Sometimes, the sound of impending doom is quiet. And sometimes it is loud. Less often, it is both. That’s how Lynyrd Skynyrd drummer Artimus Pyle recalls what he and 25 other band members, crew, associates, and pilots heard inside of their Convair CV-240 plane over the swamps near Gillsburg, Mississippi on October 20, 1977.
“It was dead silence, everybody was holding their breath. When we first went into the the trees, it was just a brushing sound, the soft parts of the tops. But when we started lowering more, that’s when it sounded like a thousand baseball bats beating the fuselage. It was horrendous,” he recalls. “And then the plane started breaking up. It took us a long time to crash and stop. I was hurt, I was bleeding, I was cut, and all the cartiladge from my throat to my breastplate was ripped. And I cut my legs up getting out of the plane to look for help.”
Pyle’s tale and that of one of rock’s greatest tragedies is told in the film Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash.
The timeframe is mostly concerned with the day before, day of, and day after the plane crash, which occurred due to a combination of engine mechanical issues and pilot error in miscalculating fuel levels. In fact, the plane’s engines had already had fiery trouble on the previous flight, shaking all aboard as they deplaned at Greenville, South Carolina, where the band would play its final show. A mechanic was set to meet the aircraft after it would have landed in their next destination of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. But that flight would never happen.
There were a total of 26 people on the plane. Killed were Skynyrd lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister/backup singer Cassie Gaines, assistant road manager Dean Kilpatrick, pilot Walter McCreary, and co-pilot William Gray. Others sustained injuries that would take years to recover from.
And while it’s a talented group of actors playing real-life participants, Pyle himself narrates portions of the film and makes occasional but not disruptive on-screen appearances. “There have been many variations and accounts and contradictions of this story. But I was there,” he offers. “This is something that shouldn’t have happened, but it did.” Pyle and his drummer sons also wrote and performed three new songs – including “Street Survivors” – that are heard.
Produced on a small budget of $1.5 million, Street Survivors looks a lot more expensive. Hardcore Skynyrd fans will snap to attention at the period-correct detail down to bandmember’s favorite T-shirts and the texture of wigs and facial hair (though Pyle says they could have done even better with more budget and his involvement – more on that later). Ian Shultis stars as Pyle, and gives an affecting performance.
In the film – as in real life Pyle stumbled out of the wreckage to find those around him dead, dying, or screaming in pain. These scenes are incredibly realistic and hard to watch at some points, more horror movie than music biopic.
And despite his own serious injuries, the drummer decided to head out to find help, which he eventually did at a nearby farmhouse. Just prior to that, the film shows Pyle wading waist-deep through dark swamp water and coming upon a water snake and yelling at it “I will bite your fucking head off!”
“It really happened, but I didn’t scream like a madman which is what Ian did in the movie. The snake slithered up to me in the dusk and I said calmly ‘I will bite your fucking head off.’ And then I laughed at myself. And in that moment, knowing I was talking to a snake, it made me feel alive. And that’s what drove me to get help back to my friends. And I trudged on with my Marine Corps training.”
The story’s basis comes from 22 hours of videotaped interviews that Pyle did with Director/Writer Jared Cohn. “It was difficult. I cried, I laughed, I screamed, sometimes I’d get up and punch a wall,” Pyle recalls. “I went to the deep tracks with that.”
There’s scenes of ‘70s-era rock star partying involving topless women, drinking, fighting, and the word “SKYNYRD” spelled out in cocaine on a glass table top. But there is also the band working on music, forging bonds, navigating their home lives, and talking about plans for the future.
That the film is being released at all is a story in itself. In August 2017 after the movie was completed, Judy Van Zant Janness (Ronnie’s widow), along with a group including reps and estates of other bandmembers, successfully won a U.S. District Court injunction to stop the film’s release. They cited a consent order members (including Pyle) signed in 1988 concerning usage of the band’s name and story.
That decision was overturned by a U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in October 2018, clearing Street Survivors to be seen – though Pyle had to disassociate himself from producer Cleopatra Entertainment and business relations during the filming process in order for that decision to come down in Cleopatra’s favor.
Pyle has a lot to say about the lawsuits – and Janess – enough to fill an another entire story. As he does about a number of other players in the Lynyrd Skynyrd story past and present, by name. Suffice to say, they are not complimentary. There’s also Skynyrd-related financial windfalls totaling $15 million that he says have been taken or stolen from him.
“Judy was coming at us the entire time with vicious, nasty lawsuits. But it was a film that needed to be done. And I wanted the Skynyrd fans to know what happened and what we had been through,” he says.
Viewers will notice there is no authentic Lynyrd Skynyrd music in the movie, nor any songs made famous by the band, even in cover versions (the sole number the band performs in the film is the J.J. Cale-penned hit “They Call Me the Breeze.” Pyle says Cleopatra wanted to explore either of those options, but the lawsuits it might generate would just bring additional headaches and delays. Though he actually puts it in more…um…colorful terms.
Asked why the band willingly got on an aircraft they saw for themselves had mechanical issues – buoyed by Ronnie Van Zant’s seemingly nonchalance and his philosophy of when it’s your time to go – you go.
“It wasn’t that cut and dried. On the plane before it crashed, we had gotten together and decided to buy two tour buses – one for the girls and one for the crew. And we had decided as a band to get a Lear Jet so our time in the air between shows would be 45 minutes instead of 2 ½ hours,” Pyle says.
“After our [planned landing] in Baton Rouge, they were sending a guy over from Falcon Airways, where we leased the airplane, to fix the engine. And if he couldn’t fix it, we were going to fly commercial. We had a contingency plan. Ronnie wasn’t just like ‘Hey, let’s jump on this airplane and go have a crash.’ It was like ‘Look, we’ve got a gig in Baton Rouge. Let’s get there the best way you can and let’s go.’”
In the end, Pyle says he is “very proud” of Street Survivors, and that the young actors put their “hearts and souls” into the project. He watched it the first time by himself and cried. And he’s screened it seven more times since, including a public premiere at a pre-pandemic Hollywood Reed Independent Film Festival where he walked the red carpet along with much of the cast and filmmakers.
Though he quit performing with Lynyrd Skynyrd in 1991 several years after the band started up again, he and guitarist Gary Rossington are the sole surviving members of the plane crash lineup.
The pandemic has also put a halt on the pandemic-delayed Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Last of the Street Survivors” worldwide farewell tour. Rossington himself has faced frequent health scares in recent years, and Pyle adds the only “silver lining” of the pandemic crisis is that it’s allowing Rossington to rest up.
And though he and other members came together to play a short set at their 2006 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he’s had no involvement with the band since then. As leader of the Artimus Pyle Band, the drummer and bandmates performer a mostly Skynyrd set to enthusiastic fans.
Still, time and mortality have a way of bringing seemingly bitter musician feuds to some sort of closure, if not a full reconciliation. Robbie Robertson has written about visiting ex Band-mate Levon Helm on his deathbed, and estranged former Allman Brothers Band guitarist Dickey Betts met with Gregg Allman toward the end of the latter’s life.
So, does Pyle see a time when he might have a similar encounter with Gary Rossington – related to either of their health statuses or not?
“Bob, I would give anything to talk to Gary. I would love to talk to Gary. I saw him at [Skynyrd keyboardist] Billy Powell’s funeral. He hugged me and kissed me, and we were surrounded by [current band reps] Vector Management and Gary’s wife Dale,” Pyle says, adding he feels that Rossington is easily manipulated by others and acquiesces to them, and it often involves money.
“I love Gary and I miss him. I know he’s surrounded by some snakes. I would give anything for us to have a private moment together. Just me and him meet. And it would be totally cool.”