Thursday, May 3, 2007

I Heart "Free Bird"

Maybe Sean T. Collins thinks he can get away with his comments that "'Free Bird' sucks" by calling "Stairway to Heaven" the "greatest rock song ever" - well, not on this blog, baby.

"Free Bird" is one of the greatest American rock songs and probably the greatest "Southern Rock" song.


To start with, it's the contrast between the opening slide guitar licks - reaching for transcendence - and the driving, down-to-earth boogie of the guitar battle at the end. For me, that's part of the contradiction at the heart of great rock music: the search for something greater tied up with a recognition of the limits of what is actually possible. (My half-assed, overly-generalized theory, drawn from all the Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh books I read while in college: The great rock songs usually resolve in favor of the "search for something greater", while the great soul songs usually end up making a reconciliation with those limits).

"Free Bird"'s lyric is, I think, the weakest part of the song, but, as with lots of other rock lyrics, it gains resonance through its context. Looking at it from a cynical POV, the singer is trying to cop out of making a commitment with his lover: he's rationalizing bad behavior and (a) doesn't have the courage to stick it out or (more probably) (b) gives the same line to all the women he sleeps with. I don't think this cynical take is wrong - see "What's Your Name" - but I think it's only one aspect of what's going on. What gives it more of an emotional impact (for me, at least) is the contrast between the singer's rootlessness and the down-home boogie traditions of Skynyrd's music - the whole transcendence/limitation thing again.

One of the things that arts & culture buffs/critics don't talk about too much are the various "lifestyle" reasons people are drawn to careers as musicians/writers/actors/etc.. Or, rather, they'll make a joke about it - talking about joining a band to get girls, say - but they won't delve more deeply into the issue. Musicians will make jokes about it, too - again, see "What's Your Name" - but they don't really seem to like to talk about it either. (I'm thinking of the moment during one of the interview scenes in The Last Waltz where his band mates start to talk about some of the perks of going out on the road and Levon Helm says something like "I thought we weren't going to bring that stuff up." Which, of course, makes it kind of joke, too.) There's a tendency to treat creative artists as prophets - that is, to take what they're saying as a kind of revealed truth and ignore the personal, idiosyncratic, and potentially self-serving reasons they might be saying it.

"Self-serving" brings us back to the cynical reading of the "Free Bird" lyric, but the singer's excuse - he can't stay with her because he's a drifting bohemian and can't be tied down - is balanced with what sounds to me like a real sense of regret and, in terms of the question he asks in the opening line, real fear that the answer might be "No." It's a song lamenting the rooted life that you leave behind when you head out on the road, even while it celebrates the freedom that the road brings.

(Looking at the song in its album context, which, admittedly is not the way most people experience it, "Free Bird" takes on even greater resonance as a follow up to "Simple Man".)

Well, 600 words on "Free Bird" is enough for now, but the short version is that I think it's a really beautiful song and one of the few of those really long classic rock standards that deserve their length - it's America's "Layla".


The Derelict said...

As a huge Tolkien geek, and a Zeppelin apologist from way back, I used to think Stairway was the best rock song ever. But my recent addiction to Guitar Hero II has sorta reintroduced Free Bird to me (I kinda got burned out by that song by a couple of friends in high school who used to worship -- and over-play -- it).

At the end of the game you play Free Bird as the final song, and I have to say it is so fitting as the ultimate rock guitar finale, it just works in the context of the game so well. A song like Stairway just wouldn't have worked as well. In fact, Stairway is almost too tied to its Tolkien-esque lyrics and is too mystical and Celtic to truly represent "Rock", if that makes any sense. Free Bird works better because it actually deals with ideas central to the notion of "Rock & Roll"; as you point out, it's all about the tension between the freedom of the rock & roll lifestyle and the regret that comes with it. And it has that whole American/Southern attitude going on that just seems to represent Rock & Roll, at least for me. Plus, you can't argue with the crazy guitar solos at the end -- they are, like, crazy awesome. Free Bird is exhilarating if nothing else.

But.... "Layla" sucks. :)

Anonymous said...

Of course "Stairway" wouldn't make it to the top of the American rock song list. It's not American.

Look at Zeppelin. Jimmy Page, rock pioneer. John Paul Jones, more versatile than anyone you'll ever meet. Robert Plant, arguably the best hard rock vocalist of all time, paving the way for higher-than-average-pitched voices to dominate the rock genre. John Bonham, the solid foundation of rock percussion.

Free Bird is simply too repetitive, this goes for not only the boring lyric content, but the guitar solos simply put one to sleep. I've encountered the multiple lead guitar defense, but what's the difference if it's almost the same thing for minutes upon minutes (and what seems like hours!).

The Allman Brothers have their stuff together, as a long instrumental such as Jessica is easy to listen to and one can keep it on the radio without getting bored of the same old solo being blasted in their ears for eternity.

"Stairway" was never a single, but it remains the most played track of all time. By far. This isn't rationale for being the best song, but there is plenty to draw from.

Robert Plant is a better vocalist. The solo, though much shorter, fits the song perfectly and doesn't overshadow the performances of the other musicians. The gradual building of action, rather than the seeming three-part song of Free Bird, was purposefully done and it seems to flow much more elegantly than that of Free Bird.

Led Zeppelin created hard rock.

BTW, Clapton rocks. "Layla" is a classic.