Will Sheff: I was talking to Mike Stuto the owner of The HiFi Bar, and he was saying to me about that bar, “If I listen to somebody else about the bar, and I make changes to it, and it fails, I feel like a fool. But if I make my own decision and that fails, well I was wrong and I don’t feel ashamed about it.” I’ve come to believe that with success and failure, there’s a heavy degree of randomness, or maybe unknowableness and unpredictableness to it, but if you follow your heart or passion, then you kind of win.
Todd Barry: I guess we should both start singing “My Way” now.
–The Todd Barry Podcast #133
A few months ago, I discovered The HiFi Bar. Just writing that sentence reminds me of the Art Brut lyric: “I can’t believe I’ve only just discovered The Replacements.” (At least I’ve been a rabid fan of The Replacements for many years, but that doesn’t make up for having discovered The HiFi Bar this late.) It’s a unique refuge for music in a place smaller than almost anywhere I’ve heard music other than my own bedroom, a particular harbor of honesty and quality in a world devoted to everything but those two qualities. It’s aptly named because this is the sort of place I think John Cusack would have built when he decided to break out of retail LP sales and become a music producer at the end of High Fidelity. Walking in, before I understood where I was, I felt as if I’d found a home-away-from-home. Even without a performer on the tiny stage in back, it had the feel of a great, classic pub, like Pride of Spitalfields, near Brick Lane, where I once happened to be installed on a stool when a cohort of London policemen filed in for a retirement party. On that night, a few years ago, one of them seated himself at the upright piano to play a medley of Elton John and I asked him for some cuts off of Tumbleweed Connection, but he admitted he didn’t know the album. (How is this possible?) It was one of those warm and unguarded moments among strangers, full of heart, when you feel as if you’ve been adopted by the clan you’ve stumbled into, if only for an hour or two. My hours at HiFi last week were like that. I came away thinking, this is what practicing any art is about.
A week or two before I drove down to New York City, I bought tickets for Freedy Johnston’s performance there, and then read what little is out there about him. He’d been named Rolling Stone’s “Songwriter of the Year” in the mid-90s; he’d done recordings produced by T. Bone Burnett and Danny Kortchmar; he’d been celebrated by critics as a ‘songwriter’s songwriter.’ Yet, all of that, and this was the only concert I could find for him in all of last year in the usual listings. Why was he playing here? So I went back to the entrance, where the woman at the door was still awaiting newcomers, with her small list of those who had bought tickets to the show. My name was third down on the print-out of maybe twenty names, at most, and I could see she’d checked it off when I arrived. I peppered her with a number of idiotic and retrospectively embarrassing questions, under the assumption that Johnston was still living in the Midwest—how and why did he pick this place for the only performance this year of songs from his latest album? (I didn’t know that he has lived in New Jersey for years.) How could someone with this talent, and that intoxicating brush with fame, be making a living at gigs like this? Obviously, he couldn’t. It wasn’t being done for money, so what was the story? (If I’d just done a bit of searching into the bar, owned by Mike Stuto, I’d have understood why someone would perform here with no thought of money to be made. The place is that uniquely cool.) She played dumb, or just didn’t know, or didn’t really understand my question, probably. “I think he’s friends with Mike.” I persisted: I loved this place immediately, and it wasn’t a knock on the venue, but how can he make money this way? I knew these were incredibly stupid questions that didn’t convey how perfect I thought it was that he was playing in this little oasis and just wanted to know how it had come about, even though there would have been little mystery if I’d Googled the bar. Anyone with any sense would want to perform there, just to have done it, yet most of what I knew about him was summed up from this Internet blurb I’d found:
A gifted songwriter whose lyrics paint sometimes witty, often poignant portraits of characters often unaware of how their lives have gone wrong, Johnston seemingly appeared out of nowhere in the early ’90s and quickly established himself as one of the most acclaimed new singer/songwriters of the day. Johnston was born in 1961 in Kinsley, KS, a small town with the odd distinction of being equidistant between New York City and San Francisco.
His Wikipedia entry alerted me to the song Bad Reputation, which I remembered after finding it and listening again—repeatedly, with pleasure—and it pointed out how critically celebrated he’d been for his first albums. I’d been listening to the newest album on repeat for several weeks in my car, after buying the ticket, and was looking forward to hearing him live, but I’d been anticipating a much bigger club, something more typical of a concert tour, expecting maybe a small ballroom with a couple bartenders.
So, having demonstrated conclusively how uncool and out of my element on the Lower East Side I was, I found a tiny table near the stage and set my Diet Coke down and waited, looking enviously at the people who had come early enough to claim the banquettes. A younger fan appeared and sat across from me, waiting for his date, constantly checking the door, while telling me that Johnston lived in Jersey City now and had that regular Thursday performance, a “residency,” at Rockwood Music Hall, further downtown. That clarified the nature of this booking: he loved the HiFi and it loved him, and he lived nearby. It was about music, not money.
When Johnston took the stage, he didn’t waste time, but launched into the first song with authority and power. He, along with his drummer and bassist, switched back and forth between rueful ballads and a much more powerful sound that, for me, held its own in comparison with John Hiatt’s best tracks on Slow Turning. It took me a while to recognize that he kept reminding me of Hiatt, and then he’d do a song sounding far more like Neil Young. But he was more himself than either of them. It was exhilarating to hear such power, and yet such clarity in the texture of the music, the best possible way to hear a performance, as if in your own living room. To get a sound that big, with that much propulsive energy, from that triad–a couple voices and three instruments—is itself an achievement. Some of the best music of the past half-century emerged from minimal crews of three people. Yet Johnston’s most effective songs reminded me less of rock and roll than the work of people like Jimmy Webb. (Who under 40 knows that name now?) To do that with a sound that constantly swerved toward the satisfying punch of rock and roll was a pleasure for his audience, as the hoots confirmed after each song. Essentially, it was like listening to a performance in a studio—a full, physical, and yet undistorted sound.
Between each number, Johnston offered sardonic observations about himself, and though most of it was self-deprecating, every disclosure gave me a greater and greater respect and appreciation for what was taking place. It was just another Thursday gig at a little bar downtown by an artist who had fallen off the pop radar long ago, but the more I listened, the more it seemed like a perfect creative achievement. In some respects it was all that anyone who works in any field should want. Johnston connected with his audience and commanded their total, rapt attention for those ninety minutes, and they were rewarded with a bit of joy so many others had overlooked. The sound wasn’t absolutely perfect—I’ve never been to a concert where the sound was absolutely perfect—but it was about as good as the sound in any concert I’ve attended.
Before his first song he said, “Well, what can I tell you. I’m 55. I’m still writing songs. And my dog is doing fine.” There was more to come, but at this point, that was about it, and it made some of us laugh, as it was meant to, but it also established the contours of who he was: someone who was conscious of how much time he had left, someone who was working hard and seriously to finish a body of work, and somebody who lived a spare life as a result of that devotion. Later he told the story that suggested he’d been something of a jerk, once upon a time—there were allusions to his life after he catapulted into the floodlight of critical recognition, which sounded as if it may have been a slide into dissipation and self-absorption. This particular story was of how he’d been bickering with his girlfriend on a road trip in Wisconsin and after stopping for a meal, had inadvertently left her in the restaurant without realizing she wasn’t in the back seat until he’d been on the road for an hour and a half. This was both very funny and no doubt absolutely factual. He did a U-turn, mortified and angry at himself, and found her still waiting at the restaurant, having provided a small group of employees with a parade of revelations about Johnston’s life and personality.
She said, “There are some people who want to meet you in back.”
“I submitted to it. I deserved it. Then we got back on the road,” he told his audience. “None of this has anything to do with this next song, though.”
At one point, before he performed “Neon Repairman”, he called out to the bartender, “I think I have a ticket for a beer. Let me check.” And he pretended to root in his back pocket, but didn’t come up with it. They got the message though and one of the help delivered two pints, one for Johnston and one for his bassist, as they performed the best song off the album of that name. It contains a line that samples a line from “Wichita Lineman”—I need you more than want you—which is poignant when Webb put it into the mouth of a common repairman driving around the county looking for broken power lines. It was Webb’s best song, and though “Neon Repairman” doesn’t sound that much like it, the spirit of the lyrics and melody are very much the same.
“I gave that song to Jimmy Webb once. He said, ‘It’s great.’ That’s all. I don’t know what I expected. What else is he going to say? Your song sucks?”
I was won over by that combination of humility and all the evidence of his fierce dedication to making great music—and his ability to do it perfectly by simply being who he is. Regardless of the rewards, or the attention, or his status in the music industry, he was succeeding, simply measured by the quality of the music and the way his audience was enjoying it. Even with his influences, he was being himself, and nobody else, and he spent the evening with some people who loved him for it. What else can one ask for?
Toward the end of his set, Stuto brought out several wine carafes and passed them around–accepting donations for the band. After the last song, as I was leaving, the carafes had made their way back to the bar. I walked up and put in more than I had paid for admission. The next day, on my drive home, playing podcasts, I listened to Todd Barry and Will Sheff talking about music and the life of a musician, and, as I was driving past Binghamton, I laughed with surprise when they started discussing The Hi Fi Bar.