Lynyrd Skynyrd singer Johnny Van Zant knows death.
When he was a teenager, his older brother Ronnie, then the lead singer and chief lyricist of Skynyrd, died in a fiery plane crash at age 29 in 1977. This year, Johnny’s daughter, Lindsay, died of cancer at age 35.
Van Zant, 58, knows that his band — Lynyrd Skynyrd, those Southern rockers who made it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — will never die even though the long-haired boys are in the midst of their farewell tour.
“I’ve been in the band — what, 31 years? — and I can honestly say this is the most proudest I’ve ever been,” Van Zant said this month. “It amazes me that this music is generational. Even after we’re done, there’s going to be another generation of fans that goes, ‘Hey, this band Skynyrd was really cool.’ The music is going to keep goin’ on long after we’re gone.”
Indeed, “Free Bird,” “That Smell,” “Sweet Home Alabama” and the other songs will live on.
With Skynyrd due for its Twin Cities swan song at Xcel Energy Center on Friday, Van Zant called from his Florida home to talk about his brother Ronnie, “Free Bird,” the Confederate flag, gun control and all things Skynyrd, including the fact that he never had the band’s namesake, Leonard Skinner, as a gym teacher at Robert E. Lee High School in Jacksonville, Fla.
On why Skynyrd is doing a farewell tour: Guitarist Gary Rossington, 66, the band’s leader and last surviving original member, was having heart problems, making it difficult for him to tour.
The group — which reunited in 1987 following the 1977 plane crash that killed three members — never discussed going on without Rossington.
“We wanted to go out with our boots on high and come riding in like we do,” Van Zant said.
On how the tour is going: “Wonderful,” Van Zant said.
Rossington is doing “great” because he got a pacemaker. Said Van Zant: “Gary said, ‘If I’d known that, I would have had one put in a long time ago.’ ”
On what goes through Van Zant’s mind when he sings “Free Bird” every night: For years, Van Zant resisted singing the song because “I always thought Ronnie was the only person who could sing that.” So the re-formed band merely did an instrumental version.
Then Rossington came up to Van Zant in Sacramento one night and said: “Ronnie was a singer and a songwriter. He wants you to do this. I just don’t feel comfortable with it not being sang.’”
Said Van Zant: “I went out and did it. I’ve been doing it ever since.
“This year, it’s very emotional. I’m thinking, how many more times am I going to be doing this?”
On why Skynyrd has lasted so long: “Because it’s fricking real music,” Van Zant opined. “What you see is what you get.
“It’s an amazing story when you think about a bunch of guys who are probably not going to have a great life. Most of ’em probably would have ended up in jail. Well, they did go to jail quite a few times,” he said and laughed. “But they got together and made some great music that stuck.”
On what made Ronnie Van Zant special: “Ronnie was a fricking poet, a common-people poet. He spoke from his heart. God gave him a talent to relate to people through song.
“It all stems from our dad and mom. We wasn’t rich in dollars but we were rich in family, rich in courtesy, treat people right. We were common folks; they raised us right. There’s no rock-star thing here.”
On audiences in the North and the South: “The reaction is the same,” Van Zant observed.
“I think there’s more rebels in the North than in the South these days. When I say rebel, I mean James Dean rebel. Everyone wants to be a little tougher and have a good time.”
On Confederate flags at Skynyrd concerts: The band stopped using the Confederate flag as part of its concerts in 2012, but there is no ban on fans bringing their own to shows, whereas the Atlanta-based Zac Brown Band forbids them.
“If somebody wants to bring something — as long as it’s not a gun — it’s OK,” Van Zant said. “I’m not a politician. I’m not one to tell someone what not to do. I’m gonna stick to: We play music, y’all do the rest.”
On gun control, a subject Ronnie Van Zant addressed in the popular 1975 song “Saturday Night Special”: “I’m a gun owner,” Van Zant said without hesitation. “I do agree with having more background checks. No one, in my opinion, should own an assault rifle that shoots more than once. I’m with Ronnie in that handguns are made for killing. I don’t even own a handgun. I own shotguns. I love shooting. I’m not a hunter anymore. I also want to be able to protect my family.”
On Skynyrd’s role in this divided nation: Van Zant doesn’t see a role for the band at all — except maybe to set an example.
“I was a Democrat before I was a Republican. So I have liberal ways and Republican ways. I see both sides. These people in power are not even wanting to work with each other. But, hey, I’m just a common guy. We have Democrats in Lynyrd Skynyrd, we have Republicans, we have independents. We all sit around and talk about stuff.”
On Leonard Skinner, the band’s namesake: He was the unpopular gym teacher for many of the band members because he gave them a hard time about their long hair. But Van Zant, who is a dozen years younger than Ronnie, didn’t have Skinner as a teacher.
“That was a little bit before my time,” he said. “I got to meet him a few times. We did a thing at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and one of interviewers asked him how it felt to have a band named after you. ‘It’s cool,’ he said. He was a man of few words.”
On what’s next: Another Lynyrd Skynyrd studio album — its 10th since re-forming — is planned because the band is contractually obligated to deliver one. A DVD of the group’s Jacksonville farewell concert is set to be released next year. The group also will do the occasional performance at charity events.
Van Zant has been writing songs with his brother, Donnie Van Zant, former longtime lead singer of 38 Special, for a duo album.
“I’m going to do a gospel album,” Van Zant promised. “I’ve got some things on my bucket list.”
On how Skynyrd should be remembered: “A common band,” Van Zant said. “No matter whether we were sick or what, we went onstage every night and gave it our all. Playing live. No computer playing the music. It was a real deal. "There have been so many people who've come up and said 'Free Bird' was played at their graduation or at funerals. And ' 'That Smell' helped me get off drugs.' It's a pretty amazing thing. "I've always said: 'I go to church. I've got a great preacher who says things in great ways that makes you want to come back next Sunday.' Through songs sometimes, you can preach to people without them even knowing it. I think that's what Ronnie did with his music.”