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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 68.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Freedy Johnston: Native son
Acclaimed songwriter Freedy Johnston makes Madison his own
"I'm just
especially happy every time I'm here."
"I'm just especially happy every time I'm here."
Credit:Kim Keyes

At the Inn on the Park lounge last Friday evening, Freedy Johnston sipped a beer and looked out the window. His eyes fixed on the faade of Genna's Lounge, and his mind rewound to 1994. That's when his longstanding part-time relationship with Madison began.

"Over there at Genna's is where it all started," said Johnston. "That's where I met everyone - Kristi [Genna] and Jack [Williams], Jay [Moran] and Duke [Erikson], Stick [Bielefeld] and Pie [Cowan] - and I knew that these were my people."

Johnston's on-again, off-again residency in Madison is one of the great untold stories of the local music scene.

The New York troubadour was named "songwriter of the year" by Rolling Stone in 1994. That same year, Johnston gained national radio exposure with his hit single "Bad Reputation." It was a track from This Perfect World, the acclaimed Elektra Records release produced by Butch Vig. The album was mixed at Smart Studios on East Washington Avenue.

Johnston returned to Madison in 2000. He rented a house from a UW professor and lived here for a year. During that time, he wrote and recorded the songs that became Right Between the Promises, the last major-label album of his career so far.

In late 2000, Johnston helped form the Know It All Boyfriends, a Madison supergroup that includes Vig, Duke Erikson, Jay Moran, James "Pie" Cowan and Bill "Stick" Bielefeld.

"I don't have any reservations about saying this is my second hometown," said Johnston.

When I met up with him last Friday, Johnston, 47, was nearing the end of a two-week Wisconsin stay. He participated in Pat MacDonald's Steel Bridge Songfest in Door County. He was preparing to play a gig at the Frequency later that night. His trip culminated Saturday with a private Know It All Boyfriends show at the Edgewater Hotel.

Johnston returned to the East Coast this week. He's preparing to release his first album of original songs in seven years this fall. Before he left, he took time out to share some priceless Madison anecdotes.

Getting nostalgic, Johnston said "Bad Reputation" might never have been recorded if Butch Vig hadn't pressed him for more songs during production work on This Perfect World.

"Butch said, 'We need more songs.' And so I said, 'Okay, I have this stupid song, but I'll play it for you.'"

In the kitchen of the New York studio where This Perfect World was recorded, Johnston strummed a version of "Bad Reputation" that, at the time, had different words. When Vig heard the song, he demanded it be recorded on the spot.

"The band was already gone," said Johnston. "The only people there were Butch, an engineer and my manager. So Butch agreed to play drums, and the engineer, John Yates, played bass. Butch's drums gave the song a great, driving feel."

Johnston says he's never heard the cover version of "Bad Reputation" recorded by Death Cab for Cutie in 2004. He asked me if it was any good.

The cover photo for 2001's Right Between the Promises was taken in front of East Washington Avenue's Spence Motel. It's a photo that still haunts Johnston, who didn't realize that he was standing in front of the room in which a prostitute had been murdered.

"It couldn't have upset me more," said Johnston. "I couldn't believe it. Nobody had told me. It was very, very stupid and coincidental. It was a harbinger of how doomed that record was."

Johnston was living in Madison during the Christmas season of 2000. One night, he met a group of Madison musicians at Genna's before heading to a Christmas cocktail party hosted by Chris Vig, Butch's brother.

The band that was supposed to play the party had to cancel. At Genna's, Butch told Freedy that they would have to form a band that night to stand in.

"So there we were in the kitchen of Chris' house right before we were supposed to perform. Butch asked what we were going to call the band. And I said, 'Well, I had a band that played a couple of gigs back in Hoboken in the 1980s called the Know It All Boyfriends.' So that's what we decided to call it."

The Know It All Boyfriends are the rare Madison celebrity band, and they've endured for more than seven years. Most recently, they played at the graduation party of Chris Vig's son.

Late Friday night, hours after I had interviewed Johnston, I watched him take the stage at the Frequency on West Main. Over and over, he talked about how happy he was to be in Madison. Between songs, he referenced local trivia, like bus-line numbers that run across town.

I asked Johnston if he'd ever consider moving here.

"Well, I have at least a couple of dozen friends here," he said. "I think I'll end up here some day, at least part time.

"I'm just especially happy every time I'm here."

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