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The Devil and Daniel Johnston


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I just saw this excellent but sad documentary film by Jeff Feuerzeig last night, about singer/songwriter/artist/crackpot Daniel Johnston.

I first remember hearing about Johnston in the mid-80's, when he won a bunch of Austin city music awards (notably best folk artist, best songwriter), and it caused a huge controversy...primarily because Daniel J. can't really sing (unless you call his high, whiny, lispy caterwauling singing!), he's a horrible guitarist, and his primitive songs are, at best, an acquired taste....and this was Austin, Texas, home to tons of the very best musicians on Earth. He ended up getting signed to Atlantic in the early 90's, based primarily on Kurt Cobain wearing a T-shirt with some of his artwork, sold a couple of thousand copies of his 2 or 3 LPs on that label, and got dropped.

He's always been a cult figure, with people either loving his work, or hating it with a vengeance. I was always in the latter camp, thinking he was a fraud, until I heard a couple of tribute albums, with other artists doing his songs. While Johnston's versions are, for the most part, unlistenable, some of his songs are really good when fleshed out and played by real musicians. On the other hand, I fail to see him being (as he's called in the film), "the greatest living singer/songwriter in the world."

The film goes into his mental problems, which have sadly been plentiful (and occasionally violent) over the years. He's been in and out of institutions numerous times, and is currently living with his aging parents somewhere in Texas, unable to take care of himself. He's also gone from painfully skinny in the mid-80's to incredibly obese today. On top of all of this, his primitive comics/artwork sells like hotcakes nowadays, for hundreds or even thousands of dollars per drawing. Various people compare him to Brian Wilson in the film. It looks like he's got dozens of CDs selling on Amazon nowadays.

Highly recommended and fascinating film....(and a very fascinating character)....

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obviously Daniel Johnston is FAR from the greatest songwriter on earth...

What he IS (and was) is a classic cult artist (or as David Bowie refers to it as) OUTSIDER ART...

In DJ's case his songs are best at their most basic and honest, whether or not they're deeply tormented by his twisted brain...

I deeply dislike the "celebrity" of the insane or schizophrenic musician where the work is paraded as a Bailey & Barnum spectacle-- or those who are drawn to it just because THAT'S the only reason it deserves attention (obviously, the artist's instability DOES give it a deep resonance and specific stamp, but it has to hold up to basic musical values... and like you stated, the tribute CD does prove the songs have legs...)

A Lot of DJ's supporters are guilty of the "spectacle"-- At least Cobain sincerely liked Johnston's songs for what they were: Quirky offbeat & warped snapshots, usually captured on a home tape recorder, but nonetheless untainted by any GRUBBY fingers or outsiders (no pun intended)...

I can't wait to see the documentary... it does look like a good film-- (done by the guy who did the "Crumb" documentary)

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"....(done by the guy who did the "Crumb" documentary)"

Actually, Terry Zwigoff did "Crumb", the '94 documentary. He's since gone a little more Hollywood, having directed "Ghost World", "Bad Santa", and the upcoming "Art School Confidential." The guy who did "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" is Jeff Feuerzeig, and I think it's his directorial debut.

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You may be right, but the only "Crumb" connection I've found so far is that quite a few critics are comparing the 2 movies, many calling "TDADJ" the best documentary of its kind since "Crumb".

The whole thing about crazy/schizophrenic musicians is that, by and large, if their music has no substance other than its craziness, nobody ever really hears of them at all....and they don't even qualify as cult figures. Johnston, to me, is in the category as Jad Fair & Half Japanese, Wesley Willis, Hasil Adkins, post-Pink Floyd Syd Barrett, post-Moby Grape Skip Spence, Roky Erickson and other certifiable types whose music actually strikes a chord with enough people to enable them to sell thousands of CDs/records.....and, as in the case of Johnston, the music of most of the above translates much better in the hands of more talented musicians.

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Originally posted by JohnO:

[QB] You may be right, but the only "Crumb" connection I've found so far is that quite a few critics are comparing the 2 movies, many calling "TDADJ" the best documentary of its kind since "Crumb".

you're right... that's exactly what it was... i just thought there was also some other connection, too...

you're also right about the music, although I really wouldn't lump Syd in that bunch... that does him more of a disservice... Whereas the majority of "cracked" cult artists work in a raw demo-like context, Syd (and probably Skip) worked with major people (and was on the BBC, even)-- Yes, his recordings were rough, but there's an attempt to make the most out of them... and most of his stuff is much more accessible & charming than guys like Jad Fair, Jandek & Daniel Johnston...

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Well...I was generalizing regarding lumping those guys together. As Hasil Adkins did some legit Rockabilly (assuming there is such a thing!) tunes in the 60's/70's, before he went totally wacko, he may not belong in this crowd...nor Roky Erickson, who appears to have recovered, and is back and rocking out as well as ever (just played at the recent SXSW with The Explosives backing him up).

I just tossed out the names of known nutjobs who are legit cult figures. (NOTE: Wesley Willis, Jad Fair & Daniel J. have NEVER made music that's within miles of being conventional - they're definitely a breed apart from the others.)

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