A few years back I went to a film festival screening of the documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston. It was an incredible experience sitting through this film as part of the festival; a sold-out theatre. There were hoots of laughter and there were tears. After, the theatre’s foyer was abuzz – many people were emotionally overwhelmed. There were more tears, more laughter. Strangers were talking to one another about what had just happened – the documentary had moved people.
Daniel Johnston has battled with bipolar disorder. He continues to tour and make music. He exhibits his artwork and the documentary certainly opened some doors for Daniel’s work, created further acceptance.
The film was not my introduction to the music and art of Daniel Johnston but it filled in a lot of the blanks, addressed certain myths and answered questions. It has since become the go-to introduction point. You want someone to understand the music – or at least be open to it – you show them the documentary; recommend it, tell people about it. I’ve re-watched the film several times. I’ve also re-read the book-version of the documentary; it tells the narrative in essentially the same way but has more of a focus on the art.
From there it wasn’t easy getting hold of the material – but slowly, surely the CDs became available down this way, or I had access to import them. And I started collecting some of the Daniel Johnston material.
His voice was different but I liked what he said. I liked the way he said it. There were some odd/irregular constructions – repetition that Raymond Carver might have been jealous of (“why do you only do that only”) – and it seemed that he lacked the usual filters. Here was someone rewriting the idea we have of the confessional singer/songwriter. He was saying far too much; telling us things we perhaps did not need to hear/know. And though there were some beautiful melodies and amazing ideas in the songs – both despite and because of the cheap recordings – there was also a lot of noise and juvenile distractions that took away from some of the magic.
So it was hard work, at times, listening to Daniel Johnston. More often than not I found it rewarding.
For a while there listening to Daniel Johnston was a secret club of sorts. And then he became very well known. The tribute album, The Late Great Daniel Johnston features a disc of cover versions by some of alternative music’s heroes (Beck, Tom Waits, Flaming Lips, Eels, Sparklehorse, Mercury Rev) and there was a disc of the originals too (a fantastic presentation for a tribute album). This coupled with the documentary took Daniel Johnston beyond cult-figure – or at least created expectation.
Now people will wonder what they’re missing when they are introduced to Daniel Johnston’s music and don’t like what they hear; when they see the documentary and think that the back-story surpasses the art.
For me there is so much to love about this music – and his art. The two work off each other, they spar, they are entwined. If nothing else there are recurring imagines – the visual version of the lyrical imagery and the written/sung interpretation of the drawings. And there is humour as well as pathos. It’s wrong to think that because there’s been a removal of a filter there is no awareness. Johnston’s songs are filled with clues, announcements, apologies, justifications and observations. He knows how he is perceived (at times, at least). He knows the image he is presenting. But to confuse the issue the life he sings about is mostly the life he imagines (for both good and bad) rather than the life that is actually happening to him and around him.
This is Daniel Johnston’s world.
To me it’s about the music though – obviously it becomes part of it identifying and then (occasionally) separating the myth. But it’s about the music, the ideas, the decisions. And I find Johnston’s work so constantly rewarding because of what he has accomplished songwriting-wise. This is a guy who has written several truly amazing songs – a dozen or more that deserve to stand up head-to-toe (or lurch and slump and shrug) next to those by his heroes (The Beatles).
The same reason some people give for his songs not achieving a version of greatness – the primitive recording, his voice, his (apparent lack of) technique – are the very reasons I would give for the songs’ brilliance; these are the strengths of his compositions – that they withstand and shine because of these arrangements. And that these arrangements actually affect how the music is interpreted.
I’ve collected a bunch of Johnston material – mostly on CD, some bootlegs. And last year I bought the vinyl box-set of reissues of the early cassettes. It’s been sitting, waiting, sealed.
Last weekend I opened the box up, looked through the booklet of liner-notes compiled by Everett True (he’s writing a biography of DJ). But importantly, as the liner-notes instruct several times – I listened to the music.
Songs of Pain and Don’t Be Scared are the blueprints. There are some amazing creations captured there. And to be alone in a room with just my thoughts and these albums was a very special thing; an afternoon to contemplate the magic of this work.
The word I think of when listening to Daniel Johnston is “struggle”. It can take on several meanings. The struggle to grasp this music, the lack of comfort some of it provides, the intense experience of taking on something that is often very much not listener-friendly; certainly not easy-listening. But I think of “struggle” and how it applies to Daniel Johnston, his muse, his voice, his life – his songs.
Just when you think his story is a triumph – these amazing, beautiful, rewarding, intense songs – you realise the struggle it’s taken to tell this story/these stories. The indulgence to, at first, split off into this world. And then the struggle to just be himself. To be occupied with something. To work through whatever else was going on to create. His struggle with bipolar, with the world he’d created and the world around him. His struggle with the need for medication and the struggle that comes from medication.
A friend once told me that Daniel Johnston had written some amazing songs; a handful or more of truly great songs. But, he suggested, the price that Johnston had paid didn’t make it seem as though the songs were worth it.
I thought about that a lot as the room filled with these fragile, naïve, juvenile, profound, intense, devastating songs. I thought about that a lot as the room struggled under the weight of these songs.
I thought about so many of my favourite Daniel Johnston songs: Grievances (itself a blueprint for so many of his compositional themes), A Little Story, Joy Without Pleasure, Like a Monkey in a Zoo, The Story of an Artist,Phantom of My Own Opera, The Beatles, Speeding Motorcycle, Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances, King Kong, Worried Shoes, Walking the Cow, True Love Will Find You in the End, Dead Dog Laughing in the Cloud, Devil Town, My Life Is Starting Over, Impossible Love, Now.
So many of these songs tell stories that no other writer would be capable of telling. So many of those songs tell stories no other writer would be prepared to tell.
And so it seems a shame to me that for all the good the tribute album and documentary have done in terms of widening the audience there is a feeling too that he is some kind of novelty-act, or a “lo-fi Brian Wilson” (that being a rather cruel and inaccurate novelty-description). The audience might have been widened but it feels like an understanding of the reason/s for listening has narrowed/weakened.
I go back to Everett True’s liner-notes – you listen to the music. That’s what it is about. I go back to the images and artwork, so inseparable from the creation of the music. I go back to my friend suggesting that he wonders if the price Daniel Johnston has paid is worth the handful of amazing songs he has offered this world.
I sit thinking that I’m lucky to have this amazing music in my life – particularly this box-set of the early records; Johnston taped himself on a $59 Sanyo boombox. There’s no need to feel sorry for him here – he was an amazing piano player, a gifted lyricist, a committed singer; so powerful in his conjuring of personal pain.
He has lost a lot of that musical ability due to the illness he has suffered from – and in particular due to the stabilising medicine.
It was one of the great joys of my life to see Daniel Johnston perform live. But again there was the element of suffering. He was drowned out on a festival stage by unsympathetic promoters; by a band on another stage. You could see how shaken he was – in that deeply self-effacing way he suggested it was time for him to conclude; figuring it normal to be played off stage by some other act. But there were glimpses of what made the early work so special; there were touches of the magic. And there was evidence – as always – of the struggle.
But those songs mean a lot to me – so funny and silly and wise. So simple and complex and joyous and depressing. Those songs have meant more to me across the last decade than any other songwriter’s. And I keep returning to them. To that very special world that Daniel Johnston has created. A world he sits inside – a prisoner to himself, his myth and his songs.
Are you a fan of Daniel Johnston’s work? Have you seen the documentary? Do you have favourite songs or albums? What do you think of Daniel’s Johnston’s world/s – and work/s?
Between late 2007 and early 2016 I wrote a daily music blog at Stuff.co.nz called Blog On The Tracks. I’m reposting some of the entries here because the discussion is still valid or entertaining or because you might have missed them the first time.
Click here to see the original post from 2011.