This morning, Parquet Courts — Brooklyn’s reigning champions of sly, concrete rock cuts — announced a new album called Wide Awake! “Almost Had To Start A Fight / In And Out Of Patience,” the first single from the record, is another entry into the band’s ever-confident catalog chronicling urban malaise. But an examination of the album’s tracklist shows a much more interesting and completely loaded song title: “Freebird II.” Are you kidding me?
In one sense, anything referencing “Free Bird,” the Lynyrd Skynyrd signature power-ballad cum-guitar-free-for-all, has to be a joke. On the other, it’s in the top-five most-serious gestures of all time. For Parquet Courts, some of the wryest to stand behind a mic these days, it has to be both.
However, Parquet Courts aren’t the first band to make this joke. There are a ton of songs titled “Freebird 2,” incidentally much-less popularized than their predecessor. There’s one by Todd Steed and the Suns of Phere, a lament on selling out, where the singer — Todd Steed, probably — sings, “you’re too cool to play Free Bird just once more.” (Honestly, I can’t tell if this is a Weird Al-style parody band because the sentiment is so heavy handed and the music so pigeonholed.) There’s another by a band called Shrug Life that sounds like a math-rock send-up of The Decembrists.
There’s an awful, sneering punk version by someone called Candy Savage, more accurately titled “Freebird 2: Born to Freebird.” Then, there’s “Free Bird Part II,” by CityCop, which is like a masticated acoustic-screamo journey that revels in anticipated sentimentality; “This will be the best summer of our lives,” the vocalist vocalizes. Peoria emo stalwarts The Forecast cut “Freebird 2: This Time It’s Personal” back in 2003. It’s “fine.” But my favorite version of “Freebird 2” is by Frustrations, which centers around a three-chord chug riff that casts as much distance as possible between itself and the schlockery of the original. Why muddy the punchline of a good joke?
Needless to say, none of these have much to do with “Free Bird”. The tradition of yelling “Free Bird” as a request at a concert, and discovering its power to either incite anger or laughter, is a concert-goer’s rite of passage. To know simply what “Free Bird” is marks one step on the journey to rock ‘n’ roll enlightenment. To know when to shout it at a concert that’s not a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert ascends the fan higher to perfect consciousness. To know that it’s a cliché — and “Free Bird” is bad, actually — but to shout it anyways, at the perfect moment in a concert when a bad band is revealing its guitar hackery, is full-on galaxy brain. Titling a song “Freedbird II” in 2018? Let’s just restart the whole simulation.
There is much lore of this rock ‘n’ roll in-joke, but the popular wisdom on the origin stems from the 1976 live Skynyrd album, One More From The Road. At one point, before the 14-minute last track on the double-LP, the late Skynyrd frontman Ronnie Van Zant asks the crowd what they want to hear. He’s met with a deafening response of “Free Bird!” From then on, heads and trolls alike took that moment as inspiration for countless requests, always sincere in intent — whether that’s for laugh, or for love. (In terms of blowhard-ed-ness, it’s probably matched for infamy only by Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”) By 1980, Bill Hicks was already sick of the joke.
It’s hilarious for Parquet Courts specifically to call a song “Freebird II” for a couple reasons. One, this band is made up of a few Texas transplants, and they’ve toyed with the expectations of a Southern Rock Band in the past, specifically on the opaque and sprawling “Uncast Shadow of a Southern Myth.” Second, this is a band known — at least in their early years — for fretboard gymnastics not totally dissimilar to Skynyrd’s Gary Rossington. Third, I have been at a Parquet Courts show — I think at New York’s Death By Audio, in early 2013 — where fans shouted “Free Bird!” more than several times. At this point, it’s without doubt a joke meant to make the band laugh as well. I can’t imagine how many times Parquet Courts have heard this, and how stale it must be. Why not deliver a permanent, on-the-record retort with not just a refashioning, but a continuation of that joke?
The track is already listed in the iTunes store. We can see it’s just shy of three minutes long, which means it’s not merely a recitation of the original. It may be a tribute (as much the original became a tribute to Duane Allman) or it may be an interpolation of some kind. Maybe, in the post-punk tradition that Parquet Courts follows so well, it simply distills all of the original’s constituent parts into the ether of pure rock ego. We can’t be positive until the new record comes out on May 18 just what “Freebird II” sounds like. However, I can all but guarantee it’ll be smarter, sharper, and more concise than any of its namesakes.