Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Free Bird Phenomenon

The concert is nearly over. The applause of the crowd fades slowly. Empty beer bottles clink as they are swept away by the bartenders. A non-smoker coughs in the purple-lighted smoke-filled air. One of the band’s crew members makes a last-ditch play to sell some t-shirts. Married suburbanites head for the exit, trying to beat the traffic and save a few dollars on the babysitter.

The lead singer slowly approaches the microphone, scratches his thick Old Testament beard, and offers a quiet “Thank You” to the crowd. The singer asks if anyone has any requests.

The crowd responds in the only way it knows how: by screaming out their own favorite song at the top of their lungs. And then repeating it over and over, in an attempt to be heard above the shouting of everyone else. From the stage, the shouts blur together and the only request the band hears is “OXMENARDGRUBEN!!”

The crowd waits in anticipation as the band decides which song to play next. But before the band can decide, a rumbling is heard like a gunshot in the night, piercing the relative quiet of the club: “Play Free Bird! Woo!”

The Free Bird Phenomenon is still alive and well in music venues all across the United States. I have seen it happen in small, sweaty clubs, cavernous arenas, and can’t-see-shit outdoor amphitheaters. I have seen it happen at acoustic shows, electric shows, solo shows, and cram-12-musicians-on-the-stage shows. For years I have tried to understand this phenomenon, to stare into its mysterious Southern eyes and reach some sort of catharsis, some kind of greater existential understanding as to why it has survived all these years.

And yet I have always failed to understand the Free Bird Phenomenon. Granted, I’m familiar with the story of how it started (reportedly via Lynryd Skynyrd’s 1976 live album One More From The Road). I just cannot understand why it has persisted to this day.

The reason I cannot solve this mystery is that the song Free Bird, to use the technical term, sucks.

The lyrics, which I’ll call 50% of a song, are boring and numbingly repetitive. Think I’m wrong? The song takes as its central image one of the oldest, most-clich├ęd symbols in the arts: a bird flying free. And then delivers a short series of awkward near-rhymes: “Would you still remember me/For I must be traveling on now/There’s too many place I’ve got to see.” About every fifth word seems to be either “change” or “bird.” Yawn.

But what about the other 50% of the song: that fabled guitar solo? Let’s be honest: most people can’t stand extended instrumentals in a song (and in today’s ADD world, I’m considering Free Bird a prime example). That’s because most instrumentals, after about the first minute, reveal themselves to be a lot like fake breasts: they’re nice to look at from a distance, but are vaguely disappointing after you’ve spent some time with them. And Free Bird definitely fits this category.

If you don’t believe me try it for yourself: pull up the song on the digital device of your choice (CD players still exist, right?). Settle into your favorite chair. Put the kids to bed. Turn the lights down low. And there, in the comfort of your living room, try to listen to the song in its entirety, including the instrumental, without reaching for the TV remote, checking email, or skipping to a different song. Odds are you will not be able to do it.

Now I realize the song has taken on an added poignancy over the years, especially in light of the various tragedies that have befallen the band’s members. But the song was written before all of those events: before Duane Allman’s fatal motorcycle crash in 1971, before the deadly 1977 airplane crash that ended the classic incarnation of Lynryd Skynyrd. Partly because of those events, the song has taken on a status of mythic proportions. Nevertheless, the song, at its core, is essentially about a one-night stand (or maybe a weekend fling or otherwise sordid relationship), and nothing more. It even employs the famous “it’s not you, it’s me excuse”: “Please don’t take it so badly/The Lord knows I’m to blame.”

So why has the Free Bird Phenomenon continued to this day? Is there something about the song that speaks to the heart of the American spirit, something that reveals an essential trait of the American identity? Doubtful. Is it a sacred, unspoken tradition shared from generation to generation among a dedicated segment of concertgoers? Not likely. Is it just an idiosyncrasy of attending certain concerts in the United States? Possibly. Is it just an excuse for an intoxicated wise-ass to get a few cheap laughs? Probably.

A college roommate once said that Free Bird was like, well, fake breasts. He said this in a drunken haze as he quietly, with the dedication of an artist who had mastered his craft, consumed a deep-dish pizza at 2:30 am on a Saturday morning as Lynryd Skynyrd blasted from our dorm room. At the time I dismissed it as the mere ramblings of a sexually frustrated and intoxicated college freshman. Only years later did I realize the true brilliance and accuracy in his simple, Jim Beam-induced statement.

The Free Bird Phenomenon has become a part of American concert culture, and it’s most likely not going anywhere anytime soon. I guess I’ll have to live with it, just like the Taylor Hicks Ford commercial or David Lee Roth singing bluegrass versions of Van Halen songs. But for me, my new request at concerts will be “OXMENARDGRUBEN.” Wonder if it’ll catch on.

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