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In a 2005 Wall Street Journal piece called "Rock's Oldest Joke: Yelling 'Freebird!' in a Crowded Theater," Jason Fry investigates the inane ritual's origin. At one point he tells the story of an enraged, almost otherworldly freak-out by comedian Bill Hicks during a Chicago show in the early 90s:
A harsh reaction to "Freebird" came from the late comedian Bill Hicks during a Chicago gig in the early 1990s. On a bootleg recording of the show, Mr. Hicks at first just sounds irked. "Please stop yelling that," he says. "It's not funny, it's not clever—it's stupid."
The comic soon works himself into a rage, but the "Freebirds" keep coming. "Freebird," he finally says wearily, then intones: "And in the beginning there was the Word—'Freebird.' And 'Freebird' would be yelled throughout the centuries. 'Freebird,' the mantra of the moron."
(Similar to my GG Allin post yesterday, this YouTube clip is riddled with obscenities and thus potentially offensive. For the love of God, do not listen to it on your computer speakers at work.)
Fry further breaks down the fantastical Hicks moment, calling out Chicago as the possible source of the "Freebird!" nightmare:
To understand the phenomenon, it also helps to be from Chicago. When asked why they continue to request "Freebird," Mr. Hicks's tormentors yell out "Kevin Matthews!"
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.
Whatever the true root of the taunt is, I think we can all agree that last night's heckler got off easy. Very easy.