Every band needs a leader, and in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s case it was Ronnie Van Zant. Standing just over five-and-a-half-feet in his cowboy boots, what he lacked in physical stature he made up for in presence and attitude.
Quick-tempered and quicker-fisted, Ronnie ruled Skynyrd with a rod of iron. When he drank, he turned into what late guitarist Gary Rossington called “a badass who liked a fight”, and Rossington and his bandmates had the bruises to prove it.
This propensity for booze-fuelled violence was at the heart of one of the most infamous incidents in Skynyrd’s career, a drunken bust up in a German hotel room memorably dubbed “The Bloodbath In Hamburg”. It saw an inebriated Van Zant smashing a bottle over the head of one of his bandmates and using the shards to slice up Rossington’s hands, an injury that could have ended the guitarist’s playing career.
When Rossington spoke to Classic Rock in 2019, he remembered The Bloodbath In Hamburg in vivid detail. “The only thing we fought about was the music,” said the guitarist. “Or somebody got too drunk. Usually Ronnie.”
Skynyrd had arrived in the German city on Oct 14, 1975, where their European tour was due to kick off the following night. All was fine until they hit the hotel bar.
“We drank beer and whiskey every night – Scotch or Jack Daniel’s, and sometimes champagne,” said Rossington. “But the guy at the hotel bar gave us cold peppermint schnapps. We’d never seen that, never even heard of schnapps. They had the glass all frozen - it tastes good. So we were just knocking them back.”
Jetlagged and inebriated, the band headed back to their hotel rooms. Unfortunately for everyone else, Ronnie’s temper was bubbling over.
“He was so fucking drunk,” recalled Rossington. “He started a fight with somebody, I think it was our road manager. A couple of us was trying to get him off, and then he took this fuckin’ bottle and busted it on the head of our tour manager and it broke. You gotta hit somebody hard to break a bottle. And it knocked our tour manager crazy – it was bleeding some.”
That’s when Van Zant went for Rossington with the broken bottle. “He said, ‘I’m gonna cut your hands, you’re never gonna play guitar again.’ And he cut me [indicating slice marks on both hands] here and there and up there.”
Things could have been a lot worse if it wasn’t for Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle.
“I remember Artimus coming in really mad,” remembered Rossington, whose hands were gushing blood by this time. “He was an ex-marine and in great shape, and he had a wild streak too. He was throwing Ronnie around, the first time he ever did that. Artimus finally got him on the bed and was on top of him, cussing him out and yelling. It was crazy.”
With Pyle and the rest of the band restraining their furious singer, Rossington and fellow guitarist Allen Collins headed for the nearest emergency room. The two musicians - neither of who spoke German – tried to get across the severity of what had happened to the doctors who were attempting to staunch the bleeding and stitch up Rossington’s wounds.
“I was trying to say, ‘This is important, I play with my hands,’” said Rossington. “Allen was going, “Hey man, don’t fuck this up.’ But they did it real good, I guess.’”
In the end, the guitarist got 10 stitches in one hand and 11 in the other. But when he got back to the hotel, he found his singer in less than contrite mood. Rather than offering an apology, Ronnie told the Rossington “to catch the first flight home tomorrow.”
The latter was having none of it. “I said, ‘Nah’, and that was it.”
Rossington did make the show that took place the night after The Bloodbath In Hamburg, albeit with both hands bandaged and an unable to play all but the most basic licks (Ronnie himself didn’t escape injury free - one of his own hands was wrapped in bandages).
“I played the gigs,” Rossington told Classic Rock. “I had to.”
Ronnie died just over two years later in the plane crash that also took the life of Skynyrd guitarist Steve Gaines, backing vocalist Cassie Gaines and three other people. Yet despite the events in Hamburg and his tendency for drunken orneriness, Rossington – who himself died on March 6, 2023 following a long period of ill-health – told Classic Rock that he retained nothing but love and respect for the singer.
“Ronnie was a father figure, he really was,” said Rossington. “I used to say to [Rossington’s wife] Dale, ‘I wish I could talk to Ronnie, ask him what I should do with this.’ So that’s what I started doing. If there’s stuff going on, I say, ‘Help us down here, you guys fucking help us.’”