Thursday, September 25, 2014

In Defense Of Daniel Johnston


excerpt from LIFE IN A TIN CAN (or Still-Life With Piano Van).

Benjamin Shapiro’s paragraph-length summary of his forthcoming monograph in the 33 1/3 Book series covers a lot of the most salient components to the myth of Daniel Johnston, so I’ll quote it in full for the benefit of those who don’t know:

"In 1983, the troubled American songwriter Daniel Johnston suffered the first of a series of mental breakdowns that would plague him for the rest of his life. In his mental illness, he managed to commit 15 song fragments to tape using a $59 Sanyo cassette recorder and Radio Shack tape stock. The collection would later be presented as Hi, How Are You, the single most influential homemade cassette tape of all time. Composed during a period of extreme emotional stress, the album has fascinated and haunted its many listeners, including Tom Waits, Beck, Ben Gibbard, and Kurt Cobain, who popularized the record by wearing a Hi, How Are You T-shirt during Nirvana’s 1992 performance at the MTV Music Awards. 20 years later, the recording is recognized as a key document of early independent music and a master text of virtuosic outsider art. The album doubles as a document of music produced from the isolated borderline between insanity and mental disorder. The historical links between creativity and madness have been studied at length, but never seen through the lens of a document such as this. Johnston, who suffered from schizophrenia and manic depression, saw his early cassettes as a message to the world. This lo-fidelity recording was not only a temporary cure for the disease that had gripped his mind since childhood, but also a manifestation of a schizophrenic’s illusions of grandeur. Johnston didn’t hear the tape as the hiss and crackle of a basement recording—he heard the pronouncement of the next major pop star who would, like the Beatles before him, change the very fabric of the world."


Shapiro begins by introducing, and emphasizing the artist rather than the particular album: a “troubled American artist” who “suffered from schizophrenia and manic depression.”[1] Shapiro frames his proposal by adopting the tone of clinical psychoanalysis: “The historical links between creativity and madness have been studied at length, but never seen through the lens of a document such as [Hi, How Are You].“ Thus, the book promises what literary critics call a “thematic reading,” of the Album. The album becomes a document for a case study, and the aesthetic value is secondary.

Shapiro’s summary also implies that his case study of Johnston will not focus merely on the individual and his emotional illness, but also on what the success this album/cassette achieved tells you about American society (or at least a sub-culture of [mostly white] indie rock) in the 80s/90s, or even into the 21st century, by showing how Hi! How Are You? became “the single most influential homemade cassette tape of all time.”

Although Shapiro recognizes the influence of this album, his summary seems to purposely avoid attributing this influence to any genius or brilliance in Daniel Johnston’s own art. He doesn’t bother here with aesthetic claims like: “Walking The Cow,” or “Speedy Motorcycle,” are more powerful songs than “Like A Virgin.” Nor will he call Daniel Johnston a brilliant conceptual artist for choosing “to commit 15 song fragments to tape using a $59 Sanyo cassette recorder and Radio Shack tape stock” during this era of corporate dominated rock (with its vital punk and hip-hop scenes bubbling beneath).

In fact, Johnston is presented as a rather passive figure in the story of this album’s ultimate influence. Far from being career savvy, Daniel Johnston created this album out of “a schizophrenic’s illusions of grandeur.” In saying this, Shapiro’s book promises to be provocative and controversial and reopen the debate that Jeff Feuerzeig’s The Devil And Daniel Johnston presented various sides of. As the title implies, Feuerzeig’s movie went beyond the merely psychiatric interpretation, and explored how his the Christian-Fundamentalist upbringing may have been at least as significant a contributing factor to Daniel Johnston’s “affliction.”

Jeff’s movie simply does not simplify this issue. It offers both the psychoanalytic interpretation that is common in this secular society, but also suggests a sociological or even religious one. The devil is not just a demon that possesses a delusional madman, but also a central tenant of the kind of Christianity that Johnston’s family always tried to hold themselves to (and instill its moral code in Daniel). In this religious world-view, the devil is real, as in many gospel (and even secular country) songs---“Don’t let the devil ride. If you let him ride, he’ll want to drive. Don’t let the devil drive.”

When discussing Daniel Johnston’s art, the psychiatric emphasis may be unavoidable (since the line between aesthetics and psychology—behavior, ethics--blurs in this myth), yet the diagnostic terms that Shapiro uses here are themselves controversial, and need to be defined more clearly in order not to provoke the ire of “mental health activists” and even some passionate DJ fans.

Take the phrase, “ illusions of grandeur,” for instance. In order to support his claim that the album is “a manifestation of a schizophrenic’s illusions of grandeur,” Shapiro writes: “Johnston didn’t hear the tape as the hiss and crackle of a basement recording—he heard the pronouncement of the next major pop star who would, like the Beatles before him, change the very fabric of the world.” It’s an interesting either/or distinction, yet there is no verifiable evidence to support that DJ “didn’t hear…the hiss and crackle of a basement recording.” Clearly, Daniel Johnston knew that he didn’t have a band, and couldn’t afford a recording studio. Furthermore, Shapiro’s claim that Johnston believing he could be the next Beatles, or the next big thing, albeit delusional, is a delusion many other musicians—including bands that are considered much more ‘well-adjusted’ than DJ---shared, especially during the time the album was released.

Many musicians were vying to be, and publicists, managers and critics were promoting bands as, the
next Beatles. It was becoming increasingly clear that with the corporate monopoly dominating the
American music industry, and the fragmentation of niches over the previous decade that even the mega
selling acts like Michael Jackson or Hall And Oates could not “change the very fabric of the world,” as
the Beatles apparently did for many (though that history, too, is often overemphasized compared to
other of their contemporaries; if the Beatles changed the very fabric of the world, we should at least ask,
given the changes that have taken place since 1970, was it really for the better?).  The pop-group, or
solo artist, that could transcend niches and reach people from a wide range of demographics as The
Beatles did, was simply not possible by The Reagan Era.

Against this corporate trend, other bands were trying to convince us “that phony Beatlemania has bitten
the dust.” Daniel never said that (as far as I’m aware), but since Hi. How Are You? has become “the
single most influential homemade cassette tape of all time,” that, for many, “changed the very fabric of
the world,” we should at least consider that DJ was not suffering from “delusions of Grandeur” in
creating this album—but did somehow understand that there was a need for music like this, presented in
this format (a chord organ and a cassette) that was not being met by the increasingly soul-less corporate
glitz that dominated this time.

Certainly Daniel Johnston was not the first to choose music—or the other arts—as “a message to the world,” which he could not communicate with by other means. Take, for instance, the patently “well-adjusted” musician (at least as well-adjusted as a famous musician can be), the debonair Bryan Ferry singing that music is his “only way to reach you.” In terms of clinical psychology, almost every musician would suffer from some ailment (hell, if Jesus or Moses, lived to today, they’d be trying to get them on pills too). In the contemporary American pharmaceutical/mental health complex, sometimes overemphasizing the psychiatric interpretations of maladjustments are encouraged to distract us from the deeper issues of the highly materialistic, individualistic, tech-driven economy and culture that many artists struggle against.

One may be a genius artist or intellectual, but still can barely tie his shoes without assistance, as I know too well. State-hired shrinks may offer many clinical diagnoses, but they often come down to semantics. Match the symptoms to the disease from a book; it doesn’t always work. I’m no clinical psychologist, but I’ve read enough to know that some of the “symptoms” I share with Daniel Johnston could render me with a mild, or early-stage manifestation, of what used to be called “Idiot Savant” (though the more correct word these days is “Savant Syndrome”) at least as much as “schizophrenic.”

In Shapiro’s proposal, he relies on the term “mental illness” to describe Daniel Johnston, yet that term is often used unreflectively in our society. There is a distinction between “mental illness” and “emotional illness.” Many people who suffer from “emotional illness” still have enough mastery of their mental faculties to function as intellectuals and artists in our society. But this distinction is often elided, smoothed over, by the dominant media and healthcare industries. Such a conflation can have disastrous consequences for the patient so diagnosed. For instance, a university is less likely to hire a “mentally ill” professor (even if is her intellectual/analytical skills remain in tact and s/he can do her job even better than many others) than they are to hire an “emotionally troubled” one (especially if she published a memoir). If this person can no longer find a job in the one field he excels at, he can no longer pay people to take care of the basic needs that are simpler for everyone else: last year’s genius artist can become this year’s raving homeless maniac.

The fact that Daniel Johnston, at age 53, is still able to tour---no small feat at his age even for more ‘well-adjusted’ people---suggests a man who can do that one thing, and do it well enough to make a living on it. He did not commit suicide like some of his “pretty boy” contemporaries, nor did he end up homeless. There is a strength in this man who is a survivor, and maybe even a kind of mental health advocate if he’s taken seriously---whether or not you like his music or want to get close to him as a person. I do not mean to downplay the strong evidence that reveals DJ’s “maladjustments” in many areas of life, only to suggest that the vague language of “mental illness” Shapiro relies on runs the risk of weakening what promises to be a very fascinating, thought provoking book, yet analyzing it gave me a deeper appreciation of Daniel.



[1] This could also describe David Berman, or at least the speaker of “Random Rules” who was hospitalized for approaching perfection in 1984, almost the same day that Daniel Johnston was.

3 comments:

  1. I have Daniel Johnston syndrome. Is there a cure? I am working on personal development (exercise; no caffeine or LSD, cannabis, etc.) Same exact thing happened to my voice after some not-to-smart LSD puddlings when living homeless.

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