When Crazed Artists Attack

Where does Ryan Adams rate among the greatest rock meltdowns of all time?

Troubled troubadour Ryan Adams rolls into Oakland this weekend, and early reports from his current tour suggest his onstage antics still meet his Replacements-caliber standards: disaster one night, sublime wonder the next. Shades of 2002, when a drunken Adams fielded a silly request for Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69” by stopping the show, whipping out his wallet, digging out $30, handing it to the fan, and attempting to kick him out of the building. (The fan was let back in and got to keep the money.)

Have the intervening years changed him? Maybe not. A poster to message board VelvetRope.com reported a recent train wreck of a show in which Adams took long breaks between songs, bitched ad nauseam about the sound system, and battled hecklers — whom he has started to attract in large numbers — from beginning to end. Days later, another correspondent reported that Adams’ DC show was excellent, and the singer’s stage banter hilarious. Which Ryan will show up here?

In honor of the impending appearance of one of popular music’s finest meltdown artists, here’s five of the greatest onstage freakouts in music history. Ryan has a ways to go yet before he’ll catch these greats.

Star: Jazz trumpeter Freddie Hubbard

Specifics: Circa 1967 at an unknown venue, probably in Europe

Meltdown: On a bootleg tape passed from collector to collector for close to forty years, Hubbard can be heard unleashing torrential trumpet riffs and then uncorking the following tirade to a jeering audience: “Fuck you white motherfuckers! Fuck you white motherfuckers! [Voice in crowd: “Go home!”] Well, okay, I’ll go home. If you don’t like me, kiss my ass! That’s right, ’cause you jive, you jive, you jive! You white motherfuckers! You the ones who started this shit! Lemme show you — you the ones — fuck you! Fuck you, you white motherfuckers! [Hubbard starts to weep.] If you don’t like me, kiss my black ass! You motherfuckers! [The drummer tries to launch into the next song.] Fuck it, I won’t do it!”

Aftermath: Unknown, though this was not the last of Hubbard’s meltdowns, nor the last caught on tape. In 1977, he stormed offstage at Cleveland’s Front Row, screaming “Miles Davis, Miles Davis, Miles Davis. I ain’t Miles Davis, motherfuckers!”

Star: Charlie Rich

Specifics: 1975 Country Music Awards, Nashville

Meltdown: Onstage to announce his successor as CMA Entertainer of the Year, Rich opened the envelope, announced that his “good friend John Denver” had won, and then set fire to the envelope and results card. Earlier in the evening, Rich had been spotted backstage swilling gin and tonics and autographing a woman’s bare breast.

Aftermath: Rich’s spin doctors went into overdrive: His gaffe, they said, came as a result of a negative reaction to a pain medication he was taking to overcome an agonizing spider bite he’d incurred while mowing his lawn. (Yeah, that’s the ticket.) Rich was pretty much finished by this incident, and the CMA continues to hold a grudge long after his death — despite being both a critical fave and the biggest artist in country music for a few years in the early ’70s, he is still not a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Star: George Jones

Specifics: 1979, the Exit-In, Nashville

Meltdown: For much of 1979, Jones wallowed in severe whiskey and cocaine addiction. Eventually, his whole personality cracked (perhaps “quacked” is a better word) into two distinct beings: One was George Jones, washed-up country singer, while the other was Donald, or sometimes Deedoodle Duck, who spoke in quack-talk. Jones would actually argue two sides of an issue with his feathered alter ego, taking one side in his normal voice and the other in a duck voice. The duck’s debut came at Nashville showcase venue the Exit-In before an audience of industry insiders, at what was supposed to have been a comeback show. As recalled by Jones’s then-manager Shug Baggott in the Jones bio Ragged But Right, Jones “came onstage and announced that George Jones was washed up, a has-been, but that on that night a new star was born who was going all the way to the top. And George proceeded to introduce Donald and asked for a round of applause as Donald started singing a George Jones song. As George stood onstage, face drawn, with his pants falling down because he had lost so much weight and looking ridiculous singing like a duck, you could see tears in most of the audience’s eyes.

Aftermath: According to Baggott, Donald continued the quacky-tonkin’ (only geese “honky”-tonk) until he was carted offstage in a straitjacket. And as with Hubbard, this was far from the last meltdown for the Possum, but it just goes to show you: It may walk like a duck and it may talk like a duck, but it might not be a duck after all — it just might be George Fuckin’ Jones.

Star: Jim Morrison/the Doors

Specifics: March 1, 1969 at Miami’s Dinner Key Auditorium

Meltdown: Drunk beyond even his own impressive norms, Doors frontman Jim Morrison staggered onstage and berated the people of his native state for being too dumb to leave Florida and move to California. He moved on to encouraging the audience to strip naked. And then he started asking questions. “You didn’t come here for music, did you? You came for something more, didn’t you? You didn’t come to rock ‘n’ roll, you came for something else, didn’t you? You came for something else — WHAT IS IT?” A long pause followed, and then Morrison had the answer: “You want to see my cock, don’t you? That’s what you came for, isn’t it? YEAHHHH!” And then Morrison unleashed his love scud, or maybe he didn’t. To this day, no one is sure.

Aftermath: Everybody went home. Nothing happened until the papers picked up the story the next day. The media pressured city hall and the police to do something about Morrison’s corruption of Florida youth, and eventually even President Nixon and the FBI got involved. Finally, four days after the show, six warrants were filed for Morrison’s arrest, ranging from misdemeanors such as public drunkenness to a felony charge of lewd and lascivious behavior. This was to have been the first show on a long US tour, but as word spread of Morrison’s conduct, promoter after promoter canceled, and Doors songs were dropped off radio playlists from coast to coast. Though Morrison did complete the LA Woman album after this incident (and his trial resulted in only two misdemeanor convictions), Miami effectively ended his career. His life would end in a Parisian bathtub in July 1971. (Or would it? Just a few months ago, A Current Affair aired a segment suggesting Morrison had faked his death. Apparently he’s kicking it with Elvis and ‘Pac at a Golden Corral in suburban Wichita or some such.)

Star: Grace Slick/Jefferson Starship

Specifics: June 1978, Germany

Meltdown: Jefferson Starship’s European tour was not going well. At the Lorelei Festival (the band’s first show in Germany), thousands of fans rioted when it was announced that singer Grace Slick was too sick to perform. The next night, in Hamburg, they probably wished Slick was still ailing. As a child of the post-World War II era, Slick later admitted that she always had it in for Germans, and she told them so in no uncertain terms in Hamburg. Drunk as a skunk, she took the stage in a Nazi uniform and goose-stepped around the stage, taunting the Germans about losing the war to America and pausing occasionally to insert a finger or two up the nostrils of puzzled German men, whom she called a bunch of Nazis. Those in attendance reported a curious phenomenon: mass walkouts of people who would get almost to the door and then think, “I wonder what she will do next?” and head back to their seats. “I’m in Germany and I’m gonna get back at them for Dachau or some dumb drunken decision,” Slick said years later. “That’s what that night was about: dumb, drunken decisions. So they started walking out, but they kept coming back, like ‘Maybe she’ll do something really hideous and we will have missed it.’ A freak show.”

Aftermath: Slick quit the band immediately after the show; Jefferson Starship staggered on without her through the rest of the tour. “I think she created punk rock that night,” drummer John Barbata recalled. If only that had been her swan song. In 1981 she would rejoin the band, which dropped the “Jefferson” from its moniker and (along with other once-decent bands like Chicago and Heart) unleashed some of the worst and most unaccountably popular rock of all time in the mid-’80s. From “White Rabbit” and “Somebody to Love” to “We Built this City” and “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” fairly defines the concept of creative descent.

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