what he’s saying. He’s saying, ‘Maybe I did it. Maybe I’ve experienced it. Maybe it’s gone down. But, I’m not advocating it. I’m not saying go do it.'” The smell of death is a monster, man. That was Ronnie’s last epitaph.
He was coming right out and saying, “Look here! You want to be a fool? You go ahead and do all this shit. Go ahead and do it all and do it until you die . . . because you will.” A lot of people think it was a decadent, negative thing. I got a positive feeling about it. Ronnie was a very negative person too under the influence of alcohol. But, actually he had a touch and a gift. He was like the Merle Haggard of our peer group, man. He could put down in simple terms, maybe raw terms, that there is a real negative thing there if you want to get into it.
But, in this group I don’t want to pound anything down anybody’s throat. I just want to come out with the music. Like “It Ain’t The Whiskey, It Ain’t the Wine, It Ain’t the Cocaine.” It’s saying it ain’t this that really makes you feel good. It’s really true love. It’s really a good, good positive thing. That’s the kind of representation I want the band to have. I don’t want any body spitting blood. I don’t want the whole negative trip. I don’t know if any good will come of it. But there is the black and white of it all.
I want to write a book someday called The Best Seat In The House, because from where I sat it was like I observed the band. For a long time, all the guys in Skynyrd would get mad at me because I referred to the band as “you guys” and “they,” and “Y’all had a good night tonight” and “you were good.” They’d say, “What do you mean? It’s us! You’re in the band too.” But, I sat at my drums and had the best seat at every concert because I could watch the band, the audience, and the stage. The whole thing. It always used to gratify me so much to switch from that slow part in “Free Bird” and hit the clutch and go into second gear. I watched the people and it would never fail to send the energy level sky high. In Japan, Germany, France…they didn’t even understand what we were saying, but it was all smiles. “Free Bird” is a beautiful, beautiful tune. “If I leave here tomorrow/ Would you still remember me?/ For I must be traveling on now/ ‘Cause there’s too many places I’ve got to see./ And if I stay here with you, girl/ Well, things just couldn’t stay the same./ ‘Cause I’m as free as a bird now./ And this bird you’ll never change./ And this bird cannot change./ And this bird you cannot change./ Lord knows I cannot change.”
It’s just a monstrous concept.