CHICAGO — “Man, do not write this,” said Bruce Finkelman, owner of the Chicago bar/music venue the Empty Bottle. “Let that song die. It’s almost dead! There’s a generation out there for whom this song means nothing! They’re not yelling it like they used to!”
Thirty-five years ago, Southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd released the single “Freebird,” and in the decades since it has been an anthem, a demand, an ode to personal independence, the lamest heckle in the history of rock. But what it has never been is forgettable — not to the band who played it, not to the disparate acts who still get a rowdy “Freebird!” shouted at them, regardless of what they play or who they are.
“The best thing about touring Europe is no one yells ‘Freebird,’” said James McNew, bass player for the indie band Yo La Tengo.
And yet, Finkelman is right — depending whom you ask, people aren’t shouting “Freebird!” like they used to. Tim Rutili, the Chicago musician who once fronted Red Red Meat and now leads Califone, said he only gets “Freebird!” shouted at him “maybe once every few years.” Which is sad, because what would going to a concert be without that one person who shouts “Freebird”?
Yet, earlier this year, the world came closer to no Lynyrd Skynyrd at all — the current touring incarnation of the 40-year-old band was on the verge of calling it quits after pianist Billy Powell died in January of heart failure at 56. (He wrote the plaintive opening melody of “Freebird.”) Indeed, the legacy of “Freebird” is so long and misunderstood — whatever meaning it once had stripped by years of drunken hollers — it only feels right to return that dignity, before it’s too late.
Besides, there’s a case to be made that whatever dignity it had, Chicago may have soiled it.
In October 1977, the band — formed in Jacksonville, Fla., and set to play seven sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden — was traveling to Baton Rouge, La., when their plane ran out of gas and plunged into a swamp in Mississippi. Three seconds before impact Gene Odom, head of security for Skynyrd and a close friend of Ronnie Van Zant, said he remembers grabbing the sleeping singer and slapping him. “Then someone said, ‘Trees,’ and I got thrown by the fuselage.”
Odom lost an eye, broke his back, broke his neck and lost a friend — Van Zant died, effectively ending Lynyrd Skynyrd. “So when you tell me people yell ‘Freebird’ as a joke?” Odom asked. “I would say that’s offensive. Knowing how hard that band worked, how much that song meant — that’s sad.”
Said Artimus Pyle (also injured in the crash), former drummer for Skynyrd: “Someone yells it as a joke, I’m in that room, I’ll punch them in the mouth. That’s no joke. My friends died living out that song.”
The origins of the song date to a 1969 rehearsal, said guitarist Gary Rossington. Guitarist Allen Collins “had the chords. He walked around playing them for hours. Ronnie was laying on the couch, then just started singing the words.” But Odom remembers differently. He said the opening lines — “If I leave here tomorrow/would you still remember me” — came from Collins’ wife. She was frustrated with the band’s constant touring.
Skynyrd had become a monster on the Southern bar circuit, performing five sets every night.
“Thing is, though, people didn’t clap,” Rossington said. “‘Freebird’ was the first song we had (that) people clapped for.”
So they kept it in their back pockets to solicit applause, even after they graduated to stadiums. Which is how the best-known version — from the 1976 live album “One More for the Road” — came together. “What song is it you want to hear?” Van Zant asks the Atlanta audience and gets a roaring “Freebird!”
According to music publisher BMI, that version — 14 minutes long, with the audience shout — has been played on rock radio more than 2 million times.
“People forget that was a meaningful song,” said Tim Tuten, owner of Chicago pub/music venue The Hideout. “It was about someone who wasn’t going to accept what was doled out. It may sound goofy, but that was a real sentiment back then.”
“Freebird” was an extension of one’s values, he said. “Anyone could play for three minutes, but real music meant real long music. The heavy lifting. It was like a class thing.”
Tuten would spend summers in South Carolina with cousins “embarrassed by Skynyrd — because Skynyrd were celebratory rednecks. But music was getting wimpy in the late ‘70s — Joy Division, Bauhaus. ‘Freebird’ was becoming a joke.”
Pyle puts the transition at about 1980. For him, “Freebird” had become “this defiant thing.”
Which is how it played in the South — as a sassy thumb in the eye of encroaching cosmopolitanism, and a dare to other bands to deliver “the level of excitement that Skynyrd did,” said Marley Brant, author of 2002’s “Freebirds: The Lynyrd Skynyrd Story.”
Patterson Hood, leader of Southern rock band Drive-By Truckers — which released a 2-CD exploration of Skynyrd’s legacy, “Southern Rock Opera” — said he grew up in a small town in Alabama in the 1970s and that song was “deadly serious, and still is. But I feel like I could write you a dissertation in defense of it as being one of the most underrated songs in rock history and I could write about its utter banality, and in both papers I would be sincere. To be truthful, it didn’t even occur to me there might be irony in ‘Freebird’ until I moved from my small town to a city.”
Kevin Matthews is wrong. He insists so compellingly he’s right.
But, no, he’s wrong. Has to be?
Besides, why would you insist you’re the guy who popularized the ironic yelling of “Freebird”?
Which Matthews insists.
“When I die, I want ‘Freebird’ on my grave,” said Matthews, once the hugely popular morning host on Chicago rock station WLUP-FM. Matthews, who now lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., says yelling “Freebird!” was merely a recreational activity until he got ahold of it. Sometime in the late ‘80s, a man called Matthews’ radio show and complained that he had to go to a Florence Henderson concert with his parents.
“I couldn’t think of anything worse,” Matthews said, “so I blurted out that he should wait until a quiet part and shout ‘Freebird!’ I don’t know why that song.”
The fuse was lit.
“We began to go through the paper and find acts for people to heckle,” Matthews said. The gag was “only supposed to aggravate really lame acts,” but he was too late. “Freebird!” was shouted by Matthews’ fans at Tom Petty shows. It ground local Smashing Pumpkins concerts to a halt. Indeed, it became so ubiquitous in Chicago, the (now-defunct) Poplar Creek Music Theater once posted a warning: “No Freebird.” Partly thanks to Matthews, the late ‘80s and early ‘90s became a renaissance for idiots who shout “Freebird!” Chris Connelly, manager of Reckless Records in Chicago and a former guitarist in the band Ministry, said: “I remember one tour (in the late ‘80s) when it happened every night. It was a dirty word.”
And a tradition.
In 2005, the Wall Street Journal hunted for the original shouter — and settled (somewhat) on Matthews. A year earlier, Glorious Noise, a Chicago-based music blog, stalked similar prey.
And in 2007, Chicago writer Mitch Myers, grandson of Shel Silverstein, published the collection “The Boy Who Cried Freebird.” The title story imagines he was named Adam, in Cleveland, in 1979. Years later, a band calls his bluff and plays “Freebird,” devastating him. This isn’t quite fiction.
Generally, bands ignore the shout. But Flight of the Conchords will play it. Aimee Mann, faced with it, will feign ignorance and play “Sweet Home Alabama.” And Built to Spill plays it straight.
“I once saw (early indie-punk act) Redd Kross meet ‘Freebird!’ with a long rendition,” said McNew of Yo La Tengo. “That’s the best response of all. I mean, they made that audience pay.”
Which is what now runs through the mind of Tad Kubler, lead guitarist in the Hold Steady. “You would think the song that gets yelled would change generation to generation, but I don’t hear anything new being shouted. And ‘Freebird’ has about burned itself out.”
Indeed, Lynyrd Skynyrd itself is an artifact now. The latest incarnation — which began touring again in 1987 as a tribute/reunion act — is down to a single original member, Rossington. And as for the shouting — what was spontaneous has been co-opted. It’s shouted in Pixar’s “Cars” — and nightly during “Blue Man Group.” Van Zant’s widow, Judy, even opened Freebird Live, a nightclub in Florida.
“I heard someone yell ‘Freebird’ (at The Hideout) a month ago and it got no response,” said Tuten. “It’s become beyond sad. It’s like you want to ask the guy who yelled it, ‘What are you — 45? ’ I hate those people, but not the song. It was a great song, a transformative song. And they ruined it. Joke’s over.”