Saturday, June 21, 2008

Tarssa Yazdani & Don Goede - ‘The Life, Art & Music of Daniel Johnston’

Picture that paddle steamer from The Confidence-Man again. Someone aboard has just pledged his confidence (and some money) to a herbal remedy, or a set of shares. He is wondering whether he has got a bargain, or been taken for a ride. There is no way to tell. The seller has disappeared from view, has perhaps even disembarked. In his place the boat has picked up a young man in a McDonald’s uniform: dark haired, smiling, talking enthusiastically to strangers before he’s even off the walkway from the shore. He has a knapsack from which he keeps pulling out cassettes in white boxes, which he insists that people take from him, for no remuneration that the new investor in the Black Rapids Coal Company can see. But still he is sceptical. ‘He’s after something,’ he thinks. Eventually Daniel comes his way, hands him a tape. ‘This is the best music you ever heard,’ he says, slightly shy, massively proud. Then he starts to sing: ‘Sometimes I feel like I am a boxer / Seems like I’m always standing in the rain.’ The man feels awkward, so he looks down at the cassette cover, which shows a cat in a tree looking down at a boxer with the top of his head missing. ‘And then I find someone’s been in my locker / Left me a note that says I can’t sing / I’ll do anything but breakdance for ya darling’ continues Daniel. ‘Why should I believe in you?’ asks the man, but he’s moved on already, to sing to other passengers, to hand out more tapes.

Daniel is a confidence man, of a sort. More intent on mass recognition than on convincing any individual of his worth, but still: he hawked his wares to get where he is; and as with the confidence men in Melville’s novel, it is not at all certain that it has been worth the effort, in materialistic terms. He is selling something of a different order, though. The central conceit of The Confidence-Man is that the men sell their ordinary, useful items (medicine, shares) using language more appropriate to art, for which the subjective point of view is far more important. Also, the undermining of the every-day by comparison with art: reality is nothing but stories. Daniel’s is an interesting case because of the whole lo-fi, rough edges angle, as Kathy McCarty points out:

One thing I noticed as time went by was that other artists could listen to the tapes and totally hear the song, but to most other people it sounds like some horrifying noise, like listening to someone have a nervous breakdown on tape, this disturbing thing, and they don’t really hear the song. (p. 83)

Play Retired Boxer to two people and they will hear two different records. One will hear a bad recording of a twelve year old boy thrashing around on a piano, an affront to his / her taste and / or expensive headphones. Someone already sucked in to the myth of Daniel will hear his performance drained of the vivacity found on the earlier tapes, and be incredibly touched at this post-breakdown attempt to put his songwriting back in order. This is the first time he seemed brave to be doing what he was doing, the first hint of detachment. If he had given up after Hi, How Are You?, gone and done something less personally involving, could he have preserved his mental health to a larger degree? This is what the tapes suggest, but it does rather ignore the medical aspect of his illness.

The best piece of writing here is the introduction by Kramer, who makes the bizarre claim that he didn’t want Daniel’s illness to impede or even be apparent on 1990, the album he produced. I listened to 1990 again recently, and it is pretty much the most obviously unhinged record of Daniel’s: the screams of ‘SATAN! SATAN! SATAN!’ during ‘Don’t Play Cards with Satan’, or the meltdown into tears during ‘Tears Stupid Tears’ are genuinely frightening. ‘Some Things Last a Long Time’ is one of his most beautiful recordings, of course, but as a whole 1990 is the most uncomfortable listen in the Johnston catalogue. Kramer says:

Once you have made direct contact with a song written by this mortally wounded troubadour, you will never be safe again. You may have devoted your entire adult life to cloaking yourself away from the smart bombs that decades of unrequited loves and failed passions have strategically aimed at your fractured heart, but all those efforts will have been for naught, should the stanzas of Daniel Johnston gain passage therein. He strips away the safeties we glue upon our souls. (p. xiii)

But are Daniel’s songs simply an outpouring of anguish resulting from his fractured heart? He’s been walking around with that mortal wound for a long time now. At times, they do seem to be. But as much as his life bleeds into his songs, his songs, and the stories they tell, have helped to construct Daniel’s warped but detailed reality. He lives in the imaginative world he has made through his songs and his drawings. I remember being furious to hear that Daniel and his muse Laurie had been re-united for the film The Devil and Daniel Johnston, thinking that this would be bound to have a negative effect on the man who had spent the 20 years since he last saw her writing her tortured love songs. But by all accounts they got on perfectly well, and Daniel says in this book that his memories of Laurie are useful to him when he’s writing songs, but he doesn’t think about her otherwise. His confidence has moved on, from her to the memory.

As for the rest, I get the impression that the text of this book hasn’t been much improved by being brought up to date from The Definitive Daniel Johnston Handbook (2000), maybe because there’s not much new to say about his music from this decade. It is what it is, self contained and self sustaining. There is a section on touring, and an interview with Devil and Daniel Johnston director Jeff Feuerzeig. For much of the time the book is more focussed on the art than the music, and there is a great selection on show, along with an explanation of how the mythology all fits together (I never knew what Fly Eyes were before – they symbolise ‘a supernatural watchfulness over Daniel that is both comforting and sinister at times’ (p. 43), which is more than the song ‘Fly Eye’ tells you). Pages and pages from sketchbooks are reprinted, along with felt-tip drawings of Captain America, Laurie, Jeremiah the Frog, Vile Corrupt, Joe the Boxer. Looking through them, I’m not quite sure whether I got a bargain here, or whether I’m being taken for a ride (would Daniel’s art hold up without the music?) Sometimes, though, it’s good to put your confidence in an unlikely place.


Don Goede said...

a very interesting review. thank you for taking the time. i believe there is a lot more information in this edition. it is almost three times the size of the handbook.

Chris said...

Hi Don, thanks for commenting. I'm slightly mortified that you read this, given my unfair comparison of the book with its earlier edition (which I haven't read) at the end.

I take it that many of the pages of art are new? They are what really make the book, I think. I'm a lot less comfortable with the whole good / evil conflict which drives the art than with the longing for Laurie which drives the songs, even though that's just as much a polarisation. But it's great to have the opportunity to see so much of it in one place, all the same.

Don said...

i believe the good/evil conflict comes from his upbringing so he may not even be aware
of what he is communicating...

Chris said...

His self-awareness does seem to jump around a lot, doesn't it? From 'I'm writing so many songs at an alarming rate' ('I Killed The Monster') type stuff, to singing about America defeating Germany and Japan in simplistic good / evil terms, in front of a German audience (on 'Why Me?'). He's a strange one, alright...

Blog Archive