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Apr 4, 06 11:25 AM

The Usual Speculative Hooey About Who's-Really-the-Crazy-Man-Here.

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I saw--and highly recommend--The Devil and Daniel Johnston

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Daniel Johnston (official-ish fan site here) is this incredibly compelling outsider artist and songwriter that was sort of the pet naif of the late-80s indie rock world. His recordings are these primitive documents taped on cheap tape decks, staticky and strange, in the garages and basements of relatives. He dubbbed them onto cheap cassettes and passed them around--often to customers at his job at a McDonald's in Austin, TX.

My interest in him was recently revived when Mike McGonigal showed me an old VHS tape of Daniel singing "Don't Play Cards with Satan," this sublimely ridiculous and very sincere-seeming folk-art-gospel tune; Daniel weeps, and then gets weepier and more anguished as the tune goes on. It's just wrenching. Then he hits the final chord, and, on a dime, picks up a copy of his album and holds it up to the camera with a smile on his face.

After seeing the movie, I downloaded three albums--More Songs of Pain, Yip!/Jump Music, and Hi How Are You?--and I'm loving them. The guy knows from composition--really well-built tunes--but the over-the-top oddness and sincerity, and the lo-fi production, turn them into these haunting documents. It's the closest anything modern comes to the terrifying oddness of the Anthology of American Folk Music.

Listening makes me want to throw all my gear away but a cheap guitar and a hand held recorder, and make all my albums messily, with the TV blaring in the background.

What's fascinating about Daniel, and about primitivists and folk artists in general, is the degree of awareness in their art. Daniel would skip his medication in preparation for gigs, so he'd be crazier for them.

My personal observation is that suffering doesn't improve my music in the present tense. Now, in this happier life, I'm still drawing on the suffering in the past. Without that suffering of my past, would I need to make music? Isn't it dangerous to romanticize pain, addiction, depression? What price? Death? Or the debilatated life that Daniel leads--obese, struggling to keep a grip on his consciousness, living in his parents' basement?

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Posted by Mike at April 4, 2006 11:25 AM