I’m fascinated by how it’s possible to be nostalgic for something that happened in your lifetime but that you didn’t actually experience firsthand when it happened. Case in point, for me: early-1990s alternative rock and pop. I love great guitar pop from this era, even though I was too young for it at the time. I was 12 in 1994, and as I’ve said, I was a musically sheltered kid who didn’t know what was happening even in mainstream modern rock, let alone the alternative or power-pop worlds I’d come to love so much when I got older.
There’s something about that sound that’s endlessly captivating for me. Part of it’s the fact that kids my age and not much older were into bands I’m only now enjoying, but it’s really a kind of wistfulness that this sound, this energy, was popular right before I was really culturally aware of musical trends outside my parentally prescribed window of country and oldies. Listening to certain records now is like hearing someone describe a party at which I arrived moments too late to do anything but help clean up.
That’s how I feel about Freedy Johnston’s “Bad Reputation.” The singer-songwriter’s fourth album, This Perfect World, hit shelves in the summer of 1994, when I was very much a confused boy who would not at all be able to appreciate Johnston’s witty lyricism or his soulful but poppy angst. It was just a little beyond me at the time, and besides, it wasn’t even on my cultural radar.
I heard the song for the first time on a mix tape some friends made me as a parting gift when I moved to Los Angeles after college. It’s an actual tape, too, and one I wore out through repeated use to the point that the tape itself began to stretch and warp, the songs losing or gaining speed at random. It’s right now locked in the small fireproof safe I use to store things like my wedding certificate and Social Security card. It’s that important to me. The tape was a wonderful mix of pop and hip-hop, rock and soul, and its makers spliced in sound cues that tied into the overarching themes of travel and challenge and that also made the final product feel that much more special. It’s practically impossible to duplicate. Some songs have movie dialogue between them; others cut out halfway through as the next track kicks in abruptly. It’s a work of art.
One of the anchors of the tape is Johnston’s “Bad Reputation,” and the song’s feeling of finding yourself alone in a crowd, looking for someone you can’t forget, cut raggedly to my core as I drove across the country to a new home away from the people I’d spent four years weaving into my life. Everyone goes through the same basic crises right after college, and those years of rockily searching for your identity aren’t that interesting to anyone who wasn’t in them with you, but still, knowing that everyone else was having a tough time didn’t make mine any easier. The first year after college was a tough one for me — my job had low pay and even lower morale, and I went through three apartments and eight roommates in 12 months — and I found myself turning again and again to the songs my friends had put to tape and sent westward with me.
Sometime in those early post-graduate years, I came across Kicking and Screaming. I’d only heard snatches about Noah Baumbach’s first film, and those only in the context of articles that talked about his hiatus in the entertainment industry between writing and directing 1997′s Mr. Jealousy and returning to the field to co-write 2004′s The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou with Wes Anderson. I was so glad to find the film, too. It’s a hilarious, sharply written, wonderfully observed comedy about the existential malaise that sets in in your early 20s as you stumble from the cocoon of academia into the unforgiving sunlight of the real world. The jokes worked, the characters were spot-on, and the stories of selfish heartbreak made perfect sense to a young man trying to figure out just what he was going to do with his life.
The film ends on a perfect note of reckless optimism with a young man reaching out to the woman in his life, and as it cuts to black, Baumbach cues up “Bad Reputation.” It was a pretty timely choice from a technical perspective — the film came out in October 1995, just a year after Johnston’s album — but for me it the resonance doubled and trebled, becoming not just a coda for the film but a reference to the very song that had carried me to California on the words and prayers of friends greater and truer than I could ever have imagined having. I didn’t know the song would be there, nor that the film would speak so clearly to what I was living through at the time. But it was, and it did.
The tape my friends made me came with a note and a track listing, scrawled in a messy hand, and the note talks in part about how my friends want me to know that they will always be with me, and that I will always have people in my life willing to share in my joy, offer solace in my grief, or just make me a tape of songs they hope I’ll like. That’s what I think of when I listen to “Bad Reputation.” I remember what it is to be lonely but brave, and loved above all, and to have nothing to hold onto but the knowledge that all things change.