Monday, May 22, 2006

Me and the Devil

Saw the much-lauded documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston this weekend and I must add a few lauds (?) of my own. As a music film it's a treat--an in-depth study of a single artist's career, a touch of insight into the, er, "industry," and a few enticing indie-rock cameos (Butthole Surfers fans will not want to miss the footage of Gibby's dental work), but it's so much more than that. I've known more than my share of immensely talented, deeply disturbed artists over the years, and this portrait of a gifted musician whose mental illness makes him a major nightmare for his friends and family really hit home for me. Cliché or no, I laughed and I cried as Johnston's surreal. agonizing story unfolded.

I first heard about D.J.'s music in the late 80s, when he was making his first splash on a national level. (The movie leads me to believe that these splashes seem to occur once a decade or so, and Daniel becomes a cult hero all over again for a slightly different demographic. Sort of like Harvey Pekar, I suppose: first comes the work itself, then comes the media frenzy, then that dies down, then comes the movie about the work and the media frenzy, and the cycle repeats. I love the gallery owner in the film who points out that Johnston isn't an "outsider artist," he's about as "inside" as you can get. Hard to work that "outsider" tag when you have Matt Groening dropping by your dressing room before a show.)

I bought Yip / Jump Music on vinyl, though the sound quality was comparable to the cheapo cassettes on which it was originally recorded (and, we now know, endlessly rerecorded). I liked it a whole lot, and played it for open-minded friends (you have to be careful who you try this with), then decided it wasn't really necessary to plunge that much deeper into the hefty discography. The voice, the dinky keyboard, and the ultra lo-fi sound quality are all part of the story, but they get old, fast, which is why I will one day check out this star-studded tribute album. Many of the songs on Yip / Jump--especially "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances"--are quite powerful (and I've always found Daniel's pronunciation of "grieve-ee-an-ces" incredibly touching in a weird way), but I've never really bought the whole "Daniel is The Greatest Genius in Pop Music History" line.

I'm clearly not the first person to note that the problem with the Cult of Daniel is the fact that so many of its members either think he's a joke, or they buy into the romantic myth linking mental illness to divine inspiration. The movie flirts with both of those responses, but does a pretty good job of going deeper, too. I particularly appreciated the even-handed portrayal of pretty much everyone onscreen. Still, a good portion of the audience on all sides of me was laughing at a lot of stuff that just wasn't funny if you stop to remember that this is an actual human being we're talking about.

Fellow Beach Boys fans, take note: there's an interesting digression at one point when Johnston's mother compares her son's psyche and career with Brian Wilson's (though you kind of want to take her aside and say, "Uh, Mrs. Johnston, I think there are some better reference materials than Brian's alleged autobiography, which he never even read, and you really don't want to introduce your kid to Dr. Landy...").

By chance, the Sundance Channel just rebroadcast the Anton Newcombe/Brian Jonestown Massacre-vs.-Dandy Warhols doc Dig! for the umpteenth time, and I caught the opening minutes once again. Another chronicle of a ferociously talented loose cannon, and another must-see. But between these 2 movies, I think it's quite clear that I never, ever want to manage a band if one of its members is The Greatest Genius in Pop Music History.

PS. The amazing music subscription service eMusic not only has most of Daniel Johnston's recordings for sale, it's also got this handy guide to them annotated by the film's director, Jeff Feuerzeig. Yippee!

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