”Whiskey bottles, and brand new cars. Oaktree, you’re in my way.”
That Smell is a song that was written after Gary Rossington, guitarist for Lynyrd Skynrd, smashed his Ford Torio into woodland whilst driving under the influence.
It wouldn’t be the last accident involving a member of the band. In fact, it wouldn’t even be the last one of that year.
Street Survivors, the group’s latest offering, had been released on October 17, 1977. It was accompanied by yet another tour – one which had them cruising up and down America’s highways and beyond. In January, they had been to Asia for the first time – playing shows in both Tokyo and Osaka. This was followed by shows in England, rocking Manchester, Newcastle, Portsmouth, Liverpool, and Bristol. They were no strangers to long, winding tours – the one for their first album was hectic, the one for Gimme Back My Bullets was extensive, and Second Helping’s tour was excruciating. Skynyrd were seasoned veterans on the road and had been since their youths. These tours, to them, rolled like whiskey off a duck’s back.
(The original Street Survivors album cover)
Their success was abundant at this point. Formed in 1964 during the group’s high school days, Lynyrd Skynyrd spent seven years perfecting their craft, practicing twelve hours a day without fail. Their beginnings were as humble as their Southern backgrounds, playing every dive bar in the Florida area – often for a pittance. By 1969, they were known as The One Percent – playing Rolling Stones covers in front of their heckling, drunken crowds. After one too many ”1% talent” barbs courtesy of the audience, the name was quickly abandoned. Inspiration was found due to a strict P.E. teacher’s dislike for the long hair which they all sported. This man’s name was Leonard Skinner – and the name stuck after they playfully altered the spelling. By 1971, Lynyrd Skynyrd were becoming the top band in Florida – their first album was in the works, and they had landed a prestigious gig opening for The Who – an outfit whose reputation as the world’s greatest live band was about to be challenged.
These humble roots seemed a distant memory by 1977. The local dive bars had been switched out with massive stadiums, those drunken hecklers in the crowd had been replaced with legions of screaming, die-hard fans. Those Rolling Stones covers had evolved into anthems of their own. Free Bird was always the climax of their concerts, and a sea of concert-goers lifting up their flaming lighters had become one of the most famous sights in rock. Millions of dollars flooded the bank accounts of the band members – and a small cost of that fortune went on a private jet. Not only would it make the band’s relentless touring easier, it also meant that the group could fly again. They were blacklisted from most private airlines after several incidents of misbehavior, one of which included trying to launch a roadie out of the plane from several thousand feet. The introduction of their own set of wings meant Skynyrd could once again be rambunctious in the skies.
Rossington’s car accident was hardly laughed off by the group. For leader Ronnie Van Zant the incident was more than a drunken mishap. ”“I had a creepy feeling things were going against us” he stated, ”so I thought I’d write a morbid song”. Indeed, Van Zant had an unshakeable feeling that the auto-smash was only a starter of what was to come.
Ronnie was no stranger to dark thoughts. His status as the leader of one of the world’s most popular rock acts was beginning to take its toll. Like many rockstars, he despised the constant traveling – and had begun drinking heavily to calm his ever-growing list of anxieties. However, the thousands of miles that Lynyrd Skynyrd covered during their arduous tours couldn’t distance himself from one nagging, omnipresent thought – Van Zant was convinced he wouldn’t live to see 30, often telling band members of his mortality. By the time Street Survivors was released, he was 90 days away from his next birthday. He was 29 at this point.
Concerts were being relentlessly churned out. Los Angeles. San Diego. Honolulu. The Skynyrd freight train was steamrolling into Asia, then the United Kingdom, and back to the United States again. Their object of transport, designed to make life easier, was older than most band members. The Convair-240 had thousands of miles under its belt and was perhaps a more seasoned veteran to life on the road than all of the band members put together. The plane was a relic by 1977 – creaking and shuddering its way through the North American skies lethargically and dangerously. It had been disowned by Aerosmith the year before after their agents spotted the pilots polishing off a bottle of Jack Daniels during flight. ”It looked like it belonged to the Clampett family’‘, said drummer Artimus Pyle, and by the time the tour for Street Survivors came around, the band were all in agreement the antique aircraft was well past its sell-by date.
Joining them on the tour were new arrivals, siblings Steve and Cassie Gaines. The pair had joined to fortify the group after the departure of guitarist Ed King in 1975. Gaines’s talent was obvious – and Van Zant welcomed his arrival. Sister Cassie joined as a backup singer – her career was new, only being in the business for 18 months. She hated flying – preferring the confines of the tour bus, willing to live with its lack of space and lack of efficiency. After Skynyrd played at the Greenville Memorial Auditorium, she was finally convinced by Van Zant to hop on board the Convair – the journey would be cut in half, and she wouldn’t have to lug all her baggage around. Furthermore, if she flew, they were no stops to be had en route to their next destination, Baton Rogue.
Van Zant was now 87 days away from turning 30. Spirits were high in the Skynrd camp – Street Survivors had already gone platinum, the tour was a huge success, and furthermore, there was only one more journey on the rickety Convair left before the band upgraded their aircraft. A small fire had broken out over one the engines a few days before, and the idea of a shiny new vessel brought much-needed relief to the group. Pilots Walter McCreary and William Gray were at the helm today – and the group nervously walked up to the plane once again after the show in Greenville.
Ronnie had begun referring to himself as the ‘Mississippi Kid’ in the preceding months, despite having no ties to the state whatsoever. He calmly approached the plane, along with the other members, on the afternoon of October 20th. ”I’m not gonna get on it” Rossington said, ”it’s not right”. Cassie Gaines was equally terrified, and an overall sense of impending doom came over the passengers. Van Zant remained oddly stoic, telling Rossington, ”Hey, if the Lord wants you to die on this plane, when it’s your time, it’s your time. Let’s go, man.” Once the aging plane cleared takeoff, passengers let out a collective sigh of relief, and one last party on the Convair soon broke out. Card games, drinking, and practical jokes were all staples of Skynyrd’s touring life, and today was no different – they were going to arrive in Baton Rouge in their usual style.
Van Zant sat out on the sidelines for this party, however. Not only was he hungover, he was also plagued by back pain. He was sprawled out at the front of the cabin. Under normal circumstances, he would be at the back joining in with the hijinks. However, those in the cabin were soon joined by officer McCreary, who had burst open his cockpit door and came running into the cabin, flailing his hands and exclaiming ”We’re out of gas! We’re out of gas!” as the poker chips held by the band members cascaded to the floor, he shouted ‘‘Put your heads between your legs and buckle up tight!”. The Convair had seemingly been on one journey too many and was beginning to tumble out of the sky rapidly.
Both disbelief and anger became rampant in the cabin – before eventually giving way to a sense of hopelessness. The aircraft’s right engine had failed, and it wasn’t long before the left followed. A screeching rush of air was now becoming deafening as the plane entered free-fall, the pilots violently wrestling with the controls in order to force an emergency landing in the nearest field. “Everybody was sitting down kind of praying, real silently” said keyboardist Billy Powell. The landing zone was in sight, an empty field a few hundred feet away was the target. But the Convair was exhausted by this point, succumbing over a dense woodland. Ronnie Van Zant was said to have looked over at Artimus Pyle, grabbed a pillow, and smiled. He knew his time was up – he had been waiting for this moment his whole life.
The plane was bombarded with tree branches. ”There was a sound like someone hitting the outside of the plane with hundreds of baseball bats”, Powell recalled, as the aircraft continued its journey through the woodlands. For twenty long, agonising seconds, the plane mowed its way through a series of bushes and trees, before eventually fragmenting against a giant oak tree. Soon, all that was left was a twisted pile of metal, upon which laid a pile of broken bodies.
Lynyrd Skynyrd had their date with destiny. Both Steve and Cassie Gaines perished, along with both pilots, road manager Dean Kilpatrick, and Ronnie Van Zant, who was killed instantly after colliding with the oak tree. The opening lyrics of That Smell became even more morbid – so too was the fact that the plane had gone down in rural Mississippi. Van Zant had become the Mississippi Kid, as his last breaths on planet Earth were taken there. He was 29 years old.
Street Survivors‘ album cover was altered out of respect after the crash
“Ronnie could see the future, always had been able”, said his late father Lacy. Indeed, Ronnie’s fate seemed to be already made. He knew he wasn’t long for his Earth – and as the broken bones of surviving band members healed, the void in the group never was. Lynyrd Skynyrd retired after the plane crash – unwilling to make any future profits on the tragedy that had befallen them. However, a hybrid version of the group exists today – featuring only Rossington as the sole original member. How ironic, seeing it was his accident that set off the band’s tragic events, and whose injuries became a cautionary tale of things to come.
Van Zant, in the end, died a Mississipi kid at the age of 29. His legacy lives on – however, his eery talent of predicting the future remains a disturbing gift.
Image – Getty Images.