Because we like ourselves a little too much, every now and again, we like to review past CREEM pieces in a series called CREEMAINS. In honor of the 50th anniversary of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s debut, Pronounced 'Lĕh-'nérd 'Skin-'nérd, CREEM OG Jaan Uhelszki walks us down memory lane to revisit her first encounter with the kings of southern rock.
The big things in life you never really plan for, they just happen. Which was the case with the interview that would change my life. People always think the story about getting on stage with KISS was the one that did it, but in all honesty, it was my interview with Lynyrd Skynyrd—just in a much quieter and sadder way. It was when I learned that musicians are actually tapped into something much bigger than the rest of us; that they are as much prophets and priests as they are entertainers. Maybe even more.
The interview with Lynyrd Skynyrd fell into my lap. Well, to be more accurate, Lester Bangs left it there. He had promised Dylan intimate and Skynyrd producer Al Kooper that he would do an in-depth interview with the Southern rock progenitors when they came to town. But that was before he realized they would be in Detroit on Dec. 13, 1975, which just so happened to be Bangs’ 27th birthday. Late that afternoon, he sidled up to my desk. “You don’t want to take over the Skynyrd interview for me, do you?” he asked in a suspiciously saccharine voice, which was a tip-off right there. “Absolutely not!” I protested. “I have never seen them play and I don’t have enough time to prepare”—which was a much bigger undertaking in those pre-internet times.
“C’mon, Jaan, pretty please do it for me,” he implored. “This will be my birthday present. Think of it, you won’t have to buy me a birthday present,” he wheedled, knowing full well I already had. “It’ll be easy,” he continued, as if he hadn’t heard me. “I’ll write the questions for you. Nobody will know the difference; you have that funny name and they’ll never know you’re a chick.”
But they did know, and they weren’t pleased. It wasn’t that Lynyrd Skynyrd actually knew who Lester Bangs was—his myth hadn’t yet gathered steam. They were just mad that a female was going to interview them, and a Yankee! Maybe my worst sin seemed to be that I hardly drank.
I spent most of the next two hours with them trying to fend off ham-fisted insults and slurs. It was right up there with the time Rick Wakeman came to the door in a towel and refused to put on clothes for our interview. Except there were six members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and they had their clothes on. I tried to keep pace with their drinking to attempt to fit in, and I asked the kind of questions that would actually elicit some kind of coherent answers instead of the blather they insisted on heaping on me—riveting stuff like they grew their hair long to cover up their red necks. Head Skynyrd Ronnie Van Zant seemed to take pity on me and motioned me over to a table where we could talk. He was nursing a Virgin Mary and told me he had been trying to cut down on his drinking when he wasn’t working. But after a couple of those acidic gut-busters, he switched over to Jack Daniel’s and Coke. After two of those he began to thaw a little and regaled me with stories of his dangerous past—like the time he got thrown out of school for attempted murder, and how in 1975 alone he had been arrested for fighting five times. He told me his biggest regret was that he couldn’t be just like his father, Lacey (whose name he had tattooed on his left upper arm), saying, “I couldn’t be like him. I don’t even expect to live very long, because I’m living too fast.... I have the same problem Janis Joplin had, but worse. I’m not even going to see 30.” There was a terrible eloquence in his words that last night—he was just a month from his 28th birthday—and I remember leaving the bar feeling depressed, and of two minds over whether I should include that in my piece for CREEM. In the end I decided to use it, in what turned out to be terrible prophesy. I’m not sure who else he told. His father told me 20 years later when I visited him in Jacksonville that his son had announced the same thing to an audience in Scotland. But that didn’t make me understand why he told me.
When my piece “Lynyrd Skynyrd: Fifths & Fists for the Common Man” came out (March 1, 1976), nobody made much out of his prediction, neither the staff nor the readers. I’m not sure I truly believed Van Zant myself; I told him he was probably suffering a case of end-of-tour burnout. Or I hoped that’s all it was. But I was wrong. Dead wrong. And he knew.
Two years later, I was living in Los Angeles. On Oct. 20, 1977, I happened to be at a show—I don’t remember whose, but mid-set the band abruptly stopped in the middle of a song to make the announcement that Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane had crashed in a small town in Mississippi, and five people had died but hadn’t been identified yet. I felt a chill run through my body; there was no doubt in my mind, Ronnie was gone. I guess some people just know how their story ends, no matter how much you wish they were wrong.