Interview: Johnny Van Zant & Gary Rossington, Lynyrd Skynyrd


As a full moon beams over the bayou, some fireflies circle the bare light bulb shining from Mama's front porch whilst the cricket chorus croaks from the dense undergrowth. Johnny sits on a simple wooden stool and starts to hum a few bars of Sweet Home Alabama accompanied by Gary on a battered old acoustic guitar.

Well to be honest I'm sitting in an interview room at the East West offices, just off Kensington High Street, as a light drizzle spits against the window. Opposite me and on the other side of the large executive style table, sits LYNYRD SKYNYRD 91's Johnny Van Zant and Gary Rossington.

This band, hailing from America's Deep South, split in 1977 after a plane crash claimed the lives of three members of the group, including vocalist Ronnie Van Zant. A great loss and a sad way for a band to be cut off in its prime. However, fourteen years on, LYNYRD SKYNYRD have been resurrected with the release of a new record, simply entitled Lynyrd Skynyrd 1991.

For those of you not familiar with the name, LYNYRD SKYNYRD deal in authentic country rock/ boogie and have a scorching reputation as a live band.

The record itself doesn't deviate much from their traditional origins. But hey, isn't this kind of music supposed to be timeless!? Anyway, it's a solid, albeit unspectacular come back.

The seeds of their return were sown in 1987 on the tenth anniversary of the plane crash. To the persistent fans and promoters wanting them back, they finally relented. The reunion tour proved to be successful but a full comeback was put on ice for a myriad of reasons, one being several of the band's members had decided to raise families. So three new faces were added to the remaining line up of five: Johnny Van Zant (brother of the late Ronnie) on vocals, Kirk Custer on drums, who incidentally played for STEVE EARL and is a descendant of General Custer, and Ed King on guitar.

Anyway, I asked the guys how the new record came about. Johnny, an established solo artist in his own right, takes up the story.

"It took me about six months to figure out if I wanted to be part of LYNYRD SKYNYRD."

The rest of the band, as Johnny explains, were at their home base at Jacksonville, Florida. They called Johnny and asked him to come along to the hotel they were staying at. It was there that they asked Johnny to join them.

"When I walked into the room and saw them all there, I felt something in here," he says pointing to his heart. "I felt it was the right thing to do. I wouldn't have done this racket if I didn't think we could do it justice."

He tells me the record was made in a mere month.

"Yeah, we didn't worry about the sounds because we just felt, like, it was in us to give them. Actually the whole record was kind of recorded live."

Gary joins in.

"We try to stay real, the real deal, just go out, take a cord, plug into an amp and play. It's alive. That's why there's so many people in the band."

Eight at the last count.

They also worked with producer Tom Dowd, a legendary figure whose credits go way back through classic Motown to ROD STEWART and ERIC CLAPTON, and who produced the last SKYNYRD studio album featuring the original line-up, the 1977 Street Survivors.

Was it important for you to work with someone who was in tune with the band?

"For myself, that's the only person I wanted and would have done the album with," explains Gary. "We call him 'Father Dowd.' We're kind of rowdy and we've got our own ways and he's the only one that can come in, suggest things and we do it!”

"He's very smart," adds Johnny. "I guess he's about sixty-five, and like Gary said, we kinda look at him the way we'd look at our father, so we respect his opinion and he respects ours."

"I hope to God I'm not here when I'm sixty-five," says Gary only half jokingly.

Going back to your earlier point about the size of the band, how do you deal with it, y'know, make it work?

"We like to do it that way," Gary says. "It's a big sound. We don't use any gimmicks. Music's our gimmick.”

"I think it gives people something to look at live," Johnny adds. "There's so much going on that we don't need all the fairy lights. There’s just music."

I would imagine it lends itself towards more spontaneity and improvisation.

"You ought to be at our rehearsals," replies Johnny with a wry smile. "Every five minutes it's like, 'I dig this,' or 'I dig that.' Somehow it matches up. It's a chemistry."

There's quite a bit of variety on the record and I was quite impressed with tracks like Pure And Simple and Money Man, which seems to be based on true experiences with a risqué manager.

"Yeah, it's true," confirms Johnny. "It's stuff that happened to us in bands. It's just a song that we started messing around with. I actually knew this guy that used to go around smoking big Cuban cigars."

Chunky gold rings!?

"Yeah. We're the musicians and we're going to him, 'can we have fifty dollars so we can eat this week?' He's in a limo and we're in a van all together, but we did the song in a humorous way so it wasn't a puck [a dig] at one individual."

In the early days, SKYNYRD "signed everything away," according to Gary. So Johnny stresses the importance of getting yourself a good lawyer.

Have you been accused of being sexist for writing the song Southern Women?

"Well, as the BEACH BOYS wrote about California Girls, we figured it was time we wrote about Southern women," Johnny explains. "Actually, the whole thing came from Ahmet Ertegun [the founder of Atlantic Records who signed the band]. Johnny adopts a deep gruff voice and proceeds to impersonate the man: "Johnny, write a song about brazen Southern women!! But it's not sexist at all. It's just supposed to be funny."

Gary almost scuppers Johnny's effort to set the record straight.

"Hey, we like Northern women and Southern women…We've had them all!" But Johnny redeems himself by adding, "We don't mean to convey that we hate all women except Southern women. We're just praising one little thing. We like to write about our heritage, what we know about, and we know about Southern women!"

Looking at Johnny, it's not hard to see the uncanny, almost spooky resemblance to his departed brother Ronnie.

"They grew up in the same house, their daddy spanked them, they look alike," Gary comments. "But Johnny's not copying his brother. It's just the way it is."

Johnny interjects.

"All of Van Zants look alike. Same genes, y'know."

"His personality's a bit like Ronnie's,” continues Gary. "Though Ronnie was a little meaner at times."

"I'm a little bit more tame," quips Johnny.

Still, do you feel any pressure to live up to the legacy your brother left behind?

"I'm proud of what Ronnie did. He was one of a kind. I could never replace him and I wouldn't want to replace him."

When Val Kilmer recently starred as Jim Morrison in the Oliver Stone film of THE DOORS, Val confessed to feeling possessed by Morrison. I put this to Johnny in respect of him taking over the lead vocal role for SKYNYRD.

"When I'm up there on stage, I feel like Ronnie's there with me and that's no hype."

In the old days, SKYNYRD had quite a reputation as hellraisers when they were out on the road.

"In the seventies it was cool to be drunk and rowdy," recalls Gary. "Being on tour when we were about twenty and PETE TOWNSHEND came and tore our dressing room up and threw TVs out of windows. So we thought 'Wow! That's what you do,' and we did that and we did it well."

Whether it was induced by the booze we'd been sipping or whether I just caught Gary at a really deep, reflective moment, it's hard to tell, but I found myself privileged to a scenario of what happened on that fateful night their plane went down.

"My heart is still broken over the plane crash. I've had a lot of journalists asking about it, especially in Germany. Man it really hurts. In the first pace, it's none of their fucking business. It's rude. As journalists, it's their job to ask such questions, but it's hard for me to talk about it…”

But, like I said, for some reason, Gary saw fit to favour me with an insight into the tragedy.

"We lay out in the swamp for hours. I had the plane door on me, and our road manager who was badly torn up [and soon after died], came over and actually pulled the door off me! Nobody would ever believe that, but I saw him do it. The doctors that attended to us said it was impossible. But one doctor later said that there was probably so much adrenalin flowing in him that it was possible…"

He trails off, the memory obviously still vivid and painful.

The LYNYRD SKYNYRD 1991 album is, as Gary puts it, the second chapter of the band.

Mark Liddell
Riff Raff

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