“You know how they always say, ‘Who died and made you boss?’” Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington’s soft Florida drawl is made even softer by 3000 miles of phone line. “Well, Ronnie did.” His voice caught somewhere between a laugh and a cough.
Rossington’s broken bones healed long ago, but they still ache when the weather turns cold or rainy. The pain, the scars, the metal rod in one arm – frequent reminders of October 20, 1977, the day Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane went down near McComb, Mississippi. Among the dead, lead singer Ronnie Van Zant. Guitarist Steve Gaines. Steve’s sister Cassie, one of the Honkettes – Skynyrd’s backing vocalists. Road manager Dean Kilpatrick and the aircraft’s two pilots.
Rossington doesn’t need aches and pains to remind him of that day – it’s something that will haunt him forever.
“I used to send flowers to the graves every October 20th for about 10 years. And then Judy [Van Zant, Ronnie’s widow] told me, ‘Just quit. Because people just steal them the same day.’ It doesn’t hurt and freak me out like it used to, but it’s in the back of my mind and hard all that day. Right around the evening time when it happened, that’s when it really gets weird, and [my wife] Dale leaves me alone.”
Rossington and the rest of the band and crew – 20 in all – survived their injuries but struggled for years with the aftermath. Drug addiction. Paralysing car wrecks. Divorce. Suicide. Murder. Accusations of sexual and spousal abuse… It seems that some terrible curse was determined to lay its claim on the surviving members.
No one who survived that day can forget that Van Zant, then 29, had repeatedly proclaimed that he would not live to see his 30th birthday. He died 87 days before that pivotal date. The tale boasts all the elements of a southern gothic soap opera. Or a modern day ghost story. Was this litany of woe what Van Zant had in mind when he insisted matter-of-factly to his wife, bandmates, family members, audiences – and this journalist – that he just wasn’t long for this world?
"When I heard that there had been a plane crash, I just knew Ronnie was one of the ones that didn’t make it,” Judy Van Zant Jenness recalls. “He told me so many times that I realised that he really knew what he was talking about.”
Former Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle was often nearby when Van Zant foretold his own demise. “We were in Tokyo at some bar and we were drinking lots of sake. Ronnie told me, ‘I am never going to live to see 30’,” recalls Pyle. “I said, ‘Bullshit man.’ But he said, ‘No, no, I want to go out with my boots on.’”
“Ronnie was the only one of my children who had second sight,” recalled his late father Lacy Van Zant in 1995. The bearded octogenarian was slumping heavily in his La-Z-Boy Recliner. As he leaned over to spit the bug-coloured juice from his Red Man chewing tobacco into an empty plastic milk carton, he looked me straight in the eye to see if I believed him. I did.
“Ronnie told me often that he didn’t expect to live past 30,” remembers Kevin Elson, Skynyrd’s soundman, who went on to produce Journey, Mr. Big, Night Ranger and Strangeways. “I think it was because he lived hard every day and anyone who does that – like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix – is gone by the time they’re 28 or 29. He and [assistant road manager] Dean Kilpatrick were the same. They were like, ‘I have this funny feeling about this. I don’t think I’m going to make it.’”
Elson was also on that rented twin-engine plane the day it fell out of the Mississippi sky. Had he been older and wiser, he says, he never would have climbed those rickety steel stairs.
“We had problems on the plane before that last flight,” Elson says. “We had a day off, then a show, then a day off flying. They flew a mechanic in from Dallas who was supposed to repair everything. Everyone was sort of wary, though. But there was a lot of confidence with the pilot, Walter."
"Everyone felt safe with him. Except Cassie [Gaines],” explains Elson. “But it was one of those things where intuition should have been followed. Cassie said, ‘I’m going to ride in the truck,’ but she changed her mind at the last minute. There was so much leading up to that… Now as an older person I can see it. Man, all the signs were there.”
It didn’t stop there. Van Zant told journalist Jim Farber three months before the plane crash. “I wrote [That Smell] when Gary had his car accident. It was last year and Allen [Collins, Skynyrd guitarist] and Billy [Powell, keyboards] also were in car accidents all in the space of six months. I had a creepy feeling things were going against us, so I thought I’d write a morbid song.”
The oft-told, star-crossed saga of Lynyrd Skynyrd has been portrayed as the convergence of opportunity, preparedness, talent and luck. What were the chances of Dylan associate, Blues Project founder and producer extraordinaire Al Kooper walking into an Atlanta dive in the summer of 1972 and spotting this band?
Kooper had just persuaded MCA records to bankroll his Sounds Of The South label in an effort to compete with Phil Walden’s Capricorn Records (home of the Allman Brothers). He was bowled over by Skynyrd’s professionalism, arrangements, guitar work, and mostly by short and stocky lead singer Van Zant, who showed up in a black T-shirt and droopy jeans.
“At first he annoyed me, because he was a mic stand twirler,” says Kooper from his home in Boston. “The drum major of Lynyrd Skynyrd, but instead of a baton he had a microphone stand that was, by the way, lightweight aluminium – it only looked like it was heavy. That just got me. Plus I was amused because he left his shoes on the side of the stage. But looks didn’t really matter to me. The music was incredible. How can you not respond to the first time you hear I Ain’t The One or Free Bird?”
In Kooper’s eyes, Lynyrd Skynyrd were his Allman Brothers – the jewel in the southern rock crown. Skynyrd transcended the southern rock genre with their swaggering, dangerous music that conjured the dark fury of betrayal, perfidy or just plain orneriness and hopelessness over the diminished prospects in the rural south.
These were guys who never expected anything, but wanted everything. You could hear it in the antebellum taunt of Sweet Home Alabama, to the prosaic plea of Gimme Three Steps, and the stately requiem of Free Bird. That anthem-turned-albatross began life as a wistful love song about a man who was trying to extricate himself from a claustrophobic relationship. It grew to epic stature when they grafted on a mad combative closing coda that builds and tumbles on itself then doubles back again, making a nine-minute sonic edifice that stretches right across the Mason-Dixon line, purloining fills from Duane Allman and travelling all the way to London to sit at the right hand of Jeff Beck, siphoning off his Beck’s Bolero riffs.
Skynyrd was always more influenced by second wave British invaders (Eric Clapton, Free, and the tough, garagey thud of the Rolling Stones, Kinks and Yardbirds) than the jazzy, free-falling improvisation of the Allmans. With their tales of beautiful losers, thwarted romance and dashed ambition, Skynyrd were a more menacing bunch.
Peace, love and understanding never made it to Jacksonville. Van Zant’s lip would curl into a surly half moon as he spat out the lyrics to on On The Hunt, Poison Whiskey or Things Going On. On the sneeringly sarcastic of Working For MCA, a song he wrote for the Sound Of The South launch party held at Richard’s in Atlanta on Sunday July 29, 1973, where the band played in front of jaundiced record executives, radio programmers, disc jockeys, promoters, rock critics and T.Rex’s Marc Bolan, all of whom flew in on MCA’s tab.
Introduced by Al Kooper as “the American Rolling Stones”, Skynyrd proceeded to sing about how the former Blues Project founder had discovered them. Van Zant stood in one spot barely moving, his bare feet squarely planted on the stage as he spat out the words to the band’s creation myth. ‘Seven years of hard luck comin’ down on me/From a motorboat, yes, up in Nashville, Tennessee/I worked in every joint you can name, yes, every honky tonk/ They all come to see Yankee slicker saying, baby, you’re what I want.’
Behind him, a wall of guitars wailed. Ed King, the Strawberry Alarm Clock expatriate who’d been hired to play bass on debut album Pronounced Leh-Nerd Skin-Nerd had switched to guitar, ripped off notes that nibbled at the far ends of psychedelia, his Stratocaster filling the psychic gap between Collins’ Gibson Firebird and Rossington’s Les Paul. Behind them, the rhythm section of Powell, bassist Leon Wilkeson and drummer Bob Burns played with military precision. The press and hangers-on were out of their chairs from the very first assault of …MCA to the final lingering note of Free Bird. So devastating was Skynyrd’s assault that the other acts showcased at Sounds Of The South, Mose Jones and Elijah, were forgotten. Lynyrd Skynyrd, that seven year work-in-progress, was ready at last.
Gregg Allman said, on meeting Ronnie Van Zant in 1972. “Are you the guy that’s trying to sound like me?”
Anyone actually listening would know that wasn’t true. Maybe it had more to do with the fact that Allman once dated Van Zant’s winsome wife Judy There was always a whiff of competitiveness between the two of them.
With their take-no-prisoners attitude, Skynyrd earned themselves a formidable reputation as contenders. “When we get on that stage it’s war,” Van Zant told me in 1975. “There are no friends, no relatives. We are there to win.”
He drilled his band mercilessly, driving out to Green Cove Springs, Florida to a little tin shack on 90 acres north of Jacksonville. This sweltering shed, which quickly earned the nickname Hell House, became the boot camp where Van Zant moulded his raw recruits into musical men. He picked up his bleary-eyed and grumbling troops in his battered old ’55 Chevy truck every morning at 7.30am, stopping for jugs of coffee at the donut shop where his mother worked. By 8.30 he’d be putting his charges through their paces in workdays that regularly ran eight to 12 hours; sometimes they wouldn’t straggle back until the next morning.
It paid off. With Kooper’s help, Skynyrd landed the support slot on the American leg of The Who’s Quadrophenia tour. They went from headlining small venues in the south to performing in front of 20,000 at some of American’s largest facilities. At their first show at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, they saw how daunting it could be. The audience pelted the little known band with quarters – ostensibly to get them off the stage.
“And damn that hurt,” Van Zant said at the time.
But 25 minutes later, that same jaundiced audience called Skynyrd back for an encore. “No band that has ever opened for The Who has ever gotten an encore.” Who manager Peter Rudge remarked at the time. Before you knew it, Rudge was managing Skynyrd.
“They were immediately affected by the presence of The Who,” remembered Bill Curbishley, Rudge’s management partner and current manager of The Who. “They wanted to be crazier than [Keith] Moon; they wanted to be more everything than The Who. They were naturally a bit crazy in various ways and all that meeting with The Who did was light the fuse. It also gave them a hunger and a drive and a motivation. I was touring with them quite a bit in Europe and I felt this was a band that could have gone all the way.
“I think they made the type of music that transcended fashion,” Curbishley said. “I think they would have stuck in there. Punk or alternative wouldn’t have damaged them. But one thing that sticks out in my mind, is the time I got a call from my tour manager and he said there was some trouble at a place they were staying. He rang me and said, ‘We’ve got some trouble in this hotel.’ He told me they’ve got hold of the manager’s wife’s cat and they skinned it. It’s not just smashing up a room – they skinned a cat!”
Ed King remembers it another way. He recalled when their first drummer Bob Burns snapped in a northern England hotel room in late 1974 on the band’s first overseas trek, a breakdown the others say was triggered by an unhealthy number of viewings of the hit film, the The Exorcist. Burns, who’d been playing poorly and suffering Van Zant’s wrath regularly, freaked and tossed the hotel’s beloved resident cat out his fourth floor window, making for a grisly kitty cat splat outside the establishment’s front door. He later went after the road manager with a pickaxe. Somehow the band got through the two-week tour, but they made a point of putting Burns on a separate flight home.
The members of Lynyrd Skynyrd were strangely united by one thing. The bandmates, almost to a man, had lost their fathers early on. Artimus Pyle’s dad had perished in a plane crash that chillingly resembled the one that felled the band, leaving from the same Greenville, South Carolina airport that the band did on that final flight. Rossington was raised by a single mother, his father dying when he was just a tyke. Ed King’s father had committed suicide. Allen Collins’ father had just begun showing up “about the same time the cheques did,” according to one member of the band. Leon Wilkeson’s father was alive, but was “the weirdest human being I had ever met in my life,” according to King. “He was abusive, a nasty, mean little man with the personality of a thumb.”
Ronnie Van Zant assembled this fatherless regiment, all in need of guidance and direction, and hammered them into a touring and recording machine.
Hammered was the operative word. Van Zant had no compunction about hitting a band member across the mouth if he saw some dereliction of duty. Like the time Leon Wilkeson was caught staring at a girl’s breasts. Or when Ronnie caught Wilkeson drinking wine during Free Bird. Or the time he knocked out two of Billy Powell’s teeth, not to mention the time he smashed a bottle and gored the back of Rossington’s hands in Hamburg, Germany, hissing “I’ll do it without you.”
“What I recall most is Ronnie Van Zant wasn’t the sort of person I’d want to have an argument with,” recalls Chris Charlesworth, a former Melody Maker journalist who became Skynyrd’s press officer. “He’d as soon smack you in the face as sit down and discuss something at great length. He was the sort of guy that pulled himself up by his bootstraps. To the effect that he started with very little and he was getting somewhere and although he still had a bit to go, he still thought ‘Well if I continue to do it my way I’ll do okay. I’ve proved this to myself, so why should I listen to anybody else?’ That’s the feeling you got from him. Peter Rudge, whom I worked for, was a tough guy too. A brainy guy, if there was any trouble he could handle it. They were a good pair.”
Van Zant and his band became known as offstage boozers and brawlers who would fight among themselves if no external adversaries were available. Their antics reached such proportions that many viewed the airplane crash as a symbolic culmination of the band’s violent lifestyle.
Charlesworth, however, chalks the plane crash up to just “dumb bad luck. I don’t believe for one minute that the indiscretions of their lifestyle would have led to this. That’s superstitious bollocks.”
“When the crash happened,’’ Powell said. “I was lying in the swamp, holding my nose on, thinking, ‘Thank God this violence is over with.’”
“I loved and respected Ronnie Van Zant, “says Pyle. “I mean that from the bottom of my heart. But I have seen the man turn into the devil right in front of me and hurt people.”
“If we were The Beatles, Ronnie was the mean Beatle,” says Rossington. “He was super mean, and super nice.”
“They were all mean around here,” remembered Van Zant’s mother Marion. “But Ronnie was the meanest of them all.”
“Ronnie’s meanness, they all have it,” remembers Jeff Carlisi, a neighbour of the Van Zants, and bandmate of Ronnie’s younger brother, Donnie Van Zant, in .38 Special. “He grew up in Shantytown [the rough and tumble West Side of Jacksonville]. Violence was just part of the culture there. If you didn’t fight for it, somebody would take it from you.”
By most accounts, Van Zant was largely full of ire when he drank. “He knocked Billy’s teeth out,” remembered Judy Van Zant Jenness, Van Zant’s widow. “I was there that day and that was not a pretty day. What set him off? Alcohol. The temper of the Van Zants. They all grew up in the house with Lacy. One thing breeds another, you know. It’s passed on and on.”
Lacy Van Zant was a Golden Gloves boxer, with no less than 36 bouts under his belt. From an early age he taught his eldest son Ronnie – named after his favourite movie star Ronald Reagan – not only knew how to fight but how to hurt.
“I started teaching him how to box when he was two-and-a-half years old,” remembered Van Zant’s father in 1996. “He was very, very intelligent, but he had a high temper. If he couldn’t get his way, he’d run across this room and butt a hole right in the wall. I taught him if you really wanted to hurt a man you’d hit him across the face. Don’t hit him straight in the face, you’ll only break his nose.”
Over the course of his life, Ronnie Van Zant was arrested 12 times – five of them occurring during the last year of his life – and he had suffered enough bruises of his own to show he didn’t always pick on the little guy. Parked outside a club in San Francisco, a rather large Chicano man wandered onto their tour bus, called the Great White Wonder, demanding to have a look around. Van Zant took umbrage to the intrusion, and lost no time in raising his fists and thumping the intruder on the side of his head. The man scrambled off the tour bus, with Van Zant in pursuit, only to be met by a crowd of the man’s pals – bigger, brawnier and more lethal than their friend. Before 10 minutes had passed, Gary Rossington had joined Van Zant at the bottom of a bloody heap and the singer suffered facial injuries that required he wear sunglasses onstage.
“I remember we were on the bus and Ronnie would be lying there with two pieces of raw meat on his eyes, and he’d wear sunglasses during the show. At the end of Free Bird he’d get rid of the mic and take off his sunglasses and stare at the audience,” recalls Billy Powell. “And the whole front row would go ‘Wow’.”
As mean as he could be, there was a Jekyll and Hyde aspect to Ronnie Van Zant. “He’d give you the shirt off his back,” remembers his brother Donnie. “He always paid for everything,” remembers writer Cameron Crowe, who partially based the band in his film Almost Famous on Skynyrd. “When we were in Japan and Jack Daniels was $75 a bottle, Ronnie said, ‘I’m buying’. He was always the first one to reach into his pocket.”
“Ronnie was such a gentleman, he wouldn’t let anybody mess with us,” says Jo Jo Billingsley. Although all three Honkettes were stunning, there wasn’t a man in miles who would come near them if Van Zant was around.
“I remember once Ronnie stuck a wooden coat hanger down his pants at a bar to fight to defend the honour of one of the girl singers. He turned to me and said, ‘Are you with me?’ I didn’t have a choice but to come along,” said Jeff Carlisi.
“Ronnie had this here charm about him,” remembered his mother Marion in 1996. “He could charm anybody. But he was straightforward with everything he did. You could say he always knew his own mind. He never ever changed, either. He saw his old friends when he came off the road and he loved to fish would fish with anybody. One thing I surely remember is he was very protective of Allen. No one could mess with Allen. He was older than both Allen and Gary. He figured he was supposed to watch them when they were out on the road.”
And if you believe in such things, he’s watching over them still.
About two-and-a-half hours out of Greenville, South Carolina en route to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and only three days into Skynyrd’s Street Survivors tour, the right engine of their chartered 1948 twin-engine Convair suddenly hiccupped and died. The pilot radioed to the Houston [Texas] Air Route Traffic Control Center, telling the staff they were “low on fuel”, and requested vectors for a tiny airstrip in McComb, Mississippi. They hadn’t even finished receiving their directions when the left engine also went and the small plane began its death glide into the Mississippi swamp.
Chris Charlesworth was due to travel with the band on that ill-starred night of October 20, 1977. At the last minute his plans had changed, and he decided to meet the band in Baton Rouge. Three decades later, his near miss still chills him.
“Those in the front of the plane came off worse – that’s where Ronnie, Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines and road manager Dean Kilpatrick were sitting,” he tells Classic Rock. “Those at the back were less badly injured. Inevitably the group and those who were closest to them were up front. That’s where I would have sat, because I didn’t know any of the crew, who sat in the back.”
“We hit the trees at what seemed like 100 miles an hour. It felt like we were being hit with baseball bats in a tin coffee can with the lid on,” says Billy Powell, his voice still breathless in the telling. “The tail section broke off, the cockpit broke off and buckled underneath, and both wings broke off. The fuselage turned sideways, and everybody was hurled forward. That’s how Ronnie died. He was catapulted at about 80 mph into a tree. Died instantly of a massive head injury. There was not another scratch on him, except a small bruise the size of a quarter at his temple.”
Later reports would insist that the singer was decapitated, causing his widow, Judy Van Zant to publish her husband’s autopsy results on the internet.
The plane was mired in almost three feet of swamp muck in the middle of a hardwood forest; the sun going down so rescue helicopters couldn’t land. The survivors weren’t aware that the cause of the crash was due to the pilots running out of fuel, so they feared the plane would burst into flame at any moment.
Drummer Artimus Pyle and crew members Ken Peden and Mark Frank stumbled through the wreckage to go for help. Artimus, with a broken sternum and three of his ribs poking out of the skin in his chest, made his way to a farm house a painful three-quarters of a mile away, impelled by one thought. “Every painful step I took was a drop of their blood. I knew that I had to keep putting one foot in front of another.”
Scrambling in the dark – fearful of snakes, alligators, or worse – the three finally flagged down a farmer named Johnny Mote, who had come to investigate what the mighty noise was that jarred him out of his house.
Unnerved by the sight of a dirty, blood-drenched hippie running towards him, Mote fired a warning shotgun blast. It did nothing to deter Pyle, who still contends that Mote shot him in his right shoulder – a claim Mote denies. When the drummer could finally utter the words “plane crash”, Mote called for help – which was long in coming. Rescuers had to cross a 20-foot creek in order to get to the crash site. The 20 injured had to wait in the mud for hours, while police and emergency workers carved out a makeshift road through the woods.
Horrifyingly, it wasn’t only help that came. Looters reached the site, pilfering the pockets of the dead and the living alike. By dawn almost 3,000 people had come to the crash zone – and the carcass of the plane had been picked clean.
“They were human vultures,” recalls road manager Craig Reed. “All the money that was in my pockets was taken. We had been playing poker right before the crash, and I was winning big. I had a couple of grand that was taken. All my T-shirts were taken, all my jewellery, a skull and crossbones coke spoon. Silver bullets from Gimme Back My Bullets. All gone. They went through our suitcases. They took anything that said ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd’. They even went out and took the side of the plane that was painted ‘Lynyrd Skynyrd’.”
“The thing I think of is the constant telephone calls with Judy Van Zant who was at Ronnie’s house,” remembers Charlesworth. “All the women, wives and girlfriends of the band and the crew gathered at Judy’s house – there must have been a dozen women there. I just couldn’t help but try to imagine the horror of the scene. Can you imagine all these women sitting around a table in the house and none of them knowing if their husbands were alive or dead after they’d been in this plane crash? The horror of all these women waiting to hear if their husbands were dead? You don’t forget a night like that easily.”
By the next day, the injured were scattered over three hospitals – where some would remain for weeks. Allen Collins injured his spine; back-up singer Leslie Hawkins had serious facial cuts, while Billy Powell and Artimus Pyle were released from hospitals a week after the crash. Leon Wilkeson suffered a broken jaw, a crushed chest and internal bleeding and was declared dead not once, but three times, waking up only to say he had been sitting on a cloud-shaped log with Ronnie and Duane Allman. “Ronnie told me, ‘Boy get yourself out of here, it’s not your time yet, get on out of here,’” the bassist told me in 1997. This would not be the last time the spectre of Ronnie Van Zant would pay a visit to friends and family.
Skynyrd manager Rudge chartered three planes to take family members to the small Mississippi town to see the survivors and in six instances, identify their dead. .38 Special guitarist Don Barnes accompanied Ronnie Van Zant’s father to Mississippi and was with him when he went to identify his son. Ronnie’s mother was afraid to fly, because as a girl she had witnessed an air crash where nine people died. Judy Van Zant was there, as was Billy Powell’s ex-wife Stella. Former Skynyrd guitarist Ed King drove through the night arriving the next morning to see the members of the band he left in the middle of the night two years before. “I always knew something bad would happen to them after I left,” the guitarist recalled.
“When the tragedy happened, I was the one who flew out with Lacy to identify the bodies,” says Barnes. “The strength that this man displayed was monumental. Lacy was in denial on the plane and hoped that there was a mistake and that his son was not dead. I had to find out who was where and we had to get to the funeral home to identify the body.
“We then went to the hospital and saw all the other people who were hurt. They all looked at Lacy through stitches and swelling and he told me not to say anything about Ronnie. He just said that Ronnie was fine and you just get better and rest. This man had just been to the funeral home and seen his son dead and decided to keep that to himself for these guys to heal. I told him that it was the strongest thing I had seen a man do.”
Lacy Van Zant always insisted he warned his son not to get on that plane. “On that last day, he was standing right on this step,” said the elder Van Zant, who pointed to a spot about 10 feet from where we sat, “and I begged him not to get on the charter plane. He told me, ‘Daddy, that pilot can fly through the eye of a hurricane and land in a corn field.’ It turns out that he was wrong.”
The funeral wasn’t held for Ronnie Van Zant until almost a week later, mostly because his wife Judy was falling apart. “I have to say I went into shock when Ronnie died,” says Judy Van Zant Jenness. “I didn’t want to hold the funeral until Allen and Gary got out of the hospital. “She looks off into the distance, pushing a strand of blonde hair off of her eyes. “But that was impossible. And then I didn’t want him buried in the ground, I insisted on a crypt. I know I drove a lot of people crazy but I wasn’t going to put him in the ground and put dirt on him. I know it sounds silly now. It didn’t then. So they put up a temporary crypt. Later we had this special memorial service just for Allen and Gary and we moved Ronnie to his permanent place. Theresa [Gaines] decided she wanted Steve and Cassie there too.”
She wasn’t the only one who had trouble keeping it together. Lacy Van Zant wore a Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt to the 10-minute long funeral service, and had to be hospitalised for nervous exhaustion for three days afterward. But before that, he went up to Honkette Jo Jo Billingsley, and did something that unnerved her. “Lacy came up and reached down and scooped up a handful of the dirt and wiped it across my mouth and said, ‘Kiss this ground you’re walking on’. And walked off.”
The reason for Lacy’s rather strange behaviour was because Jo Jo wasn’t on that flight. She hadn’t been with the band at the beginning of the Street Survivor tour – intimates say she had been fired because she was having an affair with the very married Allen Collins – but according to Billingsley, Van Zant called her the night before their show in Greenville to come rejoin the band on the road.
“I thought, well, that’s music to my ears,” Billingsley told a reporter from swampland.com in 2003 (opens in new tab). “I said, ‘Yes, of course.’ While I was talking to him I felt this strange feeling and I heard this word, ‘Wait.’ My spirit was talking to me. I said, ‘Well, we were planning to come to Little Rock anyway. Why don’ t I just meet you there?’ And he said, ‘Good, bring all your stuff.’ I went back to sleep at my mom’s, and that night I had the most vivid dream. I saw the plane smack the ground. I saw them screaming and crying, and I saw fire. I woke up screaming, and my mom came running in going, ‘Honey what is it?’ I said ‘Mama, I dreamed the plane crashed!’ And she said, ‘No honey, it’s just a dream.’ And I said ‘No mom, it’s too real!’”
“They had already sent me the itinerary, so the next day I called Greenville. I called everybody on the list. Finally, late that afternoon Allen called me back. He said, ‘Jo what in the world is it? I’ve got messages all over Greenville from you.’ I said ‘Allen, it’s that airplane.’ And I told him about my dream. I said ‘Allen, please don’t get on that plane.’ He said, ‘Jo, it’s funny you’d mention that, because I was looking out the window yesterday and I saw fire come out of the wing.’ [When I heard about the crash] the first thing I thought was, ‘God saved my life.’ The Lord gave me that dream to warn me, and I did the only thing I could do and warned them. It was so weird because some of them thought that maybe I had something to do with it, but I had nothing to do with it.”
Remarkably, Lynyrd Skynyrd, considered one of the greatest American rock bands of the 70s, still have a strong effect on contemporary music. Since reforming in 1987 with Ronnie’s younger brother Johnny on lead vocals, Rossington has held the reins of Lynyrd Skynyrd, putting him in a position that he never imagined nor wanted. Van Zant was proud of telling people he ran Skynyrd like Stalin ran Russia, but Rossington ran the outfit more like Himmler – instructing his roadies to spy on each other.
“Ronnie used to say, you’re in charge of the crew and whatever you say goes. But you better be right. Whatever you say, I’ll be right there with you,” remembers Craig Reed, a longtime member of the road crew. “Gary wants me tell him everything I see. That was my purpose. If you don’t want Gary to know it, don’t do it in front of me. Gary doesn’t have the same authority Ronnie had. He slapped me in the elevator, and I just looked at him and said ‘Slap the other side, I’m lopsided.’
"The entire operation is lopsided. Why? Because none of the reconstituted band members can write a song that can get near to anything Van Zant ever wrote. Nor do they have the will. “One day I went up to Gary and said, ‘What happened to ‘I want to be the best band in the world I shall not be denied?’” continues Reed.
A year after the plane crash, Gregg Allman wanted to form a band with Gary Rossington and Allen Collins. “I was acting as the manager for Gary and Allen,” says Judy Van Zant Jenness. “I went down to meet with Gregg, who wanted to join up with them. But Gregg wanted them to call it Free Bird, so we dropped the idea. It was probably a good thing. Gary and Allen weren’t ready.”
It would take them two more years to launch Rossington-Collins.
By autumn of 1979, the two guitarists felt confident enough to talk to the press about a new venture, explaining, “We’ve just been getting together and messing around… doing a little playing and a little thinking, but we’re not worried about making any big rock’n’roll moves.” They hired singer Dale Krantz (who later married Rossington, after a rather torrid romance with Collins) and were eventually joined by Skynyrd keyboardist Billy Powell, and bassist Leon Wilkeson.
It was the closest they had come to any sense of normality after the crash. But it was a fool’s paradise. It seemed fate was not done with them yet.
Allen Collins suffered another gut punch while he was onstage with his new band. After a performance in November 1981, he got a phone call telling him that his heavily pregnant wife had started bleeding in a movie theatre and was rushed to a local hospital, where she later died. The guitarist never seemed to recover from the loss, and he became even more extreme in his habits, retreating from friends and family.
The only thing that seemed to comfort him were rock’n’roll panaceas – drinking, drugs and driving around in fast cars. Five years after his wife’s death, Collins’ car plunged over a ravine, killing his girlfriend, Debra Jean Watts, and paralysing him from the waist down. Four years later, wheelchair bound Collins would be dead. Cause: pneumonia resulting from injuries sustained in the car accident.
“After Allen’s wife died, he dove into a bottle and never came out,” says Billy Powell. “Allen was great. He was so funny, so happy-go-lucky and crazy,” says Rossington. “But after his wife died, he became real bitter, even with me… He never knew how many people he inspired because he died too early.”
There is something unnerving about the Northern Florida swamps at night. The brackish water is dull with a green sheen, while Spanish moss drips from the branches of the oak and cypress trees, coating them in poisonous putrid icing, swallowing the sounds of animals and the snap of a gator’s jaws.
Jittery types like to avoid the still waters of Lake Delancy, one of Van Zant’s favourite fishing spots, where people have claimed to have spotted his ghost, dressed in black and striding purposely towards the water with the yellow cane fishing pole he was buried with tucked under his right arm.
There are others who swear it’s his head he’s carrying…
Judy Van Zant recalled a dream she had, shortly after she had buried her husband. “About six months after Ronnie’s death, I woke up in the middle of the night. As stupid as it sounds, it just felt like he was there. He said that he had three things to tell me. The first of course was to take care of Melody [the couple’s daughter]; the second was not to worry about Allen and Gary, that they could take care of themselves. And the third was he wanted me to know that he was okay. I kept calling to him, ‘Come back, don’t go away.’ I didn’t want it to end.”
The fact that Van Zant would come back from the dead doesn’t much surprise anyone who knew him. He had uncanny powers while he was alive. One story has it that Ronnie would point his finger at a spot in water and tell his fishing companion to put his pole at exactly the spot and within minutes a fish would be flapping on the hook.
Then of course, there was the lyrics to That Smell, one of the last songs Van Zant wrote for Street Survivors. At the time people were chilled when he sang: ‘The smell of death’s around you.’ After the crash, the words took on a macabre, prescient feel.
Van Zant had written the song as a cautionary tale to his band members, inspired by Rossington’s near-fatal 1977 car crash and the feeling that some of them were pissing away their future with excessive drinking, drugging, and carousing. It wasn’t only the tragic prophecy of the song that’s chilling. In his own circle, it was common knowledge that Van Zant didn’t expect to live much longer.
“Ronnie could see the future, always had been able,” said his father Lacy. “You know, prior to starting the Survivor tour, Ronnie gave my brother EC his best black hat and a beautiful ring that he used to wear. He also gave me several things, including his lawn mower and his 1955 Chevy pickup truck. That led me to believe that Ronnie may have known that he did not have long to live. But when we were in Glasgow and they were playing with The Who or The Stones, I forgot. It was my birthday and Ronnie gave me the trophy that they had won over there. He told those people in Scotland: ‘I don’t think I’ll be back over to see you, to play for you anymore because I have never felt like I’d live to be 30.’ He was 29 when he said that.”
“Skynyrd aren’t haunted by Ronnie Van Zant,” says Jeff Carlisi. “They’re haunted by the spectre of what could have been. And what was taken from them. They were contenders. And now they’re a tribute band.”
Could Ronnie have really foretold his own death? Johnny Van Zant, who replaced him as the lead singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd, isn’t sure. “Things work out in mysterious ways,” he says. “Ronnie and Stevie were only on this earth a short time. God made his mark on them for them to make their mark on the world. Hell, I don’t know if we’ll ever figure it out. Fate takes you on whatever road it wants. Some of us take a good road and some of us take a bad road. But, if my brother was really so sure he was going to go, don’t you think he would have made a will?”
This article originally appeared in Classic Rock 121, in June 2006.