Lynyrd Skynyrd interview: The Last Stand

Lynyrd Skynyrd
(Image credit: Doltyn Snedden)

Hamburg, Germany, mid-October 1975

A bloodbath is coming. Lynyrd Skynyrd have been drinking – and hard – at the hotel bar: peppermint schnapps, ice-cold in frozen glasses. These good ol’ boys have never tried schnapps before; whisky and bourbon are their poisons, Scotch and Jack Daniel’s all the way, every day, every night. Next to those, peppermint schnapps tastes sweet as iced tea. It’s easy to knock back. Too easy. It wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t have a gig to play tonight. 

Ronnie Van Zant, their firework of a singer, is steaming drunk on the stuff. When Ronnie gets drunk he starts trouble, usually with his fists. Tonight is no exception. 

Back in the band’s room, it kicks off. Ronnie starts getting mad at someone nobody can remember for something no one is quite sure of, swinging his fists at the nearest person – Skynyrd’s road manager. Someone tries to pull him away. Then someone else tries. Then everyone tries. Doesn’t work. Only makes him madder, meaner, nastier, a sawed-off Hulk in a Stetson. 

Ronnie takes a bottle and – smash! – busts it over the road manager’s head (and you’ve got to hit somebody hard to break a bottle). He looks around, spots Gary Rossington, one of the band’s guitarists. “I’m gonna cut your hands,” Ronnie hisses/yells. “You’re not gonna play guitar ever again.” 

He comes in slashing the broken bottle like a dagger and does what he promised: cuts Rossington’s hands once, twice… nine, ten, 11 times. Blood everywhere. (Rossington will end up in hospital, having his hands stitched and his career saved by German nurses.) 

Back in the hotel room there’s glass and gore on the carpet, venom in the air. It takes Artimus Pyle, drummer and ex-marine, with a wild streak as wide as the St John’s River, to stop it getting worse. 

Artimus is mad. He starts throwing Ronnie around. First time in Ronnie’s life that this has happened; or at least the first time anyone’s seen it. He ends up pinned to the bed, being cussed out by 180lbs of raging ex-serviceman while everyone else wonders what to do about the mess. 

Like we said: a bloodbath. The Bloodbath In Hamburg. Thing is, Lynyrd Skynyrd still play their show, sliced hands and all. Welcome to the good times.

Winnipeg, Canada, late-March 2019

That all happened. Gary Rossington, the man whose hands were cut up by Ronnie Van Zant all those years ago and who is one of only two surviving members of all Skynyrd’s 70s line-ups, can vouch for it. “Sometimes I can feel things,” he says, holding out his hands. “Feel it in the nerves. But I played the gig. I had to.” 

We’re a long way from Hamburg today. Twentyone floors above the sub-zero streets of the desolate downtown below. 

Rossington, 67, is no longer the glowering young buck he once was – Prince Charming with a slide guitar. Serious health issues have left him frail and gaunt. He’s had trouble with his heart for 15 or 16 years now. He underwent major surgery a few years ago: a quintuple bypass, a pacemaker installed. He’s got 11 or 12 stents in his body to keep his veins open, including one in his stomach. He’s had at least one heart attack on stage. There’ll be no bloodbath for him today or any other day. “Anybody hits me, I’ll be dead,” he says wryly. 

When it comes down to it, Rossington is the reason why this tour – dubbed Last Of The Street Survivors, in reference to the 1977 album that was supposed to be the original band’s crowning glory but ended up their tragic epitaph – will be Skynyrd’s last stand. 

Tomorrow night they’ll play at a nearby icehockey arena, in front of 10,000 Canadians for whom this music has been a soundtrack to their lives. They’ll do the same a few days later, and a few days after that. But next year, at some unspecified date, Skynyrd will retire from the road they first stepped out on 50 years, countless miles and countless concerts ago. 

“Oh, it’s just because of me,” Rossington says. “Everybody kind of knew I was getting sick, and we just called it. We said we need to do a farewell tour, because we wanted to go out with our boots on and still sounding great at night and doing well. But I’m too old and sick now to tour any more.”

Still in Winnipeg, Canada

“It’s a survival story,” says Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie’s young brother and singer with Lynyrd Skynyrd for the past 32 years. “Look at what this band has been through, look where it came from, look at what the songs are about. It’s about common people. I don’t know about you, but most of us have had drink or drug problems. You’ve got a song like That Smell. Most of us love our momma. We got a song about being a Simple Man. It all comes down to Ronnie. He was a poet for the people.” 

Johnny’s sitting in the same hotel room as Gary Rossington, except it’s an hour earlier. He’s short and loud and funny, with a tattoo of Jesus on his forearm. He’s the life and soul of any room. He used to be even more of the life and soul, before he quit drinking six years ago; the sort of man who would get drunk, fall down a spiral staircase, break his back, then play a show (which once happened). “

Johnny always likes to say that Ronnie was the quarterback, and he was the receiver,” says Rickey Medlocke, the third of Skynyrd’s three senior partners. “Ronnie threw the ball and Johnny caught the ball and took off with it. And he’s still running.” 

Rickey was a member of Skynyrd when they were still a nothing band from Jacksonville, Florida, but bailed to find his own fortune before it all took off. He rejoined in 1995, nearly a decade after the band got back together. 

Rickey is 69, the oldest member of the band, two years older than Gary but with more energy than anyone you’ll ever meet, whatever their age. He’s got a different view of ‘farewell’ to most people. 

“Retirement is not in my vocabulary,” he says. “I know me. I got too much energy to sit around and go: ‘Am I gonna go fishing today?’ ‘Am I gonna cut the lawn?’ 

Rickey and Johnny couldn’t help notice that Gary Rossington wasn’t the man he was. “Johnny and I seen it going on, and we had talked about it on the bus several times,” says Rickey. “I agreed with it. It’s kind of bittersweet. It always is. But you reach a certain point in your life where you look at it and go: ‘It’s gotta change.’” 

He shakes his head. The good times will carry on a long while yet, at least for Rickey Medlocke.

You all know the story of Lynyrd Skynyrd. How they pulled themselves up by their bootstraps out of the Florida dirt and went on to become one of the greatest American bands of the 70s. How they hit on a brand new sound: one part country music, one part R&B, three parts rock’n’roll. How this sound – which somehow got the name ‘southern rock’ – has echoed down subsequent decades, picked up by 10,000 bands who came after them. How they carved out a reputation as brawlers, badasses and hellraisers, back when being a brawler, a badass and a hellraiser actually meant something. 

How their recording career was barely five albums old when the plane that was carrying them fell from the sky into a Mississippi swamp on October 20, 1977, killing Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his backing-vocalist sister Cassie, their tour manager Danny Kilpatrick and the plane’s pilot and co-pilot, leaving a heap of grief and a whole lot of ‘What if?’s. 

How they reunited a decade later with Johnny standing in Ronnie’s cowboy boots. How they endured even more loss since then, more than pretty much any other band out there. How Gary Rossington, one of only two men still standing from that classic line-up, has carried the band on all this time down the line, and will do so until he can’t any more.

A baseball field in Jacksonville, Florida, some time in 1964

Ronnie Van Zant, aged 16 and a badass even then, has just hit a foul ball. It flies straight into the head of another kid, Bob Burns, a drummer, and knocks him flat on his ass. It’s the mis-hit that changes music. 

The 14-year-old Gary Rossington is there watching the game, and so is another aspiring guitarist kid named Allen Collins. They gather round Bob as Ronnie runs over to see if he’s killed someone. It doesn’t take long for them to stop worrying about head injuries and start talking about music. Everyone’s in a band, or wants to be. Someone suggests they jam. 

The jams turn into rehearsals, their rehearsals turn into shows, their shows turn into a career of sorts. 

Ronnie is two, three years older, and takes the younger kids under his wing. Their dads are all dead or absent, and although they’ll never admit it, Ronnie’s a father figure to them. He teaches them to drive, teaches them to drink, teaches them about girls and about life. 

He drills them hard, too. Long hours at the out-of-the-way tin shack of a rehearsal room they christen the Hell House. They call themselves the One Per Cent, and Rickey Medlocke does a few shows as their lighting guy. Somewhere along the line the name gets changed to Lynyrd Skynyrd, after their hated high-school sports teacher. Rickey replaces Bob Burns on drums, then Bob Burns comes back and replaces Rickey. 

There’s seven years of busting their guts up and down the highway, no one paying any notice to them, not even when an 18-year-old Allen Collins brings in the beginnings of a song called Free Bird.

Members come and go, but Ronnie, Gary and Allen stick with it. Then success comes, and that’s when things get crazy.

The legend of Ronnie Van Zant hangs over Lynyrd Skynyrd even now, so huge was his personality and so important his legacy. Rossington talks about him with a mixture of love and awe. 

“Ronnie was the boss,” he says. “He knew what he wanted and he knew how to get the best out of people. We’d be writing a song at the Hell House, and he’d say: ‘Whoever comes back tomorrow and plays the solo better, they’ll have it.’ It was like: ‘All right, I’m going to do it.’ It was like a battle every night. The only thing we fought about was the music. Or somebody got too drunk. Usually Ronnie. And he was a badass when he was drunk. He liked a fight.” 

Was it actually any fun being in Lynyrd Skynyrd in the seventies? 

“Oh it was the most fun in the world,” he says with a smile.

The first time Lynyrd Skynyrd came to Britain, in ’74, their drummer had a breakdown and threw a cat out of a window. This was Bob Burns, one of the original foursome. Burns had taken a little too much acid and watched The Exorcist one too many times – bad enough individually, a clusterfuck of the mind together. 

“He thought that cat was possessed,” says Rossington, “and he went a little nuts. Threw it out the window.” 

Burns was soon out of the band. He was a character in a band full of ’em. 

“Bob Burns had super-strength,” Rossington says. “He was like The Hulk. He would hit a wall, and if you or me hit it there might be a little dent, but if he hit it it would go in six inches. He threw Ronnie around, too. They were wrestling, trying not to hurt each other.” 

Now Bob Burns is gone too, taken in a car crash in 2015 at the age of 64. (No one knows what happened to that cat.) Towards the end of Lynyrd Skynyrd shows today, a pyramid of names flashes up on the screen behind them. It’s a tribute to fallen bandmates, of which Lynyrd Skynyrd have more than most. 

Bob Burns is on there. So are Allen Collins and Leon Wilkeson and Billy Powell and Ed King and Steve and Cassie Gaines and Dean Kilpatrick and Ean Evans and Hughie Thomasson, those last two both members of the latter-day incarnation. And right at the top of the pyramid is Ronnie Van Zant. 

“Oh man, I miss those guys,” says Rossington. “Miss ’em bad.”

Knebworth Park, UK, August 21 1976: bodies as far as the eye can see

Follow the camera as it swoops over the crowd – all 100,000 of ’em – and hops the fence backstage. Follow it into one of the cabins, where Skynyrd are sitting before they open for the Rolling Stones later that day. Gary and Ronnie are there, and so is Jack Nicholson, smoking a little pot. Jack’s talking about the thing he loves to talk about: Jack Nicholson. But it’s entertaining as hell – getting high with God.

Flash forward. Ronnie’s gotten into a backstage drinking contest with John Paul Getty Jr, one-eared offspring of an oil billionaire. Ronnie’s truculent today, but funny with it: “Let’s bet a million dollars I can out-drink ya,” he says. Getty has a million dollars, but Ronnie sure doesn’t. They reach for their shots like a couple of gunslingers going for their pistols: blam, blam, blam. Ronnie’s all over it. “Ya owe me a million dollars!” he hollers triumphantly. He never gets it. 

Flash forward again. Skynyrd are closing their set with Free Bird. They’ve been told – no, ordered – to stay off the Stones’ tongue-shaped ‘ego-ramp’, or Mick won’t be happy. Ronnie’s having none of it. “Let’s go,” he says, and they go, all the way down Mick’s tongue. 

Turns out they were right. Mick wasn’t happy. It’s hours before the Stones go on. Ronnie thinks it’s cos they’re too scared to follow them. That’s what Lynyrd Skynyrd wanted: to blow the Stones away. And according to everyone who saw them, they did.

Gary Rossington doesn’t like to talk about what happened that day in October 1977 when Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane went down. This is partly because of the crushing emotional weight that comes with it, and partly because it’s all such a blur and he can’t rightly remember much of it at all. 

But he can remember what happened when the pilot told everyone the plane was in trouble: “Ronnie was asleep. Dean, our road manager, woke him up cos the pilot said: ‘Put on your seat belt, put your head between your legs…’, all the technical stuff. He had to get up from sleeping to do all that and he was mad, grumpy: ‘Oh man, I hope this ain’t bullshit.’ Cos he didn’t know what was happening or what was gonna happen.” 

Rossington can remember the very last thing Ronnie said to him. “I do remember, cos we were right next to each other. Everybody was freaking out. Ronnie said: ‘If it’s our time, you can kiss my ass goodbye.’ He just said that.”

Forty-two years after Ronnie died, Gary Rossington still talks to his old friend. 

“Sometimes,” he says. “Yeah, all the time, really. If there’s stuff going or we got things to do, or if we’re fixing to go somewhere, I say: ‘Come on, man, help us down here.’ I used to say to my wife, Dale: ‘I wish I could talk to Ronnie, ask him what I should do here.’ And she’d say: ‘What would you ask him?’ So I’d tell her, and she’d go: ‘Well, you just talked to him.’ Cos I told everything out and it made me talk better.” 

Johnny Van Zant talks to Ronnie too. 

“Yeah. I say it on stage sometimes: ‘Come on, man, kick me in the ass, I’m feeling a little down tonight. Come on, let’s get it.’ But I’m a religious man. I don’t think he’s gone, and I know I’ll see him again one day.”

You’re damn well right we’re a tribute band. We pay tribute to those that started this band, every single night

Johnny Van Zant

Ronnie used to talk a lot about stepping back from Lynyrd Skynyrd. He wanted to still be involved – writing songs, managing the band – but his throat was getting sore on that last tour and he didn’t want to sing any more. He wanted to get Johnny to take over, even back then. 

“He always said: ‘Johnny’s the best singer in the family,’” says Rossington. “He also said: ‘If I die, y’all send him to Julliard [performing arts school in New York City].” 

Ronnie used to talk about “If I die” a lot too, like he knew he was going to go early. 

“I remember one of the last times we were together, down in Miami,” says Rossington. “We were high and stuff one night, and Ronnie said: ‘Man, I don’t think I’m going to last a while. Y’all keep going. Make sure you keep going.’ Mostly it just went in one ear and out the other. But I do remember that cos it was a heavy time, and we wrote What’s Your Name that night. That’s the reason I remember so clearly.” 

Ronnie Van Zant died aged 29, a few weeks short of his thirtieth birthday. He was right about that all along. And “Y’all keep going.” Turns out he was right about that too.

September 20, 1987, the Concord Pavillion, California: three weeks short of 10 years since the plane crash

Lynyrd Skynyrd are kicking off their comeback run, the Tribute tour. Gary is there, and bassist Leon Wilkeson and keyboard player Billy Powell and drummer Artimus Pyle. Allen Collins is there too, but not playing, not since he was paralysed from the waist down in a drunken car smash a year earlier. And Johnny is there, standing in for his big brother. 

“I didn’t want to do that tour at all,” says Johnny. “We had fans out there who would go: ‘Well, this ain’t the real Skynyrd, they’re a tribute band.’ And I didn’t want to hurt the name of Lynyrd Skynyrd. And there’s been times in this thirty-two years that the name’s been hurt, with lawsuits and this and that, and people in general.” 

Gary: “If Johnny hadn’t done it, it wouldn’t have happened. There’s no one else who could sing those songs.” 

Johnny: “What changed my mind? I walked into a conference room and I seen Billy, Leon, Gary, Artimus and Allen Collins, all those guys, sitting at a table, wanting to do this. And I went: ‘Hey, I gotta at least try. Ronnie would want me to try.’” 

It was just as hard for Gary. 

“I remember freaking out when we first started the tour,” he says. “I’d be all upset because the guys weren’t there. I’d see all these new faces, and it was so weird to me. To see Johnny up there, not to see Allen or Steve… Real weird.” 

Johnny didn’t sing Free Bird – Skynyrd’s most famous song – for a whole year at the start of that tour. Instead they just left the mic stand there on the stage while the band played the song. 

The way Johnny saw it, it was his brother’s song and only his brother should sing it. Gary kept asking him to do it: “Play the song, play the song.” Then one night in Sacramento, California… 

Rossington: “I’d had a few drinks. I said: ‘Johnny, your brother wrote those lyrics to be heard. You need to sing it, man.’ I said: ‘If you don’t go out there and sing it, I’m not going to play tonight. Why should I do it?’ And he went: ‘Alright.’ So we went and did it and everybody loved it.”

Despite everything Lynyrd Skynyrd have been through even in the past 30-odd years, there are still people who aren’t having it, who still think they’re a tribute band. Johnny Van Zant: “You’re damn well right we’re a tribute band. We pay tribute to those that started this band every single night. But we’re more than that. We’re family.” 

Rickey Medlocke: “No. I consider this the real Lynyrd Skynyrd. I don’t consider it a tribute band, a copy band, whatever you want to call it. Why? Because you got Gary Rossington, one of the founding members. You got me, I was in the early band. And you got Johnny Van Zant, the original singer’s younger brother. To me, whoever is standing up there, it’s Lynyrd Skynyrd.” 

Gary Rossington: “A lot of people were mad at us for going back, and still are. There’s some people still think we shouldn’t be doing this, but I’m doing it for the memory of the band, and Ronnie and Allen and our dream and the music we wrote. I want to share it until I go. I mean, life is over like that, so while I’m here I want to keep it going.”

When Gary Rossington was pulled from the wreckage of the plane, he was busted up bad: both legs, both arms, every one of his ribs and his pelvis, all broken. (Note: drummer Artimus Pyle was less busted up. He made it to a nearby farm, only to be shot at by the owner, who couldn’t deal with the bloodied apparition approaching him.) 

The crash changed Rossington’s view on death, like it would if it had happened to you or me. As he lay in his hospital bed, watching preachers clutching bibles come and go, he wondered why he was still here and Ronnie and the rest weren’t. 

“There’s a reason,” he says. “Nobody knows what that reason is. You’re not supposed to know. Maybe one day you’re going to save someone or help someone. I’ve had a lot of chances. I was in a car wreck the year before that that I could’ve died in. Two, actually. Between them and the drugs and the drinking and all the other bullshit and a million other things, I shouldn’t be here. So every day’s a gift to me. I really thank God.” 

It’s hard out there sometimes. In 2015 he had a heart attack (not the first) right up there on stage. 

“Oh, it happened,” he says. “Then when I went to the hospital I was kind of over it. It didn’t hurt me that bad, not to where I couldn’t come back.” 

He shrugs. “Everyone dies. It’s just a matter of when. So you got to get right with the Man.”

Johnny worries about Gary. Of course he does. The two have too much intertwined history, have been through too many things together and apart, for him not to. 

Johnny: “He’s my brother. I love him. I don’t want anything to happen to him. If he called me up right now and said: ‘Hey, I wanna go home’, I’d be fine with it. Cos he’s the one who called me to say: ‘I want you to be a part of this.’ And he was Ronnie’s brother. So yeah, I do worry about Gary.” 

Does Lynyrd Skynyrd keep him going? Johnny: “I think it does. Carrying on his brothers’ wishes and dreams that they started years and years ago. I think it makes him feel more close to them. I think he feels a responsibility for that, cos he lived through the crash. This is what he wanted to do. And he’s done it with great honour.”

Gary Rossington has a saying he picked up from either The Beatles or the Rolling Stones, he can’t remember which: ‘You don’t retire from this business, it retires you.’ It’s 55 years and counting since he met Ronnie Van Zant and Allen Collins and Bob Burns on that baseball field. Back then none of them could have imagined how this would all turn out.

“This is all I’ve ever known and wanted to do since I was thirteen years old – play guitar and be in a band and all that,” Rossington says “I’m just some dumb guitar player who quit school to make it in a band. We all did – me and Ronnie and Allen and Bob.” 

What’s been your greatest achievement? 

“Staying power and lasting so long. People still love the music. People grew up hearing Free Bird and those songs… Ronnie and Allen and Stevie and them, they didn’t live long enough to know that we would last another thirty or forty years, that those songs would still be on the radio. Allen used to talk about it. We’d be sitting in the car and he’d go: ‘Can you believe we hear our stuff on the radio?’ That was when Free Bird was still a coupla’ years old. We didn’t know it would happen like that. Nobody did.”

Gary Rossington, the last man who today embodies Skynyrd’s past and their present, the only one who has been there for the whole damn ride. Question is: if he was out of Lynyrd Skynyrd for whatever reason, would the band carry on without him? 

Johnny Van Zant doesn’t think so: “I wouldn’t want to even think about that. I don’t think any of us would want to do that.” 

Neither does Rickey Medlock: “No. We wouldn’t do that. And I wouldn’t want to do that. If I can’t have him standing there next to me, just like Johnny I don’t want to be there. I wouldn’t think about it.” 

Gary Rossington has a different take on it: “Well, they’re not supposed to because of legal reasons. But if Johnny and Rickey wanted to do it, I wouldn’t mind myself. They’re playing our music to the people, and the people would come to hear the original band’s music. I don’t know. It’s hard to say. If they wanted to do it and the management thought it would be a good idea… It would be weird, though, because none of the original guys would be in it.”

Thing is, Lynyrd Skynyrd aren’t done yet. Not as long as Gary Rossington has breath in his body and fire in his soul, and despite everything he’s still got both. 

They say that if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. Especially if you’re Lynyrd Skynyrd. But Skynyrd have plans all the same. 

No one – not Rossington, not Van Zant, not Medlocke – has put an expiration date on all this. They’re stopping touring for sure, but that doesn’t mean they’re quitting playing live altogether. There could be charity shows or benefits for the military. There could be a Vegas residency, maybe one on the East Coast too. And they’re definitely talking about recording a new album. Maybe more. 

“We got songs,” says Medlocke. “Lots of ’em. I’m guessing some of them have been written as long as fifteen years ago, some are newer. But we still need to write a few more. It’s a time thing. But we’ll definitely do a new album.” 

But one day, whenever it comes, Lynyrd Skynyrd will cease to exist. And when that happens it will leave a hole. They won’t be the first band to quit, but with them it will be different. Black Sabbath have gone, but they’re all still here. Led Zeppelin have gone, but they’re mostly still here. But when Lynyrd Skynyrd go – when Gary Rossington is no longer out there on the road, for whatever reason – well, that really will feel like the passing of an era. 

“We’ll still be around,”says Rossington. He pauses for a heartbeat, high above the cold Canadian streets. Aghost of a smile. “The music will still be here.” 

In case you were wondering, Ronnie Van Zant never did apologise to Gary Rossington for slicing up his hands with a broken bottle on the night of the Bloodbath in Hamburg. 

“Nah,” says Rossington. “He just said: ‘Catch the first flight home tomorrow.’ I said: ‘Nah.’ And that was it. You just gotta do what you gotta do.” 

That’s been Lynyrd Skynyrd all along. Doing what they gotta do, no matter what.

Lynyrd Skynyrd play Birmingham tonight. Check for tickets.