40 Years Ago: Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Gary Rossington and Allen Collins Crash Their Cars
Years of hard work and tough touring were finally paying off for Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1976 — and then it all threatened to come to a literal screeching halt.
The band was hit with a pair of near-tragedies over Labor Day weekend that year, when guitarists Gary Rossington and Allen Collins were both involved in a pair of potentially disastrous car accidents. Collins emerged the better off of the two, but Rossington was injured seriously enough that Skynyrd were forced to postpone some concert dates — leaving frontman Ronnie Van Zant ticked off enough to fine them $5,000 each.
"It’s a terrible thing when you get behind the wheel and you’re so drunk that you can’t drive a car to begin with. Those boys will pay for it. Allen hit a parked Volkswagen and knocked it across an empty parking lot. That was just a fender-bender compared to Gary’s," Van Zant seethed. "I can’t tell you how mad I got at him for that. We’re glad he’s gonna make it, he’s tremendously lucky to be alive, but it was his fault. He passed out at the wheel of his brand new Ford Torino, with his foot on the gas. He knocked down a telephone pole, split an oak tree and did $7,000 worth of damage to a house. That’s being just plain stupid. I told him that on his hospital bed."
As Van Zant noted, both crashes were chemically induced. Collins and Rossington had both been drinking before their wrecks, while Rossington had reportedly also been taking Quaaludes. Increasingly fed up with the band's rowdy image, Van Zant was inspired to write a song about the incident for their next LP, 1977's Street Survivors. Titled "That Smell," the future Skynyrd classic referenced the accidents in an effort to force his bandmates to see the potential impact of their irresponsible behavior.
"Whiskey bottles, and brand new cars," Van Zant sings in the opening lines. "Oak tree you're in my way / There's too much coke and too much smoke / Look what's going on inside you / Ooooh that smell / Can't you smell that smell ... The smell of death surrounds you."
Sadly, the band would soon meet with a tragedy having nothing to do with the band members' indulgences. Three days after the release of Street Survivors, their plane went down, killing three members of the group, a tour manager and both pilots. Rossington and Collins both survived their serious injuries, but Skynyrd were never the same — though the surviving members eventually found their way back together, and Rossington grew to gain perspective on that dangerously undisciplined time.
"I did get in a car wreck, but we got a good song out of it," Rossington said in 2015. "I still remember the day we cut that in the studio. ... Eventually I learned that drugs are just horrible for you, but that’s the way it was in rock and roll in our time. I can’t do any of that stuff now. I’m not in such great health. I’ve had some heart problems and I’m on the straight and narrow. It’s a lot better than being f---ed up all the time, and I thank God I made it through those days."
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