The curse of Lynyrd Skynyrd
Gary Rossington, guitarist and sole survivor of the original Lynyrd Skynyrd lineup, is featured through the years in Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes in the latest issue of Uncut (Take 184, September 2012). In this archive feature from the May 2006 (Take 108) issue of Uncut, the whole story of the ill-fated Southern rockers is told – from their days “acting crazy” and losing teeth, to their devastating, fatal plane crash. Words: Rob Hughes
Lord knows, Lynyrd Skynyrd had seen it coming. On the flight from Florida to South Carolina, the band’s Convair CV-240 tour plane had begun spewing orange flames from its starboard engine. The two pilots seemed unfazed, insisting there wasn’t a problem. But by the time they landed in Greenville, some were spooked enough to book commercial flights to their next destination.
The following day, leader Ronnie Van Zant decided to board again for that night’s gig in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. In lieu of Skynyrd’s all-for-one credo, the rest of the 26 people – bandmembers and road crew – followed suit. Stepping aboard in the late afternoon of October 20, 1977, Van Zant turned to security guard Gene Odom: “C’mon, let’s go,” he said. “If it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go.”
At the point of departure, Lynyrd Skynyrd were approaching their commercial peak. Topping the bill on America’s massive outdoor festival circuit, they were now tilting at attendance figures set by the Stones. Fifth album Street Survivors – released three days earlier – would prove their biggest seller, eventually going multi-platinum.
“We wanted to be America’s Rolling Stones,” guitarist and co-founder Gary Rossington tells Uncut in February 2006, “to be the biggest band over here. And I believe we were on our way.”
Only an act of God – say, a horrific plane crash – could possibly stop them.
Hurtling from the Florida swamplands, Skynyrd’s slashing, triple-guitar crosstalk and plain wisdom – digging deep into country, blues and Dixie soul – marked them out as quintessential blue-collar champions. In ’70s America, they looked like Confederate rednecks, but songwriter Ronnie Van Zant carried a raw sensibility and sense of moral justice that flew directly in the face of backward Southern cliché.
Their blueprint can be traced through to modern-day heroes like Drive-By Truckers, whose 2001 album Southern Rock Opera is a sideways Skynyrd tribute. Metallica, Eminem, Kid Rock, Kings Of Leon and My Morning Jacket have all acknowledged a debt. And, however dubious the appropriation, two anthems are now indelibly sewn into the fabric of American life. KFC recently used “Sweet Home Alabama” on their ads, while American news teams reported hearing the strains of “Free Bird” emanating from armoured Strykers on the streets of Mosul, Iraq earlier this year. Unlike Southern contemporaries The Allman Brothers or The Marshall Tucker Band, Skynyrd connected on a gut level.
“We were kinda rebels,” says Rossington. “From the wrong side of the tracks. Down where we were raised, it was a tough town. [Fellow founder] Allen Collins, Ronnie and myself had this dream to be a big rock’n’roll band. We had fire in our eyes. And we vowed never to quit until we made it.”
A like-minded bunch of high-school drop-outs from Jacksonville, the band began as a five-piece in 1964, fired by the music of the British Invasion. By 1972, after gigging relentlessly and leaving behind two seven-inch singles and a trail of different monikers, they’d become Lynyrd Skynyrd, a vowel-play on the old schoolteacher who’d chastised them for being longhairs: Leonard Skinner. They’d already cut a bunch of Muscle Shoals demos when ’60s legend Al Kooper caught Skynyrd at a bar in Atlanta, Georgia, while scouting for his Sounds Of The South label.
“It was the material and their appearance that got me,” recalls Kooper to Uncut. “Ronnie did all kinds of mic-stand tricks and performed barefoot. The songs got me, especially ‘I Ain’t The One’.” The ex-Blood, Sweat & Tears man soon offered them a deal: “I saw the average musical kid hearing ‘Free Bird’ for the first time, lowering his head, and then breaking into a run and smashing it into the nearest wall.”
With Kooper at the helm, Skynyrd cut debut album Pronounced Leh-nerd Skin-nerd for MCA in 1973. All spring-tight riffage, jukin’ country and delinquent boogie, this was chicken-skin music in the raw. On “Simple Man” and “Things Goin’ On”, Van Zant emerged as a lyricist with a common touch, making monuments of everyman while decrying the political hypocrisy that kept them poor. Its calling card, though, was “Free Bird” – a nine-minute odyssey built around Collins’ breathless guitar lines, which sent it spiralling into an ecstatic climax. Anxious to spread the word, Kooper instigated a US tour, supporting The Who.
“We just went out with guns ablaze,” explains keyboardist Billy Powell, talking exclusively to Uncut. “We wanted to blow the doors off. In some places, Skynyrd went down better than The Who. We were drinking and acting crazy, tearing up dressing rooms…”
Adds Rossington: “We were just a band that played clubs, teen dens and pubs. Then, all of a sudden, we were playing in stadiums for 30,000 people. And that’s what drove us to drink. We’d have shots of whiskey every night ’cause we were so scared. I remember it being my birthday, too. I was 22 and Pete Townshend came in with booze and mashed a cake in my face. It was a rowdy start.”
Then came the breakthrough. Released in July ’74, “Sweet Home Alabama” tore into the US Top 10, trailing a storm. Seen as a snipe at Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and “Alabama”, both of which alluded to backwoods racism, it’s been the subject of much debate since (“Sweet Home Alabama” contains the lyric: “Well, I hope Neil Young will remember/A ‘southern man’ don’t need him around anyhow”). Far from some redneck political manifesto, though, the song is actually Van Zant’s impassioned defence of the South, tongue lodged firmly in cheek. Nor was it a declaration of war on Young.
“That whole thing was completely fabricated,” Rossington assures us. “We all loved Neil. Ronnie used to wear Neil Young T-shirts all the time because he loved him and was really inspired by him. He just wrote those lines about ‘Southern Man’, which seemed cute at the time, almost like a play on words. But we didn’t know that song would turn into such a huge deal.”
Skynyrd were on fire. Second Helping, again produced by Kooper, sold well. The likes of “Workin’ For MCA”, “Swamp Music” and “The Ballad Of Curtis Loew” were instant classics. “Ronnie Van Zant was an out-and-out genius,” states third guitarist Ed King. “His lyrics spoke to the man on the street.”
Rossington agrees: “Ronnie could be very profound. He was all about the working-class man. He had a great way with a simple story.”
Van Zant was the undisputed leader of the band. But there was a dark side to his presidency. “Ronnie would give the shirt off his back for anyone,” recalls Powell. “But he could also get pretty damn mean when he was drinking – the Jekyll & Hyde syndrome. I remember arguing with him once, after a few whiskeys, about Allen Collins’ volume and tuning up onstage. Next thing I know, I got my teeth knocked out. That’s how he led the band. But at the same time, if there was trouble from outside, he’d fight for us. He went to jail for us a few times. And when it came down to business, he was always right. We could always trust him.”
Rossington learnt to roll with the punches, too. Touring Hamburg’s notorious Reeperbahn, they got drunk on Schnapps. “Somehow, a bottle got broke and I ended up with slashes across my hands and wrists. But the next day, we were the best of friends again. That’s how it was, like a family.”
Kin or not, by ’75 the touring was too much for some. Ed King slipped away in the dead of a Pittsburgh night. “It became violent,” he admits. “Pretty much every day was traumatic. But I just had a bad premonition and felt I should obey the urge to get out when I did.”
By ’77, though, with four studio albums and a live double under their belts, Skynyrd had hooked up with young guitarist Steve Gaines and recorded the blistering Street Survivors. “Steve brought a whole new style of guitar playing,” says Powell. “And he was an extremely gifted songwriter, who brought a multitude of new ideas. But just as he was getting started, he had the rug pulled from under him in the rudest way imaginable.”
And so to October 20, 1977. A fatal miscalculation of fuel, allied to an already spasmodic right engine, led to Skynyrd’s Convair 240 plummeting into a wooded Mississippi swamp. Van Zant, Gaines, road manager Dean Kilpatrick and Gaines’ sister Cassie were all killed instantly, as were both pilots. The horror was graphic. Terrified drummer Artimus Pyle, clambering through the shredded roof, recalled seeing the co-pilot decapitated in a tree and Kilpatrick face down with the fuselage wedged in his back.
“I remember coming round and hearing people screaming,” recalls Rossington today. “There were helicopters up there with searchlights and I was hurting real bad, screaming. I had a lot of broken bones. Then, of course, it broke our hearts and freaked us all out when we found out some of us were dead.”
“We were approaching the peak of our career,” says Powell. “Then all of a sudden, due to gross negligence and pilot error, we were down to nothing. We were very bitter about what happened. I dove into a bottle for a while. I didn’t find any answers, but it numbed the pain. It had a major psychological effect on all of us.”
Indeed, the disaster has haunted the survivors down the decades. In January 1986, Allen Collins crashed his car in Jacksonville, killing his girlfriend and paralysing himself from the waist down. He pled no contest to a drink-drive manslaughter charge. Four years later, after prolonged alcohol abuse, he died of pneumonia. Bassist Leon Wilkeson was jailed for beating up his girlfriend in 1993. He died in a Florida hotel room in 2001, after years of toxic indulgence. In 1992, Pyle was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting a four-year-old girl, although he was later cleared. The following year, however, he was given eight years’ probation for molesting two sisters after pleading guilty to attempted capital battery and lewd and lascivious assault. In September ’96, Powell was charged with domestic violence after allegedly attacking his wife at their Jacksonville home. He, too, was cleared.
With death, illness, lawsuits and disagreements stalking their post-crash history, some have suggested Lynyrd Skynyrd are hexed. But the band – reformed in 1987 after much soul-searching, with Rossington, Powell and Van Zant’s brother Johnny at its heart – seem imbued with an indomitable spirit. And in March 2006, Skynyrd were finally inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in New York.
“It would have been a sin not to carry the music on,” says Powell. “We’re gonna go as long as we can.”
Rossington is in no doubt, either: “After all we’ve been through, we’ve gotten stronger over the years. To have Johnny there now is like having part of Ronnie there. You feel his spirit is onstage with us every night.”