Sometimes Artimus Pyle wonders, “What would Ronnie Van Zant think about cellphones? Or computers?” After telling me this over the phone, Pyle chuckles. There’s a hint of blue in there. Still, it’s clear the classic-era Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer’s laughter is mostly from warm thoughts of his departed friend and bandmate.
Likewise, there are melancholic moments in the new Skynyrd documentary “If I Leave Here Tomorrow.” With the band’s airplane-crash-savaged arc, it’s impossible to avoid them completely.
But the film is more focused on melody than tragedy, and on this legendary Jacksonville, Fla. band’s unforgettable music. “If I Leave Here Tomorrow” tells the incredible story of how Lynyrd Skynyrd, led by charismatic-but-never-hotdogging frontman Van Zant, created “Free Bird,” “Sweet Home Alabama,” “Simple Man” and other immaculate, immortal Southern-rock songs. And the dizzying journey that music took those musicians on.
Directed by Stephen Kijak, “If I Leave Here Tomorrow” premieres 8 p.m. central Aug. 18 on Showtime.
The film takes viewers to Skynyrd sacred grounds like the site of Hell House, the sweaty cabin early Skynyrd rehearsed, near an alligator-populated creek. “It’s a mythic little place, really,” Kijak says. With Van Zant at the helm, early members of Skynyrd, including guitarists Gary Rossington, Ed King and Allen Collins, bassist Leon Wilkeson, pianist Billy Powell and drummer Bob Burns, carved out future ubiquity at the Hell House. Unlike many other bellbottom-era bands, Skynyrd did little improvising. Instead they honed and orchestrated all those guitar parts, piano curlicues, vocal melodies and rhythm section grooves. The daily rehearsals often began at a very un-rock ‘n’ roll hour of 8 a.m.
“And it was like for years. Seven years,” Kijak says. “Who the hell would have the patience to do that anymore? In those conditions? It’s just ridiculous. That they emerged fully formed from the swamps, it’s kind of true. But they worked at it so hard.”
“If I Leave Here Tomorrow” boasts stirring new footage from the site of Skynyrd’s Oct. 20, 1977, airplane crash in Gillsberg, Miss. Immediately following a raucous opening credits sequence featuring vintage Skynyrd visuals and boogie, the film cuts to present-day video cruising just above green and gray treetops at the site.
It’s chilling for a fan to watch. It’s even more so to do if your name is Artimus Pyle. “I’d lock up a little when I’d see those drone shots,” Pyle says now of watching the doc’s crash site footage. “There’s still a scar on planet Earth from where we hit 40 years ago.” Pyle survived the crash that claimed the lives of six Skynyrd musicians and their entourage, including Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines and backing singer Cassie Gaines, Steve’s sister, and famously ran for help. The band was on their way from Greenville, S.C. to a Baton Rouge gig, when their plane crashed a little before 7 p.m.
At one point in the new film, a local digs into the ground at the site and finds a piece of that rickety Convair CV-240 still in the ground. It’s amazing in a world where fake memorabilia is frequently hawked on eBay, a legitimate chunk of rock history could still be out there in the Mississippi dirt, 40-plus years later.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Kijak says. “I think what had happened was they had dug in a new access road and it turned up stuff that had been buried. Because that’s really what they did with the pieces that weren’t salvaged off the site. They dug a hole and buried them. And over time, they just turned them up.”
For Pyle to see one more piece of the wreckage that killed his friends and cut his band’s trajectory, “wasn’t easy,” he says. “But it’s just a little jolt and everything’s going to be OK, you know?” Pyle says he stills thinks about the plane crash every day. Airplanes have played a fateful role in the drummer’s life. His father had previously died in a plane crash. Kijak had reservations about visiting the crash site for the film. In the end he decided to proceed. “There’s no getting around the fact that it happened,” the director says. “I doubt Ronnie Van Zant would have romanticized his own death, so why should we, right?”
Visiting totemic sites and early Skynyrd haunts in Jacksonville, including the Van Zant family’s old house, give “If I Leave Here Tomorrow” a present tense and sense of place. But more importantly, the film boasts extensive new interviews with the three surviving members of classic Skynyrd: Pyle, Rossington and King. ” I think it was important to get as many of the original voices, telling it their way, as possible,” Kijak says.
Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band, another Florida founded group, are the twin towers of Southern rock bands. People tend to assimilate every member of Skynyrd into one, Dixie-fried, good ol’ boy caricature. But the truth is, that was anything but the case. This is very much illuminated in “If I Leave Here Tomorrow.” Pyle is the cerebral, left-wing, vegetarian hippie. Rossington is a simply spoken, drawling Southerner who readily admits to not knowing how to do much more than fish or play guitar. King is the pragmatic California native who splits the difference between the poles of Pyle and Rossington. “You talk about tension and conflict,” Kijak says. “And it created complexity these things, to hear the story from the three guys who are among the last to tell it.” Despite their personality differences, Pyle, Rossington and King are each effective at getting their points across in the film.
Some of those points involve dichotomies with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s image and music. There’s a segment about side-winding 1975 single “Saturday Night Special.” Van Zant, whose history of violence while intoxicated is well documented, explains his anti-handgun stance in a sourced audio interview. Rossington talks about the band’s longtime use of a giant Confederate Battle Flag as a stage background. “We never ever one time meant the Confederate flag to offend anyone, but I know it’s naive to say that too because it does hurt people,” Rossington says in the film. “And it does remind them of the war and slavery and all that. But we weren’t into it for all that. We were just showing where we were from. Southern music.” The guitarist also discusses the band’s stance on former Alabama governor George Wallace, who’s mentioned by name in the “Sweet Home Alabama” lyrics: ” A lot of people believed in segregation and all that. We didn’t. We put the, ‘Boo! Boo! Boo!’ in there, it was saying we don’t like Wallace. We just loved The South attitude, the Southern playing, all the Southern states.”
In the film, “Rossington also speaks to the inspiration behind “Sweet Home,” one of classic-rock’s most enduring anthems. ” We used to do clubs and teen dances and stuff all around Alabama and driving through the country it was beautiful. And great people. And if you had trouble they’d come out to help you.” Of course the lyrics were also a response to Canadian folk-rocker Neil Young’s finger-pointing songs “Southern Man” and “Alabama.” “We didn’t like him cutting down Southern guys,” Rossington says in the film. Another “If I Leave Here Tomorrow” scene finds King describing the genesis of “Sweet Home Alabama” intro licks he came up with on the spot on his Stratocaster at the Hell House, to complement some chording Rossington was doing that day.
Kijak’s film boasts new interviews with childhood friends of the band and with producer Al Kooper, who helmed the band’s first two albums. (A fantastic Kooper quote from the film, talking about Van Zant: “I feared him.”) Sourced interviews with Burns, Collins, Powell and other departed characters, such as crew etc., help fill in the cracks. There are also interviews with The Honkettes, the female backing singers who worked with Skynyrd. In addition to familiar video images from the band’s famous 1976 performance at England’s Knebworth Fair Festival, there’s a lot of Super 8 footage from smaller shows. And a trove of personal photographs. For example, Keith Elson who worked in the vintage Lynyrd Skynyrd crew and later became a record producer for the likes of Journey, contributed a scrapbook filled with early Skynyrd snapshots, including from their pre-success sessions at Alabama studio Muscle Shoals Sound.
Kijak’s film tells how nine record companies passed on the Muscle Shoals Sound recordings, which included an early version of “Free Bird.” So how does Kijak think Skynyrd’s arc might’ve been different if there’d been a taker on those early Muscle Shoals tracks. “It probably would’ve been very different.,” the director says. “Maybe they would’ve been signed early, and they didn’t really have their chops up. One, two records, maybe it would’ve tanked. We will never know. It’s not a question a lot of people ask. Everyone’s like, ‘What would they have been like if they’d never crashed?’ Or, ‘What would they have been like in the ’80s?'”
Kijak’s previous films include 2010 “Exile on Main St” doc “Stones in Exile.” Some of his personal favorite music documentaries include quintessential Rolling Stones film “Gimme Shelter” and “Be Here to Love Me,” about doomed tunesmith Townes Van Zandt (nope, not “Zant” like Ronnie).
Before making “If I Leave Here Tomorrow,” Kijak liked Skynyrd’s music but wasn’t a fan per se. A friend who’d grown up in Georgia had been bending Kijak’s ear about doing a Lynyrd Skynyrd film for about 10 years. When CMT finally commissioned him for such a project, he was familiar enough with the backstory “the pump was primed.” But Kijak, who grew up in Massachusetts and currently resides in the Los Angeles area, was able to dig in without too much bias, positive or negative. “Then it was just a real privilege,” Kijak says, “to discover album by album, track by track, those studio records, which I’d never sat down and listened to straight through. It’s just a magnificent body of work.”
The long list of Skynyrd classics includes “Tuesday’s Gone,” “Don’t Ask Me No Questions,” “The Ballad of Curtis Loew,” Gimme Three Steps,” etc. And they presented a challenge for the documentary, Kijak says. “Those hits are so pervasive it takes a lot of scrubbing down under the surface to kind of find or understand a story that feels fresh about them. To kind of find amazement at their origin.”
Working on the film, the director became a big fan of 1975’s “Nuthin’ Fancy,” considered by some to be a “lesser” Skynyrd LP. “Most bands would kill to have their not-so-great-record as great as ‘Nuthin’ Fancy,'” Kijak says. “It doesn’t have a lot of the hits on it. It’s just got a real mood and a feel.”
Asked for his top Skynyrd deep cuts, Pyle cites the stirring “Every Mother’s Son,” as well as “All I Can Do About It Is Write About It” and “Am I Losin’.” The drummer says, “I like that song ‘Was I Right Or Wrong,’ which was kind of an obscure song about Ronnie leaving home to make it big, and when he came home to show how big he’d made it both his parents were in the graveyard.” But he adds, “There’s not a bad Lynyrd Skynyrd song.”
In addition to all those hits, Skynyrd is known for their three-guitar onslaught. “If I Leave Here Tomorrow” points out their 1973 debut LP, “(Pronounced ‘Leh-‘nerd ‘Skin-‘nerd),” is just as much a piano record as a guitar record though, thanks to Powell’s articulate playing. But make no mistake, Pyle says. Van Zant, with his common-man lyrics and poised, Paul Rodgers-influenced vocals, was what made Lynyrd Skynyrd special. “He’s the one that had the vision,” Pyle says. ‘He’s the one that wrote the songs. I know other guys’ names were on it, but the impetus was Ronnie from the beginning.”
The film is one of few things in recent memory to unify classic era Skynyrd factions. It would take a separate article to detail the copious lawsuits zinging from just about every corner. Some earlier legal actions, which began after the 1987 reunion turned ugly, are detailed in “Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Uncivil War,” a weaselly 2002 VH1 documentary helmed by Jack Tapper, before Tapper had his CNN polish and expensive haircut and suits.
The latest legal action involves a biopic Pyle collaborated on. Plaintiffs in that case include Skynyrd guitarist Gary Rossington, the lone original member still touring with the band, and the heirs of Van Zant and Gaines. ” It’s about the day of, the day before and they day after the airplane crash,” Pyle says of the biopic, reportedly titled “Street Survivor.” “And there’s only one person in the world that knows that story and that’s me. I think there’s a lot of Skynyrd fans who would like to know what happened that fateful night, that fateful day. And the story does that.” Pyle says the release of his memoir is also tied up in court, but both the book and the film have been completed.
“If I Leave Here Tomorrow” skips over the lawsuits. It barely touches on the reunion too. But the vintage band and songs are why most people care about Lynyrd Skynyrd, so to keep the film a manageable length (about 95 minutes), those decisions make sense. Kijak says, “We were just there to tell, not necessarily a falsely positive story, but it was a celebration of something. As opposed to like an expose, ‘Let’s air all the dirty laundry. Again.‘ Nobody wants that.”
It took about a year for Kijak to make “If I Leave Here Tomorrow.” According to Pyle, the film was narrowed down from 30 hours of footage.
The finished project includes new footage of Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie’s younger brother who’s fronted the rebooted (and now winding-down) Skynyrd, driving Rossington around Jacksonville in a white SUV. “This really was about making sure Gary was able to tell his story,” Kijak says. “Johnny really wanted to help facilitate that. And he was really lovely. Having him around and get Gary thinking about memory lane and revisiting things in the past. That really helped open him up with it.”
Pyle would like to be in direct contact with Rossington again. Although their past, post-reunion differences are well-documented, the drummer says, “I miss him and I love him” and it made his “heart feel good” to hear Rossington describe in the new documentary how Pyle, a former Marine, would stand up for the band, when Van Zant became drunk and abusive. Through a Skynyrd publicist, I requested an interview with Rossington, but he was not made available.
Walk into any live-music bar in The South any given night and you’ve got a decent shot of hearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd song covered. Rob Aldridge & The Proponents are one of the bands that do that. Based in North Alabama, The Proponents released a strong self-titled debut this year, and play a potent live cover of Skynyrd’s “I Ain’t the One.” “People take for granted the depth and precision of their music,” singer/guitarist Aldridge says. “Even their hits are rarely covered properly. For me personally, I think the accessibility and virtuosity of Skynyrd, puts them into a category with Steely Dan.” As a songwriter, Aldridge admires, “how Ronnie’s lyrics and delivery are so genuine. A lot of times he’s singing really hard, but it still comes across in a conversational way.” Lynyrd Skynyrd music has been a part of Aldridge’s life as far back he came remember.
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