The first time I was rattled by a heckler
I remember the day very well.
It was so hot outside, the mugginess made my hair curl.
The window to the nameless hotel room in the fine Detroit suburb of Royal Oak, Michigan, was cracked open a bit as the phone rang. I had been waiting for a call from my manager at the time, a quick, sarcastic man who finished his sentences with phrases like “How you like that, buddy boy?” with a cartoonish 1950s movie drag on the “budddy boy.”
I only said “Yes” as I hung up. Images of Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, pretty much every single country music star I had ever discussed flashed through my mind. I couldn’t wait to tell my GMa and Papa that I was going to play the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.
When the day finally came in 2002, the usual cast of characters I had gotten to know in Nashville breezed through as I prepared for sound check. Only blocks away, I had recorded my first solo record, “Heartbreaker,” at Woodland Studios. Backstage was unfussy: cigarette and coffee smells haunted the walls in the glow of old-fashioned announcement lights with actual bulbs in them.
My voiced echoed across the worn, wooden floors, blending into the woolly shadows up in the rafters. It sounded incredible, and there wasn’t even a single microphone on yet. I sat and played for what felt like a long time, as small fractures of sunlight beamed down from the stained-glass windows.
When I heard the worst label person of all time cackle someplace off to the right of the stage, it was my first sign something might go wrong. I tried to put it out of my mind. But I knew. Disaster was bound to happen. I had rarely come upon things the easy way.
I folded my songbook up and headed out for some fresh air before the show, which was sold-out. It felt like some magical thing had transpired back in the United States while I was away on tour, crossing the English countryside alone by train, playing these songs to small theatres of characters I had only imagined in novels. It was fascinating to be home and have people interested. I was careful to not believe it all the way.
As I took to the stage, the applause felt electrifying and scary. I exhaled and plunged into the first few songs, taking tiny glimpses at the audience. I could see faces so clearly that in order to not make eye contact I would lull myself back into a squint and close my eyes. It felt awesome. My shoulders relaxed, and I finally dug in with my guard down all the way.
After a handful of songs, I heard muttering. A voice commenting, followed by loud “shhhh” sounds. It would fade out, and just as soon as all seemed normal, it began again. Mumbles. Indecipherable. Maybe something about Skynyrd. I couldn’t tell.
I started to feel uneasy. I dropped my pick in the middle of a song. I got distracted, and the distraction became alarming.
But song by song, I made my way back. I was struggling, but I was making headway, trying not to take what was happening out there in the sea of faces personally.
Sometime between the fifth and sixth songs, a warbly, cruel male voice yelled out a song request. The voice became louder and more frequent, even in the middle of a song during a hushed moment. It was impossible to ignore, being only one person up there onstage, two old-fashioned microphones turned up loud so I could play as quietly as I did. The voice got so loud that it was making its way into the mikes and shooting back to the audience. This dream show was turning into a fight to survive my own nerves.
Before I could start the next song, the voice bellowed again. I recall looking down long, dark aisles to see security guards doing nothing. I finally had enough and piped up: “Who is it? Who is shouting? Tell me who it is!” I asked the person to raise his hand so I could see him. He did not.
Finally, people pointed furiously to a seat not far from me in the front. I walked down the few wooden steps in front of the stage to the aisle where all the fingers pointed.
By the time I got there, I was so angry. I felt humiliated, but what else could be done? Either way I had lost something. Unlike a more seasoned comic or musician, I didn’t have the experience to ignore a situation like this or to use wit to turn it around. I felt a kind of disappointment and disillusionment that I had never known — and it was in front of a thousandplus people.
As I approached the heckler’s wooden pew, I was shocked. He was only a few years older than me. Unshaven, bleary-eyed. He had on a baseball hat and seemed so drunk that his limbs hung from his sides like a broken doll. His eyes were like two poached eggs waiting to break.
The anger left me, and I instantly felt bad. No one was there for this man. No one stopped him.
I said, “Hey man, if you were trying to ruin the show you succeeded, but I need to try and finish this — it’s my job.” I pulled out two $20 bills and said: “Here is your money, please take a taxi and leave here. Go home and take an Aspirin. Please. Leave.”
I walked back to the stage. People applauded. The fourth wall was destroyed in the worst possible way. But this moment, where I decided to do what the security and the people around him would not, felt genuine. I would soon know the worst of it. A journalist in Nashville had taken the facts of that night and written a tale of madness: it said, more or less, “Ryan Adams throws out fan for requesting ‘Summer of ’69.’”
I was now a joke. All of my hard work was lost in a story picked up by The Associated Press. I soon became an attraction for people who wanted to pay money to hurl insults at someone. I would never change what happened.
But looking back, in all honesty, I would have shouted something else. I would have screamed Bryan Adams’ “Run to You.” That song is my jam. And after playing “Summer of ’69” a decade later in the same venue, I must admit that is one hell of a challenging bridge. But as fine a bridge as I have ever crossed.