Published November 6, 2006
I’m not a Daniel Johnston fan. I’ve heard of him for years and eventually bought the discovered/covered CD. During the few listens i’ve given to it, I couldn’t “hear the Beatles” which is what’s supposed to happen once you give Daniel’s tuneless but charmingly child-like voice and a chance. Then again, i can’t hear the “obvious” pixies influence in nirvana – this famed quiet/loud dynamic that the pixies supposedly constantly used. I don’t mind admitting that i’m unhealthily obsessed with the pixies and I can categorically state that this is NOT some pixies m.o. just because Kurt Cobain heard “tame” doesn’t mean that the pixies were the rock upon which nirvana built their song structures. I will return to this rant at a later date.
Back to mad Daniel. You’ve got to approach a documentary about an artist with a mental illness with some trepidation. Am I just being voyeuristic? How hagiographic is it going to be? Do we get to see a real live mad person doing mad stuff? well – probably, it’s not and sometimes.
The documentary format used is straightforward. It tells the story of Daniel Johnston from birth to now. Daniel himself is not directly interviewed for the film but is hovering in the background for significant parts. The story of his descent into mental illness is grippingly relayed through interviews with those who know him best and the really great thing is that the makers have no intention of telling us that mad=good/cool. Instead what comes across is the constant heartbreak that Daniel’s illness creates for those close to him. Daniel’s elderly parents provide a constant reminder of what it is like to be close to someone like Daniel – the misery, the endless worry about what will happen to him, the devastation at the depths of daniel’s delusions – his father (a pilot) once had to crash his plane into a wood after Daniel killed the engine mid-flight so as to kill the demon flying the plane.
Daniel’s illness accompanied him on the standard sex,drugs and rock’n’roll voyage and also caused him to constantly sabotage his opportunities. Those close to him only wanted to see him well enough and happy enough to create. Those who supposedly saw “genius” in him, the new york avant garde set, well…footage from a Daniel gig in the knitting factory shows a bunch of these black-clad, bearded, vegan wankers nodding sagely as a ridiculously delusional Johnston constantly cries and exhorts them to reject the demons that are so obviously everywhere. These are the sort of people who would have applauded and chin-stroked the emotionally devastating yet powerful exhortation to create that van gogh’s severed ear provided rather than calling a doctor and getting the poor bastard something to mop up the vivid scarlet of his blood.
Forget music, forget critical acclaim, forget careers in the arts, forget the patronage of thurston moore – the devil and daniel johnston is the story of a human being who is broken. It is a strange story and one that i don’t find redemptive even at the end where a somewhat better daniel performs his songs to a large appreciative audience. Not being a fan (yet) I’m just not sure what they’re applauding. But this beautifully non-judgemental film lets you make up your own mind about people’s motivations. What stands clear is the fact that life is complex, random, and sad but that’s what makes it so damn interesting. As long as you’re off your fucking head.
Written by John Barron
Published November 4, 2006
Singer-song writer/painter/mad man Joseph Arthur’s fifth album Newclear Day Dream sees Arthur turning minimal armed with his original vocal arrangements and just a hat-trick of chords. Newclear Day Dream has been released on Arthur’s new label Lonely Astronaut Records which currently only features himself. There’s no doubt that Aurthur has matured as a musician and as a song writer over the years. A good thing right?
1996 saw Arthur’s debut Big City Secrets released on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label. It’s a mixed affair of experimental folk rock but showed promise on songs like Good About Me and Mercedes where a certain Mr. Eno provides backing vocals. Over all an awkward first album but with enough ideas to want to hear what was to come.
And in 2000 along came Come To Where I’m From. Up to now it is still considered Arthur’s best piece of work. The opening track In The Sun sees Arthur come in to his own with its beautiful lyrics and harmonies. Since its release In the sun has been covered by REM and Coldplay and played live for the a Hurricane Katrina Relief program. Although Come To Where I’m From’s amazing eleventh track Creation Or a Stain seems better fitting for such an event. With its Iggy-like panic stricken rush of vocals and paranoia fitting the frustration of a state almost forgotten when it was most in need of help. In The Sun was also covered by Peter Gabriel for the Diana and Dodi Tribute CD. Joseph Arthur doesn’t like to explain what his songs are about but one can only guess that In The Sun wasn’t written about any of the above tragedies, never mind a perfume advertisement campaign!
But Come To Where I’m From is far more than a one track album. Songs like Cockroach and The Real You retain Inner City Secret’s oddness but manage to be more intriguing than awkward. The later is dark and sparse with its mischievous guitar lines and bleak lyrics, not a moment in the sun for Arthur. Elsewhere Ashes Everywhere broken hearted harmonica wails as Arthur moarns a lost love, “I’m just trying to be all that I can be, without destroying you or joining the army”. There are brighter moments too where Arthur draws comparisons to Beck on songs like Chemicals. But it’s Come To Where I’m From’s last two songs which make this album great rather than good. Creation Or a Stain is desperate and angst, Arthur has become possessed as he rages about the small gods in his head! It’s a journey of self hate and despair and contempt for modern life and erm, Mr Eric Clapton! Raw and over the top but manages some how to carry it’s own weight.
“These are my wild years,
I’m trying to enjoy the pain
The euphoria of dying Toxins wrestle in my brain
We’ve all been leaders of corruption
We’ve all been spiders on the wall
Waiting for a hand to smash us or the doom of light to fall
Is this guilt of just self-hatred Runnin’ wild, uncontained
Leaking from a broken soul
Is this creation or a stain Is this creation or a stain… ”
Speed of Light see’s Arthur come down with its hushed vocals accompanying his melodic Irish Lowden Guitar, while T Bone Burnett’s piano flows gently in a almost lullaby rythm in the background.
That brings us to 2002’s Redemption’s Son, as always its erratic in its mix but produced some of Arthur’s most accomplished work as a songwriter. Listen to the beautiful You Are the Dark or the title track Redemption’s Son. Another stand out track is Innocent World with Arthur’s crackling falsetto. This album has an alt country feel to it with a few unwanted exceptions like Permission which just doesn’t fit along side the rest of the album. Give or take one or two out of place and over the top tracks this album is definitely worth investigating further.