I Got A Free Bird For Ya, Buddy: Dealing With Hecklers

If you’ve played a lot of Rock Band, you know what happens when the band screws up a song: the audience boos, the singer throws a little hissy-fit with the microphone, everybody gives the drummer a dirty look, and the band gets to try again. But of course, nothing ever runs that smoothly in real life. If you’ve ever seen a band get heckled, you know what can happen: Non-T rated words might get spoken, somebody might get hurt, and the song probably won’t get replayed. Some things never change, though: In real life, everybody still gives the drummer a dirty look.

Never mind how awesome you are: Sooner or later, your band is going to get heckled. This literally happens to the best of us—In fact, one of the best live albums ever recorded, Iggy & the Stooges’ Metallic KO, was taped before an audience that hated them (You can even hear a bottle narrowly missing Iggy’s head after he taunts them by playing an obscene version of “Louie Louie”). But unless you’re Iggy and you can take the punishment, you need to work out a few defenses. You can’t name your band You Suck and write a song called “Get Off the F^&*ing Stage”—That’s been done. (This deservedly short-lived NYC band used to respond to the inevitable catcalls with, “Yeah, that’s us! Sure, we’ll do that song!” It was funny the first time).

It takes a certain genius to get even with an audience you don’t like: One of my favorite examples happened at a Ramones concert some years ago. People who went to Ramones concerts usually wanted loud fast punk and nothing else; throw a tuneful power-pop band up there and they’ll get eaten alive. Which was exactly what happened when I saw a band called the Rubinoos open for them: They did a couple sweet little songs about wanting to be somebody’s boyfriend and the crowd started throwing things (never mind that the Ramones had quite a few songs on the same topic). “You can boo us off the stage, but you know what’s gonna happen? They’re going to start playing the disco tape,” chided the Rubinoos’ front man. The boos got louder after that—and sure enough, the sound system then provided a solid hour of KC & the Sunshine Band and the Village People. The Rubinoos were reported to be having a good laugh backstage.

When an audience starts to get the better of you, it’s worth remembering that you have a wall of amplifiers and they don’t. One of our Rock Band faves, Dinosaur Jr., used to be famous for pre-emptive sonic strikes: Whenever an audience even looked like it was going to be unfriendly, they turned it up that much louder to pummel them into submission. When I first saw them at the Rat in Boston (where audiences tended to look surly whether they liked the band or not), J Mascis’ guitar was carrying up the stairs, out the door, and down the street. In later years, when it was pretty clear that audiences liked them, they kept playing at this volume just because it was fun.

You have a certain power when you’re onstage, and some bands aren’t afraid to use it. Robert Pollard, the former leader of the great indie band Guided by Voices, has a habit of telling fans exactly what’s on his mind. During one show I saw, this involved a grudge against a rival indie-rocker whom Pollard assumed to be miles away. “That guy can [perform a sexual act on me],” Pollard suggested. Then a fan pointed out that the guy was in fact present. “What, you mean he’s here?” Pollard asked, momentarily rattled. Then he rebounded in a hurry. “Good! Tell him he can [perform a sexual act on me]!” That’s called having the courage of your convictions.

When all else fails, you can always beat people up. This is not recommended, but I’ve seen it happen. The one band I’ve seen resort to fisticuffs shall remain nameless, but they were a Boston band that was renowned for wearing costumes and affecting a certain rarified air onstage. One night there was a guy upfront who accused them, a little too audibly, of being sissies. The lead singer took matters into his own hands, and you know you’ve been dissed when you get punched out by a guy wearing a bleached wig and whiteface.

Sometimes heckling can even improve a show. I have a friend who paid big money to see a Very Famous Irish Band on three consecutive nights, and got a little miffed that they played the exact same show each time. Since their lead singer is a man of the people and all, my friend got close enough to pass him a note, politely requesting that he be a little less predictable. The singer read the note to himself, ripped it in half, threw it on the stage, gave my friend a really dirty look and returned to the show as expected…until the end, when the band came back for an unplanned second encore with two rare songs that hadn’t been played in ages; the singer glaring at my friend all through them. Don’t all thank her at once.

Finally, every band needs to be warned of the impending  “Free Bird”: Because you know that some yahoo in the audience is going to yell for it sooner or later. I’ve seen at least one band respond by flipping the middle finger at the offender and saying “I got a free bird for ya, buddy!” The only surefire way of shutting them up is to go ahead and play the thing, all ten minutes of it (I once saw this done by an acoustic band who did the big guitar workout on violin). This is only funny, however, if you don’t happen to really be Lynyrd Skynyrd—but anyone who yells “Free Bird” at a Skynyrd show is clueless anyway. Like, you really thought they were going to leave without playing it?.