4.07.2009

Freedy Johnston "Bad Reputation"

A funny thing about pop music is that there's always room for the singer-songwriters. A movement begun in the '70s thanks to the popularity of Bob Dylan (who was really just doing his best Woody Guthrie), "singer-songwriter" became a genre in its own right and was made popular by artists wielding nothing more than a piano or acoustic guitar, their sweet voice, and some lyrics that, more likely than not, told a story about heartbreak. Think: Paul Simon, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Carole King, Gordon Lightfoot, Don McLean, Carly Simon, Cat Stevens and a ton of other artists that you may have never heard of, but your parents love to play full-blast in their SUVs.

While there's yet to be a huge resurgence of the guy-and-his-guitar music since the '70s, its something that's really never gone away either. There's always a few breakthrough artists trickling onto the mainstream charts, and, incidentially, a lot of these turn out to be one-hit wonders (at least, as far as the mainstream is concerned), regardless of how talented they are (think David Gray, Daniel Powter, Aqualung). Many of these artists have similar histories--toil in the coffee houses for years, put out a few indie albums, get one brief shot at the big time, get played endlessly on VH1, and go back to square one. However, today's subject is such a good songwriter that, despite having a familiar history, he's managed to transcend it with critical acclaim and a fan-following.

Freedy Johnston grew up in Kinsley, KS--a rural farming town best-known for its distinctive location on the U.S. map: it's equidistant from New York City and San Francisco. Johnston was always musically inclined, but living in a town without a record store or music store of any kind, had difficulty developing his talent. At 16, Johnston bought a dirt-cheap guitar through a mail-order catalog, and at 17, convinced a friend to make the 35 mile drive to the closest record store so he could buy Elvis Costello's debut, My Aim is True. Moving to Lawrence, KS for what would be an abbreviated academic stint (he stayed less than a year at U of Kansas), Johnston immersed himself in the college town's music scene, which was then mostly New Wave. Johnston utilized his close proximity to an actual record store and began broadening his musical horizons, listening to everything from Neil Young to XTC to country music to Lawrence's local legends The Embarrassment.

In a move that sounds straight out of a Preston Sturges movie, Johnston left behind the farms and bars of Kansas for the coffeehouses and bars of New York, with nothing more than a four-track recorder and knapsack full of demo tapes. In 1989, four years after his arrival in the city, Johnston's music caught the attention of Bar/None Records--a respected, Hoboken, NJ-based label.

In 1990, the label released his debut, Trouble Tree--an album that was well-received by critics, who called Johnston a "post-punk Donald Fagen," despite its rough edges. The album did little business in the U.S., but became a minor hit in Holland and the song "No Violins" received some airplay. Unable to continue his venture monetarily, Johnston sold off a piece of the family farm--a painful decision, considering Johnston had inherited the farm from his grandfather (the incident is the subject of the album's lead track). The outcome was worth the risk as 1992's Can You Fly ended up on album of the year lists from Spin, Billboard, and The New York Times. Famed critic and Village Voice writer Robert Christgau gave it an A+ and called it "a perfect album." Critics compared his wry, character-based lyrics to the writings of Raymond Carver. Despte the lack of a single, DJs routinely played cuts from the album. Johnston's momentum was riding high, and he quickly signed to a major--Elektra Records, and drafted a mega-producer--Butch Vig (Nirvana's Nevermind, Smashing Pumpkins' Siamese Dream) --to man the boards for is follow up LP.

1994's This Perfect World was deemed a fine follow-up by most critics, although most agreed that it lacked the consistent greatness of its predecessor. Rolling Stone named Johnston songwriter of the year for 1994. But others were dismayed at the album's slick approach--Johnston's champion Robert Christgau later called the songwriter's team up with the uber-slick Vig a "mismatch" but Vig's jangly (if admittedly a little too smooth) production gave Johnston his first and only hit: "Bad Reputation."

This Perfect World's leadoff track, "Bad Reputation" is an excellent example of Johnston's songwriting prowess--both melodically and lyrically--and melancholy vocals. The song features Johnston's speaker admitting his past as an unreliable lover--"do you want me now?" he asks in the refrain. Translation: "yeah, I'm a pretty sketchy dude--you still interested?" The song is gorgeous, beginning with Johnston's vocals and acoustic guitar before giving way to a full scale ballad, complete with guitars so jangly, The Byrds may have asked him to ease off on the treble. When the song breaks back down to just Johnston and his voice again, he proclaims, "nobody's gonna tell me who to love," a line that's at once sad and proud--and a perfect example of Johnston's songwriting style.

Despite lots of radio airplay--particularly on college radio--"Bad Reputation" wasn't a huge hit, though it did show up on three separate charts--hitting #54 on Billboard Hot 100, #29 on Top 40 and #28 on Modern Rock. Oddly enough, the song didn't show up on the Adult Radio charts, despite Johnston being tailor-made for the format. Maybe didn't help that the song's video would be nominated for Most Generic Video of all time.
"Let's film Freedy singing in the streets of NY, and intercut it with some funny/interesting looking locals and hot, arty looking chicks...but here's the kicker, it's all going to be in sepia tone. Yeah. Fuck with that, Hype Williams."
<a href="http://www.joost.com/082000a/t/Freedy-Johnston-Bad-Reputaion-Video-Version">Freedy Johnston - Bad Reputaion (Video Version)</a>
(Apologies for the annoying ad)

The song was also featured as the closing credits song for Noah Baumbach's supremely excellent post-college indie comedy Kicking & Screaming (no, not the one with Will Ferrell. The one that's actually funny). It was also featured in the not-half-bad trailer:

"Are you wearing mascara?" "No...yes."

Johnston's one and only real hit (if you could call it that) was, unlike many one-hit wonders, a great example of his work. It's not surprising that it didn't hit as much as Elektra might have liked it to--it wasn't grunge or post-grunge, and the big college rock explosion of Dave Matthews Band and Hootie & The Blowfish was just beginning to happen. There wasn't much room for a melancholy singer-songwriter with a strong pop sense.

Still, Elektra released a second single, and an excellent one at that. "Evie's Tears" is a gorgeous track. Buoyed by a sweet little Rickenbacker riff that might have had R.E.M.'s Peter Buck calling his lawyers, the song gives way to a creepy story about a guy disturbed by his girlfriend's admission that she was or is currently being sexually abused by a Catholic priest. No, it doesn't exactly go along with the otherwise jubilant music, but that's the brilliance of Johnston--marrying pop smarts with literary smarts. Still--not something one wants to hear Casey Kasem talk about for one of his "requests and dedications," so maybe we should be grateful the track didn't make it to the airwaves.

Though Johnston never again met the success of This Perfect World, he stayed on Elektra until 2001, and ended up scoring a minor hit on the Adult Contemporary charts with a play-it-straight cover of Edison Lighthouse's "Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)". But despite a lack of big success, Johnston continued to be well-respected by critics and his fellow songwriters (he's been referred to as a "songwriter's songwriter" for his genius structure and lyrical ability) as well as maintain a strong following. The following has enabled him to continue recording and releasing albums, including a demos compilation in 2004 and a live album in 2006. In 2007, Johnston recorded a mail-order only album of twelve cover songs by other artists as eclectic as NRBQ, Dionne Warwick, Eagles, Marshall Crenshaw, Tom Petty, and Paul McCartney & Wings. The album, called, My Favorite Waste of Time, is available on his website.

Johnston has also left behind his adopted city of New York for my hometown, Nashville, TN. He's currently recording a new album titled Rain on the City, slated to be released sometime in 2009.

So while, no, Freedy Johnston did not become the next Dylan or even reach the status of the new Paul Simon--new Todd Rundgren, maybe?--he helped to prove that, every once in a while, the public just wants some good music that doesn't rely on fancy production, loud guitars or pained vocals. Shocking, I know.

Download: Freedy Johnston - Bad Reputation
Download: Freedy Johnston - Evie's Tears

Bonus download: Freedy Johnston - Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)

Read a recent interview with Freedy
Buy Freedy Johnston music from Freedy himself

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3 comments:

Captain Stuben said...

I like how you slipped Cat Stevens in your list of songwriters, but put him at the bottom...after James Taylor. That is where he belongs. Also, you should temper your enthusiasm for "Kicking and Screaming." It is a good movie but I don't know if it is "supremely excellent." Then again, movies aren't the main point of business here.

The Second Single said...

I beg to differ..."supremely excellent" is the only way to describe Kicking and Screaming, though "awesomely amazing" might work.

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