Can You Fly was the album that put Freedy Johnston on the map and set the tone for her future recordings. It was well received and made the “Best Of” list by several critics that year. Robert Christgau of The Village Voice called it a “perfect record.” In a way, I think Freedy tried to get back to the quality and mood of Can You Fly in his later works, while trying to demonstrate his independence.
Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!
Mark Zoltak was the man with a plan. He saw the big picture and had extensive musical knowledge. When listening to a demo, you would hear your final mix. He preached Freedy’s work as Billy Graham quoted Scripture. Mark spoke with a pounding heart, at a pace of a mile a minute with motivating energy. His mind was five steps ahead of yours in conversation. When we were in the air on the way to Holland, he remembered that he had left his car double-parked, its flashing lights flashing on a busy Hoboken street. That was how he was, as his passions sometimes left him distracted. He had an absolute panic attack on board the plane! Mark was consumed with Freedy’s career and was the perfect manager. In the not too distant future, Freedy would fire Mark.
Here’s the real deal. Mark was the type of person that, at first glance, few took seriously. Soon, however, he demonstrated qualities that few can only aspire to. He spoke his thoughts freely and frequently. It was politically incorrect. He said things with a serious intention, but in a way that generated laughter. The bottom line is that Mark knew what he was doing and he knew it better than anyone. The problem with Mark was not its problem, but it was external perception. It’s that he simply said and did things in a way that often lacked authority. He didn’t have much of a background in the music business, nor did he play any instruments. At times, he was personally volatile and unprofessional. Therefore, it is important that you know this because Mark did not receive the corresponding credits in the first edition of You can fly. This was ironic because Mark had been the behind-the-scenes executive producer, producer, arranger, manager, and caterer. In truth, Mark was the one who had a clear vision of Freedy’s songs and single-handedly brought this recording to life. Yes, others (including Freedy, of course) played a part in the success of the project, but Mark exposed Freedy’s career and delivered it to him. I think this understanding may have tortured Freedy over time. How can the artist freely admit that someone else is responsible for doing his work, perhaps better than himself, while only accepting credit for his brilliance? Later, Mark had to kick and scream to get an Executive Producer credit, which he deserved.
Rehearsals and sessions / Round 1
The recording of the basic tracks of Can You Fly was done in two parts, each separated by a year. We started in the fall of 1990 at the old Water Music in Hoboken on Grand Street. I have fond memories of this studio, having recorded quite a bit there, including Helen Hooke’s. Versatility, Los Silos’ To victoryBy Kevin Salem Unpublished and Madderose’s Take it down. I also produced the one for Mrs. Lum Airport love song there. The first batch of songs included. Responsable, California thing, Tearing down this place Y Wheels. The band lineup was me on drums, Freedy, Jared Nickerson on bass and Jimmy Lee. Graham Maby produced this batch of tunes and also played some guitar. These sessions were fun, easy, and joyful. The general mood was good and Freedy’s songs were so good that they seemed to play by themselves. I remember feeling immense satisfaction after these sessions and knew that we had created something special. I heard the basic tracks of Responsable and other endless outings in my car and at home for months. I would have been a fan even if I hadn’t worked on these songs. Freedy was the most unique and original artist I had ever worked with. He was sure that he would be as famous as Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Wilco or the like.
Rehearsals and sessions / Round 2
The next round happened a year later, around Thanksgiving 1991 under the direction of Mark Zoltak and producer Knut Bohn. There was a big difference in Knut’s approach to recording. I had specific ideas about kick patterns and would mute my cymbals with tape. You can really hear the dry cymbals throughout the recording and especially at the end of Trying to tell you that I don’t know. Overall, it seemed like he wanted to downplay the drummer’s role in the band and didn’t want the parts to stand out, whereas Graham had a “go for it” approach.
I worked with (or around) Knut relying on the nuances and subtleties of my performances. For example, In the new sun it has fewer fillings but a more intricate groove. The fact that The fortunate it has absolutely no fillers it actually brings out the beat and song. Because my Knut drum fills were sparser and less active, it was a challenge to keep them interesting and effective. Admittedly, some of my drum fills ended up sounding a bit Charley Watts-esque, which (I think) secretly drove Freedy and Knut crazy. Although I was never confronted about it, they communicated with not-so-subtle looks or expressions during drum track playback. However, despite their disrespect and attempts to minimize my contributions, the musical choices that I made and performed to You can fly they were incomparable.
Here’s the real deal. This was no small task. I had to work within Knut’s limits while playing what Freedy was listening to. He was not the best musical communicator. To complicate matters, Freedy insisted on bringing in his former drummer, Alan Bezozi, to play percussion on the record. By Freedy’s design, the guy had to wave a tambourine or ring a bell over every damn drum track. Freedy was carried away by Bezozi’s percussion as if she had just witnessed pure musical genius. The subtext was, “Now, yes what boy (instead of Brian Doherty) had I played drums on my record, then we’d have a masterpiece on our hands! “Trust me, I’m not a sensitive ‘victim’ doing this shit. Laughter. It was passive aggressive behavior for reasons unknown to me. Alan Bezozi was Freedy’s drummer before me and played drums on The problem treme. As a drummer, Alan was a beat breaker and had trouble getting to the heart of the musical matter. It didn’t go unnoticed by others, but Freedy would continue to trust Bezozi as her go-to type. Bezozi had approached me once saying: “No offense, but your tracks on Can You Fly sound like they should be on a Bob Seger record.” I pointed out that drummer Roger Hawkins (famous for Muscle Schoals) played on many Seger tracks and thanked him for the generous compliment.
Months later, I went to a Freedy show in New York at the You can fly tour and was not surprised to hear Bezozi’s musical locks during the set. I felt a tug on my sleeve and turned to Michael Azerrad, musician and Rolling Stone journalist standing next to me. “Why the hell aren’t you up there playing drums?” I ask. “This drummer is killing these songs!” I shared your opinion. Let me close this section by telling you that in 2007 I received an email from Freedy, after not hearing from her for many years. I was planning a 15-year concert, commemorating the release of You can fly. He explained the situation to me and told me that he was gathering the crew that had worked on the record. He also told me that Alan Bezozi’s commitment to the concert had already been secured. It occurred to me that it might be a two-drummer affair, even though I was the only drummer on the recording. I don’t know how the concert turned out because I wasn’t there.
If Jared Nickerson was the definition of cool, Kevin Salem was the show of tousled. Kevin, who looked like Cat Stevens, walked into rehearsals reeking of cat urine. His jeans were ripped from crotch to ankle. The entire trouser leg was a big tear. The only thing that protected him from an indecent exposure charge were the yellowish long johns he wore underneath. He would open his guitar cases and the stench of cat urine would almost knock you over. At dinner, the guy looked at the food on your plate like Steve Guttenburg’s character in that movie. Dinner. On the Holland Tour, Kevin hired me to play drums on his next recording (for which he would never see a penny), and then he would ask Mark Zoltak to help fund it (I’m also not sure Mark will ever see his money again. ).
You can fly it was released in early 1992. Soon after, I went to Europe with The Silos for a five week tour. Before I left, I got a call from Mark Zoltak asking me to work with Freedy in Belgium for a week or so. Miraculously, Freedy’s dates started a day or two after Silos’s last date. It was perfect. Then they informed me that Freedy had no money to pay me and they asked me if I would pay for expenses and meals. I told Mark I’d think about it. Meanwhile, I got a call from Kevin Salem, who was furious about the situation. I shared his feelings and we agreed that we would both decline the offer. In a phone call, I told Mark how I felt and that I would not be making the trip to Belgium. About a week after returning from The Silos tour, I called Kevin Salem to catch up and chat. He informed me that he had just returned from Belgium where he was working with Freedy.
From Freedy to TMBG
In later years, Freedy and I saw each other rarely. There was a concert at Woodstock. Once, he was invited to my home in Stone Ridge, New York, and there was a recording session with Freedy and Marshall Crenshaw, produced by John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants. My drum tracks on You can fly are some of my best. He was 28 years old and felt that he had progressed musically. It was the bridge that took me away from The Silos and into many other bands. Today, having played in bands and sessions for 30 years, I can tell you that sometimes it can be an absolute chore to work on music. Often it is useless. The songs of You can flyThey were, however, a breeze in comparison. That’s because they were well-written songs, straight from the heart. Later, my drum tracks would come to the attention of They Might Be Giants, who I would work with for years to come.
After the album was released, Freedy fired Mark Zoltak and hired the manager of They Might Be Giants. Mark would explain it to me later by saying, “He was concerned about Freedy’s music and now he wants to cash in on T-shirt sales like They Might Be Giants do.”