Play It Pretty for Cabaret Voltaire

A Rice grad stakes his claim as the inventor of the ironic "Freebird" request; also: there's a Lanky new kid on H-town's burgeoning pop-rock scene

The first time you hear it, it's pretty damn funny. You're at a show by a hip band, say Bright Eyes or something, and there's a break in the action -- maybe some strings need tuning or replacing, or a roadie has to come out and fix a mike. As the front man banters with the audience (or in Conor Oberst's case, berates them and insults their native state), inevitably some wise-ass drunk is going to yell out, "Freebird!" Or maybe it's at something dorky like Cats or a Raffi concert -- wherever "Freebird" is unlikely to be played, some soused soul is gonna holler for the Lynyrd Skynyrd anthem.

Like we said, the first time you hear it, it's worth a chuckle. Not so the second, third and fourth times. Anyway, it's a full-blown phenomenon now, as tired and ubiquitous as the Mexican wave at baseball games, and one that even The Wall Street Journal felt compelled to comment on a couple of months ago.

According to the WSJarticle, the tradition began in Chicago in the late '80s. A rock DJ there by the name of Kevin Matthews claims to have encouraged his listeners to bomb singing Brady Bunchmama Florence Henderson with "Freebird" requests, and that he would do likewise to other lame acts that passed through the Windy City.

Not so, says Rice grad Ray Shea. When local Charles Kuffner picked up the WSJ story on his blog (offthekuff.com), Shea begged to differ with Matthews's version of events. He posted a message on Kuffner's blog and later one on his own (www.moronosphere.com) laying out his side of the story -- staking his claim as the one true inventor of the Ironic "Freebird" Request or, if you will, the IFR.

Shea -- who is now a self-described "software geek" living in Austin -- says that it happened at legendary Houston punk club Cabaret Voltaire in '84 or '85. He was then attending Rice and working at KTRU, and he was at the club to see a show by another KTRU volunteer whose name was Ray Isle. "I don't remember the name of that band," says Shea. "But I do remember them saying something like, 'What is it y'all wanna hear?' and it popped into my head. I yelled 'Freebird!' and everybody laughed. I was kinda pleased with myself -- I said something and everybody laughed. So that's why I remembered it. So I yelled it a few more times over the years, and then I kinda stopped."

Once upon a time, the IFR had real punk resonance. Punk rose up at least partly in response to bloated rock spectacles such as the one captured on the live, 14-minute-long 1976 recording of "Freebird," and calling out a request for it was the ultimate "fuck you" to the Man.

"I'm 41 years old, and I was in junior high in New Orleans when that Skynyrd album came out, and it pretty much dominated all of our lives," Shea remembers. "Then punk came along, and that shit was what we all rebelled against. So yelling that at a show at Cabaret Voltaire…I don't know, it was funny."

Shea knows that the IFR has now reached epidemic proportions, and it amuses him to no end. "I think the whole thing's funny. It wasn't this cliché back then. I also heard that Ryan Adams beat somebody up for yelling that." (Not true, near as I can tell. However, in Nashville three years ago, Adams did demand that house security remove a fan who requested that he play "Summer of '69.") And the WSJ article closed with the ultimate example of IFR saturation: At a Cher concert in Skynyrd's hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, a couple of years ago, the indestructible chanteuse was heckled with an IFR or two from none other than current Lynyrd Skynyrd front man Johnny Van Zant.

But the question remains: Did Shea really invent the tradition? Did Matthews?

Probably not. Shea himself has started to have some doubts. He admits that he may have heard somebody else do it first, and several old-time punks I talked to claim to have heard the IFR long before the claims of both Shea and Matthews. And there are rumors of a bootleg tape of the Dead Kennedys performing in Portland, Oregon, in 1979 on which you can hear people heckling the band with numerous IFRs throughout their set. (I read about this in the comments section of another blog [blog.wfmu.org/freeform/2005/04/the_history_of_.html]. Whoever posted the message furnished a bogus e-mail address, so I couldn't verify the assertion.)

So Shea has moved on to another linguistic claim; namely, that he invented the party-hearty sentence "Beer -- it's not just for breakfast anymore." But like he says on his blog, that's a whole other story.

A New Kid in Town

For years, "venue closing" and "X band is moving to Austin" were staples of this column for both the present writer and his predecessors. Not so the past few years; what was the last major venue to close here? The Fabulous Satellite Lounge? Emo's? The Oven? And how many high-profile local acts have moved on to the capital lately?

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