Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"Bird is the word" or "Lord knows we can't change"

It’s impossible to make an objective statement about what is funny. Humor is perhaps the very definition of a subjective topic, an unknowable abstract with as many interpretations as there are human beings. There are, however, some things which can be definitively declared not funny. Among these I would include certain diseases, various human-on-human atrocities and ventriloquist Jeff Dunham. And, of course, yelling “Freebird!” at a concert.

The latter is an especially curious case. It is possible to imagine a time when yelling “Freebird!” at a concert may have been amusing, given the proper context. Say you were in the crowd at a Roberta Flack show in 1975 and some wise guy took advantage of a long pause between deeply felt acoustic ballads to holler a sardonic request for “Freebird.” In that setting, the irony of his suggestion may have been enough to provoke a titter or two. After all, Ms. Flack is a very different kind of artist than Lynyrd Skynyrd. The notion of her performing a Southern-style electric guitar anthem, particularly one of such recent vintage, would have been patently absurd.

But it is no longer 1975, and very few of us are currently attending Roberta Flack concerts. (Though not for lack of trying – get that booking agent of yours in gear, Roberta!) Whatever novelty there once was in yelling “Freebird!” at a concert has long since faded away. And yet the yellers persist, not to be swayed by obsolescence or standards of civility. At any reasonably well-attended rock show, especially one at which alcohol is served, shouts of “Freebird!” are almost as inevitable as getting stuck standing next to a jaded guy in a tight t-shirt who spends half the set explaining to his friends how the band isn’t nearly as tight as the time three years ago when he saw them play to a tiny audience in a sketchy dive bar in downtown Austin. Any time a show is lagging, or just when you’ve reached the point in the evening where all the morons start yelling unsolicited requests from the back catalog, you’re going to hear “Freebird!”

I understand the thinking behind yelling “Freebird!” at a concert. It’s an instantly identifiable, solo-heavy song popularized by a band whose music is frequently enjoyed by a demographic that many music aficionados think of as socially inferior. Trouble is, it also kicks major ass.

I am an unashamed lover of “Freebird.” From the bleeding, mournful opening guitar lick to the broken weariness of Ronnie Van Zandt’s vocal to the five-minute frenzy of dueling guitars, it’s a masterpiece of ‘70s album rock. In a just world, “Freebird” would be just as revered by the cognoscenti as any of Pink Floyd’s broody soundscapes or Led Zeppelin’s derivative caterwauling. Instead, for reasons that probably have as much to do with Yankee disdain for Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Southern heritage and good ole boy image as with actual musical merit, it’s become a punchline without a joke.

I’ve seen artists have a lot of disparate reactions to shouts of “Freebird!” Most of them simply ignore it. Some get upset – I once saw Eels front man E stop the show to eviscerate a heckler with something along the lines of “‘Ooh, I’m gonna go to an Eels show and yell ‘Freebird’ at the band!’ That’s awfully fucking clever, asshole.” Some put their own spin on it – David Cross used to have a bit in his stand-up act where he’d present an award to an audience member who he dubbed the one-millionth asshole to yell “Freebird” during a performance. But by far the best reaction I’ve ever seen came from Built to Spill, who simply played “Freebird” note-for-note, beginning to end. It was a thrilling performance that I suspect was wasted on much of the audience. I wish more artists – Roberta Flack, say – would take that approach. There is no shortage of people I’d love to hear covering this song, though I guess that would just make matters worse by inspiring a non-stop barrage of “Freebird!” shouts at every concert everywhere.

I suppose it’s sort of a compliment that “Freebird” has spent 30 years as the go-to song for guys who love to yell things. You would think that over that span of time, another ironic hard rock anthem would have emerged to take its place. If it was me up on stage, I know I’d be much more insulted to hear someone bellowing “Every Rose Has Its Thorn!” at me, or “Nookie!” or “Whatever the Name of That Godawful Kid Rock Song That Mashes Up ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and ‘Werewolves of London’ Is!”

But for the time being, “Freebird” endures as the popular favorite. If anything is going to kill it off, it may be that very popularity. “Freebird!” has been yelled long enough and loud enough to push it well past cliché status. People are still yelling it, to be sure, but lately they’re more likely to be met with a groan and an eye-roll than a polite chuckle. Maybe things really are changing for the better, or maybe audiences are just all laughed-out from guys yelling “More cowbell!” That one’s never going to get old!

- Ira Brooker

(Photo courtesy of this dude.)

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