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The ramblings and observations of a kidney transplant recipient, although not necessarily for that reason.

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The Devil & Daniel Johnston
Sunday, November 05, 2006

I once considered myself somewhat of an"alternative" sort of person. When I was teenager I wanted so desperately to be different than everyone else. I thought wearing clothing bought in second hand stores, smoking menthol cloves, listening to music that strayed from Billboard's Top 40 as far as possible, and spending every Friday night at the midnight performance of Rocky Horror Picture Show was enough to differentiate myself from the popular cliques in high school.

I thought just because I knew every word to Blister In The Sun and chased down underground dance clubs every weekend instead of going to high school basketball games and buying Janet Jackson CD's that I had some right to claim I wasn't a follower. Later in life I figured out that trying to be different than than everyone else where I was at was just another way of trying to find a way to fit in somewhere else. It meant I was just a follower of another sort and probably to a greater degree. When I realized this, I began to embrace pop culture and turn my head from the "alternative" lifestyle, almost to the point of shunning the "alternative" culture.

Had I stuck with the culture I began following when I was 14 I may have actually heard of Daniel Johnston. In my transition back to mainstream culture, I somehow missed him completely. Saturday night I watched a documentary called The Devil And Daniel Johnston. It was the first time I've ever heard of him. He was an alternative singer/songwriter/artist that popped up on the Austin music scene in the early 1980's. His musicianship was terrible, his singing ability was non-existent, but his lyricism was pretty good and his drive to be famous was fueled like no other and guided by mental illness.

He found himself in and out of the spotlight. Into it as a result of good luck, great timing, persistent self promotion, and few but severely loyal fans which included other musicians like Sonic Youth, Velvet Underground, and Kurt Cobain. Out of it because of his fight with manic depression and drugs, and as a result, violence related crimes and hospitalization kept him from living in the real world both physically and mentally. He was never able to maintain a stable career, musical sucess, or life in general.

Every episode in his life which may have really started him on the path to a real musical career was coupled with episodes of serious psychosis which lead him back to hospitalization. He was vexed his entire life with religious guilt and an infatuation with a girl he met in college. The themes of his songs and artwork are based largely on these two things. He still performs music and displays his art today (or at least at the point this movie was made in 2005), but is limited by his mental handicap and will likely always be considered an underground musician and artist.

While watching the movie, I found it hard to make a connection with him. One reason is that there are a couple people in my life inflicted with severe mental illnesses, friends that I've talked about on this blog. When you're around these people, you wish you could help them, you try, you fail repeatedly, and at some point you just have to turn them off and try to let qualified people help them. You are left with a bucket of guilt t0o heavy to lift. I saw my friends in Daniel and instantly found myself disconnecting from him.

Another reason I had trouble connecting is that, I don't fully get music like his. Some people call it genius, but it's the same people that call Bob Dylan a genius. As a musician it's hard to appreciate those types. Though, it's easy to see that his potential for growth as a musician was restricted by his mental condition and that there was real art there trying to get out, mixed with incoherent psychobabble it would all shoot out in spurts too fast to control and often difficult to separate.

I loved the movie, but didn't get the music. That is until the credits rolled and they played his song "Some Things Last A Long Time" and then I kind of got it.
posted by othur-me @ 1:25 AM  
9 Comments:
  • At 12:56 PM, Blogger Liz said…

    You make a good point when you disclose Daniel's severe drive to BE famous. When you think about it a lot of famous people are not extraordinally talented, they just care more than the rest of us. The same is true for doctors and lawyers. They're no smarter than we are, they're simply willing to do the time in school.

    I try to point that out to them every chance I get.

     
  • At 9:00 PM, Blogger Killer said…

    I have always had the same issue with musical, comedic, or writing "genius". People say they are great and so everyone else says they are great to not seem like idiots.
    Another case in point, the movie, "Dig". It is about the Dandy Warhols and Brian's Jonestown Massacre. The lead for BJM is considered to be a genius, but also with mental issues holding him back. I thought he was just an idiot.

     
  • At 10:26 PM, Blogger othur-me said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

     
  • At 10:28 PM, Blogger othur-me said…

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

     
  • At 10:29 PM, Blogger othur-me said…

    Liz - scary, huh?

    Killer - making the comparison between this movie and Dig would not be far off. Similary I liked the movie Dig, but not the music so much. I think the Dandy Warhols were way more talented than BJM and I like that the DW chick took off her shirt a lot at gigs.

     
  • At 9:55 AM, Blogger Margaret said…

    I loved Violent Femmes!

     
  • At 11:22 AM, Blogger fringes said…

    Great post. Thanks for sharing it.

     
  • At 3:42 PM, Blogger othur-me said…

    Margaret - me too. I wanted to use Add It Up as my song reference, but I thought absolutely no one would understand, even people who like the Violent Femmes. I saw them live a few years ago in Seattle. They were looking pretty old.

    Fringes - thanks and you're welcome.

     
  • At 1:16 PM, Blogger LC said…

    I saw my friends in Daniel and instantly found myself disconnecting from him.

    This is what got to me. It happens to me, quite more often nowadays, when I see this, and because like you said, the guilt weight these people leave on you, is too much, you just become...inmune to them.

    I don't think I have ever been able to explain it the way you just did.

     
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