Every group needs a leader, and in Lynyrd SkynyrdIn the case of Ronnie Van Zant. Standing just over five and a half feet in his cowboy boots, which he lacked in physical stature, he made up for in his presence and attitude.
Quick-tempered and quick-fisted, Ronnie ruled Skynyrd with an iron rod. When he drank, he turned into that late guitarist Gary Rossington called “a badass who loved to fight”, and Rossington and his comrades had the blues to prove it.
This alcohol-fueled propensity for violence was at the heart of one of the most infamous incidents of Skynyrd’s career, a drunken bust in a German hotel room memorably dubbed “The Bloodbath In Hamburg”. He saw an inebriated Van Zant smash a bottle over the head of one of his bandmates and use the shards to slice off the hands of Rossington, an injury that could have ended the playing career of the guitarist.
When Rossington spoke to classic rock in 2019, he remembered The Bloodbath In Hamburg in vivid detail. “The only thing we argued about was the music,” the guitarist said. “Or someone got too drunk. Usually Ronnie.
Skynyrd had arrived in the German city on October 14, 1975, where their European tour was to begin the following night. Everything was fine until they got to the hotel bar.
“We drank beer and whiskey every night – Scotch or Jack Daniel’s, and sometimes champagne,” Rossington said. “But the guy in the hotel bar gave us cold peppermint schnapps. We had never seen that, never heard of schnapps. They had the glass all frozen – tastes good. So we were just pushing them back.
Jet-lagged and inebriated, the group returned to their hotel rooms. Unfortunately for everyone, Ronnie’s temper was seething.
“He was so drunk,” Rossington recalled. “He started a fight with someone, I think it was our road manager. Two of us were trying to take him down, then he took that fucking bottle and smashed it over our head. tour manager and it broke. You have to hit someone hard to break a bottle. And it drove our tour manager crazy – it was bleeding a bit.
It was then that Van Zant went for Rossington with the broken bottle. “He said, ‘I’m going to chop off your hands, you’ll never play guitar again. And he cut me off [indicating slice marks on both hands] here and there and up there.
Things could have been much worse without Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle.
“I remember Artimus going really crazy,” recalls Rossington, whose hands were bleeding at the time. “He was an ex-Marine and in great shape, and he had a wild side too. He was throwing Ronnie everywhere, the first time he did that. Artimus finally put him on the bed and was on top of him, the insulting and shouting. It was crazy.”
With Pyle and the rest of the band restraining their furious vocalist, Rossington and fellow guitarist Allen Collins headed to the nearest emergency room. The two musicians – neither of them spoke German – tried to convey the gravity of what had happened to the doctors who were trying to stop the bleeding and sew up Rossington’s wounds.
“I was trying to say, ‘It’s important, I’m playing with my hands,’” Rossington said. “Allen was like, ‘Hey man, don’t fuck it.
In the end, the guitarist had 10 stitches in one hand and 11 in the other. But when he got back to the hotel, he found his singer in less than contrite mood. Rather than apologize, Ronnie told the Rossington “to catch the first flight home tomorrow”.
The latter had none. “I said, ‘Nah’, and that was it.”
Rossington did the show which took place the night after The Bloodbath In Hamburg, but with both hands bandaged and unable to perform all but the most basic licks (Ronnie himself did not escape injury – one of his own hands was wrapped in bandages).
“I played the gigs,” Rossington said classic rock. “I had to.”
Ronnie died just over two years later in the plane crash which also claimed the lives of Skynyrd guitarist Steve Gaines, backing vocalist Cassie Gaines and three others. However, despite the events in Hamburg and his tendency to drunkenness, Rossington – who himself passed away on March 6, 2023 after a long period of poor health – says classic rock that he only kept love and respect for the singer.
“Ronnie was a father figure, he really was,” Rossington said. “I used to say to [Rossington’s wife] Dale, ‘I wish I could talk to Ronnie, ask him what I should do with this.’ So that’s what I started doing. If stuff happens, I say, “Help us here, you guys help us.”