Visions Holy and Damned, Innocent and Experienced
The documentary 'The Devil and Daniel Johnston' is just the latest attempt to make sense of his life and art
I Have to Live These Songs Forever
During the past two decades, Daniel Johnston has achieved international recognition as an important American cult/outsider/alternative musician/artist. Accompanying this has always been the dark side: He is a singer-songwriter with a history of mental problems that on occasion have led to violence. Many respect him for his gifts, but to some he is simply a creative naïf lacking substance; others label him a no-talent celebrated by so many out of perversity (some combination of liberal love for the impaired and an act of violence against the culture right out of Ayn Rand). None of the views is exactly on target, but because it is Johnston, each also is in some way. Even though much has been written about him, little has captured this expansively complex and contradictory person.
As a creative talent musician, songwriter, cartoonist, and artist Johnston is flying high, achieving the fame he once dreamed up. As a man at 45, Johnston's health is shaky, his weight excessive; he has moved into his own house recently built right behind his parents'. Now although in the past similar peaks in output and recognition were prelude to some of his worst times he seems more steady than ever. The proximity and vigilance of his long-suffering parents and family must be enormous stabilizing factors.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Jeff Feuerzeig and Henry S. Rosenthal's documentary, premiered at Sundance in 2005 before playing SXSW. This year, Johnston was also one of only 100 artists invited to the show at the prestigious Whitney Biennial (leading to a full-page story in the Sunday Arts section of The New York Times). Johnston will display visual art elsewhere in NYC, as well as in Brussels and Houston. His drawings, once available for about $10 apiece at Austin Books, are now going for hundreds, and in the case of earlier ones, even thousands, of dollars.
He has three new CD releases out in just the first few months of this year. Welcome to My World: The Music of Daniel Johnston, a sampler that easily offers the best overview of his work available. And Freak Brain, from Danny & the Nightmares, was released last August; The Electric Ghosts, by Johnston and Don "Jack Medicine," came out this past March. The flood of releases is accompanied by a steady and ever-widening stream of covers.
Just over a year back, Gammon Records released Discovered Covered: The Late Great Daniel Johnston, a definitive two-disc tribute. One disc is Daniel's original versions of the songs, while the other includes covers from Tom Waits, Bright Eyes, Eels, Gordan Gano, Death Cab for Cutie, Mercury Rev, Vic Chesnutt, M. Ward, Beck, and Sparklehorse with the Flaming Lips. This is the mother lode, clearly illustrating why the interest in Johnston is so much more because of his brilliance as a songwriter than just his history, persona, performances, or recordings.
Meanwhile, Dead Dog's Eyeball, Kathy McCarty's seminal 1994 album of Johnston songs, one of the most inspired and brilliant of Austin albums, was recently reissued. The quality of performance, arrangements, and range of material in ex-Glass Eye McCarty's album (produced, of course, by Brian Beattie) provided the first detailed blueprint as to the astonishing quality of Johnston's songs.
In another realm, Infernal Bridegroom Productions, a Houston experimental theatre company, has announced that in June they will produce a musical based on his work, which comes 15 years after Bill T. Jones presented Love Defined, a dance performance choreographed to six songs from Johnston's Yip/Jump Music.
The Devil, Daniel, and the Documentary: Hold Me Like a Mother Would
In 2002, Jeff Feuerzeig and Henry Rosenthal came to Austin working on The Devil and Daniel Johnston. They talked to me, among others. They continued to work on it for the next few years, following up in town. It would eventually win Feuerzeig the Best Director Award at Sundance. The film has done extremely well playing the festival circuit to mostly excited almost intoxicated reviews. It opened theatrically on March 31 and is now playing in 15 cities. It is the film's anticipation, release, and critical reception that finally brings everything to a head.
The Devil and Daniel Johnston tells his story with all the important moments there. But, for me, it all runs together. I don't remember what happened when, the order of, or how far apart the incidents. The thing is, we were living it. Here, I'll briefly touch on our introduction. For much more, see "Genius and Jive."
The year is 1985: I was sitting in the Chronicle's office on a Saturday, writing. I heard a strange sound near the front door. I ignored it and kept writing. It continued as I kept hoping it would go away. Finally, I went over. Opening the door, I found a skinny kid shuffling not knocking rubbing his feet on the mat. He handed me a tape.
"I'm Daniel Johnston," he said. "Here's a tape of mine for you to listen to."
It was a time when we were being handed tapes and records relentlessly as hopes of getting reviewed in the Chronicle ran high. In doing so, musicians would search our faces for some sign that because they were delivering it personally, it would score a review. I was getting used to going blank.
"Thanks," I said. "I'll pass it on to a reviewer. If they like it, they may review it for the paper."
Nodding, almost mumbling, he stood there. I closed the door and headed back across the room. The shuffling sound started up again. I opened the door.
"Uh, I gave you that for you to listen to," Johnston said. "Not to be reviewed."
Never before has anybody declined just the possibility of a review. He left. I went to type but stopped and put the tape on. I ended up taking a break from writing to listen. I played the tape through and then again. The next week, I played it for everyone, especially music writers and women. I'm not even sure why, but I knew who needed to hear it most.
I don't remember the next time I saw Johnston. I do remember hearing more and more people talking about him. He was forever passing out tapes to whomever he passed on the street, regularly recruiting new fans. At the Chronicle, we wrote about him:
"Opening for [Glass Eye] for their next few live gigs will be as gentle a giant talent as we've heard in many years, Daniel Johnston neon mystic, carnival worker, song writer, fast food traveller, swinging low, swinging sweet romantic." Richard Dorsett, Louis Black, "Recommended," May 31, 1985;
"Without fanfare or introduction, a slight, obviously nervous singer holding an acoustic guitar steps up to the mike and starts playing and singing. His playing is awkward, his singing shaky." Louis Black, Oct. 4, 1985.
Gradually, Johnston entered my life. Slowly at first, he soon slammed right in during a time both terrible and bloated with promise, when I was damaged and trying to remember how to walk. Had you asked me, before meeting Johnston, I would have said that if I had known van Gogh, his madness would not have bothered me. There was nothing Rimbaud could have done to upset me. No matter what they say about how difficult Brian Wilson was, I would have understood. Genius, I figured, is so splendid to be around that its light will heal any irritation. Forget that: Genius up close isn't always pretty.
Better off My Chest/ Than out of My Mind
Now, some who praise the film didn't know and/or get Johnston's music but still loved the documentary. Interestingly, the negative reviews are all more about the critic's reaction to the subject than the film. They don't like his music; they don't get his fans:
"The Devil and Daniel Johnston ... spends [too] much time overhyping its subject as 'the greatest singer/songwriter in the history of America.' ... Though we hear dozens of breathless testimonials from Johnston's inner circle about the power of music, Devil never gets tough enough to ask how much of his cult fame is due to genuine enthusiasm, and how much is because people always enjoy a good freak show. ... Are we watching mental illness as performance art?" Sean Burns, Philadelphia Weekly, April 26
"Dominated by Johnston's closest friends and biggest fans, Devil is both too quick and too insistent to call this quirky performer an 'incredible genius' and 'the best singer-songwriter alive today,' ... So eager to venerate Johnston for his suffering it doesn't understand that a) his undeniably painful experiences haven't sanctified him and b) they're more tedious than involving when related in detail on-screen. A performer of formidable self-absorption, Johnston has inspired a film with the same trait, and the results are about what you might expect." Kenneth Turan, The Los Angeles Times, March 31
"Louis Black ... editor at The Austin Chronicle, contends, 'All great artists are crazy people.' In the film's faulty logic, since Johnston is crazy, he is a great artist. ... If nothing else, The Devil and Daniel Johnston shows just how easily hype and gossip can dupe a public hungry for anything new." Daniel Eagan, FilmJournal.com, March 31
Consider the perspective expressed here: "As a critic, I don't like Johnston's music, so those who do are tasteless suckers and trendy morons." I'm setting up an easily knocked down straw man here, not only because the negative reviews were so consistent, but to make the major point.
Making the case for an unknown artist is extremely difficult. Watching a movie is a very different experience than listening to an album or seeing a performer live. Music documentaries, especially of lesser-known talents, have to tell you why because there is no clear-cut way to show it. Still, instead of considering that concept in general or even criticizing the film in particular, the body of work is dismissed. These critics are thinking about it backward. There is a certain arrogance that they get to judge the movie and dismiss Johnston, thus rendering the filmmakers and fans as freak-show addicts.
Certainly every critic is entitled to their opinion about Daniel's music, but please don't ascribe pretensions to us. These writers did not express opinions about Johnston's music. They made a decision about its worth and reception. As factually as it can be clarified, it is wrong.
Many of the people to whom Johnston first gave his tapes were musicians and writers. These were people who listened to music every day, their lives centered on it. Most of them were constantly being given new music to listen to by other acts or by friends. Turning those you knew on to cool new music was a shared ambition. But more often than not, the music wasn't worth it. Catching their attention was far from easy.
The first time Johnston played at the Beach, the center of Austin's New Sincerity scene, he was invited by Glass Eye. The audience was filled with musicians and music writers. We hadn't had a meeting or checked a "cool" newsletter to know we should be there. Daniel had simply handed most of us tapes at some point. One of the more jaded audiences around had listened to these tapes and then listened again. Individually and excitedly, they continued to listen, many playing them for anyone who would sit. Each of us was there because we wanted to listen to Johnston. He did not disappoint.
Neither do the efforts of Feuerzeig and Rosenthal. Still, dissing the documentary is one thing (with which I don't agree); throwing out the family while testing the temperature of the water is a disgrace. The film was made because of the brilliance of Johnston as a songwriter and performer. My fascination with him begins with the music. If any critic were to watch a documentary on the life of an accepted master, would they so easily trivialize and dismiss the ambition, information, and resonance? Even the critics who love it tend to focus on Johnston's mental illness and life. These are fascinating, but as a result of his work not as a justification for it.
The legend of Daniel Johnston is greater than the facts, so we'll happily go with it. The film draws us in, having so much to show with such power. It does raise questions about art and illness, about accepted behaviors set against deviant and excessive ones. It shines its light: It excites, upsets, and challenges viewers.
I offer this neither to defend myself or my taste. As much as I have been angry at Johnston as a person, his music has always been more than important to me. I rarely listen to it casually, but rather in times of personal and emotional turmoil. It is often one of the places I go to hide and to heal. In admitting as much, I'm essentially paraphrasing myself 20 years after first finding it,
"haunted by one of his public performances, left cold by another. Fascinated. To me there is little question about his talent. In fact almost none at all ... [but] I don't really know how to talk about his talent. Maybe by telling this story about when [former Chronicle Music editor and current SXSW Creative Director Brent] Grulke goes head over heels in love so suffocating ... then everything falls apart ... Grulke arcs downward on some dangerously graceful slide, coming up fast ... with no thought of using anything to brake but himself. ... We sit him down, take out [Johnston's] Hi, How Are You? and play 'Desperate Man Blues,' because it's all we can think of. Grulke listens, listens again ... [and] starts to laugh. Laughs because after all, it's all part of the joke and the joke only." Louis Black, October 1985
The Devil and Daniel Johnston opens in Austin on Friday, May 5. For a review and showtimes, see Film Listings.
Parts of the piece have previously run in The Austin Chronicle and elsewhere.