'Round the Dial
Wednesday 13 August @ 11:25:20
by Tom Hallett
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “God guard me from the thoughts men think/In the mind alone/He that sings a lasting song/Thinks in the marrow bone”
SONG OF THE WEEK: “Inmates (We’re All Crazy)”
Society has always had a macabre interest in insanity and mental illness—from the grotesque paintings, hell-obsessed literature, and inhumane medical practices of Medieval times (let’s hear it for LEECHES and HEAD-DRILLING, everybody!!), through the deathly prose of Edgar Allen Poe (and, much later, the dulcet strains of the Alan Parsons Project, but hopefully, as the story goes, thus quoth the raven, NEVERMORE!), and right on into the 20th century, with the popularity of the works of Hitchcock, Lovecraft, and the good ole (thanks to E.C. Comics and William M. Gaines—who later brought us the ingenius social tool Mad magazine—the first Onion!) Crypt Keeper.
It seems that fascination bleeds over into the music world as well; curious record-hounds (who are mostly total DORKS, but I’m one of ‘em, so I’ll just keep mum) continue to snap up the back catalogs of such damaged souls as original Pink Floyd frontman Syd Barrett, ’50s street performer Moondog, Zappa compadre Captain Beefheart, former 13th Floor Elevators head honcho Roky Erickson, space-jazz pioneer Sun Ra (who knows what he was on, but he thought he was from outer space—and maybe he was), Chicago head-butt king Wesley Willis, and, of course, Texas-bred Daniel Johnston (who started out smokin’ weed, and that probably wasn’t a big deal, but ended up being introduced to the lysergically-altered world of Owsley, Huxley, and Leary by some dumb-ass hipsters who probably thought it was REALLY funny to get some guy who should’ve, by all rights, been under psychiatric care completely fucking aced on Orange Sunshine, or Green Pyramid, or Purple Microdot.
There are a couple schools of thought concerning the recording and subsequent release of works by these tortured psyches—one, that we’re lucky to have tapped into an alternate mindstream and to be able to listen to and attempt to interpret them; and two, that we’re actually exploiting sick and needful people who would be better served by therapy than a guided tour of the mad, mad, mad, mad, world of rock and roll. The first theory is pretty pretentious—I mean, who the fuck are we to decide this kinda shit? That worries me. Music comes to us from a very special place—all bullshit aside—and if somebody produces a body of work that makes other people FEEL and EMOTE and REMEMBER, then it’s my opinion that nobody this side o’ Zeus has any right fuckin’ with it.
However, I’m not giving too much credence here to the self-induced mental states of voluntary “inner-space travelers” who chose, on their own, to explore the limits of the mind with LSD or other mind-altering substances, even if said experiments did eventually lead them into madness. Jimi Hendrix made some pretty fucking spacey music, and he eventually did claim to hear evil voices in his head, but I don’t think for one minute that he was born with that condition. He was a genius who got too high and, like anybody else, suffered the consequences.
On the other hand, somebody like Frank Zappa, who claimed until his dying day that he never used drugs, made some of the trippiest, most complicated, and downright wack music ever recorded. Somewhere in the middle, you’ll find tortured artists like Brian Wilson, Nick Drake, Epic Soundtracks, and a whole slew of similarly afflicted post-punk pioneers. But Johnston, from what I can tell, was born with several different mental illnesses which were exacerbated by his later drug use. That puts him in a very special category: a genuinely DIFFERENT mindset that could never be manufactured in a lab or even created by a negative personal environment.
The second train of logic sounds way-yyyy too PC and touchy-feely for my taste. I don’t think guys like Daniel Johnston were/are too far gone to realize that they’re finally getting the attention and respect that they’ve always thought they deserved. I just think that, like any other music lover/aspiring artist, it’s probably pretty freaky to suddenly have a buncha rock dudes like Gibby from the Butthole Surfers, REM’s Michael Stipe, and big-shot movie producers from Hell-y-wood, U.S. of A. fawning all over you and telling your small-town ass that you’re the next Velvet Underground or 13th Floor Elevators or Syd Barrett. I can see why Daniel eventually started freaking out and scaring the bejeezus outta the twits who were trying to harness the impossibly bright power that (at least for awhile) was inhabiting his Earth-bound shell. But who was crazier—the artist or the people who thought they could work with a mentally/socially handicapped individual on the same intellectual/emotional level that they did their other peers?
Frankly, I can see some logic to both sides of the argument. As music fans and, more importantly, as genuinely curious and intellectual souls on a never-ending quest for knowledge and enlightment, it’s completely understandable (and perhaps necessary) that we take a moment and listen to what anyone who’s able to pull those messages out of the ether—crazy or not, and, like I said, that’s always a subjective matter anyway—has to say. On the other hand, were we family members or loved ones of those afflicted who are sometimes taken completely out of their elements in order to create/preserve their art, we’d probably be pretty embarrassed and pissed off that our personal lives were being dissected by strangers and that our long-suffering brother or uncle or cousin was seemingly being led down a path that may not seem the healthiest for even, well, healthy folks.
Be that as it may, the works of the above-listed artists HAVE been recorded for posterity or for exploitation; either way, and it’s part of my job (such as this glorified hobby is) to sniff out whether there’s any true artistic merit involved or if it’s just another rock ’n’ roll swindle. I’ll go on the record here as saying that I’ll take any Pink Floyd song written, recorded, or performed by Syd Barrett—as well as his skewed but gorgeous solo output—over any smash hit that band ever had without him. And I’m giving Syd the benefit of the doubt here and assuming that his mental breakdown was not so much CAUSED by his LSD use but was a pre-existing condition that was actually triggered into a more full-blown, serious form by its ingestion. I’ll also go to bat for Roky Erickson (ditto for his mental condition), who’s written some of the most beautiful and dangerous anti-pop music ever conceived.
But my focus this week is on the early works of Daniel Johnston, a cat whose biggest fan base—as far as I can tell—is comprised mostly of fellow musicians and freaky rock writers like myself. This Dualtone release is a re-issue of the man’s first two homemade cassettes, so it may be the first time some casual fans even hear the works in their entirety. So without further ado, here we go, ladies and gentlemen: Meet the inimitable, indestructible, incorrigable Daniel Johnston—Daniel, meet the Twin Cities:
Songs Of Pain: The Early Recordings, 1980-83
Daniel Johnston in 2003.
The first thing that strikes you about this package is its IMMENSITY ... it’s a huge number of songs to delve into (37, for those of you who are counting, an’ that’s just a hair shy of Jack Logan’s 42-song debut masterpiece, Bulk), especially if it’s your first time hearing an artist. But the truth is, you’re getting a real bargain with this set. Johnston’s work—especially on this double-shot, which is basically an aural snapshot of his obsession for a long-ago crush and his frightening world of Captain America, an angry God, and paranoia—is sometimes highly dependent upon his sometimes convoluted—and interconnected—story lines. This collection kicks off with “Grievances,” an unremarkable, poorly recorded ditty that showcases Daniel’s helium-like voice right off the bat.
“A Little Story” is the first indication of Johnston’s overwhelming terror and awe for the Christian God of his childhood: “There was this big guy/And he had a great idea/He’d build himself a world/And he’d put people on it/But the people they turned wicked/And they soon forgot/Who had made their very being/And put them on their planet ...” What follows is a pretty straightforward recounting of the New Testament, with Daniel affirming his faith by comparing Jesus to a comic book super hero. Sparse keyboards provide an eerie backdrop, even though Daniel assures us, “There’s a happy ending to the story/So before you turn out your lights remember this one man/Who lived comfortably in heaven but gave it all up to hang on a cross ...” At this point, one starts to wonder whether Daniel doesn’t sometimes secretly compare himself to Christ, leaving the comforts of his parent’s home to go into the world and preach his own skewed gospel.
“Joy Without Pleasure” perfectly captures the empty, grey world of the mentally ill, with Daniel quoting one of his mother’s many motivational speeches (mom has to take some responsibility for her son’s condition, in my opinion—why wasn’t it treated earlier, and how could any loving parent confuse genuine mental illness with laziness and dope smoking?): “My mama she took me aside one day/She said you better have fun while you play/Cause someday you’ll wake up and you’ll be old/An’ all of your youth will be gone away/An’ you’ll work in a factory an’ you’ll earn your pay/An’ your fingers will rot and your mind will decay ...” Isn’t that special? It’s a FAMILY PICTURE!
Can you even imagine telling a little kid—nevermind one with serious mental issues—that someday his fingers are going to rot off and his mind is going to decay? Jesus, who IS this guy’s mom—Joan Crawford? Daniel explains it all (at least to his satisfaction) at the end of the tune with the toss-off line, “That song was about premarital sex.” Confused? I think Daniel likes it that way. I also think he’s been so damaged by that confounded small-town Christian morality that he simply can’t talk seriously about sex without bringing the Lord-—and, as a result, his mother, who instilled this fear in him—into the picture. Consumed by guilt for things he hasn’t even done yet, he’s a classic example of how horribly wrong Western religion has gone over the past couple thousand years.
“Never Relaxed” is another stand-out track, and it doesn’t take a trained psychologist to realize that, like most of these cuts, this stuff probably really happened to Daniel at some point: “There was this kid named Sid and he was born/Maybe the doctor hit him a little too hard/He just seemed to have gotten off to a bad start/Never relaxed, never relaxed, never relaxed ...” “Brainwash” finds Johnston getting a little revenge on his ranting mother by leaving the tape running while she rips into him like a harpie about him not having any ambition: “You’ve had a good life, you’ve been brought up good! Don’t put it on your dad and I, because you’re never going to appreciate it. We’ve tried to clamp down on you in certain areas ... and all the love we’ve ever given you and all the sacrifices we’ve given, you’ve never cared! Blah blah blah!” What a crone, man. I probably would’ve run off with the Butthole Surfers too.
“Pothead” is a great tune. Johnston puts the blame for a failed musician’s (himself?) misfortunes squarely on the shoulders of that big, bad reefer: “Man, you looked like old man’s eyes/When I saw you in that room/And now you’re on tour/They booked you in the asylum/You worked so hard at being a buffoon/And now you ain’t got no incentive left/You popped your own balloon/You wanted to be somebody/But you ain’t nobody/You ain’t got nobody/You’re just a head ... just a pothead ...” Sad, weepy keys turn into rolling, roiling, barrelhouse piano grooves as his voice (impossibly) raises a few notches and he shrieks, “I heard one day in the shed you got so high/You ate off a chickenhead and it was still alive ... someday you’re gonna get so messed up you eat the head off your kid ... pothead ...” ]
As the song turns from a mere warning into a severe indictment, “...[Y]ou even tried to roll the sacred page/and then you burned your lip ... that lip it has a trench in it where that wild weed sits/sucking like a parasite/ of any sense you might have left,” you realize how much blame Dan’s parents (and, one would assume, doctors) tried to place on his herb usage as a cause for his mental difficulties. Stupid. I really think, like a lot of people in the “system,” that Daniel’s tenure behind padded walls was a direct result of the obnoxiously moral upbringing his parents gave him and the absolutely damning lack of concern by so-called “medical professionals.” I’m not blaming them for his illness—just saying that they not only didn’t help him (at least at first), but that they actually HURT him along the way.
“Wicked World” is more religious spewing, while “Lazy” is a gorgeously presented slice of dream-pop that finds Daniel telling the people in charge (and the object of his affections, who’s never named but apparently never knew he was smitten by her) the Truth with a capital “T.”: “Well, I made some mistakes/But I ain’t learned the lessons/And I don’t want to hear about responsibilities/I got less important things to do—I’m lazy, oh yeah!”
“I Save Cigarette Butts” is a bizarre (well, more bizarre) found-sound playground, with D.J. emoting through old recordings and a girl—his girl?—being coached to say “I love you, Danny” into the mic. The song tells a devastating tale of lost romance that revolves around a date to a wrestling match, Dan’s mind-boggling dreams (“... they spilled beer on Jesus,”), and his obsession with saving cigarette butts for “... a poor girl across town.” “Like A Monkey In A Zoo” is probably the tastiest track in this batch, laying out Dan’s feelings towards the music world, his family, and his so-called friends over a happy-go-lucky keyboard line and cut-throat lyrics: “Throw me a peanut/Laugh and make jokes/But I’ve had enough peanuts and I’m ready to croak/Like a monkey in a zoo.”
Every tune on this collection has a purpose (for Daniel, at least), and helps to tell the story of his scarred, pain-filled life (hence the album’s title(s), but the most telling part of the recordings are the short excerpts of Daniel, his parents, and his friends talking. You get a sense of the hopelessness, wonder, sadness, confused joy, and geniune brilliance that boils away like a pot of goulash in Johnston’s brain—and, if you’ve been wondering whether he should’ve ever been torn from his insulated little world (and let’s remember, he went around almost FORCING the original tapes on anybody who’d listen, so it’s not like he didn’t really want people to hear his stuff) and inserted into the modern musical canon, those excerpts confirm that, although some along the way may have taken advantage of him, Daniel took just as much as he gave.
Whether he still has something to offer the music world in the future remains to be seen. As much as I like this stuff, I’d feel pretty shitty knowing I was buying his albums while he continued to suffer because of some misguided loyalty to his fans. But I guess that’s up to Daniel and his family, so I’ll take what he’s offered and try to learn as much as I can from it. Reading the liner notes to Songs Of Pain, one is struck by the almost guilty recollections of Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black (who, it should be noted, probably had no idea what he was getting into when he hooked up with D. J. but who’s also probably a better person for having lived through the experience and, as far as I can tell, is one of Johnston’s few REAL friends in “the biz”), who received the original tapes via hand-delivery by their creator back in 1985.
Black confesses that although he knew Johnston was prone to panic attacks, personality disorders, and control issues, he literally couldn’t stop himself from eagerly consuming every recorded work the man put out. Black even went so far as to become involved in Daniel’s personal life, watching with horror as some of the neurotic singer/songwriter’s so-called “pals” in the rock world expanded his drug horizons from “Happy Smokes” (his term for marijuana) to LSD.
Once those little social experiments began, Black says, Johnston quickly degenerated mentally to the point where he once was arrested for freaking out in a campus river, eyes rolled back in his head while he sang, preached, and hollered about God, the Devil, and the folly of man. Eventually, Daniel was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where he began receiving legitimate treatment for his illnesses, and although his public behavior has settled in the past decade, many critics have been less than kind to the works he’s produced since beginning therapy.
Which brings us back to the original question: Should we just let these folks get the help they need and leave them alone, be happy with the astonishing bodies of work they HAVE released, and let them enjoy the years they have left free (or as close to free as they can get) from the illnesses that have plagued them for most of their lives? Even if it means that they don’t (or won’t) continue producing works of art that “we” feel are of note? I say YES. Let ‘em go, man. We’re lucky we got the cool shit we did from these guys, and, when it all comes down to it, just by buying their records, we’re probably somewhat responsible (especially if we slipped ‘em ACID) for their current condition.
More importantly, should you go out and buy this record? Well, if you’re interested in exploring areas of the human mind and soul that you’ve never experienced before, and you like really cool, lo-fi home recordings, and you’re curious enough about Daniel’s life to really get into it, then the answer is yes. If you’re looking for hit singles, answers, or some kind of new philosophy, you’re shit outta luck. Me, I’m really, really glad I got a chance to dig into this stuff, and will definitely check out more D.J. material.
Interestingly enough, we have our own little community of tortured souls right here in the Twin Cities. Is there anyone out there who actually thinks that Paul Westerberg’s Grandpa Boy character (I’ve interviewed Paul, and his voice actually CHANGES when he slips into Grandpa Boy mode) is just a JOKE? Listen, man, he uses that cat as an outlet for some shit that nobody in their right minds—even dirty little rock journalists—would really want to know. And Mr. Replacements isn’t the only certifiable kooky genius in our midst, only the most famous.
There are at least twenty over-the-top, bats-in-the-belfry, ready-for-Nurse-Ratchet artists/groups happily (and madly) toiling away amongst us. And I don’t mean DWEEBS who PRETEND to be crazy to get attention; true genius/insanity is immediately identifiable, and you won’t catch most of those characters doing anything more to get attention than what’s already obvious. No props, no illusions, no tricks, NO LIMITS, man. I won’t name any names—at least until I write about said artist(s), but you can regularly catch the best of ‘em in places like the Entry, The Terminal, the Turf Club, Big V’s, Nye’s, The BLB, and, lately, for some strange reason, on my back steps around 4 a.m.—but we won’t get into that just now.
There’s really no reason to say anything more on this subject—we’re all fucking crazy, dontcha know? WE’RE ALL FUCKING CRAZY. Diggit. Seriously, nothing you do, say, or sing about can be any crazier than some moron zipping down the freeway at 120 MPH at five a.m. on a crotch rocket (don’t tell me you haven’t heard him, he’s EVERYWHERE and everyone is affected by his cacaphony—I assume it’s a half-drunk, bleary-eyed Satan, pissed off and broke, on his way home from some strip bar in the ‘burbs, but haven’t been able to confirm that theory as yet) seven days a week. Now, that’s crazy.
Or how about the garbage truck that comes at exactly 4:20 A.M. every Saturday morning and BACKS UP for a WHOLE CITY BLOCK while BEEPING in some ungodly key, thus kicking into gear that coach-like guy across the street (there’s at least one in every neighborhood—you know who you are) who feels the need to fire up his lawn mower (“Gotta keep busy, yessir, just ‘cause I ain’t at work don’t mean there ain’t work to do. The devil and idle hands, you know.”) the second the sun cracks over the horizon. Once again, very disturbing behavior. What the hell happened to cartoons, cereal, and bong hits for breakfast? Do we really need to break out the FARM EQUIPMENT at DAWN?? But that’s life. The INSANE journey called life. And that’s enough to drive ya crazy, if ya weren’t already. Well, that’s it for me this week, kiddies—tune in next time, and until then, make yer own damn news.
If you have local music news/gigs/events that you’d like to see listed in this column, or you’d just like to share your own brush with the Men In White with Mr. T., send replies to: TMygunn777@aol.com