And It Isn't Just Talk

Freedy Johnston gave as good as he got at Taste of Minnesota

The rock 'n' roll pantheon has its share of famous public meltdowns. The more flagrant episodes--from Jerry Lee Lewis lighting his piano on fire to Courtney Love inciting a crowd to strip her naked--become iconic abstractions, but still they highlight the tension inherent in the relationship between performer and audience. The less high-profile incidents, meanwhile, though they go mostly unnoticed, may actually be far more tangible and complex for crowd and musician alike. Passion becomes abandon, love turns to hatred. The performer/audience dynamic slips away. The show suddenly belongs to no one.

At a little after half past eight on June 30, with the sun fading over the first day of the 18th annual Taste of Minnesota festival, the humidity gave way to a slight breeze and Freedy Johnston, known for his genteel (if somewhat dark) songcraft and self-deprecating manner, took the Zone 105 stage to play. The crowd--folks in their 30s, mostly, some of them accompanied by their young children--had settled down in the grass in the relatively quiet southwestern corner of the capitol grounds.

Before the set was over, what had promised to be a laid-back family affair turned into an unpleasant fracas. According to several people who were in attendance, about five members of the audience commenced to heckle the singer and his band, and continued to do so. For nearly an hour, the witnesses say, Johnston alternated between brushing off the hecklers, appeasing the families, and holding fast to his muse. And then, finally, his frustration boiled over. The diminutive performer put down his guitar, jumped the four-foot-high temporary fence that bordered the stage, and went after one of his antagonists. Other members of the crowd pulled them apart, whereupon Johnston retreated and the hecklers were doused with jeers and beers.

"There were two guys in general, and maybe two or three others, who were doing karate chops and wrestling and yelling at Freedy while the rest of us were just sitting," says Sharon Her, who saw the debacle unfold. "It was sort of a mellow older crowd, and the scene was just really weird."

The 26-year-old Johnston fan says that despite one half-hearted warning from a Burns Security guard, the disruption escalated. "It was extremely mishandled," she says. "[The hecklers] should have been kicked out a long time ago."

Her and others say tension escalated as Johnston sang Elton John's "Rocket Man," during which the rowdy group, who appeared to be in their teens or early 20s, clapped out of time and sang the wrong lyrics loudly enough to stop the song entirely. Later, when the hecklers disrupted a solo performance of Johnston's song "Emily," the singer backed away from his microphone, singled out one of them and announced, "I'm coming for you, motherfucker."

Ron Maddox, who has served as the Taste of Minnesota's general manager for every one of its 18 years, initially told City Pages that the situation was "mishandled" by Burns, as well as by St. Paul police and state troopers, all of whom are hired to patrol the event. Maddox subsequently revised his assessment, saying that law enforcement officers had arrived on the scene within four minutes, in time to break it up and escort the disruptive attendees away. (No one was arrested.) "It was handled properly," he concluded.

Many witnesses, however, dispute that characterization of the events, insisting that it took closer to ten minutes for officers to arrive on the scene, and that they showed up only after the audience had taken care of business.

Others tend to point the finger at Johnston. "It seemed like harmless kids having too much fun," says 33-year-old music writer Henry Hormann, asserting that initially security had no real reason to react. "I've seen this once in a while and nothing happens, so I was surprised when Freedy jumped."

According to Ron Maddox, June 30 marked the largest crowd in Taste of Minnesota history; he estimates anywhere from 85,000 to 105,000 people attended. (Maddox says the Johnston show drew more than 3,000; attendees peg the number closer to 1,000.) And as any one of those tens of thousands of revelers well knows, festival organizers don't skimp on security. The question is: Why weren't any officers present at the Zone 105 stage? "We have security everywhere. It was a large crowd," Maddox responds. "We have five stages going of entertainment."

Maddox declines to say how many security officers were hired, allowing only that "it's a lot." He calls the scuffle an isolated incident in an otherwise trouble-free weekend. "What should have happened is that Freedy should have quit playing, gone to the side of the stage, and called for security. That's the professional thing to do."

"Nobody there felt he was unjustified in what he did," counters Sharon Her, adding that Johnston was mindful of the presence of children and took pains to defuse the situation away from his microphone. After the chaos unfolded, she says, she ended up behind the stage along with several audience members who chatted with the backing band while the singer composed himself. "Backstage he said he was really embarrassed and talked about how he had his last fight in high school and got his ass kicked," Her says. "He's a small guy."

Through his manager, Johnston declined to comment for this story. According to those who were present, when he retook the stage after a 15-minute hiatus, he apologized to the heckler he'd gone after, saying he was "a real peaceful guy." He wondered aloud where the police were, half-joking that he ought to have been arrested for what he'd done. Then he launched into his signature song: "Bad Reputation."

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