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Ronnie Van Zant Of Lynyrd Skynyrd Predicted His Own Death

Music | January 15, 2020

Ronnie Van Zant of Lynyrd Skynyrd in a recording studio, August 12, 1977. Photo by Tom Hill/WireImage

When Lynyrd Skynyrd's Ronnie Van Zant died in a plane crash at the age of 29, music fans were shocked and saddened, but the accident seemed to make good on dark premonitions the singer had been sharing for years. As far as rock ’n roll legends go, the plane crash that killed three members of Lynyrd Skynyrd -- Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, backing vocalist Cassie Gaines -- as well as members of their crew and the pilots is one story that never fades away. Aside from being something that could have been averted, the crash has the air of an urban legend surrounding it. Members of the band were involved in car accidents leading up to the crash, many of their songs were about characters who lived on the razor’s edge between life and death, and then there was the fact that Ronnie Van Zant predicted his death multiple times.

Van Zant knew he wasn’t going to survive the crash

source: morrison hotel gallery

On the evening of October 20, 1977, the band boarded their chartered Convair CV-240, a plane that was built in the 1940s and that had taken nearly 30,000 flights. The band would have had better luck flying a tin can to Baton Rouge. Aside from the CV-240’s age there were plenty of things wrong with the plane. Not only did it not have enough fuel to make the trip, but its right engine had been sputtering and shooting flames during its most recent flights.

Still, the band got on board that evening and settled in for a night of partying on their way to Louisiana. When the right engine went out everyone on board panicked, but according to drummer Artimus Pyle, Van Zant rose from the floor where he was getting a massage and calmly walked to his seat after shaking the drummer’s hand. Pyle told Rolling Stone, “Ronnie knew that he was going to die.”

Van Zant knew he wouldn't live to see 30

source: abbeville institute

Long before the disastrous final flight, Van Zant was telling anyone who would listen that he wouldn’t live beyond the age of 30. Pyle said that during one tour of Japan that Van Zant said that he had a feeling he’d die while he was still in the band:

Ronnie and I were in Tokyo, Japan, and Ronnie told me that he would never live to see thirty and that he would go out with his boots on, in other words, on the road. I said, 'Ronnie, don't talk like that,' but the man knew his destiny.

Van Zant’s band members weren’t the only people who were privy to the singer’s premonitions. His father noted that the frontman had a “second sight” and that he often shared his gloomy future with anyone who would listen. Van Zant’s father said:

He said to me many times, 'Daddy, I'll never be 30 years old.' I said, 'Why are you talking this junk? You will never be 30 years old?’ and he said, 'Daddy, that's my limit.

Multiple members of the band were in near fatal car accidents before the plane crash

source: pinterest

Something about Lynyrd Skynyrd’s vibe seemed to court death and destruction. After their initial success it wasn’t out of the ordinary for one the guys to wrap their car around a telephone pole. In 1976 guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins were both in their own car accidents over Labor Day weekend. Collins hit a parked Volkswagen and “knocked it across an empty parking lot,” but Rossington nearly lost his life.

The guitarist was blackout drunk and ended speeding down the highway in his new Ford Torino when he plowed through a telephone pole before splitting an oak tree and crashing into a house and causing $7,000 worth of damage. Van Zant was upset as bandmates, but more than anything he felt like the grim reaper was creeping up on them. He said:

I had a creepy feeling things were going against us, so I thought I’d write a morbid song.

Van Zant’s wife knew he perished in the crash

source: pinterest

It can’t be easy to live with someone who has the second sight, or even just premonitions about their own death. It’s like living with a ghost. The singer’s wife, Judy, explained that Ronnie had talked about his own fateful ending so many times that she was certain he was right. When she heard the news that the band was involved in a plane crash she knew that her husband was gone. In 2016 Van Zant’s former wife described the moment that she knew her husband was no longer of this Earth:

When I heard that there had been a plane crash, I just knew Ronnie was one of the ones that didn’t make it. He told me so many times that I realized that he really knew what he was talking about.

A backup singer dreamt of the group’s death

source: society of rock

Before the band hopped on their doomed flight, backup singer JoJo Billingsley warned guitarist Allen Collins to keep the band off the plane. She claims that while she was preparing to meet the band in Little Rock, Arkansas she had a dream where their plane crashed, engulfing the band in flames. She says:

I saw them screaming and crying, and I saw fire. I woke up screaming, and my mom came running in going, ‘Honey what is it?’ I said ‘Mama, I dreamed the plane crashed!’ And she said, ‘No, honey, it’s just a dream.’ And I said, ‘No, mom, it’s too real!'

“That Smell” predicted the band’s demise

source: MCA

Following the 1976 car accidents of Rossington and Collins, the band set to work on what would be their final album as the original group, "Street Survivors." The LP featured the track “That Smell,” a song inspired by the guitarist’s drunk driving accidents. While the track could just be a simple anti drinking and driving song, the lyrics have a eerie prescient nature to them. Referencing “the angel of death upon you,” the “smell of death” and featuring the line “say you'll be alright come tomorrow, but tomorrow might not be here for you,” the song is like a premonition for what’s to come. Aside from the spooky lyrics, the album shows the band on fire. Years later it’s still unsettling to look at. It looks like Ronnie knew something bad was about to happen to the band.

Tags: 1970s Music | Lynyrd Skynyrd | Plane Crashes | RIP (Famous Deaths) | Ronnie Van Zant

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.