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 theaters 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. I wondered if people in the upper balcony could understand what was happening. It made me feel terribly insecure. I was not used to this.

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.

By the time Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings came out to sing on my song “Bartering Lines,” the vibes were tense. We got to the quietest moment where it is just our three voices a cappella, and suddenly that voice yelled the song that would then follow me for nearly 15 years: “Summer of ’69,” by Bryan Adams.

Before I could start the next song, the voice bellowed again. I recall looking down the long, dark aisles to see the security guards doing nothing. Had this never happened before? People were yelling, and a small scuffle seemed to happen in the back. I so desperately just wanted to play.

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 thousand-plus 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. It is what I would have done if I were in the audience.

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. They wanted to yell that song like it was some magical power that would transform me into a Golem.

But that was the beginning of who I am today. All of the humor and self-deflection I would ever learn came from that night. I am now grateful for it all. I know the nature of people. I know how they will throw insults and rock a boat just to watch a person go over the side. But I know they are not all cruel. Away from the stage lights, I would study others and look for that good.

I became the person who would send an email every year to the genius writer of that song on his birthday, which is also mine. I would learn how to show empathy, or fight for myself, or make fun of it all, and shine some love on that lonely, crazy person we have all stood next to before, screaming into the night from the shadows. I toasted the last drink I ever drank to that heckler the day I cleaned up.

I would never change what happened. But looking back, in all honesty, I would have shouted something else. I would have screamed Bryan Adams’s “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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