I’ve Been From Here to Kinsley, Kansas–Freedy Johnston

Apr 2nd, 2011 in Music

We’ve hung around a few small Kansas towns in our lives.  Concordia.  Beloit.  Belleville (sans les Triplettes).  Freedy Johnston came from Kinsley, Kansas.  There seem to be but two kinds of kids in these types of towns:  those that can’t imagine leaving their beloved ten-cent-towns, and those who crave kinetic trains or stolen cars to quickly carry them away.  Freedy Johnston was that second kid, and the musical world is far better for it.

Freedy left Kinsley and stepped on the Lawrence, Kansas* stone before Telecastering out to New York City in 1985.  After rambling around the NYC boroughs for a bit, he signed to Bar/None and released a few tracks and then his first proper record in 1990.  Freedy then dropped the songwriting bomb in 1992 with his ravishing record,  “Can You Fly,” which received universal praise and was named one of the year’s best albums by The New York Times and other smarty-pants outfits.  One of our heroes, Robert Christgau (then of the Village Voice), called it “a perfect album.”  To this day the songs on Can You Fly hit us in the heart and head with their heartland headaches and hearty helpings of woe and growing pain.

Freedy was so devoted to departure and the musical muse that he sold his family’s Kansas farm to finance the recording of Can You Fly, all of which is described and lamented on the opening song (Trying to Tell You I Don’t Know) and on several other songs on the album. As you can imagine, there was a tinge of guilt involved in the cavernous cost of pursuing success.

After the bombshell of Can You Fly, Freedy was signed by Elektra Records and next released “This Perfect World” in 1994.  This Perfect World was just that:  perfect.  This Perfect World was (and still is) praised as one of the best albums of all-time.  The album was produced by veteran Butch Vig, and included stints from great players such as Marshall Crenshaw, Marc Ribot, Kevin Salem, and Graham Maby.  In conjunction with its release, Freedy was rewarded with a minor hit single with “Bad Reputation”* off of This Perfect World.

After the hallowed heights of these two all-time records, Johnston’s output and career have roller-coastered over the years between the sublime and the ridiculous.  He has released some great albums and songs over the years (most recently, last year’s critically-acclaimed “Rain On The City” album), and understandably enjoys a loyal fan following.

Freedy’s masterful songs mediate musically between the raucous and the refined, with terse lyrical tales coated with carefully and concisely wrought character-studies. It’s a benevolent blend that has stood the test of time. Check out some of his songs below from his two best albums, and if you haven’t heard before, join with those that know and revere this great songwriter.

Freedy Johnston–Mortician’s Daughter

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/09-The-Morticians-Daughter.mp3|titles=09 The Mortician’s Daughter]

Having spent scads of our early youth stamping tombstones in our grandfather’s monument shop, and having fallen for a few (Kansan and non-Kansan) lasses along the way, this song always takes us back and tears us asunder.   In our humble opinion this is one of the best songs ever written.  Freedy sings of a lost-love who has passed on (perhaps from the planet, which makes the repeated lines, “Her father stands in the open door, he’s waiting for her,” that much more poignant).  And when that Telecaster roils across that lake from 1:59-2:20, it never fails to chill.  One for the ages.

“I used to love the mortician’s daughter
We drew our hearts on the dusty coffin lids
I grieve tonight over this letter
My tears dissolve an image from the careful ink

Her father stands in the open door
He’s waiting for her

There’s a storm blowing across the lake
It’s late summer
On the broken step is a cardboard box full of wilted flowers
She whispers in my burning ear
It doesn’t matter

I used to love the mortician’s daughter
We rolled in the warm grass by the bone yard fence
Her skin so white
The first leaves falling
This long forgotten night I am there again

Her father stands in the open door
He’s waiting for her

There’s a ribbon printed with last respects
Blowing down the gutter
The rain comes in she drops my hand
She’s turning laughing
And I used to love the mortician’s daughter

I used to love the mortician’s daughter
We drew our hearts on the dusty coffin lids
There’s a lonely dove out on the telephone wire
I turn my head and she flies away.”

Freedy Johnston–Trying to Tell You I Don’t Know

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/01-Trying-to-Tell-You-I-Dont-Know.mp3|titles=01 Trying to Tell You I Don’t Know]

This is the unabashed rocker previously alluded to in which Freedy sells regret for selling the family farm.  Sold the map up to the sky??  Sheer poetry in that sadness.  The first stanza is “pert near” perfect, and the red light (recording studio) line speaks volumes:

Well I sold the dirt to feed the band
Falling right through my hands
Yes I sold the map up to the sky
Falling down always try

Trying to wake up in your head (drive away, drive away)
Trying to cry with the red light on (drive away, drive away)
Trying to tell you I don’t know

Well I sold the dirt and bought the road
Let me tell you right where we’re going
Yes I sold the house where I learned to walk
Falling down always try

Fifty bucks to use the van
Trying to find your city, man
Trying to get back my guitars
Trying to tell you I don’t know

Well I sold the dirt for a song
Bleeding on every note
Yeah, I sold the map up to the sky
Falling down, always try

Trying to sing what I can’t say
Trying to throw my head away
Trying to cry with the red light on
Trying to tell you I don’t know”

Freedy Johnston–Can You Fly

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/07-Can-You-Fly1.mp3|titles=07 Can You Fly]

We love the languid musical feel of Can You Fly and the magical realism of the lyrics.  Who can figure the meaning?  Is it a tornado vision, a fever dream, a prophet alighting?  The cover photo speaks of a yearning to leave gravity’s pull.  If it wasn’t so torpid, it might be a high-jumper’s perfect headphone psych-up.

Freedy Johnston–Responsible

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/08-Responsible.mp3|titles=08 Responsible]

In Responsible Freedy captures well a father’s alternating woe and resentment as his daughter leaves the nest for the big city (“she has gone to New York City, through that arch [St. Louis] on a summer night”).  The music has a loping groove that is infectious, and the slide guitar touches are tastefully impeccable.  We love the stanza below and the false-finish at 4:19.  And these seemingly spiteful lines never fail to take us aback:  “Goodnight my dear, goodnight my cold little one, has your dream begun?”

“It’s raining blossoms down in the concrete park
A girl walks in and out of the evening shade
A broken angel weeps through her spraypaint smile
No tears can reach me while I know I’m not responsible”

Freedy Johnston–Down in Love

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/11-Down-in-Love.mp3|titles=11 Down in Love]

Down in Love is a perfect duet between the talented Syd Straw and Freedy.  We love this love-stained stanza in particular:

“The day breaks down and cries a river
It soaks me to my heart
Down in love I know they’re laughing
Tearing us apart

No more dreams for me.”

Freedy Johnston–Bad Reputation

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/01-Bad-Reputation2.mp3|titles=01 Bad Reputation]

In Freedy’s mid-tempo hit rocker, Bad Reputation, we hear the artist’s honest self-assessment and a hope-beyond-hope that a mistreated lover might be foolish enough to take him back.

“I know I’ve got a bad reputation
And it isn’t just talk, talk, talk
If I could only give you everything
You know I haven’t got”

Freedy Johnston–This Perfect World

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/04-This-Perfect-World1.mp3|titles=04 This Perfect World]

This Perfect World can do no wrong in our musical songbook.  Musically, the acoustic guitar, electric jangle and cello are a perfect meld in support of Freedy’s expressive vocals.  Lyrically, the song falls somewhere between Raymond Carver and Raymond Chandler, and in a scant 4:34 Freedy eloquently embodies a father speaking his last words to his daughter after the death (murder, suicide?) of her mother.  It’s a harrowing tale with a clearly sarcastic title.  Short story soundtrack and tour de force.  It was also featured in the movie, Kingpin.

“You oughta see your face
You oughta hear your voice
Last time I was here I wouldn’t turn around

You oughta lock that door
Somebody might get in
Didn’t I teach you that

This perfect world
So blue I can’t begin to say
This perfect world
I know I never should have gone away

But I still deserve to say goodbye no matter what I’ve done
No matter what I’ve done

I see her in your face
Hear her in your voice
Last time I was here they’d found her in the lake

You oughta see my scar
You think I’m made of stone
Didn’t you tell me that?

This perfect world
So blue I can’t begin to say
This perfect world
They say that soon I will be gone away

But I still deserve to say goodbye no matter what I’ve done
No matter what I’ve done

This perfect world
This perfect world
Now I’ve come around it’s far too late
And these pills won’t even let me cry
No one knows you even when you’re gone
But I still deserve to say goodbye no matter what I’ve done
No matter what I’ve done

You oughta see your face
You oughta hear your voice
Lock this after me”

Freedy Johnston–Gone Like The Water

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/08-Gone-Like-The-Water1.mp3|titles=08 Gone Like The Water]

Gone Like the Water is Freedy’s early-career autobiography.  The song is his most country-influenced, which frames his homesickness well.  The harmonies are dulcet throughout, and the spare electric guitar adds just the right touches.

“An old suitcase she’ll never miss
Leather coat he used to wear
Thinking tough, looking tired
With Mama’s money and Daddy’s ring

He’s gone like the water down to NYC
Sleeping on the 8-0-2 along this river, running down
He’s gone like the water down the depot drain
Disappearing in the city

Twenty-four and going pale
Growing out
Cutting back
Drew a face on a ticket stub
With Mama’s hand and Daddy’s pen

He’s gone like the water down to NYC
Sleeping on the 8-0-2 along this river, running down
He’s gone like the water down the depot drain
Disappearing in the city

Talk all night, cook all day
Looking for a new place to stay
Thinking hard, looking bad
With Mama’s dollar in Daddy’s coat

He’s gone like the water down to NYC
Sleeping on the 8-0-2 along this river, running down
He’s gone like the water down the depot drain
Disappearing in the city”

Freedy Johnston–Evie’s Garden

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/10-Evies-Garden1.mp3|titles=10 Evie’s Garden]

We’re not sure what this song is about (Evie’s mental illness?  Her having been abused?), but you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows on this one.  It blows despairingly blue.  Again, a cello and Freedy’s vocals fittingly fuse to frame the funereal blues and grays of the song.  We like the following stanza in particular:

“Bring back the rain
We’ll go walking
Bring back the wind
Like you do”

Freedy Johnston–Wichita Lineman

[audio:http://www.thelefortreport.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/05-Wichita-Lineman.mp3|titles=05 Wichita Lineman]

Freedy is the Count of Covers, and nowhere is that better exhibited than on his cover of Jim Webb’s stellar song, Wichita Lineman (a huge hit for Glen Campbell back in the day).  Glen’s version wasn’t bad, but we’ll take Freedy’s any day. The guitar makes it.

And for some completely gratuitous humor, please check out Craig Ferguson’s riff on Wichita Lineman below:

*As an aside, at a cafe on our last stop in Lawrence, Kansas, we asked an obvious music-type about Freedy’s time spent in Lawrence, and he pointed across the street to an upstairs window and said that was where Freedy had lived for a while; he also alluded to Freedy being a difficult personality and causing some trouble in those parts (hence the “Bad Reputation”).  A prickly musical personality?  Who knew?

4 Comments

  • Indeed, e. Great shows by Freedy to speed that Plough. Do they have good shows there still? Or not so much?

  • This Freedy retrospective brings back fond memories of evenings with Mr & Mrs Lefort at The Starry Plough.

  • You knew you had a keeper, but not before. We kid.

  • All of this is just great stuff and a goldmine for those not initiated. Great memories of a road trip to Mammoth with an eight year old Cole who know all the words to “Lucky One”

 

Comments have been closed for this post.