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The Devil In "The Devil and Daniel Johnston"

The Devil in Daniel Johston
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.

18 thoughts on “The Devil In "The Devil and Daniel Johnston"

  1. Paxtejana, You make a very good (and well-written) case for dismissing Johnston’s work, but I cannot agree with your criticism of his work. I cannot speak for his fans, and you may be right about the motives some of them have for liking him, but if you can cull through his immense output and get past the poor recording quality and bad vocals, he has written some amazing songs. Some of his stuff is crap, but quite a bit of it is genius. His lyrics can be such a wonderful, fragile mix of pain, love, humor and longing, and it is clear that his music is influenced by the Beatles, Brian Wilson and various other rock geniuses. I like Wesley Willis for the cruel, cynical reasons you site, I admit it. But I do not put Daniel anywhere in the same category as him. I appreciate him for his songs, not his quirks of personality. This is not a case of work being “really good, considering”. Any mental, financial or technological disadvantages Mr. Johnston has have not entered into my asessment of his talents. They stand on their own without any special considerations having to made for handicaps. I had already formed this opinion before I had the opportunity to see a world premiere musical produced last year here in Houston based on Daniel’s music, life and artwork. I found it to be powerful, funny, disturbing, beautiful and imperfect, which are all characteristics of my favorite works of art. And seeing this man’s songs performed in this context with great arrangements and some pretty talented performers helped me see, even more than before, how good a songwriter he is. Yes, the guy’s got some real clunkers in his catalog. But his catalog is like 100 times bigger than Chadd’s, and that’s saying a lot. The guy just doesn’t edit himself, and people are happy to release (and buy) the dreggs along with the good stuff. Any artist would have some embarassments if everything he ever recorded in his basement since he was in high school was available. I invite everyone to just listen to the music.

  2. Interesting comment, yltwatcher. If you are right that there is “quite a bit of genius” stuff out there, then the documentary does Johnston a disservice by highlighting only the silly stuff.I’ll make a point to dig deeper into his catalogue.

  3. Ya know…now that I think of it I think I saw that frog when Lisa and I visited you at SXSW. Interesting…I’ll have to check out his work. I have a very big feeling that I’ll hate it and having 100 times the catalog of Chadd is like having 700 songs! That’s a lot of weeding…

  4. Try nearly 1000 songs. Actually, I have read some fan criticism on Amazon and elsewhere that the film did just what you say–featured only a few of his good songs. I have not yet seen it, so not sure what songs are on it, but the guy has some good stuff–not the greatest songs you have ever heard by any means, but good stuff.

  5. You may want to check out a CD called “The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Coverd”. Disc 1 is a bunch of indie/alternative bands covering his songs. Disc 2 is Daniel himself doing pretty much the same playlist. A decent introduction. The covers generally are not as good as the originals, but for someone who cannot get past his voice and the production quality, they may illuminate the quality of the songs themselves.

  6. Outsider art. Personally I love it. Not because it’s genius, but nine times out of ten it comes from a very sincere place.Personally, i’ve moved from an appreciation of genius in my listening tastes to sincerety. Virtosity does a great job of covering up lack of inspiration in my opinion… and more often than not, i think artists become so obsessed with channeling genius, and pushing out a persona, or what they would like to think of themselves as, they there is nothing of them in there work, and frankly it leaves me cold.As to gauging whether a piece of art is “real” or aesthetically pleasing… it’s on the individual. As to guessing at the motivations of others and their tastes… well, i’d be lying if i said i didn’t do it, but it’s a non-issue for me really. i’ve been to way too many pearl jam shows to be ‘hip’ or ‘cool’… and (start your griping), and i’ve sat down to hear Jandek tear about any notion of harmony or rhthym. Am a listening freak… perhaps (but i’m also a sexual dynamo). Did i do it so a picture of me in line at the Masonic lodge could be featured in pitchfork… nope.So Daniel is a tragic story… i really think it is: his catalogue documenting the onset of mental illness… but thats not why i check him out (Danny and the Nightmares just played emo’s (mark it on your Myspace page). Recently a friend who’s a big 13th Floor elevators devotee, called up to talk about DJ and Roky Erickson the other day. He was all jazzed about how great they are and must be… but not so much their music as their lives… expressing themselves however they can, even if their methods be obtuse or inarticulate… and he made some comment about… “oh they’re doing great”. To me that seemed way to romantic a notion. i responded that i really didn’t think so, but i don’t personally know them… and it’s some nasty side baggage to be dealing not just with their art… but the story of the artist too.die, hipster, die,d.

  7. The “outsider art” label that attaches to Johnston is closely related to my skepticism. It’s ironic, or perhaps just illusory, to regard him as an “outsider,” when the reason all of us know of him is that a mid-80’s MTV special on Austin highlighted his music and that Kurt Cobain constantly sported a tee shirt advertising Johnston. Absent those two facts, he would’ve been just another neighborhood curiosity — a deeply troubled guy who plays music all the time, and ocasionally gets it right, like any of the several folks playing guitar on a patio or street in Austin or anywhere else right now. I guess my test for outsider art is the same as my test for “indie” (on one interpretation)or avant gard music — if I know about it, then it’s not.

  8. Outsider Art…I wasn’t using it as a term of whether it’s “in” with the it crowd, or those who set the standards for what counts as art, or what deserves to be famous. But rather more towards the definition linked above or the type of stuff you might find here.I take your point to be that artists like he are undeserving of praise that perhaps in your opinion should be heaped on Eddie of Ohio. So check it, I do know about it, and to me it is still Outsider Art.Personally, I think he “gets it right”… not all the time, but even Neil Young gets it wrong a lot (see Landing on Water). I don’t deny that many may stop by End of Ear to buy his tapes because it’s good for name-checking and indie-cred purposes… but I feel no urge to not like it or not buy that because it. You like it, you like it. You don’t, you don’t. It’s just a box of rain, hippie.

  9. A bit of protesteth-ing too much, it seems. My last post was not directed at *your* use of the term, as if it were idiosyncratic, but rather the fact that it is oft-associated with Johonston and speaks to my ititial point. Anyway, it’s the ho-hum claim “if you like it, then you like it . . .” that drives my suspicion, becasue surely lots and lots of his devotees did not know they liked his music until they were told they were supposed to. I seriously doubt you are in that boat, but that’s for you and the ship-captain of cool to decide.

  10. dude, you’re so bitter. let it go, man, let it go.i still don’t get your point about outsider art though, since you imply it’s not outsider if people know about it. it has more to do with it’s creation i think.as to your ship-captian aspriations…you sure make art fun.

  11. p.s. I should add that you are right that if “Outsider Art” means what the wiki-thing says, then he is an “Outsider.” I guess I’m not “in” enough with the outsider scene to know the usage here. Still, his pop-cult-icon status continues to set uneasily here.

  12. It’s not often when you listen to a song that the lyrics take you by surprise. I don’t mean a clever turn of phrase when I say this, although that’s really nice when it happens. But in Daniel Johnston’s case, you’re just caught off kilter with a single word. Sometimes it almost sounds like the absolute wrong word for that moment in time in the song. No rhyme, no rhythm to it, just a jolting surprise. A sudden, “Huh?” That’s his genius. Production values are nil. His melody is juvenile, this is true. But his lyrics are…unique and I think that’s what makes him so good…they just shouldn’t really be written like that but there they are. Innocent and wrong. That’s why he’s so good. Lennon and McCartney couldn’t write like that because, well, they’re not retarded. But really, we need to start another topic that’s devoted purely to convincing Mahsheet that the Beatles were actually a pretty good band and that they pretty much set the tone for everyone else that followed.Anyone check out Moody Blues “Day’s of Future Passed” recently?

  13. “Lennon and McCartney couldn’t write like that because, well, they’re not retarded.” That’s funny stuff. Now Chadd, I’ve never not agreed that The Beatles were a good band. To say they were the end all be all of pop, rock, whatever type of music is just plan dumb. you could say the Gregorian Chanters were…or the first ape to utter a note was. I just think the topic is worn and I would just end up coming over to your house and kicking your ass.

  14. Days of Future Passed is awesome. I was just listening to it for the first time in awhile the other week, and thinking about how amazing it was that it was recorded in 1967. Another album I like a lot from that same year is Something Else By The Kinks. Can’t beat “Waterloo Sunset.”

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