Wednesday, April 05, 2006

beta shout at the devil

When dealing with the figure of Daniel Johnston (by which I mean in that form somewhere between fat man and indie-mythic cut-out), it strikes me so close to home that vision tends to slide into platitudes that the man himself trades in, between good and bad or Captain America and Satan, simple blacks and whites, absolutes of craziness and sanity. And my mind quickly obfuscates the man, to where I watched much of The Devil and Daniel Johnston questioning my own familiarity with the subject, almost shocked by pictures of his youthfulness, his unmedicated early vigor.

While I'd like to color myself as more an original seeker circa senior year, I'm fairly certain that my first knowledge with the man stems solely from Kurdt Kobain's "Hi, How Are You?" tee shirt, but even such photo ops merely cemented and made approachable the odd white tapes with xeroxed covers that were always on display in Austin, something at the periphery of my young teen consciousness, never quite in focus. (When talking to people from Houston, they experienced a similar sensation with all those Jandek records that used to just sit in the record bins for years, their blurry kodachrome mystery beckoning right under their nose.) If it's not the tapes of Daniel Johnston then it's a four-story spray-painted frog asking about your condition as you walked along a wall right off of the Drag on the way to class; his remains a presence in the city, but that of a god departed from the world.

Just cracking open the plastic case of Songs of Pain was like that of a cosmic egg (or a suddenly brainless boxer), the curtains of hiss parting for a grotesque display of elephant-man madness. We snickered and then were silenced by the tears of rage as Daniel wailed about sticking his head in a fire hydrant or else badgered the potheads who rolled up the sacred pages, subsequently burnt their lips, and also forgot to brush their teeth.

And Laurie, always Laurie, his Beatrice, dude would just not shut up about her. It was a listen as beguiling and gruesome as an emotional car wreck. With that audition and others (we each bought separate tapes, though it's doubtful we ever got all the way through one in a single sitting), Daniel rose into the upper echelons of our minds, raw and bared and (perhaps most key) as Texas as anybody. Maybe if Buddy Holly had written 1500 songs about prettyprettypretty Peggy Sue after spelunking through the lysergic muck of Roky's "Kingdom of Heaven" (Y'gnow, within?). If Paul had lost his shit in an East Texas sandbox. If Henry Darger had really been into Jack Kirby.

Going to the Clementine Gallery to check out his exhibit of drawings, there's a discernible peaking that occurs, as he is less "Dan Johnston" and more "Daniel Johnston," obsessing over Captain America and Casper, though I reckon it's really a recognizing and transposing (conscious or not) of comic books into mythology. Darger is a good touchstone for understanding Dan, with his eternal struggles of good versus evil fought by the eternally young and innocent. Not to mention the sexual tension tenting up in nearly every drawing. Daniel’s birds look like boners while his portraiture of women is by turns statuesque, powerful, yet naïve. Their breasts nippleless, they’re often headless, and the intersections of legs remain as mysterious and prepubescent as ever. He’s as unlaid and creepy as Darger with his girls’ small peckers.

And so it becomes less and less about Daniel's initial delirious outpouring of songs and more of the psychic fall-out resulting from it, that's what makes Daniel in this day and age. Blame the meds and their forgetfulness for not making him re-hash "Speeding Motorcycle" at every show, but he has scarcely advanced since that day he sped away from the circus. It's a fawning freak show, and God knows I bought my own ticket for it way back when at Liberty Lunch in the later part of the decade. Child wonderment of the man inspires such reverence in his fans (not to mention folks who made careers out of such “child” moves, from the Flaming Lips to Danielson). While his song craft remains stuck on 'Beatles,' there’s a definite maturing of his artwork though, as his art school leanings suddenly drop away, the magic marker box re-opens, and the childhood comics take over his mind, implanting figures like Jeremiah the Frog, Joe the Boxer, and Satan front and center in his destabilized lobes. There's a reason that such scribbled drawings pay the bills these days.

As with any good psychosis story, good ol' boy blotter plays a role in Daniel's demise (as much as say, Metallica). And like any fragile psyche in the Central Texas area circa the 80s, it occurs during a Butthole Surfers concert. In a movie rife with horrific, painful scenes of madness, disintegration, MTV worship (and Mountain Dew as demon-exorcising potion) is there any more physically painful scene in the film than of Gibby Haynes recounting the night's incidents and denying guilt while getting excruciating dental work done on his heinous snaggleteeth? Remember, Gibby was one of the last people Kurdt Kobain saw before his shotgun popsicle. And yet Daniel not only survives, but grows in influence, not to mention girth.

Rather than accept my dare to listen through to an entire cassette, how about this, peak-era Buttholes (between Locust Abortion Technician and Hairway to Steven) with the man-child chiming in (on Gibby-tronix, no less!), riffing on a Throbbing Gristle tune?

Butthole Surfers (with Daniel Johnston) - All Day


Anonymous Jeff Feuerzeig said...


I'm glad you enjoyed the film. "More Songs of Pain," "Don't Be Scared," and "The What of Whom" are all easily enjoyable from beginning to end. I just reviewed the 12 best Daniel Johnston releases of all time for eMusic - with the hope of seperating the wheat from the chaff...

I enjoyed your blog/writing very much!


Jeff Feuerzeig
The Devil and Daniel Johnston

7:27 PM  

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