On Daniel Johnston
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.
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