Saturday, November 29, 2008

Ordinary Extraordinaire

I first heard about Daniel Johnston from my friend Stacey who has impeccable musical taste. Almost every band that I have come to love over the past ten years or so was introduced to me by Stacey. She put a song by Daniel Johnston on one of the mix tapes she made for me, and I don’t think I really paid it much attention except thinking it was weird.
But the first time I heard Daniel Johnston was in Empire Records. His is the music you hear when that dude eats the hash brownies and has that hallucination. Daniel Johnston is the guy who is not Gwar.
I don’t know how many people who have seen Empire Records ever went on to discover Daniel Johnston. I guess I was just lucky.
Johnston is a phenomenon. To throw an overused word around, he is underappreciated. But at the same time he is probably overrated amongst a certain type. I think I love him just right.

But I didn’t really experience Daniel Johnston until they made a documentary about him called The Devil and Daniel Johnston. The movie is as difficult and amazing to watch as his music is to listen to. It gives you an insight into what makes this broken-hearted, falsetto-voiced poet tick. Or it comes about as close as anything outside of his own lyrics is going to get.
It’s not as if Johnston is enigma; he wears his heart on his sleeves and his vocal chords. But it’s just that he is so raw and his talent is superficially questionable that poses the problems of his genius. Or his nongenius.
Daniel Johnston has only released one album on a major label [“Fun”: Atlantic Records] even though fame drove him about as much as his obsessive infatuation with a girl who barely knew he existed.
But all of this has more to do with the documentary and not the cd I just bought of his, “Welcome to My World.” It’s an appropriately named cd as it gives samples from his enormous body of work that for a long time were only available on hand-copied cassette tapes. When you listen to those songs you are taken to another world, perhaps a better world, where the lack of fame and love and happiness do not hinder success. Because what happens when the boy gets everything he ever wanted? Sorry, Wonka, but he doesn’t live happily ever after. Instead, he has nothing to talk about, no art to make, and nothing of significance to contribute to a world where dreams don’t come true. Daniel Johnston makes heartache and anguish ok.

None of the tracks are highly produced. They are rough. The twenty-one tracks total just under an hour total running time (58:32).
Because this album is a sampler and was not intended by Daniel to be listened to in the order in which the songs are presented, it is hard to observe any kind of structure of design as far as composition of a whole album. The larger picture is missing. But what we actually can see is an even wider, zoomed-out pan of multiple albums, over an almost entire body of work.

The first song is “Peek A Boo” from “The What of Whom” and we hear the basic tenets of everything that Daniel will ever want to express:
“Please hear my cry for help and save me from myself.” (His obsession with Christianity and salvation).
“It’s been a struggle trying to make sense out of scrambled eggs.” (His bouts with schizophrenia).
“I’m a man who needs you.” (His desire for love and the lack thereof).

All the other songs are riffs on the same themes but they all seem fresh, original.
Some songs, such as “Never Relaxed,” have a story-telling approach like a Joni Mitchell song that doesn’t suck.
Other songs are more poetic, like Leonard Cohen’s. In “I’m Nervous,” he gives us pure poetry with the line, “Saw a million lonely orphans licking blood from a spoon.”
Track 17 is called “Lennon Song” and in it he says, “The Beatles brought me out of the darkness.” In The Devil and Daniel Johnston you get to see to what an extent The Beatles influenced him. But his music doesn’t really sound like The Beatles. It doesn’t really sound like anything else except itself. The closest thing I can hear in Johnston’s music is the blues (cf: track 10: “Chord Organ Blues”).

“Story of an Artist” is probably the song I identify with most. It basically sums up who Daniel Johnston is. He does something that is true to himself and people don’t like it because it doesn’t fit in neatly with their idea of the world.
It sort of reminds me of a movie I watched recently called Martian Child, starring John Cusack. In the movie, Cusack adopts a boy who thinks he’s a Martian. And to a certain degree, Cusack tries to allow the boy to be himself and to think he’s a Martian. But in the end Cusack just wants the boy to fit in and be like everybody else. Because that’s what everybody wants from Cusack’s character as well.
The movie tries to walk the line between the ability to fit in and the ideal of being yourself. It seems like the only way that society accepts unusual people is if they become famous. But what if you don’t become Mozart or Andy Warhol (two “geniuses” whom the Martian boy was likened to)? What if you just become Daniel Johnston? Or what if you become no one? Daniel Johnston says in “Living Life,” “I’m learning to cope with meaningless mediocricy [sic].” What if fame and fortune and having movies made about you aren’t the receipt of having a meaningful life?
I don’t know if anyone else would accept that kind of “success,” but I’m sure that Daniel Johnston would be the first to welcome you to a world he has long inhabited and made his own.

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