Friday, March 23, 2007

The Devil, Daniel Johnston, And Me

Netflix has again provided me with an opportunity to seek out movies I wasn't quite motivated enough to catch at the time. In this case it's THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON, a documentary about the artist/ singer/ songwriter/ maniac who was an underground sensation in the eighties and was cruelly denied his 15 minutes of fame by serious mental illness.

I'm fascinated by this guy. Yes its partially that he is my age, he shares my first name and is multi-talented, and judging from the samples of his work I would be capable of producing at about the same level as him. In fact, the only thing that separates us is my complete lack of both results and a police record for violent attacks. Johnson at least has a cult around him; I got bupkis.

But honestly, how have I never heard of this guy? It's like he was famous in a parallel universe. And I heard of his contemporaries. Johnston did some work with Half-Japanese; heard of them. Kurt Cobain wore a shirt with the logo from Johnston's first record; heard of Cobain. Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd was mentally ill in a big way and I have two of his solo albums. Perhaps part of the reason that Johnston flies below my radar (and crashes the plane he's in, miraculously not killing himself and his dad - true story) is that his songs are awful. Primitive, stumbling, unstructured, and in his signature high reedy voice, he's practically unlistenable. His art is a little easier to take, suggesting a teenage R. Crumb but without that obsessive sexual element. As unlikely as THAT seems.

I'm on a little medication, Johnston is on a LOT. I think perhaps what held me back, paradoxically, is my ability to hold a steady job. I haven't had to produce art to live. If my mental illness was Manic Depression instead of plain vanilla Depression I'd have probably done better. Though obviously there is a downside to that.

Well, that's the very definition of mid-life crisis for you - looking back over your life and regretting the crazy things you haven't done.

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