Lynyrd Skynyrd members Gary Rossington, Ricky Medlock and Johnny Van Zant attend the If I leave here tomorrow
film premiere at SXSW 2018 with Ronnie Van Zant’s widow, Judy. (Photo: R. Diamond/Getty Images for CMT)
Many films have been made about beleaguered Southern rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd, but band founder Gary Rossington – who was the last surviving original member and died on March 5 aged 71 – was less than thrilled with the results. He and frontman Johnny Van Zant (younger brother of late original singer Ronnie) disavowed Jake Tapper’s 2002 VH1 special. Ucivil War, which focuses on the band’s internal struggles, and in 2017 they even sued a former bandmate, Artimus Pyle, over his plans to make a Skynyrd biopic that would focus on the tragic 1977 plane crash. , which killed several members of Skynyrd. But during an interview with Yahoo Entertainment that took place at the 2018 South by Southwest festival, they said that the CMT documentary If I leave here tomorrow they finally got their story right.
“All the other documentaries were negative and they really didn’t show what we were like when we started brothers,” Rossington told Yahoo Entertainment. “We would die for each other. We grew up together, you know? We were so happy and it was family. [Other films] it sounded like we were all mad at each other. It wasn’t like that at all.”
Watching If I leave here tomorrow’Describing the once-close bond between the band members was an emotional rollercoaster for Rossington, who was the film’s main narrator. “There’s a part at the beginning when [on/off Skynyrd bassist and guitarist] Ed King talks about our song “Need All My Friends”. Then it shows me and Ronnie looking right at each other and it was like all my friends were dead and gone. I just said, “Oh my God.” It’s really sentimental for me,” he admitted.
“I see all the memories and they are alive; they are like bouncing beans in my brain. It’s weird,” Rossington continued. “I won’t be ashamed to say I cried a few times – you can’t no, if you were a part of it, you know? All my daughters were crying. They made me cry, “You never told us about these things, Dad!”
The director of the documentary, Steven Kiyak (We are X, Scott Walker: The 30th Century Man, Stones in Exile), focused on both the good times and the bad, telling Skynyrd’s colorful origin story through rare interviews and never-before-seen archival footage. “Actually, that’s something that’s strange coming from Artimus,” Kiyak said. “One of the things he asked me to do when we told the story was, ‘Make sure everybody knows how damn funny they were.’ The happier times, the wilder times were just damn funny.” Kiyak noted, that drummer Bob Burns, who died in a car crash in 2015, “practically ran away with the whole movie.”
“Bob was funny. Man, I loved him so much,” Rossington said wistfully.
Burns was clearly not the only loss Lynyrd Skynyrd suffered. Band members Steve Gaines, Cassie Gaines, and Ronnie Van Zant died in the aforementioned plane crash that occurred in Gillsburg, Miss., on October 20, 1977, just three days after Skynyrd released their fifth album, Street Survivors. There was no way to If I leave here tomorrow to avoid this important, if terrifying, chapter in the band’s saga. “Hey, it’s part of it, man,” Rossington shrugged.
“We’re not turning our backs on him,” Kijak explained. “You kind of start [the film] knowing it happened, and midway through the movie we actually visit the crash with a guy who was there to help with the rescue effort.
However, the members of Skynyrd have made it clear that they – understandably – have zero interest in participating in this particular scene. “No. I’ll never go there,” Johnny Van Zant, who took over lead vocal duties for Skynyrd in 1987, said of the site’s crash.
“No. I’ve been there before and I don’t want to go back,” said Rossington (who broke his arms, legs, wrists, ankles and pelvis in the accident), shaking his head.
“But we’re not trying to sensationalize or sentimentalize [the plane crash tragedy]”, emphasized Kijak. “It’s true, it happened, but what you come out the other side with hopefully is the celebration and inspiration that these guys left behind and continue to carry on.”
Some argue that Lynyrd Skynyrd is the unluckiest band of all time. Along with the deaths of Ronnie Van Zant, the Gaines siblings and Bob Burns, guitarist Alan Collins was paralyzed in a car accident in 1986 and died aged 37 in 1990. Bassist Leon Wilkeson died of chronic liver disease aged 49, and keyboardist Billy Powell also died young, aged 56, apparently of a heart attack. And Rossington, who was in a car accident a year before the plane crash that inspired Skynyrd’s hit “That Smell,” noted in 2018 that he has “a lot of medical stuff. I have a bad heart and have had heart surgery several times and many stents – just unhealthy and not just from rock and roll. That’s my genes, I guess.” (Rossington’s cause of death has not yet been released.)
But Rossington and Van Zant, who begin their “Last of the Street Survivors” farewell tour in May 2018, said that no I feel unhappy. “I feel blessed to still be here and to have to go through all of this,” Rossington said. “We let life pick us up, shake us and push us, and we tasted it, so I’m happy.” I don’t think we are “cursed” at all.
“No, not at all,” Van Zant added. “I think you get any big family here — come on, do a survey — and there’s going to be death, there’s going to be tragedy. Gregg Allman said it best. He said, “If you live long enough, you will experience tragedies and triumphs.” That was Lynyrd Skynyrd and that was Allman too. It wouldn’t be Lynyrd Skynyrd without that, you know? That is God’s will and His way, and that is why we sit here today.”
Of other major misconceptions about Lynyrd Skynyrd, Van Zant quipped, “What, you mean like drinking or something? Well, it’s all true — and some of it is in the movie!” And as for what the late members of Skynyrd would have thought If I leave here tomorrow, he laughed, “I think they’re going to like that. With someone else [films], as we said, they must have been looking for the director and producer’s ass! They would be pursued.
Rossington answered the latter question more seriously and openly. “I don’t know what they would have thought,” he began, “except that their songs, their music and Ronnie’s lyrics are still out there, meaning something, and being performed. That’s what we wanted when we started when we were 15. We wanted to be a band like the Beatles and make the right music and have people hear it. So they’ll be glad we’re doing this. It was all over in a minute.”
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