Rock's Oldest Joke: Yelling 'Freebird!' In a Crowded Theater
It's a Request, a Rebuke, A Cry From the Heart, A Tribute to Skynyrd
By JASON FRY
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
March 17, 2005
One recent Tuesday night at New York's Bowery Ballroom, the Crimea had just finished its second song. The Welsh quintet's first song had gone over fairly well, the second less so, and singer/guitarist Davey MacManus looked out at the still-gathering crowd.
Then, from somewhere in the darkness came the cry, "Freebird!"
It made this night like so many other rock 'n' roll nights in America.
"Freebird" isn't the Crimea's song; it's from the 1973 debut album by legendary Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd. The band's nine-minute march from ruminative piano to wailing guitar couldn't be less like the Crimea's jagged punk-pop. But it was requested nonetheless.
Somebody is always yelling out the title. "I don't know that I've ever seen a show where it hasn't happened," says Bill Davis of the veteran country-punk band Dash Rip Rock.
"It's just the most astonishing phenomenon," says Mike Doughty, the former front man of the "deep slacker jazz" band Soul Coughing, adding that "these kids, they can't be listening to Lynyrd Skynyrd."
Yelling "Freebird!" has been a rock cliché for years, guaranteed to elicit laughs from drunks and scorn from music fans who have long since tired of the joke. And it has spread beyond music, prompting the Chicago White Sox organist to add the song to her repertoire and inspiring a greeting card in which a drunk holding a lighter hollers "Freebird!" at wedding musicians.
Bands mostly just ignore the taunt. But one common retort is: "I've got your 'free bird' right here." That's accompanied by a middle finger. It's a strategy Dash Rip Rock's former bassist Ned Hickel used. According to fans' accounts of shows, so have Jewel and Hot Tuna's Jack Casady. Jewel declines to comment. Mr. Casady says that's "usually not my response to those kind of things."
Others have offered more than the bird. On a recent live album, Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock declares that "if this were the Make-a-Wish Foundation, and you were going to die in 20 minutes -- just long enough to play 'Freebird' -- we still wouldn't play it." Dash Rip Rock often plays "Stairway to Freebird," a mash-up of the Skynyrd epic and Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" that Mr. Davis boasts lasts "less than two minutes. ... You're finished before people get mad."
A few years ago, Mr. Doughty started promoting the Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men" as the new "Freebird," asking audiences at his solo shows to call for the disco chestnut instead. Now, he says, he gets yells for both songs at every performance.
A harsh reaction to "Freebird" came from the late comedian Bill Hicks during a Chicago gig in the early 1990s. On a bootleg recording of the show, Mr. Hicks at first just sounds irked. "Please stop yelling that," he says. "It's not funny, it's not clever -- it's stupid."
The comic soon works himself into a rage, but the "Freebirds" keep coming. "Freebird," he finally says wearily, then intones: "And in the beginning there was the Word -- 'Freebird.' And 'Freebird' would be yelled throughout the centuries. 'Freebird,' the mantra of the moron."
How did this strange ritual begin? "Freebird" is hardly obscure -- it's a radio staple consistently voted one of rock's greatest songs. One version -- and an important piece of the explanation -- anchors Skynyrd's 1976 live album "One More From the Road." On the record, singer Ronnie Van Zant, who was killed along with two other bandmates in a 1977 plane crash, asks the crowd, "What song is it you want to hear?" That unleashes a deafening call for "Freebird," and Skynyrd obliges with a 14-minute rendition.
To understand the phenomenon, it also helps to be from Chicago. When asked why they continue to request "Freebird," Mr. Hicks's tormentors yell out "Kevin Matthews!"
Kevin Matthews is a Chicago radio personality who has exhorted his fans -- the KevHeads -- to yell "Freebird" for years, and claims to have originated the tradition in the late 1980s, when he says he hit upon it as a way to torment Florence Henderson of "Brady Bunch" fame, who was giving a concert. He figured somebody should yell something at her "to break up the monotony." The longtime Skynyrd fan settled on "Freebird," saying the epic song "just popped into my head."
Mr. Matthews says the call was heeded, inspiring him to go down the listings of coming area shows, looking for entertainers who deserved a "Freebird" and encouraging the KevHeads to make it happen.
But he bemoans the decline of "Freebird" etiquette. "It was never meant to be yelled at a cool concert -- it was meant to be yelled at someone really lame," he says. "If you're going to yell 'Freebird,' yell 'Freebird' at a Jim Nabors concert."
Still, Mr. Matthews treasures his trove of recorded "Freebird" moments -- such as baffled comedian Elayne Boosler wondering why the audience is shouting "reverb." And he argues that good bands simply acknowledge it and move on. "The people who are conceited, the so-called artists who get really offended by it, they deserve it," he says.
But did "Freebird" truly start with the KevHeads? Longtime Chicago Tribune music writer Greg Kot says he remembers the cry from the early 1980s. He suggests it originated as an in-joke among indie-rock fans "having their sneer at mainstream classic rock."
Other music veterans think it dates back to 1970s audiences' shouts for it and other guitar sagas, such as "Whipping Post," by the Allman Brothers Band, and "Smoke on the Water," by Deep Purple.
They may all be right: It's possible "Freebird" began as a rallying cry for Skynyrd Nation and a sincere request from guitar lovers, was made famous by the live cut, taken up by ironic clubgoers, given new life by Mr. Matthews, and eventually lost all meaning and became something people holler when there's a band onstage.
But as with many mysteries, the true origin may be unknowable -- cold comfort for bands still to be confronted with the inevitable cry from the darkness. For them, here's a strategy tried by a brave few: Call the audience's bluff. Phish liked to sing it a cappella. The Dandy Warhols play a slowed-down take singer Courtney Taylor-Taylor describes as sung "like T. Rex would if he were on a lot of pills." And Dash Rip Rock has performed the real song in order to surprise fans expecting the parody. For his part, Mr. Doughty suggests that musicians make a pact: Whenever anyone calls for "Freebird," play it in its entirety -- and if someone calls for it again, play it again.
"That would put a stop to 'Freebird,' I think," he says. "It would be a bad couple of years, but it might be worth it."
So what do the members of Skynyrd think of the tradition? Johnny Van Zant, Ronnie's brother and the band's singer since 1987, says "it's not an insult at all -- I think it's kind of cool. It's fun, and people are doing it in a fun way. That's what music's supposed to be about."
Besides, Mr. Van Zant has a confession: His wife persuaded him to see Cher in Jacksonville a couple of years ago, and he couldn't resist yelling "Freebird!" himself. "My wife is going, 'Stop! Stop!' " he recalls, laughing. "I embarrassed the hell out of her."
lundi, juin 11, 2007
rock's oldest joke
3 DAYS 3 HOURS 12 MINUTES 55 SECONDS until Bonnaroo 2007! Hope it's as fun (and rain-free) as last year ...