Freedy Johnston

Freedy Johnston is a New York-based singer/songwriter who was born in Kansas. His lyrics are articulate and literary, and of a quality not heard since the days of Gordon Lightfoot and Laura Nyro. He has been called “a songwriter’s songwriter”, and his work has been featured in movie soundtracks, most notably Kingpin(1996).

Sweet merciful mother of god, his songs are sad.

Not pictured: Freedy Johnston.

Not pictured: Freedy Johnston.

We got a promo copy of Freedy Johnston’s This Perfect World at the record store in 1994. There was a big marketing push behind “Bad Reputation”, the other big single besides the title track, and so we were ordered to play it over the store’s PA system, as per usual.

In 1994, I was a year away from the painful demise of my marriage. I worked a mall job, had a wife and a cheap lousy apartment because that was what I thought you were supposed to do. I hadn’t discovered the medicinal properties of weed, and I opened the store every morning with 44 ounces of Mountain Dew coursing through my veins. I wouldn’t have called myself “unhappy”, because happiness was an abstract concept. All paychecks went to rent and gasoline. The only reason I have toys from this period is because my ex-wife worked at the ex-store Kaybee, and got a discount.

I would begin my work day angry, unfulfilled, and joyless, and since I’d rather eat molten lead than listen to R. Kelly moan about bumping and grinding on children, I’d sneak in some “white person music”. You know, something where a guitar is actually being played, and the words aren’t gutter slang. I was a 22-year-old punk just out of art school, okay? Maybe I don’t identify with “lemme lick you up and down… til you say STOP”, “lemme ride dat DUNKEY DUNKEY”, “WHOOT! DERE IT IS!”, and so on. In 2016 R. Kelly is a punchline; in 1994 he was worshiped as a pedophilic, pissing king. The now-dead Aaliyah backed him up, with “Age Ain’t Nuthin’ But A Number”, to celebrate their illegal and immoral couplings. This was long before Dave Chappelle made it socially acceptable to clown R. Kelly. He was the “new” “in” thing.

When I inspected the This Perfect World promo, it fit the description for “white people’s music”, even though I hadn’t heard it. The cover looked like an old vacation photo. Forty minutes later I felt ready to vacation at the bottom of a lake.

Great songcraft is intensely powerful, and it endures far beyond tinny, pathetic “bedroom music”. There is a universe of difference between songs about “licking” and “grinding”, and Johnston’s:

It is an album steeped in regret and loss. The narrator of “Across the Avenue” is unable to get past the memory of seeing his lover killed in a pedestrian accident. In “Two Lovers Stop,” a young couple commit suicide rather than let themselves be ripped away from each other. The title track concerns a dying old man returning to apologize to his estranged daughter for unspecified past misdeeds. Among the other songs, “Evie’s Tears” apparently refers to sexual abuse (evidently by a priest), and “Dolores” is based on Nabokov’s Lolita. Despite the preponderance of dark subject matter, the album has a jaunty feel as Johnston demonstrates an ability to craft winning pop melodies. [Wikipedia]

By the way, my mother’s name was “Dolores”. It means “sorrow”.

Imagine my surprise when, in 1996, I heard some of Johnston’s songs (including “This Perfect World”) in the raucous Farrelly Brothers comedy Kingpin.

Peter and Bobby Farrelly had a smash directorial debut in 1994 with Dumb & Dumber, starring Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels as adult retards. That same year saw the release of Forrest Gump, with Tom Hanks as the titular retard. Popular rock music of the day included Pearl Jam and Bush, and was typically sung in a mumbling, retarded voice. 1994 was the Retard Renaissance. It was Dumb White People: The Year.

The Farrelly brothers have the musical comprehension of Quentin Tarantino, which is to say, they have none. They have no sense of interplay between music and motion. For 2000’s Me, Myself & Irene, they hired several bands to cover Steely Dan songs, which are shoved into the narrative like greasy ham sandwiches. What kind of monster would hire Smash Mouth to defile “Do It Again”? Was the soundtrack arranged using a dartboard?

So in the midst of this vulgar bowling film featuring bull semen and geriatric landladies who take cunnilingus in lieu of rent, we hear the sensitive stylings of Freedy Johnston. And you know what? It kinda works. Freedy opens a clearer window into the mind of Woody Harrelson’s character. He’s revolting and hideous on the outside, but there’s still something beautiful and sad within. Granted, it’s an odd choice for when Woody’s punching Vanessa Angel in the tits, but I can see why the Farrellys pressed this formula in later films. For their next outing, There’s Something About Mary(1998), the “Greek chorus” is an on-screen character, in the form of Jonathan Richman.

Jonathan Richman in There's Something About Mary

Jonathan Richman in There’s Something About Mary

My criticisms of the Farrellys aside, there is no denying that they brought two very talented singer/songwriters to a mass audience. That’s pretty wonderful, especially coming from the confused morass that was the first half of the 1990s. It’s the sort of thing “good people” do. Let me impart some wisdom to you, from one who knows intimately:

There are two kinds of people that make “gross-out movies”. There is the first kind, the Farrellys and Troma, who focus on boogers and farting. The second breed, which includes Tom Green, John Waters, and myself, risks alienating their audience by showing something honestly perverse. Regular folks don’t like that stuff. They’d rather laugh at boogers, which are harmless yet suffered by everyone. They don’t want a window into the mind of a sick person, or rather, their idea of such.

This is why Freedy Johnston’s music works in Kingpin. Harrelson’s world as Roy Munson is just too bleak and harsh without some musical light. The wistful lyrics make his failures easier to digest. An instrumental score might make Harrelson look like a raving maniac; this was only two years after Natural Born Killers, y’know. Woody from Cheers was long gone.

Lastly, I must admit, despite my turning my nose up at them, Blues Traveler makes a fairly convincing Amish band. Lord knows what their equipment is plugged into.

Jonah Hill wasn't born yet probably. That's John Popper.

Jonah Hill wasn’t born yet probably. That’s John Popper.

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