Former Skynyrd drummer remembers friend

by Ryan Snyder

“Congratulations.” That was the last thing that the estranged former Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Thomas Delmer “Artimus” Pyle would ever say to his longtime band mate, the recently departed pianist Billy Powell. The exchange took place just after Lynyrd Skynyrd’s 2006 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction and was one of the few occasions that the two would speak since Pyle quit in 1991 due to the excessive cocaine and alcohol use of others.

It was apparent that Powell, who passed away last week of a suspected heart attack, weighed heavy on Pyle’s mind just before his one-off gig with Winston- Salem guitarist Sam Robinson at Greene Street Club only two days later. It was because of interference from management and lawyers, Pyle stated, that he and Powell hadn’t talked in years. But he did recall a special moment at the Waldorf Astoria during the induction, just after Powell called out Johnny Van Zant and presenter Kid Rock for being “a couple of millionaires arguing over a Budweiser longneck.” “We were walking through the corridor on our way to the induction and all of us were quickly shaking hands,” Pyle said. “Billy pauses and says, ‘Artimus stop. Let’s have a real handshake.’” Pyle opened up more about his friend with little provocation, alternately contrite that he couldn’t be there to save Powell as he called for help from his home and regaling with old stories about their onstage antics. One time in particular came while opening a date for ZZ Top, when Powell did something he never did before and would never do again. Said Pyle, “It was in Memphis, Tennessee and Skynyrd was opening up for ZZ Top. Someone had given me about six ounces of joy juice, mescaline. The rest of the band used to get so crazy-drunk on their fifteen bottles of Jack, eleventeen bottles of Scotch and their eighteen cases of beer that I had nothing left to do; it was my defense mechanism. I just had a few sips, something I rarely did to begin with, but about eight minutes into our show, I started coming into it. I started playing these really jazzy beats and I remembered that Ronnie [Van Zant] always told me,

‘You can jam or ad lib, but just don’t miss.’ I’m playing all this crazy stuff and Billy comes over in front of me in between tunes, squats down and says [emulating Powell’s gruff tone], ‘Artemis, you’re playing really different, man. But its good, man, its good!’ He had never once gotten up in the middle of a show in the thousand times we played together.” “He knew that I loved him and I knew that Billy felt the same about me, we were just kept separated by other parties,” Pyle added as he choked up slightly. “I just feel terrible that Billy was by himself when he passed.” With the death of Powell, the ostensible “Rule of Three,” the statute originally stating that at least three Lynyrd Skynyrd members from the time of the 1977 plane crash must be performing in order to retain the band’s name, leaves the future of the band in question. Though guitarist Gary Rossington was the only other member alive before Powell’s death, the band still somehow escaped legal wrangling and retained the name. But that’s no concern of Pyle’s now, as he gears up for a stint in Las Vegas with his current band APB, featuring his son Chris Pyle on drums, bassist Tony Black (Buckethead) and Asheville’s Woody Wood on guitar. Pyle is also looking to regain the lost momentum from his 2007 release of Artimus Venomus, his first solo release in 24 years at the time. Pyle says that the album’s sound is very much rooted in the ’70s, with tips of his cowboy hat to Powell, (Ronnie) Van Zant, Rossington and deceased guitarist Allen Collins. Promotion of the album was derailed shortly after its issue, however, as legal troubles from years earlier resurfaced. It began when he traveled to Jacksonville, Fla. in late 2007. He intended to contest his failure to register as a sex offender, which originally stemmed from charges made by a woman who Pyle claimed attempted to extort both he and his band 19 years earlier, when he was instead arrested. The story hit newspapers and instead of containing positive reviews of his album, he was being labeled a sexual predator all over the country. His contention goes like this: already fighting a legal battle with Judy Van Zant over compensation in his post-Skynyrd days, Pyle was accused of the molestation of the daughters of a woman that he had been seeing for several years. He entered into a plea bargain with the state of Florida, which he maintains, was in order to spare the two girls from suffering an emotionally exhausting trial. It’s his assertion that the original charge came while Pyle changed one child’s diaper. “She lied to me about every single phase of her life; men, money, her past, the present, her future and her agenda,” Pyle asserted. “I’d rather they say, ‘We think that Artimus may be a murderer’ than, ‘We think Artimus may have touched a child.’” “It destroyed my life and it destroyed my family,” he added. “Not just them, but millions of Skynyrd fans and thousands of young marines who look up to me and say, ‘He’s a sergeant in the Marine Corps and he’s a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer.’” After more than three decades of near-constant adversity, from the 1977 plane crash, where his search for help is credited with saving several lives, to legal battles with his former band to what he fervently claims to be false accusations of molestation, Pyle maintains a conciliatory tone. “I’m facing horrible things, but I’m putting this out of my mind right now by going to honor my friend Billy,” Pyle said. “I get to play some music tonight and I get to cry tonight. This is how I cry.”