By Jim Jerome
Updated November 07, 1977 12:00 PM

Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll, Too Young to Die is just a sardonic song by the Jethro Tull group. The terrible reality of this 25-year-old art form is that a disproportionate number of its stars have died in their creative prime. Some OD’d on the instant fame and the temptations of too much disposable income. Some artists confused drugs and drink for a muse until they became a fatal addiction, especially in combination with overpowered motorcycles and cars. Life in the fast lane (as the Eagles hymned it) only worsened the actuarial odds. The more money that was spent on dangerous pursuits, the more that had to be earned on merciless touring schedules in which the all-night travel miles—and the risk—inexorably mounted. Sometimes, admittedly, the blame was greedy management or perverse fate. But major figures from Buddy Holly (1959) to Otis Redding (1967) and Jim Croce (1973) were lost in plane crashes. The latest was buried near his native Jacksonville last week. He was Ronnie Van Zant, 28, co-founder, writer and lead singer of Lynyrd Skynyrd. It had supplanted the Allman Brothers as the reigning Southern boogie band and as a leading U.S. challenger to the British hegemony of the concert coliseums.

The group members who eight years ago were working $100-a-week Florida honky-tonks this year reached a new peak of commercial importance—and threat of drunken self-destruction. Single-concert guarantees ranged up to $150,000. Three of their LPs sold a million. At the same time Van Zant was noting, “We made the Who look like church boys on Sunday. We done things only fools’d do.” Ronnie, after a dozen arrests for brawling and misconduct himself, helped convince Lynyrd Skynyrd this summer that “we had one last chance to get it together—we ain’t getting any younger.” Their latest LP, Street Survivors, which just hit the stores gold, had been recorded, uncharacteristically, cold sober. Similarly, they jokingly dubbed the three-month, 50-city journey they launched last month as “the torture tour”—their first in years when they would try to face audiences without being dead drunk.

Then, between Greenville, S.C. and Baton Rouge, en route to their fifth date, the band’s chartered Convair 240 prop jet, reportedly low on fuel, nosedived into a swampy thicket in southwest Mississippi. Van Zant was killed instantly. Also dead at the site were guitarist Steve Gaines; his backup vocalist, sister Cassie Gaines; the assistant road manager, and the two-man flight crew. There were 20 survivors, but many were hospitalized. If ever reconstituted, Lynyrd Skynyrd could not be the same. Stunned and mournful, the rock world had lost one of its most colorful and distinctive artists.

A few days before his final week on the road, Van Zant had invited PEOPLE’s Jim Jerome for a rare interview at his home in Doctor’s Inlet, Fla. Jerome’s report:

The most devastating irony of the Skynyrd tragedy was that Ronnie Van Zant really seemed to be recovering from what he himself described as “five years of alcoholism.” Anyone who had heard his pained and snarling blues delivery in performance, seen his barefoot inebriated swagger and met him backstage afterward—often thick-lidded and stuporous—would hardly have recognized him. Alert and athletic, he was trimmer than he had appeared in years and exuberantly personable in conversation.

It was a jolt to meet the new Van Zant, legendary trasher of hotels, when he knocked on the door announcing “Room service.” He strode in confidently, his long hair past his shoulders, shoeless and precariously carrying a huge tray of food playfully borrowed from a bellboy. “Will that be all?” he asked, before cracking into a smile. It made one believe that musicians as well as politicians can be reborn. As he hunched over the wheel of his pickup truck driving to his lakeside home 30 minutes from Jacksonville, Ronnie was a vision of self-renewal.

He pointed out the track where he was jogging two miles daily to get in shape for the tour, and he detailed the high-protein diet his wife was holding him to. Then he gave in and stopped for a six-pack, apologizing, “This is the most I’ll have drunk in the past six weeks.” As the guided tour continued, he drove by a prison farm. “Hey,” he said, “if prisons, freight trains, swamps and gators don’t get ya to write songs, man, y’ain’t got no business writin’ songs.” Once at his home, the serenity he enjoyed around his wife of five years, Judy, and daughter Melody was clear. (He also had a daughter, now 10, by a failed previous marriage.) Van Zant crawled around on the living room rug, circling an armchair with his delighted daughter on it, playing “gonna GETCHA.” “The baby’s had a lot to do with my maturing,” he believed.

Ronnie showed off his own superstar toy, a ’54 white Mercedes “that I found settin’ up on blocks in a junk shop. Found out there was only nine in the world,” he explained, “and I put $11,000 into it already.” Then Van Zant decided to try some fishing. He carried three poles and a long sleek gun “to blow away any gators that might come up on my land.” While casually fly-casting and sipping beer, he talked about his tumultuous past. “I was abusin’ myself on the road, because after all, man, if it ain’t fun, it ain’t worth it.” But he didn’t condone the “fool things” like pouring Jack Daniel’s into the TV set until it exploded. “If you’re into drinkin’ and tearin’ up hotels and blowin’ gigs, that’s fine. But it’ll take years off your life too. I ain’t as old as I look,” he added, “and there are plenty of false teeth in our group. There’s been treatment by doctors and hospitalizations for our drinkin’.”

The extent of treatment was understandable, as his narrative of the bad old nights continued. “We were doing bottles of Dom Pérignon, fifths of whiskey, wine and beer, and we’d all have to puke once each before goin’ onstage. We couldn’t even remember the order of the songs. Some guy crouched behind an amp and shouted them to us. We once looked at tapes of shows—man, we was sloppy drunk,” he flushed. “I couldn’t believe kids applauded for that shit.” Other audiences—around his hometown, oddly—were less accepting, and he hadn’t played there in six years. Ronnie claimed he was once so zonked “I spit up one of my tonsils onstage and walked off. The people demolished our equipment, threw bottles, and four cops were hurt.”

Later that October evening, which was to be one of his last at home, Van Zant was visited by his two younger brothers, both lead vocalists in rock groups—Donnie with the promising 38 Special and Johnnie with the local Austin Nichols Band. His brawny ex-trucker dad, Lacy—who first got young Ronnie hooked on music while highballing up the East Coast to the crackling sound of country (their favorite: Haggard)—also stopped by. Van Zant grew up in a tough shantytown section of Jacksonville, got his first highs singing with the family’s Holy Roller church choir. As a teenager he had already formed a primitive precursor of Lynyrd Skynyrd with Gary Rossington and Allen Collins, both guitarists (and survivors of the crash). The title was a corruption of the name Leonard Skinner, who was a hard-nosed high school phys ed teacher.

The name began to mean something nationally in 1974 with their hit single, Sweet Home Alabama. As for their own Florida home, Lynyrd Skynyrd was rarely off the road for more than days at a time. That was before this summer, when Van Zant seemed ready to end the disorienting years on the run. He’d bought 29 acres of choice Tennessee hill country where the family had recently camped out for a few days, but Ronnie also pondered a more family-style neighborhood in Jacksonville. As he said in his idiom, “My wife don’t want our daughter to grow up a swamp hermit. Other kids’ll be good for her.” Yet on the eve of tour rehearsals, Van Zant conceded he felt restless after the unprecedented six weeks hiatus. He could not deny that “the road is home to you after 12 years. I went crazy eight years ago,” he said with a devilish grin, “so the road don’t matter no more.”

What did matter to Ronnie Van Zant was headlining for the first time ever at New York’s Madison Square Garden. To him the gig—it would have been next week—represented Lynyrd Skynyrd’s official recognition among the rock superelite. He also knew, looking back, that he had given—and taken—a lot to earn the honor. “In the beginning,” he said, “we used to play one joint till midnight for kids; then they turned it into a bottle club and we’d go til 6 a.m. It really tightened us up as a band,” he recalled. “When you’re from the South, man, you learn to work your ass off, and we did. It was HELLATIOUS.” He stopped and turned to invite a lasting eye contact. After a pause he added: “Hellatious and the best years of our lives.”