Remembering the magic and mystery of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s iconic singer
I’ve made a few bad decisions in my life and this was one of them.
It was June 14, 1977 and I was covering Lynyrd Skynyrd at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland Maine for a magazine called Sweet Potato. Skynyrd was riding high on their One More From The Road double-live album and while punk rock was raging in my world, I still had a Southern rock overlap with groups like the Allman Brothers Band, the Marshall Tucker Band, the Outlaws and Skynyrd.
I liked the show and was offered the opportunity to interview them post-gig and I … passed. Why? I honestly can’t recall. And as the world knows the plane went down Oct. 20, three days after the release of their Street Survivors album, killing singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, backup singer Cassie Gaines and severely injuring most everyone else.
The album cover? With irony that rivaled The Who’s Who Are You (with Keith Moon sitting in a backwards director’s chair reading “Not to be taken away”) the band was pictured standing on a street in front of city buildings engulfed in flames. (MCA soon issued a second version sans flames.)
VIDEO: Lynyrd Skynyrd “That Smell”
One of the key songs, which they played in Portland, too, was “That Smell,” written by Van Zant and guitarist Allen Collins. The song was very much about the dangers of excessive partying – heroin, cocaine, quaaludes, booze – but the chorus ran: “Ooh that smell/Can’t you smell that smell? /Ooh that smell/The smell of death surrounds you.”
I mean, Christ almighty, talk about timing.
But we all did some reckoning, too, especially those of us in the North. For one thing, there was that Confederate battle flag that hung behind the band and Van Zant had tied to his mic stand. The understanding we had – common in those days – was that it was simply a symbol of Southern pride. With more than a hint of rebellion. Isn’t rock ‘n’ roll about rebellion? And, yet, well, we suspected it wasn’t as simple as that. All that crap about The War of Northern Aggression, all those Confederate generals as statues, the rallying cry of the Charlie Daniels Band’s “The South’s Gonna Do It Again.”
“It’s about music and about honoring some of our bands,” Daniels told me in 2018. “People tend to take music and make more out of it.” When the Ku Klux Klan used the song for radio commercials for a 1975 rally in Louisiana, Daniels said, “I’m damn proud of the South, but I sure as hell am not proud of the Ku Klux Klan. I wrote the song about the land I love and my brothers. It was not written to promote hate groups.”
We reconsidered “Sweet Home Alabama,” Skynyrd’s big hit and, along with “Free Bird” its signature song. But also one that had this verse: “In Birmingham they love the governor (boo-hoo-hoo)/Now we all did what we could do/Now Watergate does not bother me/Does your conscience bother you?/Tell the truth.” Was the “boo-hoo-hoo” echo suggesting a love of racist Gov. George Wallace or rebuking the love some Alabamians had for him?
And then the admittedly clever go he had at Neil Young: “Well I heard Mister Young sing about her/Well I heard ol’ Neil put her down/Well I hope Neil Young will remember/A southern man don’t need him around anyhow.”
Yet, here was a catch: One of the last photos of Van Zant was him sporting a Neil Young Tonight’s the Night t-shirt.
Backstory: In 1970 Young wrote “Southern Man,” a moving condemnation of the racism and narrow-mindedness he saw in the South. How did Young’s fans take it? How did Young take it? Did he take offense? Far from it: Years later, Young told me intended to join Lynyrd Skynyrd on stage and sing that rousing verse with Van Zant. God, I’d have loved to have heard that. Then, the plane crash.
VIDEO: Lynyrd Skynyrd “Sweet Home Alabama”
Young did this, too. Once in Miami, he played his own “Alabama” — another condemnation of Southern racism — and then segued into “Sweet Home Alabama.” In the song, Van Zant sings, “I hope Neil Young will remember/ Southern man don’t need him around anyhow!” Young told me, “I just sang ‘I hope you all will remember’ …I thought it was a cool thing.”
But back to Skynyrd and Van Zant, who would have turned 75 January 15. In 1980, I spoke with Leon Wilkeson, the now-deceased (July, 2001) bassist. The surviving members of Skynyrd decided the band was no longer viable without Van Zant – a decision very much reversed in later years – but put together the Rossington Collins Band. (Rossington and Collins played guitar, other Skynyrd players included keyboardist Billy Powell and backup singer Dale Krantz. (Rossington and Krantz married in 1982.)
Wilkeson was unconscious and in critical condition with chest and arm injuries after the crash. When he woke up in the hospital after three days, he asked a nurse, “I know I’ve been in a plane crash – can you tell me who survived and who didn’t?”
Wilkeson said she wouldn’t tell him, probably because she felt he couldn’t handle the shock. Nevertheless, Wilkeson knew instinctively that Van Zant was dead; he also knew it wasn’t grief he should feel.
“It’s a strange thing to explain,” he told me. “It was sort of like a dream but I was awake – maybe 15 seconds to a half minute. Have you ever been to the ocean? Picture if you’re looking at the horizon. You get that sensation, that infinite feeling, like going on forever?
“Well, picture a solid blanket of clouds instead of ocean. There was this large hollow log and Duane Allman was on one end – very relaxed, he wasn’t wearing wings or a halo or anything like that. He was dressed like I remember him to dress. He had this expression of peace on his face that an artist couldn’t capture. And Ronnie was on the other end with his back facing away from Duane. He had his hands in the sort of position where he might have been holding a fishing rod – Ronnie was a big fisherman – but he wasn’t holding anything and he was looking downward, earthward. Duane never said a word. The only comment that was made by either one of them was what Ronnie said: You know, Duane, them boys really don’t know what making it to the top is after all now, do they?”‘
Wilkeson described it as “a total feeling of peace.” He says it helped him immensely and adds, “I hate to see people crying because of that experience for me.”
A few years ago, I was in touch Marjorie Lewis, a former film executive at Geffen, HBO and New Line Cinema. She wanted to put together a Lynyrd Skynyrd musical for the stage and asked me for some ideas. She had done extensive research, been in touch with various Skynyrd people about it, trying to secure the rights, etc. Ultimately, it didn’t come to fruition for a variety of reasons. But in doing the research she’d talked to a lot of Van Zant’s friends and associates.
When we talked, I asked Lewis what her take was on “Sweet Home Alabama” and Van Zant’s politics in general.
“Well, it’s hard to say,” she said. “He liked George Wallace but not for the race part – which is horrible – but for the workingman part – he felt Wallace had their back. His daddy was a truck driver and they grew up blue collar. He wasn’t a racist at all. He admired black artists and loved their music and had a kind heart.
“He was a Democrat for the most part and he was going to do a fundraiser for Jimmy Carter, but he got sick and couldn’t perform. He was definitely not a right-wing Republican like those two idiot brothers [Donnie and Johnny].
“People seemed to think that because they were poor Southern white dudes who looked and sounded kind of redneck-y, Ronnie Van Zant and his band mates must have been a bunch of ignorant, racist, far-right gun nuts. But if you actually listen to their music, you’ll find that the opposite is true. At the height of the band’s popularity in the ‘70’s no one was singing about gun control, but Ronnie wrote lyrics like ‘Handguns are made for killin’, they ain’t no good for nothin’ else … So why don’t we dump them people to the bottom of the sea’ in the song ‘Saturday Night Special.’”
VIDEO: Lynyrd Skynyrd “Saturday Night Special”
I asked Lewis to go on. Who, in her opinion, was Ronnie Van Zant?
“Ronnie Van Zant had a great smile. It was full of promise and seduction. It beckoned you to listen closely because he had something to say. It was a joyful smile because he was playing the music he wrote with the band he led and his rock ‘n’ roll dreams were coming true. But that smile was also tough and sly, quickly it could turn to a scowl followed by a punch if you displeased him. His smile was wary, too, He knew he had some tough opponents out there and the music business was as rough as the Shantytown bars he started out in. ‘Don’t fuck with me’ said that smile, ‘I want to be a nice guy but I’ll beat the hell out of you if I have to.’”
Was Van Zant a redneck?
“He was a redneck prophet and a poet from Shantytown, the toughest neighborhood on Jacksonville’s west side,” Lewis said. “He was a high school dropout, yet highly intelligent. He was a guy with a dream who never quit, a vision he carried out by blunt force if necessary. His childhood passions were fishing and playing baseball, but as a young man he turned to music. When Ronnie decided to lead a band, he recruited two fatherless younger boys, both guitar players, and like a southern Peter Pan, he led those lost boys to fame and glory. Ronnie was a father figure to Allen Collins and Gary Rossington, who both had absent fathers (Rossington’s having been killed in Korea, Collins being a child of divorce.) They were young teenagers when they formed the band that became Lynyrd Skynyrd and he taught both boys how to drive and how to talk to girls.
“Ronnie rehearsed his band tirelessly, from sunup to sundown at a shack in the woods with no air conditioning known as The Hell House. He wanted the musicians to get used to sweating so they wouldn’t be bothered by hot nightclubs with little or no A/C. He wanted them to sound perfect note after note so improvisations were not tolerated. They played every song every day every note every chord the same. He drove the band to success and like a general with an army. He planned every move with strategy in mind. Leon Wilkeson explained ‘Ronnie ran Skynyrd like Stalin ran Russia.’
“When they opened for other bands, their marching orders were clear: Put on a show so great the other band couldn’t possibly follow it. It was a competition and they were there to win.
“In the early ‘70s the guys in the band that became Skynyrd, collected bottles to earn money to travel to Miami and see Eric Clapton’s band Derek and the Dominos. A few years later in 1974, Lynyrd Skynyrd was playing on the same bill as Clapton. Think of the determination and force of will it took for that to happen. [Yet] there was a dark side to that willfulness, and alcohol amplified Van Zant’s personality significantly. Sober Ronnie was said to be a very kindhearted and generous guy, and was also far more intelligent than his exterior might imply, but Ronnie by nature was also a control freak and perfectionist who wanted things done his way, or else.
“Drunk Ronnie often tended to get mean — very mean,” she continued. “He was known and feared for his temper and fights were legendary among the band members. As with everything in his life, he put it into song and ‘Double Trouble’ recounts the times he’d been arrested and jailed for fighting and drinking. Most of his songs were autobiographical, or keen observations about the world as he saw it.
“Conservation wasn’t a huge issue in the ‘70s, yet Van Zant wrote about ‘the concrete slowly creeping’ in a song aptly titled ‘All I Can Do Is Write About It.’ ‘Gimme Three Steps’ was the true telling an almost bar fight that could have ended in a shooting while ‘Whiskey Rock-A-Roller’ is a reflection of the life he was living on the road as a touring musician. When a young woman of questionable morals accused Ronnie of fathering her baby, his rebuttal became the song ‘I Ain’t The One.’ The now classic “Simple Man” is based on advice his mother and grandmother had given him over the years. This epitomized the Ronnie who enjoyed friends, family, and a good time far more than anything money could buy. He held true to these values for the rest of his short life.
“On Labor Day weekend in 1976, Allen and Gary were involved in separate auto accidents. This served as inspiration to Van Zant- and a warning documented in the song ‘That Smell,’ released on their final album. It’s a song so popular it’s included in the current Skynyrd’s set list.”
Yes, the brand lives on. Rossington and guitarist Rickey Medlocke – an early member of Skynyrd – are the connections to the ‘70s band.
“Sadly,” Lewis picks up, “the smell of death was around him too. Ronnie always had a feeling that he’d die young and mentioned his premonition to multiple people, including his father, once telling a bandmate that he wouldn’t live to see 30. By October 20, 1977, their songs had become radio staples and their ambitious new tour, just days underway, saw sellout crowds. Then it all fell away at 6000 feet above a Mississippi swamp. The tragic crash would end the life of Ronnie Van Zant and others, just 87 days before his 30th birthday.
Skynyrd guitarist Ed King, who co-wrote “Sweet Home Alabama” with Van Zant, once said “If you want to know what Ronnie was really like, just listen to any six songs he wrote, doesn’t matter which six. That’ll tell you.”
And there was that smile.