Girl, come share my dream
Daniel Johnston, the singer-songwriter who has long been, for many people like me, a sort of patron saint of DIY creativity, has passed away at the age of 58.
Johnston is someone who, if you're reading this and you’ve never listened to him, no one YouTube clip or screenshot of lyrics will really explain the appeal. Johnston was a bedroom-dwelling outsider artist who found a huge audience, including Lana Del Ray, Kurt Cobain and David Bowie.
The best way to get into his world (and 'world' feels much more apt a description of his output represents than 'music' or 'art') is to pick out an album or two of his, ideally the early ones with handmade black and white covers, and listen to them all the way through a few times. Soon you'll notice something emerging from beneath the muffled recordings, the tape hiss, the rudimentary instruments, the off-kilter singing - something interesting and addictive. You'll grow to love the glitches and the cheapness, viewing them as equally an essential part of his music as the compositions and their melodies.
I've actually been going through a mini phase of listening to his albums recently and his sudden death has led me to think seriously about his music in a way I've never really done before. I find I'm shocked that it hadn't ever occurred to me before that, despite being quite a big fan of Johnston for quite a long time, there is in fact quite a bit about him and his work which is problematic.
To begin with: Laurie. On his first release, 1981’s Songs of Pain, which like all his early albums was self-released on cassette tape, is an extended delineation of his love for Laurie, a girl who rejected him for a mortician. Johnston's discography, which spans almost 40 years, is replete with songs which dwell obsessively on Laurie, often in the abstract but just as frequently overtly, naming her and detailing his ongoing unrequited love for her. This, coupled with Johnston's other big theme - a naïf's quasi-Christian belief in innocence and purity - belie an unpleasant mindset when it comes to women, stalkerish, controlling and self-pitying - in short, entirely male (a good place to start with Johnston is the cover of his song 'King Kong' by Tom Waits, a songwriter whose own work demonstrates him to be an undervalued critic of masculinity, imho).
Almost any interview or article on him in the past twenty years will have also touched on the fact that Johnston, who suffered from manic depression and schizophrenia, lived with and was cared for by his parents, often seemingly beyond the needs of his illnesses, while he continued recording his own weird music, performing his own weird concerts and creating his own weird artwork. This wholesale dependency on others to support his self-belief feels unseemly.
Finally, there's the issue of my own culpability. Those thousands of us who paid for Johnston's music, artwork and live performances, and essentially bought into his vision, enabling a delusion, but worse, supplied the audience for an unwell man whose unwellness was key part of his life's performance.
So, after all this, what exactly is the appeal of Johnston for someone like me?
First of all, his struggles were clearly genuine - and his music is very much a testament to both that genuineness and to the power of pop. And I mean power here in the not-always-necessarily-positive-and-inspirational sense. Pop music - its themes, its myths, its promises - clearly possessed Johnston and in some ways controlled him.
He's also a figure who went on to become synonymous with mental illness. I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about how we talk about ‘mental health awareness’ in our current online age. It's undoubtedly something we're a lot more engaged with as a society, and there's no denying this is a good thing. But I find I often baulk at the way mental health is characterised when I see this awareness promoted online, which often sees 'depression' as a form of sadness or anxiety that evaporates on contact with hugs, understanding and friendship. The reality, in my experience, can often be far uglier and more difficult than this would suggest. Mental illness can take the form of anger, aggression, darkness and other kinds of extreme behaviour - in many cases psychotic behaviour - often resulting, ultimately, in the wholehearted rejection of any attempts at understanding or sympathy, and the dismissal of well-intentioned friends. Even if those friends remain, the friendships will most likely be forever marked. The loss of dignity that goes in to engaging with and understanding another's mental health is something no stigma-busting campaign can equip one for.
This, I think, is part of the reason Johnston's low-grade homemade tape recordings feel so compelling to so many listeners. There is little in the way of dignity to his recordings. Quite the opposite: they revel unabashed in their alienating qualities. Each of his songs, no matter how cheery and positive they may initially appear, is a genuine snapshot of a mind at war with existence. Whenever you hear his lyrics approach the usual pop themes of the thwarted lover or the underappreciated artist or the melancholic who bravely overcomes his condition to seize the day, it feels very much as though you're engaging with a piece of scenery Johnston constructed to protect himself from the reality which, going by the accounts of those who knew him, was full of darkness, anger, violence and unpleasantness (he was involuntarily institutionalised a number of times).
But what an absorbing, addictive vision it is, insistent on its own logic and drama, Bosch-like in its repeated motifs: frogs, ducks, toy instruments, monsters, Caspar the Friendly Ghost, Frankenstein, boxers, floating eyeballs, Satan. For those of us who have engaged in similar behaviour, creating the world which best suits us, regardless of how it effects those around us, rather than adapting to the world we live in, an artist like Johnston - single-minded and industrious - will always be something of a touchstone. His music channelled his personality and transmuted his obsessions into something fascinating and, despite that war its creator was engaged in, was always utterly committed to leaving its own weird but indelible mark on the world he left behind.
He had by now grown accustomed to eliding almost all memories of his life in England, his childhood in particular, whenever he encountered something which might provoke them, allowing them to instead remain where they were in the back of his mind, being gently eroded and leaving him independent of his past. And yet, he had entered the café and was stamping the slush from his boots, shaking it from his jacket, when the image – the streetlamp inching its light over a dark heap of snow, luminating thick falling flakes, backgrounded by an endless terrible clanging and pervaded by his father’s dark, consuming madness – returned to assail him, impressing itself onto his thoughts like a religious vision.
I've been quite quiet lately, due in large part to an unusually large number of projects I currently find myself working on. BUT I do have a new short story out. It’s called ‘Sky Yen’ and can be found in Love Bites: Fiction Inspired by Pete Shelley and Buzzcocks, an anthology from Manchester’s own DIY publisher Dostoevsky Wannabe. As its title hopefully makes clear, this is a collection of stories which take their inspiration from the late songwriter Pete Shelley and his erstwhile band Buzzcocks.
Shelley was perhaps the premier architect of the pop-punk song, largely down to the Buzzocks’ hits as well as his early solo recordings. But he has always struck me as a more enigmatic figure than his reputation would imply. His pop songs are powered by traditional teenage boy-girl lyrics but he was also openly bisexual; Buzzocks were very much emblematic of the deeply British anarchic music scene he was so instrumental in establishing in the late 70s but he later fled the country to settle down with his family in Estonia; his standing was built on his catchy melodic music but he also created perhaps the most austerely experimental recording I own, Sky Yen.
Sky Yen is composed of two tracks, ‘Sky Yen 1’ and ‘Sky Yen 2’. It was recorded in the early 1970s, before Buzzcocks even existed, and was made using an oscillator Shelley has created himself by soldering together components which came free with electronics magazines. The resulting recording is something which in the words of one fan, 'has more in common with air raid sirens than music'. This is true. Sky Yen is the sound of a young man discovering he has the tools with which to experiment with sound, with harmonics and dissonance, compelling or unlistenable, depending on the mood you find yourself in when you listen to it.
So, you may reasonably wonder, how does someone set about trying to transmute music like this into narrative fiction?
I thought primarily about Shelley himself, a complex character who struggled with the career path music traditionally offers. The collection was instigated by his the sudden death and while I was writing I thought as much about the subsequent assessment of the impact Shelley had had on our culture as I did about the music of Sky Yen. Debates such as these, taking place as they do in our Brexit Hell era where, for me at least, remembrances of the past feel untrustworthy and nostalgia tainted with a noxious power, also fed into the story. Similarly, ‘Sky Yen’ concerns itself with the concertina-like nature of time, the past impacting on the present in the most violent ways only for it to retreat again, distant and untouchable. If all that sound rather gloomily po-faced rest assured that it also touches briefly on the cheerier themes of the Holocaust and PTSD.
The collection, which, like all Dostoevsky Wannabe books, looks great, also features work by Wendy Erskine, Lee Rourke and Luke Kennard, among many others, and can be purchased here.