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 WSJ article, 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 Bunch mama 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?
Anyway, seems like these days we're keeping our homegrown folks, and as many new players are moving in as moving out. The latest is pop-rocker Lanky, a New Jersey native who settled here about three months ago and whose upcoming full-length CD, Odd Hour Work Week, would be a welcome addition to any scene's body of work. At his best, you are reminded of his hero Pete Townshend, albeit with an acoustic guitar.
I caught up with the, um, lanky troubadour on the front patio at Helios, which is where he played his first Houston show, one that turned out to be fateful. Lanky -- who was born Frank Stabile -- says it was there that he entered into a romantic entanglement, among other things. "I think I was down here more for her than I was caring to admit," he says of the woman. (The two have since split up.) "But I also came down here because at my first show here I fell into the hands of basically a bunch of great pop songwriters -- people like Tody Castillo, Paul 'the Falcon' Valdez, Arthur Yoria. And I was playing in Montrose, and it was amazing to me that this place has such a small-town feel and is such a major city. How much those guys were playing amazed me too -- original music all over town."
Lanky says that family and friends back in Jersey are a little alarmed about his move. "A lot of people in the Northeast kinda freak over Texas; when the town I told them I was moving to didn't start with an A, they really got weird." Lanky says that, in his view, Austin is somewhat overrated. "I like Austin, but it didn't have the camaraderie. And I think it's going to the same thing that New York is, where there's an amount of too-cool-for-school."
And that's definitely not Lanky. If I had to use one word to describe this guy, it would be "honest." It's in his songwriting -- there's no vague imagery or inscrutable lyrics -- and he's willing to cop to influences that would set your average hipster to shuddering in his Converse high-tops. Lanky cites the Indigo Girls alongside Townshend as a primary influence, and also praises John Denver and even Kenny Rogers crapola like "Don't Fall in Love with a Dreamer" and "Islands in the Stream." "Unfortunately I'm just really adamant about being truthful," he says of his love of Denver and Rogers. "Those were the records my mother played. And in hindsight they were great records, great songs." (We beg to differ, but don't worry, you can't hear that stuff in his music.)
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His candor extends to the reviews section of his Web site (www.lankymusic .com), where you'll find not just the usual glowing praise. Nope, you'll also find stuff like this: "With just an acoustic guitar and his voice to protect him, Lanky sounds naked -- not in the way that, say, P.J. Harvey does when it's just her and her guitar but the way you do when you get locked out of your house mid-shower while trying to retrieve the cat."
Some people were upset that he included the bad reviews, he says. "It is what it is. If they come in, I put 'em up. I think that a lot of times if they're bad, they're not grounded. I enjoy a good grounded bad review, and grounded good reviews. Some of the good reviews on there aren't very grounded either."
30footFALL at Fitz's has become a Houston institution over the past ten or 12 years, and that's what makes this Saturday's show special. Bassist Rubio says that singer Butch is tired of his long-distance relationship with his girlfriend, so he's moving to Virginia to be at her side. "This could be our last hurrah for a while, maybe ever," says Rubio. So if you want to hear the punk pride of the north side play "Kirk Cameron Sings the Blues," "Morrissey" and "Junior High Sucked" live one last time, you better be down on White Oak this Saturday. What's more, reigning Press Music Awards punk champs Vatos Locos and the incomparable Plus and Minus Show of Michael Haaga are also on the bill Hey, Austin musicians, Red River Strip rockers, bar owners and other assorted nicotine fiends, we heard about your smoking ban. Not only are you folks barred from lighting up in bars, but you can't even smoke outside of them, or even within 15 feet of the entrance. That's some crazy shit, man. Y'all come to Houston, where the air is already foul, both inside our bars and out. You'll feel right at home. As for Austin, well, that place is over. Turn out the neon beer lights -- the Californianized squares now run your town. Get out and start over here. They don't deserve you.