Tuesday, January 8, 2008

the devil and daniel johnston

My favorite teacher, DW, recently handed me the film The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
Tired the other night, I popped it in the DVD player
, hoping to zone out and go to bed early. Instead, I found myself totally engrossed in the documentary of a profoundly mentally ill artist/musician. In the 1990's he made a name for himself in the Austin, TX music scene, and musicians like Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo, Nirvana, and The Butthole Surfers all considered him genius. Somehow, in spite of being a fan of these bands and most "experimental" music of that era, I was completely unaware of Daniel Johnston's existence until watching this film (to listen to some of his music, go to his myspace page).

His story is very similar to that of schizophrenic musician Wesley Willis, who's connection to The Melvins and the Dead Kennedys brought him into my listening sphere in the 1990's. Both musicians are almost unlistenable, given the raw, childlike quality of both their lyrics and instrumentation. While Willis is imminently quotable in an Old Skull kind of way, Johnston has a more folk based sound. He has a certain earnestness that makes his songwriting - if not his sound- at times quite moving.

I don't know that I could actually play Johnston on my stereo very often. But what I enjoyed about the documentary was seeing a man who's battle with mental illness was met with the enthusiastic support of a community who saw his drive to create as valid, even worthy of fame. While music and art can't eliminate chronic mental illness, they can certainly improve the quality of life of mentally ill individuals. It was moving for me to see that so clearly demonstrated by this film.

While writing this I discovered that the Butthole Surfers also supported the recent comeback of another mentally ill Austinite, Roky Erickson, who was a significant part of the 1960s psychedelic music scene. He and Johnston share remarkably similar history, and similar sound. Link to Roky Erickson's documentary here.

1 comment:

  1. Yes! I loved this movie! I caught it on one of the free movie channels on cable a couple of weeks ago. Missed the first fifteen minutes or so, but was hooked the moment I saw it. I went out and got it on dvd a few days later, at Fry's no less!

    I first heard of Daniel Johnston on a compilation album called "A Texas Trip". It was put out by Butthole Surfers and a couple of other artists. When we heard Daniel Johnston we thought it kinda sucked and sounded kinda forced. Never really gave him much thought after that.

    Fast Forward twenty years to the present day, a couple weeks ago. After seeing that documentary, I was totally blown away. The music he made back in the early and mid 1980's was fucking AWESOME! It was raw, heartfelt, trippy (drop acid, you'll see what I mean), and most importantly it was honest. THANK god that some of those old cassettes he made were re-released onto cd. I really need to get off my ass get some of those.

    Awesome documentary too.

    blah blah blah