The first item that comes up when you Google ‘Bad Reputation’ is that 1981 Joan Jett single. It’s not a bad song. In fact, it made for a punky and inspired theme to the greatest #toosoon cancelled television series of all time, Freaks and Geeks.
But it doesn’t hold a candle to the Freedy Johnston pop classic that stormed the airwaves in 1994.
That year saw the release of a string of high-profile albums that made bands’ careers: Green Day’s Dookie, Weezer’s self-titled “blue” album, Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral, Soundgarden’s Superunknown, Oasis’ Definitely Maybe. It was a great time to be a music fan; it was an even better time to be a musician. Because, you know, people still actually bought music back then.
And here came Johnston’s best-known album, This Perfect World. It was his major-label debut and the culmination of, well, something, it seems. Not even Johnston is sure. The man was an atypical rock star, if you could even call him one. He’s from small-town Kinsley, Kansas, looks like your average Joe and had his breakout moment at 30, well after most pop musicians have fallen on hard times or become industry has-beens.
“It was the first song I’d written that I didn’t like, but I’d already written it, and everybody just loved it. It was my first experience of learning what I know now: that basically I’m always wrong.”
This Perfect World followed up his critically acclaimed 1992 record, Can You Fly, which was financed in part by the sale of a house and land willed him by his grandfather. So there was a cool backstory and a bit of momentum in the press behind Johnston, and he remembers aiming high with his new record label. “When Elektra [Records] said, ‘Who do you want to work with?’ and I said, ‘Butch Vig,’ I was asking for a lot,” he says. Vig had recently produced the biggest album of the decade, Nirvana’s Nevermind, making him the hottest commodity on the market. But Elektra came through.
The resultant album not only unspools a tight mixture of Byrds- and Big Star–like folk-rock and power-pop nuggets, but it also shows off Johnston’s top-notch narrative chops. Rolling Stone took notice, naming Johnston its “songwriter of the year.”
Sitting pretty atop the track listing is ‘Bad Reputation.’ Johnston wasn’t too big of a fan. However, radio stations played the hell out of it, it introduced a whole new fan base to his music, and it featured in the closing credits of Noah Baumbach’s critically acclaimed 1995 flick, Kicking and Screaming.
Made Man tracked down the songwriter, who now lives in Wisconsin, to ask about his biggest hit.
We were surprised to learn that ‘Freedy Johnston’ is actually not your birth name. How’d you pick your nom de plume?
My given [last] name is ‘Fatzer’ [pronounced ‘fought-zer’]. It’s a German name. Everybody’s always pronounced it ‘FAT-zer’ ever since I was born. And my mother’s [maiden] name is Johnston. I thought it was pretty legit to take your mom’s name, you know? I love my mom. The name ‘Freedy’ was also given to me by my mom. She gave everybody a nickname—very colorful nicknames—and one day she stuck the name ‘Freedy’ on me. I never felt guilty about it, because the name was given to me. It’s not like ‘Sting’ or something.
You’re originally from small-town Kansas. What was it like growing up there?
Well, the Midwest, back in those days, was five or 10 years behind the rest of the world. It is a land that was populated during a great land confiscation by the railroads and a genocide of the Native American population. New York City’s been a thriving city; upstate New York has been a beautiful place for centuries. Yeah, well, Kansas was pristine in 1870, and now it’s clouded up, [and] all the water’s sucked out of it. The more I read about how my homeland was populated, [the more] it’s just like a horrible crime that I’m a part of. I come from a town called Kinsley that was developed by the Santa Fe railroad; they would put a town down every seven miles as a watering station for the steam trains, and then they’d have to start a town up around that water tank, just because that’s what you did. All right, next question!
You were a one-time New York City transplant. What was the city like when you arrived? We heard it was a total shithole back in the ’80s and early ’90s.
When I came there in ’83 for nine months, my father [had gotten] really sick, and I ran away. It was very different. Tompkins Square Park was completely populated with punk-rock kids and their dogs, and it smelled like dogshit everywhere. It was really a kind of bummy place. And this building over on 9th Street and Avenue B was this huge, 15-story, empty, windowless hull. Twelve years later, I owned an apartment in that newly renovated building.
It was [also] very common to sell stuff on the street on blankets in St. Mark’s Place or Astor [Place]. You’d put stuff out there and you’d sell it. I was a mover [and] I worked for my friend. We’d move by day, people would throw shit out all the time, and we’d come home with a U-Haul truck full of stuff, and [go] down to the square to sell it. And that really did happen, man! I think back to that, and I’m like, “Wow, was I really that kind of person?”
I was 30 when I got my first record deal [in 1994]. I [was] a temp worker at a New York City office. So it was very strange, and I just look back on it and think, “What did you expect?” It was very, very tumultuous. I got all this money, an apartment, got married, lost all of it. It was some kind of stupid game. Luckily, I kept all my nice guitars and amps. And my dignity.
Your major-label debut, ‘This Perfect World,’ is not the world’s happiest record. Are you the type of songwriter that makes himself happy by writing sad tunes?
When I write music, I write the music before the words; that’s how I write songs. And so the music implies the words. I think the music already has some words in mind. I don’t know why I don’t have the natural inclination to sit down and just write a truly joyous, happy, exaltant song. Like ‘I’ve Been Waiting’ by Matthew Sweet. I really don’t know. And frankly, it’s not my job; this is what I do. You know, other guys do happy songs.
Do you remember where you were when you wrote ‘Bad Reputation’?
Well, no, because the answer is that I never really write a song in one sitting, so I never really know when it’s written. I do know when it was recorded. The song was just an idea that I put down on mini-cassette, and then I wrote a bunch of lyrics to it that never made it to the song. Lyrics about a whole different topic. I don’t know how that happened.
But I didn’t like the song, anyway. It was the first song I’d written that I didn’t like, but I’d already written it, and everybody just loved it. It was my first experience of learning what I know now: that basically I’m always wrong. If I don’t like a song, that’s a good thing. I’ve been told that. “Let me hear the new songs you don’t like.” Truly, truly that’s how it works. That’s how ‘Bad Reputation’ happened: I had a song I didn’t like, my manager was there with me, Butch Vig, it’s snowing, Christmas time in Woodstock [New York]; and we’re out at a recording studio in the middle of the woods called Dreamland. The band had gone home. So it was just my manager, Butch Vig, the engineer, me, and the studio manager. And Butch said, “Do you have any other songs?” And my manager was like, “C’mon! Play that talk, talk, talk song”; and I’m like, “Ah, fuck.” So in the kitchen there, I pulled out my guitar, and in this sultry way, I’m sure, [I sang]: “I know I got a bad reputation …” And I remember Butch looking at me and going, “Yes! That’s the one. We’re going to record it right now!” And I remember going, “Oh, no, I don’t even like it.” Just being like a total child.
So then the lyrics had to be finished and they eventually were, but that night we recorded the track. We went into the studio and Butch hadn’t played drums in a couple years. And so here he was asked to be the drummer on this song, because everybody’s looking at him like, “You’re the only drummer here.” I remember Butch kind of being like, “Wow, I don’t know if I can do this.” Going from the confident producer to being the drummer. He was out there practicing before the song. It was hilarious. I loved it. He did a great job.
When ‘Bad Reputation’ hit in 1995, did you immediately see a change in your quality of living in NYC?
I made enough money to buy an apartment. And to save up a bunch. Sure, I did really well. The early ’90s were really good to me.
We’re just going to say that we’re huge fans of this song. We’ve listened to it, like, 30 times since we found out we were going to interview you.
Ah, geez, thanks. There’s something about the actual music of the song. The repeated ‘talk, talk, talk.’ The story of the song is particular to each person that actually listens to it. And what I’m saying is that I write songs that have a beginning and an end. I’m a little bit obsessive about that; I [tried] to write complete stories at least from Can You Fly on. And this is an example of my most popular song being a story that is just kind of images. I was just going for the feel. So that’s my most popular song, and I don’t even know what it’s about. I’m in an art form [where] I’m kind of lucky: I can make no sense, or I can make a lot of sense. Either way will work. I just feel lucky as hell, because the melodies are telling the story, you know?
Well, the melody is great; it sort of reminds us of the Byrds. Back then, how could you not like the song?
The reason I didn’t like it was because it wasn’t in any way finished or realized or focused, lyrically; it was just words thrown on paper. But I admit that now, and it doesn’t matter, because that’s how people write songs all the time. It must’ve meant something to me, or I wouldn’t have written that. So that’s why I criticized the song early on. And I think that’s a legitimate yardstick for a songwriter. The song became important and good, because it was made popular. And the reason it became popular was because [people] liked it. I’ve been complimented by a lot of people about that song. I had the honor of going to see Quadrophenia, in ’95 or ’96, at Madison Square Garden. And I met Pete Townshend [of The Who]. His manager introduced me, and it was like, “Hello, you’re a god,” and then I walked away. And [Townshend] says to his manager, “Who is this young man?” [And the manager said] “He wrote that song ‘Bad Reputation.’ ” And he looks over at me and goes, “Great song, mate!” So that’s like the high point of my life. That’s the kind of stuff you live for. I’m very happy to take ownership of that song, and I play it every night I do a gig.