The first time I was rat­tled by a heck­ler

The Hamilton Spectator - - A&E - RYAN ADAMS

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.

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