January 17, 2007

Feature: Rock's Greatest Myths - Chanting Freebird

I am proud to announce another brand new site feature here on AtD. Along with the recently (and not so recently) unveiled features "Better Know A Genre (or Subgenre)," "Power of Music," and "Slanted Spotlight," comes our latest exclusive, "Rock's Greatest Myths," in which we will explore the histories, backgrounds, and stories surrounding the greatest myths in the celebrated rock pantheon. Tonight's introductory segment will kick off with the legacy behind "Freebird!"

So you're rockin' out at your favorite concert, the mood is high, the atmosphere is cool, the kind of Miles Davis cool that only a jiving rock show can generate, and then suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, "Freebird" is heard emanating obnoxiously from the nearest jackass in the audience. What's up with that? Well it just so happens that the Wall Street Journal (of all places) reported on just this recurring phenomenon back in 2005:

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.
But that's just one theory. Here's another:
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 hey, wait, how about another theory on the origin of the cattle call:
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.

Of course, the entire truth is unknowable, so you might as well pick your favorite version of the story and go with that. Personally I love this last little tidbit:
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."

Tickets to a Cher concert? $50 at least. Merch, booze, more booze? $65. Participating in a salute to your own song? Priceless.

For expanded coverage of Freebird, hit Wikipedia.

Live video of the band performing the song (including a woman in the audience notably clamoring, "Freebird!")

The Wikipedia article contains many more references and allusions to the epic saga of the chant, including one of my favorite from recent memory:
In the Pixar film Cars, when Lightning McQueen is making his personal appearance for his sponsor "Rust-Eze Medicated Bumper Ointment", the lights go out in the Rust-Eze tent and a spotlight falls on McQueen who is on stage before a crowd of enthusiastic (and very rusty) cars. There are a few seconds of slightly awkward silence before a muffled voice can be heard somewhere at the back calling, "Free Bird!"
70's Southern styled rock plus stoner humor meets family film. Need I say more?

Share your "Freebird!!!" moment in the comments.

(Also have ideas for a feature we should do on the site? Be it Slanted Spotlight, Rock Myths, etc. hit us up!)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i think you made a mistake in your post. you wrote that mr van zant bought tickets to a lynard skynrd show when I belived you meant a cher concert.