While living in Austin for several years, I would regularly pass a mural on the side of a used record store on the Drag. The mural depicted nothing but a silly googley-eyed frog rendered in stick-figure cartoon minimalism, and a caption that read “Hi, How are you?” I always thought the owner of the record store just had a bad sense of humor. But after watching “The Devil and Daniel Johnston” — a documentary about an unlikely cult figure who became the darling of Austin’s in-crowd in the mid-80’s — I now know that I am supposed to regard that mural as a precious piece of urban art painted by an artistic visionary and musical genius. Street cred demands it: if the likes of Kurt Cobain, Thurston Moore, Moe Tucker, Ira Kaplan, and Gibby Haynes are drawn to him, then he must be a genius. Or, so it would seem from the legions of too-cool-to-be-hip hipsters and novelty-starved indie enthusiasts who have jumped on Johnston’s bandwagon over the years.
But the praise lavished on him by these well-meaning folks strikes me as at least disingenuous, if not cruelly patronizing, because Johnston’s is not a kind of music that people typically like: His lyrics are juvenile, his vocals are a high-pitched and nasal warble, and his guitar playing is clunky and amateurish. But Johnston is a sweet man who is haunted by severe mental disorders, so people want him to succeed. I just don’t see how regarding him as a genius helps, any more than gawking at a car accident on the highway helps those in the wreck.
Then again, I never believed it when people said they “really” liked Wesley Willis’s music either. I suspected that some people went to his shows for the cruel spectacle and others for street cred and novelty. But surely there are people compassionate enough to just *will* themselves into liking the music. I suppose I think the same about Johnston’s fans.