I was fifteen years old back in 1995, and it was one of the best years of my life as an appreciator of music. I discovered lots of new and old stuff across a variety of genres. There were two alternative rock masterpieces I spun constantly: the overrated Throwing Copper by Live and the underrated Mighty Joe Moon by Grant Lee Buffalo. I began a long, fulfilling relationship with the classic hippie-rock of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell. I was introduced to two rap records that changed the way I looked at hip hop for the better: NAS’ Illmatic and Tribe Called Quest’s Midnight Marauders. I also heard Robert Johnson for the first time, which opened up the dusty attic of old time music for my endlessly curious inspection. Amidst all that, I have to say I’m pretty sure that the album I listened to the most when I was in tenth grade was Freedy Johnston’s This Perfect World.
I loved the record so much that my final project for my high school creative writing class was a short story based on the events I interpreted from its songs. I actually had a partner in crime, another fifteen year old buddy with a literary bent, who was as attached to Johnston (or Freedy, as we presumed to call him) as I was. In retrospect, it might seem hard to believe that two awkward, underachieving, pubescent boys wandering aimlessly through the drab urban decay of a small city in Upstate New York would be so moved by the thoughtful songwriting of a man in his mid-thirties New York magazine once aptly described as “…one of the great American storytellers, [who] finds the real flat parts of life and gets in between them, emotionally.” As a desperate teenage virgin roiling with hormones in a gravely boring place, who was cut out neither for facial piercings and pretty boy self-pity, nor exciting bad boy activities such as stackin’ chedda and runnin’ down hoes, I was left to find a way to project my intensely passionate and angsty inner life on the little, incidental things around me. Freedy provided me part of the blueprint for how to do just that.
My first impression seeing Freedy on stage at the Low Beat last Thursday night was that he hardly seems to have aged in the last twenty years. He has the same spindly little body, wears the same unassuming ballcap, and he still seems to be giving everything he has — veins bulging in his neck, eyes closed, brow furrowed — to push out an unremarkable voice that somehow slowly gets under your skin and transports you to the nondescript, but deeply felt setting he fabricates in his songs.
Freedy played more than a handful of songs from This Perfect World, including slowed down versions of the title track, “Cold Again,” and a particularly moving version of “Evie’s Tears” after someone from the crowd called out a request late in the set. Johnston played for over two hours, and only seemed to be half-joking when he told the audience he would be willing to play all night unless we pushed him off the stage. “You guys really are the most polite audience I’ve played for in a long time,” he quipped.[i] He also played some of his most well-known songs from other albums, including “Mortician’s Daughter,” and “You Get Me Lost,” after engaging the crowd (seemingly comprised exclusively of admiring amateur songwriters) in a democratic discussion by asking, “So what do you guys want to hear next?”
Now living in New York City, Freedy plays regularly throughout the Northeast. If he has lost any of his passion for playing his old songs week-in, week-out for the past twenty years, he doesn’t show it. I was also impressed, however, with some of the tunes he shared from his most recent album, Neon Repairman. Songs like “Summer Clothes,” in which he takes on the narrative persona of a young woman leaving a bar alone, late on a cold night, wondering why she isn’t wearing something warmer, or “TV In My Arms,” describing the inner life of a man he once saw, you guessed it, moving a TV, show that Freedy still has an acute ability to look deep within things that are just scenery for most. Here is his performance of that song:
Freedy Johnston is currently living in New York City, and performs live at the Rockwood Music Hall in the East Village on the last Thursday of each month. His new album, Neon Repairman, is available for purchase through his site and other places around the internet.
Joining Freedy on stage at the Low Beat was local veteran singer-songwriter Ray Mason, who engaged the crowd with quirky songs like “When I Meet You on the Moon” and “It’s Heartbreak That Sells.” Mason seems to have spent the last 40 years of his life performing music for small crowds and knows how to draw you in with self-deprecating humor or a surprising turn of phrase, and then keep you listening with his spirited picking. You can check him and his band out here.
[i] After seeing Freedy about ten years ago, my friend related a story he told on stage in which he was playing at a bar in Minnesota, and a man kept heckling during the performance. After a couple beers, Freedy apparently stepped off the stage, jumped on the guy, and beat the shit out of him. It’s hard to know if these kind of stories are just talk, talk, talk.