Gary Rossington Opens Up About Life, Death, And Lynyrd Skynyrd

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Listen To This Eddie is a weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.

As one of the last living members of the seminal 1970s southern rock group Lynyrd Skynyrd, Gary Rossington’s place in the pantheon of Rock Gods is more than secure. And still, he grows uncomfortable when you start throwing words like “legend,” at him. “I’m just an old guitar player,” he says in his charming, Northern-Florida drawl.

Lynyrd Skynyrd are having a bit of a moment right now thanks to two different endeavors. The first is a truly revelatory new documentary about the band that premiered last week at South By Southwest called If I Leave Here Tomorrow. So much of the Skynyrd story over the last few decades has been told through two distinct lenses. One is the tragic airplane crash that brought about the initial ending of the band with the deaths of lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, Steve’s sister and the band’s backup singer Cassie Gaines, and assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick in 1977. The other is the legal in-fighting amongst the different members of the band and their families over whether they should continue and if so, who should reap the financial benefits.

If I Leave Here Tomorrow jerks the story back in time to before the plane crash, when Skynyrd was a true band of brothers, honing their skills in the un-airconditioned confines of a ramshackle cabin they called the “Hell House” out in the middle of a cow pasture in Northern Florida before eventually breaking out into superstardom. You get a sense of the band as people. Hard-drinking, hard-fighting, hard-loving, and hard-working people; warts and all. While there’s certainly a tinge of tragedy to this story, it also reminds you what a triumph it was that they made it out of the swampy confines of Jacksonville and onto private jets in the first place.

Of course, the other event to spur some renewed Skynyrd appreciation is the news that after decades selling out some of the biggest arenas and amphitheaters around the world, the band has decided to finally hang it up after one goodbye run that they’re calling the Street Survivors Farewell Tour. Rossington has been battling several health conditions over the past few years, including a full-blown heart attack back in 2015. Though he insists he’s feeling pretty good these days, he wants to give the fans once last chance to scream “Freebird!” before finally caving to the advice of his doctors and hanging up his guitar for good.

Recently, I had the chance to speak with Rossington and get his thoughts about the new documentary, his life in Lynyrd Skynyrd, and how hard it is to walk away from it all.

What did you think of the new documentary about Skynyrd, If I Leave Here Tomorrow?

I thought it was good. The guy, Stephen [Kijack], who produced it did a fantastic job. Some other documentaries about us have been more negative you know? More about the bad things that happened through the years.

What was it like to see your life unfold on the screen like that? I’d imagine it had to be a little emotional.

Yeah, it is very emotional. Seeing the old guys and talking and hearing them talk…we were such close friends, a family really ya know? It was emotional seeing the plane crash stuff, but then seeing us younger and just starting out was cool to me.

I was obviously aware of your closeness as a band, but was unaware of the kind of father figure role that Ronnie Van Zant played in your life.

Well, he was a few years older than Allen [Collins] and I; three years older. You know, when you’re a young teenager, three years is a lot. He was already driving when he was 17-18 and we were just 14-15. We hadn’t learned to drive or cuss. Allen’s parents were divorced, and my father died when I was 10, so I didn’t really ever have a father during my teenage years to teach me. Ronnie taught us that, and how to fish, and talk to girls, and how to drive. He was a father figure like that, but he was also one of my best friends. He had an ability, whoever he was with, you felt like you were his best friend. He made you feel like you were the one when you were with him.

In what ways did he push you as a musician?

He used to play this game with Allen and I about guitar solos. We’d write a song, or do a cover song and whoever came in the next day and could play it better got that solo. It made us go home and work harder in this battle of guitars. This is way back when we first got going. There were a lot of little things like that.

Speaking of Allen, one of the things that caught me in the doc is when you said that you and Allen wished they’d lock you up in jail with your guitars, just so you could play all day without interruption. Can you talk about your early passion, and how you and he played off one another?

Yeah, we’d sit around all day just playing guitars together. It was a wish to get thrown into jail with guitars cause that’s all we wanted to do, because when you’re out in the world, especially in those teenage years, there’s a lot to do, and girls, and movies, and blah, blah, blah, and we just wanted to play guitar all day and night. We tried, and would, but we fed off one another. Learned cover tunes. [Eric] Clapton, Jeff Beck, [Jimi] Hendrix, and people like that. We would learn their licks from their solos and trade-off like that. We were close. We did everything together. We loved each other. We were all three [Ronnie, Allen, and Gary] best friends like the Three Musketeers.

Was the Hell House as bad as you made it out to be?

It was worse! It was so hot. I don’t know if you’ve been to Florida much, but Florida in the summer is very, very hot, especially when you’re in the middle of a big field, with a little cabin with a tin roof and no AC. We’d sweat all day, and at night, we had to stay and guard the equipment from being stolen. There were mosquitoes and all kinds of bugs; snakes all around us. It was out in a cow pasture, and it was really hard, but we worked really hard out there too. We’d get out there early in the morning around nine I guess, and get goin’. We’d stay out there til after dark and just play and play and rehearse and rehearse, and play and write.

I’m sure you don’t miss the heat and mosquitoes, but do you miss the freedom of that time to play all day with your buddies, no responsibilities, out in the swamp making music?

A lot. When you grow up and get all the business going, and do what you do in life, it’s a lot harder than just playing guitar all day. That’s what we cared about. Those days now, looking back, I love ’em. I wish we could do ’em all over again. It was really fun to play all day and create music and feed off each other.

And trip out on psychedelic mushroom tea?

Yeah, we would do that [Laughs]. Like I said, it was in the middle of a cow pasture and you’d just turn over a cow patty and there they were! When we were rehearsing a lot, we’d see hippies out there walking the land collecting them up. It was funny.

One of the things that caught my eye was a poster billing Lynyrd Skynyrd with Tom Petty’s band Mudcrutch back in the day. I was wondering if you had any memories of gigging around with them in the early 1970s.

Yeah, I do, back when we played in Jacksonville. They had these things called “Be-ins.” It wasn’t really a “Love-in,” it was just a get-together on weekends where bands would jam. Mudcrutch would be there, we would be there, and a lot of other groups. We got to know ’em, not really tight or close, but just hanging out in the day. We’d all listen to each other and talk to them a lot. More in our younger years than our older years. When he made it and we made it, were too busy, kind of, to get together. But it was fun. There were more gigs in Gainesville, Florida where they were from, where the [The University of Florida] is, so we used to go play there a lot for dances and college parties, bars, and this-and-that and we’d hang out then too.

Its kind of incredible when you think how many great musicians came out of that Florida area. You had your band, The Allman Brothers, Bernie Leadon and Don Felder from the Eagles, Tom Petty.

Yeah, it’s funny, it was kinda like Britain and all those British bands that came out in the ’60s and early ’70s. It was southern music. We were from the south, and that’s where the [Confederate] flag came in and all that. Our record company wanted to show that and get a new genre of music going. There was a West Coast sound. New York City and Bob Dylan kind of sound, Texas blues; and so they wanted to make sure we were known as a Southern band. Not that I’m not proud of it. Everyone knows it like, “Oh, southern music, yeah!” I love everywhere, but roots are roots.

Do you guys still use the flag in concerts or did you retire that?

No, we did [retire it] because we didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings. Hate groups, skinheads, and KKK and all that used the Southern flag for their symbol and it kind of got a bad rap. We had no prejudice. We were just showing where we were from. Some of my better friends in Florida were black. Some of those clubs in Jacksonville, that’s usually all who we’d play for. It wasn’t meant to hurt anyone’s feeling ever. It was just to show that we were from the South.

One of the other tidbits I wanted to learn more about from the doc, is it true that John Lennon showed up in the studio during the recording of Second Helping?

Yeah man. We were at the Record Plant in LA and Al Kooper was producing us. He had a lot of friends out there. He’d done Electric Ladyland with Hendrix, played with Michael Bloomfield [on the Super Sessions album], and of course played with Bob Dylan on organ on “Like A Rolling Stone.” He was big-time, and John stopped by the studio [to see him]. He wasn’t with Yoko, he was with that girlfriend he had for that year off [May Pang], and when they came in, we were playing a song. When they walked into the studio, into the booth, we all saw it was him and freaked out. We quit playing. Scared us. There was John Lennon. A Beatle! We got to meet him, shake his hand, and then went across the street and had lunch with him. It was great.

You just announced this farewell tour, but what has it meant to go out for so many years and play this music and honor the legacy of your friends who aren’t around anymore?

It’s been a dream. It’s great. I still can’t believe we did what we set out to do. I’m so proud of it. That’s why I keep talking about Ronnie, Allen, Steve [Gaines], Leon [Wilkenson], Billy [Powell] and all the boys, to keep our memory and music alive. As far as writing, the songs stand for themselves. That’s why people come. The songs and the music. I’m prouder than a peacock and am honored to still sell out crowds. You know, I’m in bad health. I got a bad heart, and that’s why we’re quitting touring so much.

Can you kind of talk about that. How are you holding up?

I’m doing great right now. I just had some heart surgeries some years back and I’ve had a few stints put in since then. It’s just that. My doctors keep telling me to quit, but I just can’t. Musicians never quit, they fade away.

I’m sure everyone you meet tells you their favorite Skynyrd song, but mine is “That Smell.” Considering it was your car accident that inspired Ronnie to write it, I’ve always been curious to know what you thought about it when you heard it for the first time.

Oh, I loved it. We joked, kind of like, “Ha, ha, you shouldn’t have done that.” It was just one bad mistake one night, but we got a great song out of it. You know, there were other people around us back then using heavier drugs. Heroin and all that. That was a saying, “The smell of death around him,” because he’s all drugged out. Ronnie got that and he used it. I thought it was great, man! It was a great lesson, it taught me a lesson. Ronnie was a great lyricist. He talked about his life. Talked about what happened every day, week or month in his life. Every song tells a story, and that’s that one.

Is it true that he never wrote lyrics down?

He didn’t believe in that. He thought if he couldn’t remember it right off, it wasn’t good enough to keep.

Speaking as someone with a terrible memory, that’s amazing.

Oh, me too. I have to write everything down or I forget it. He just had that gift and it was true with him. He just remembered the good lyrics. He would write slow and think about it, while we would play the song over and over and over. He’d sit there on the couch with no mic or anything, never singing, just singing in his head. We’d work certain parts, getting ’em tight and he would work on lyrics down at the dock, or walking around.

How did it feel to see your old band members Artimus Pyle or Ed King up on the screen again? Have you guys talked recently?

Not really. We go our own ways, but I see them here and there. The film didn’t bother me. They were a big part of it, of course. We saw them at the [Rock And Roll] Hall Of Fame, we see them online and stuff like that. We’re alright. I don’t have any enemies now, I hope. As far as me, I don’t have any bad feelings for anyone. Too old for that [Laughs].