Director Stephen Kijak’s excellent documentary If I Leave Here Tomorrow: A Film About Lynyrd Skynyrd doesn’t claim to be an exhaustive history of the Southern rock band. The movie steers clear of the rebirth of the group, currently on its farewell tour, and Kijak said at a recent screening at the Nashville Film Festival that he wants to make a second part. But the film does break new ground, especially via fresh interviews with guitarist Gary Rossington – the sole original member of the current Skynyrd incarnation – who opens up like never before on the persona of singer Ronnie Van Zant, the band’s hardscrabble beginnings and the fatal 1977 plane crash.
That now legendary and near mythical crash – which killed 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 – frames If I Leave Here Tomorrow. “Things were going wrong with the plane a little bit,” says Rossington about the apparent shoddiness of the aircraft. “But Ronnie was the one who said when it’s our time to go, you can kiss my ass good bye.”
While the film awaits a wider release – it’s currently screening at film festivals – here’s 10 things we learned from If I Leave Here Tomorrow.
The band owes its formation to an errant line drive hit by Ronnie Van Zant.
As a member of the Green Pigs baseball team in Jacksonville, Florida, Van Zant nearly killed drummer Bob Burns with a hard hit baseball to the temple or the back, depending on who’s telling the story. “It caught me behind the shoulder blades and took out every breath I ever had my whole life,” says Burns, who died in 2015, in archival footage. Newly introduced to Burns, Van Zant, with guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, assembled that afternoon at Burns’ carport and jammed to the Rolling Stones’ “Time Is on My Side.”
Years later, Ronnie pissed off Mick Jagger when Lynyrd Skynrd opened for the Rolling Stones in 1976.
After smoking pot with Jack Nicholson, according to Gary Rossington, the band was especially loose for their opening slot with the Stones at Knebworth Park in the U.K. At the climax of a rousing set, Ronnie encouraged his guitarists to solo on the stage’s extending ramp – in the shape of the Stones’ famous tongue logo. “Mick Jagger was mad,” 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.”
The definitive story about the band’s name…
The film opens with a news report about the plane crash, with a reporter intoning, “There’s not a person by the name of Lynyrd Skynyrd … and therefore that person could not have died.” But in fact, there was a man named Leonard Skinner, a coach at Rossington’s high school, whose name elicited delight from Burns. The drummer says he suggested the moniker to the group after hearing a variant of it in the lyrics to the 1963 novelty hit “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh.” The group also used the name as shorthand to describe unexplained noises: “Oh, that’s Lynyrd Skynyrd!” says Burns.
Producer Al Kooper had a tense relationship with Ronnie.
Upon seeing the band for the first time at an Atlanta bar, the producer says, “I hated Ronnie and I liked him at the same time … He was a very weird frontman.” His feelings for the singer didn’t change much after signing Skynyrd to his Sounds of the South label under MCA Records. The group dubbed him a “Yankee slicker” when he said he didn’t like the ballad they were recording, “Simple Man.” According to Rossington, Ronnie took Kooper outside and said, “When we’re done, we’ll call you.” “He was the boss,” says Kooper. “I feared him.”
Rehearsing at the infamous “Hell House,” a cabin on a creek in the swamps of Florida, the band would forage hallucinogenic mushrooms from a nearby pasture.
Rossington says they’d find psilocybin mushrooms growing in the “cow patties” and make a pot of 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,” he says. But mushrooms weren’t the only drug of choice for Skynyrd. 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.
Drummer Bob Burns thought he was possessed by the devil after seeing The Exorcist while recording in L.A.
“We went into the studio to record and they had power trouble so we went to see The Exorcist,” says Rossington. “He thought his wife was the devil, his cat was the devil.” Eventually, Burns chilled out, but the symptoms reared their head again while on tour in Europe. “Bob went nuts,” Rossington wrote in his road diary of Burns, who rearranged the furniture in his hotel room and was talking in a strange voice. “He was going through a devil possession type trip. It wasn’t fun,” says guitarist Ed King.
The band has conflicted messages over its use of the Confederate flag.
In an archival interview, Ronnie says the flag was a “gimmick” employed by MCA to promote Lynyrd Skynyrd as a Southern band: “It’s nothing but hype.” Rossington says the symbol was to show where they were from and never meant to offend. “Though I know it’s naïve to say that too.” Echoes drummer Artimus Pyle, “I didn’t think about it that deeply then. I have since and look what they’ve done. They’ve taken the flag down on a lot of things because it does represent hatred.” (The group is not using the Confederate imagery on its current farewell tour.)
Ronnie Van Zant was in favor of gun control.
A segment about the cautionary “Saturday Night Special” shines light on the band’s views toward guns, especially the cheap pistols that are the subject of the 1975 hit. “I think they ought to throw them all away,” said Ronnie, who admits he owns a firearm, “an old flintlock gun that hangs over the fireplace.” The singer also reveals, vaguely, that he was once shot. “I don’t want to get into that.”
When Dwain Easley, one of the first on the scene of the plane crash in Gillsburg, Mississippi, looked into the aircraft, he was confused by what he saw.
Easley, one of two crash historians interviewed in If I Leave Here Tomorrow, propped open the fuselage with a stick to peer inside. “I shined my flashlight up in there and my first thought was, ‘What’s a bunch of hippies doing on an airplane?’ Back in those days, hippies didn’t usually have any money.” Easley says playing cards were scattered everywhere and passengers – 26 in total were onboard – were moaning. “We were just farm boys, and didn’t know what we were doing – we just got ’em out.”
The band was calm and quiet as the plane was in its tragic descent.
“The one thing I want the world to know about my band is how bravely my band met their death … There was no panic, no chaos. Everyone was in prayer and deep thought,” says Pyle, who recalls the last time he saw 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.”