It’s unfortunate that somewhere along the way Lynyrd Skynyrd, in certain circles, became a cliche. I mean, who among us hasn’t been to a concert where a drunken waterhead was screaming “Freebird”. The documentary, If I Leave Here Tomorrow, (which made the film festival circuit earlier this year, now available on demand with Showtime) presents a hard working band committed to their music as much as any group in your collection who may enjoy more universal, hipper, critical acclaimed. Whether a fan or not, this documentary deserves your attention.
The film is framed by the tragic and near mythical airplane crash in 1977, which killed singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, Honkettes backup singer Cassie Gaines, assistant tour manager Dean Kilpatrick and the pilot and co-pilot of the Convair 420.
“Things were going wrong with the plane a little bit,” says guitarist Gary Rossington, about the the aircraft which was due for repairs. “But Ronnie was the one who said when it’s our time to go, you can kiss my ass good bye.”
The film sheds light on the essence of the enduring popularity of Lynyrd Skynyrd, a band that never strayed too far from their hard scrabble Jacksonville neighborhood and never disavowed where they came from. “People think we’re a bunch of drunk rednecks”, Van Zant said in an old interview, “That’s correct”.
Revelations from If I Leave Here Tomorrow:
The band, then known as One Percent, got a new name from Leonard Skinner in the Allan Sherman comedy song “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” followed by encounters with a hard-nosed high school coach with the same name.
The band cut it’s teeth practicing from morning to night in the “Hell House,” a rehearsal shack on the edge of a mosquito-infested swamp. Rossington says they’d search the nearby cattle fields for psilocybin mushrooms growing in the “cow patties” and make mushroom tea. “You take a few sips and you be tripping. The keyboard would be floating or I’d watch the notes coming out of my amp,”… But mushrooms weren’t the only drug being consumed. Rossington says everyone took speed and Allen Collins was apparently fond of sniffing glue. “You could put a model airplane together with his breath,” says early bassist Larry Junstrom.
It was legendary sideman and producer Al Kooper who discovered them playing in Atlanta at a bar and signed them to his Sounds Of The South label. His connections got them the opening slot for The Who, exposing them to a wider audience.
They royally pissed of the Rolling Stones. Before their set at Knebworth in 1976, the band got stoned with Jack Nicholson. Feeling good and loose, the band delivered a blistering set that concluded with Van Zant leading the guitar players on to the custom “tongue” outer stage for their finale. “Mick Jagger was pissed”, says Rossington. “It took their breath away to see how well we went over and how we broke their only rule: Don’t go out on the tongue.”
Ronnie Van Zant was in favor of gun control and the band was conflicted about the use of the Confederate flag. Skynyrd claims it was a gimmick employed by MCA to promote them as a southern band. They looked at it as symbol of where they were from and never meant to offend.
The band was calm and quiet as the plane began it’s fatal descent. “The one thing I want the world to know is how bravely my band met it’s death. There was no panic, no chaos. Everyone was in prayer or quiet thought.” according to drummer Artimus Pyle. His last encounter with Ronnie Van Zant…”Ronnie stopped by me in the aisle, we shook the old hippie handshake and he smiled and walked to the back of the plane.