For a number of years, Freedy Johnston was from right here in the Quad-Cities, these four river cities without much of an opinion. He became accustomed to the area's charms - all of the bald eagles skimming the waters of the Mississippi during the cold months of December and January, Happy Joe's pizza and a pedestrian kind of existence. There's not a lot to overwhelm a soul here if we're talking about general excitement, but the natural beauty is quite breathtaking if you're receptive to the subtlety and predictability of it. Johnston seems to have retained fond memories of his many years living here, but he's not a songwriter who could have spent his entire life here. Just as a man, that may have been a different thing entirely, but as a songwriter, Johnston needs more for his seeds.
He needs a metropolis. He needs a street-side café or coffeehouse, a notebook, an alibi and two wandering eyes. He needs multitudes and multitudes of people, of pretty girls - young women, old women - couples, sirens, children being children when they're pretty sure no one's watching. He needs to hear fire trucks roaring through the jammed streets, cabbies barking at other cabbies and tourists, a constant bustling and stimulation upon stimulation to be able to craft out the sharp power-pop songs that he's been making for decades. He needs a place like New York City and all of its grievances, all of its intrusions, all of its grandiose, in the same way that John Mellancamp needs a dulled, blue-collar state like Indiana.
While Johnston is a native Midwesterner - born in the great blankness of Kansas - his writing is infused with the thoughts of someone surrounded by the wearied and lonesome, yet sprawling and alive with activity streets of a big city. The affect of this is a mellowed sense of adjacent connection to thousands and thousands of strangers, where a nod or a polite hello seem like monumental interactions that can be read and misread for hours or days, though almost assuredly, that other person is long gone, lost in the sea. It causes the mind and the man to take on a kind of guarded optimism about relationships. Johnston uses the idea of a soaked city to convey this concussive loneliness, or an abandonment of intimacy, all while having some intense self-intimacy in buckets. These are songs in which single hearts dance solo and eyes are coasting for partners, but mostly feeling the suffocating difficulty of cutting through the static. It's a static that speaks loudly and incomprehensibly, but it has got a lot to say.
Johnston loses himself in the rough patches of the stories of man and woman - of the ex who still has a key to the other's house and returns to hack the shit out of his belongings - but he also makes those harsh episodes seem (or sound) remarkably romantic, in a way. He has a way of making us long for these rainy days, where we can't avoid the droplets, and everyone's battling with wet shoes, wet pant legs and the teetering and tottering of all's that's out there, unbalanced.
*Essay originally published April, 2010