BOSTON.Â On a Thursday evening at Symphony Hall, the last few strains of a delicate pieceÂ by Debussy performed by the Guarneri String Quartet have left the audience in a blissful state of calm, which is broken only after an extended period of silenceÂ by appreciative applause.Â Â
â€œThat was soâ€“peaceful,â€ says Janice Webb quietly to her husband Phil, as she scans his face for signs of trouble.Â
â€œYes,â€ Phil replies, obviously agitated unlike the others in attendance.Â His lips quiver after he speaks.
â€œAre you all right?â€ Janice asks.
â€œI think so,â€ Phil begins, but then suddenly lurches forward, as if trying desperately to restrain himself.Â â€œNoâ€“itâ€™s coming again,â€ he says after a moment, and begins to rise from his seat.
â€œOh, no,â€ Janice says, as she taps the person to her left, an elderly woman with a hearing aid,Â to let her know that her husband needs to get out.
Phil makes his way past the other concertgoers with difficulty, and when heÂ reaches the aisle he starts to run for the exit.Â Â Before he can make it, however, he succumbs to his malady, turns around and shouts â€œFree Bird!â€, before breaking into tears.
Janice sprints after him and fights offÂ two ushers whoÂ are trying to remove Phil from the aisle by force.
â€œHeâ€™s my husband,â€ she says as she wrestles Phil away from their grasp.Â â€œIâ€™ll handle this.â€
Phil suffers from Chronic Free Bird Syndrome, an affliction that affects over 250,000 American males who are current or former fans of Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Southern Rock band of the â€™70â€²s whose anthem â€œFree Birdâ€ is the most requested concert song of all time.
â€œMen who suffer from CFBSÂ feel a compulsion to shout out â€˜Free Bird!â€™ at any pause in aÂ musical performance, no matter how inappropriate the request,â€ says Dr. Paul Greenzang of the Mass. Ear, Nose and Throat Institute.Â â€œTheyâ€™ve been banned from High Mass at Catholic Churches, escorted out of their kidsâ€™ piano recitals, and attacked in Muzak-filled elevators.â€
Phil has matured beyond his days as a heavy-drinking, drug-addled fan of the star-crossed band, three of whose members died in a 1977 plane crash, but still canâ€™t shake the urge to call for his favorite song.Â â€œThat band meant so much to me at a certain point in my life,â€ he says.Â â€œJanice has taught me to appreciate classical music, but I guess a lot of their songs are burned into my brain.â€
Some musicians attempt to appease CFB sufferers by incorporating Southern Rock anthems such as the groupâ€™s â€œSweet Home Alabamaâ€ into their repertoire, but specialists say this approach treats the symptom but not the cause of the ailment.Â â€œIf you play â€˜Sweet Home Alabamaâ€™,Â the neurons start firing on trace elements of Southern Comfort,â€ the sickly sweet whiskey-flavored liqueur favored by the groupâ€™s fans, says Ancil Mullins, an emergency medical technician who works the concert halls of Boston.Â â€œThere is no known cure, other than prolonged exposure to Carole King albums.â€