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Thursday, December 28, 2006
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After a fifteen minute set at the SXSW festival, "Outsider" musician Daniel Johnston graciously received his standing ovation and met his father backstage. While on the flight back, his father is a pilot and owns a small plane, Daniel abruptly took control of the aircraft and forced it into a tailspin. He had been reading a Casper comic book at the time and started to believe he was the friendly ghost who, on the cover, had been fitted with a parachute. Plagued with a history of severe mental problems, the doctors required Daniel to take medication so he wouldn't experience any more psychotic episodes, however, he had stopped a couple of weeks before his appearance at the festival, feeling the pills inhibited his performance. Daniel's father lay helpless as he and his son spiraled to Earth, by now clipping the tops of tree. At the last moment his father regained control and crashed the plane, luckily both passengers survived but the plane met a different fate.
This event is retold in the extraordinary documentary "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" by Daniel's teary-eyed father. It's uncomfortable to watch, a moment too private for the world to witness. That kind of emotional starkness is indicative of Johnston's entire catalogue, something Jeff Feuerzeig's film encapsulates. His long-suffering themes of love lost, Captain America, Casper, battles against Satan and the Beatles are delivered with pluck and humor with a delicious underpinning of melancholy. Not exactly fodder for your typical 2-minute pop ditty.
For the fans of the music, as I was going into "Devil", the movie illuminates Daniel Johnston's life which proves to be as interesting as the songs themselves. His bipolarity was/is extreme, leading him to chastize his audiences over his inept guitar strumming for not believing in Satan or not taking him seriously enough. While in a mental ward Johnston recorded his ramblings into a tape recorder including his belief that the Beatles should reunite and become his back-up band or how the demons in his room are guzzling mountain dew.
Because his recordings are so rough, especially his self-made audio cassettes from the '80s, the songs had to have some extra ingredient, a quality which excites something inside people. At times it may be embarrassing and at times it may be hilarious (both intentionally and unintentionally), but everything Johnston set to tape was unfiltered. Perhaps that's why Kurt Cobain took such a shine to him, both felt aesthetic purity equalled painful honesty coupled with a statement even if that statement was simply "Hey look at me, I'm making art."
Johnston's music isn't accessible...well, that's not entirely true. His songs are stellar, brimming with surprises, it's just the execution that isn't crafted for a general audience. How can you tell if you're a Daniel Johnston fan? If you're earnestly awaiting the next DMX flick then you're definitely not a Daniel Johnston fan.
But you should be. It's all right there begging to catch your attention and if you still don't "get" it after one listen or two listens or thirty listens then you should be ashamed of yourself. This is timeless music, music that could enrich your life and if you don't love it then you're not trying hard enough.