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Fighting & Violence: Johnny Van Zant

You’re from the South. Have you ever played a gig that’s ended up with a cowboy movie-style brawl?

We definitely did have a few of those. Years ago we played at a military base here in the States because we’re real big supporters of our troops. Man, a huge fight broke out. It was massive. So I stopped the show. I always stop the show if something like that happens. God forbid one of our fans might get hurt – we have three generations of them out there, from young kids to grandparents.

But violent incidents happen a lot?

Oh yeah. A few years ago security were beating the hell out of this guy and the next thing I knew, Gary Rossington had gone over the top of the stage and was in the crowd getting in security’s face. I was like, “Holy shit – stop the show, get Gary back up here and let’s deal with this situation sensibly.” It’s supposed to be a celebration. Nobody goes to a rock show to fight, that’s just bullshit.

You don’t look like a guy to mess with – can you still handle yourself when the chips are down?

These days I’d prefer to have what I call an ‘equaliser’ – something to hit with, or to use as a weapon. I’m quite a short guy so in my youth I used to hang out with the bigger guys and maybe start a few things, and we’d all finish it together. That was back when I was very young. My dad had a saying: “Some people fight for the fun of it – I fight to kill.” So if I got mad at you, I’d hurt you. Nowadays I’d rather not.

You’d prefer to settle a disagreement with words?

Back when I was real young, that wasn’t an option. Nobody gets the better of Skynyrd. Some bands have their own security but we never felt that need… Hell, we were raised on the west side of Jacksonville, Florida. We fought our way out. That’s just the way it was.

What kind of things would provoke you to remove the Stetson and offer somebody outside?

If someone messed with one of my own – one of my family, friends or bandmates – then we’re gonna go at it. Years ago, it would have gotten very nasty – you can count on that.

Your older brother Ronnie was renowned as being very tough. Exactly how tough?

Oh my God. Ronnie liked to fight. Others would do it if they had to, but Ronnie enjoyed it. That’s just the way he was. I was the youngest so my brothers made sure I was tough. Ronnie’d be the kind of brother to come in and knock you around a little bit… not in a mean way but to toughen you up. My dad was a Golden Glove boxer, the whole Van Zant family loved boxing. But for all of his aggression, Ronnie was also the sweetest guy in the world. Hell, if you told him you thought his shirt was cool, chances are he’d take it off and say, “Here you go, take it.”

It’s said that Ronnie ruled Skynyrd with an iron fist.

Yeah, it’s true. Ronnie knocked out [keyboard player] Billy Powell’s teeth, but it was also a love-hate thing. He wanted the best for the band and he’d do whatever he could to make it happen.

What about guns? Are you a good shot with a rifle?

Yeah. But I don’t own any pistols. It’s like Ronnie’s lyric to Saturday Night Special: ‘Handguns are made for killing/They ain’t no good for nothing else.’ As far as shotguns go, I’ve got an old Winchester that I love. I keep a single-barrel shotgun next to my bed.

That’s purely for protection, right?

Yeah, but not necessarily against intruders. I live in the country and there are snakes and all sorts of dangerous animals.

Skynyrd released an album entitled God & Guns, so presumably you embrace the right to bear arms?

You know what? It’s becoming a violent world. [Skynyrd guitarist] Rickey Medlocke said it best: “Hey, if you come into my house at four in the morning, I didn’t invite you there.” And should somebody do that then they’re going straight back out again.

Do you understand why we struggle to accept that perspective on this side of the pond?

Oh sure. Hell, there’s a lot of people who have taken that freedom they’ve been given and used it in the wrong way.

Mass shootings are now becoming almost commonplace events in the United States.

That’s very, very true. I think that handgun laws are very valuable. Before somebody is allowed to buy one there should be a test that they’re not psychotic. They’ve got to be responsible enough that they can shoot a gun. Those things could be made a lot more strict. But as far as the United States of America goes, hell… that’s part of our whole thing, along with religion. I still believe in the right to bear arms. I want to do that to protect my family and go hunting, not to inflict bodily harm on anyone else. I still agree with Ronnie – handguns are no good. You couldn’t shoot a bear or a deer with a handgun. They are only made for killing a human being. Let’s throw them all in the ocean.

Dave Ling
Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.