August 18, 2009

you spent the year
in a drunken frenzy
lied to your friends
adopted false ideas

James Ensor, Masks Mocking Death, 1888

* Various musicians on Daniel Johnson, who is now on tour (excerpt, the article is a few years old):

Mark Linkous, Sparklehorse

Daniel Johnston has written some of the saddest and funniest songs I've ever heard. Next to Daniel, when I pick up a guitar or try to sing, I can't help feeling pretentious or corrupted. He's got the enthusiasm of a 12-year-old and the melodic gifts of Buddy Holly or the Beatles.

For these songs to come out of his body and be documented on tape is a miracle. Daniel suffers from bipolar disorder, he can swing from manic depression to violence. Thankfully, his medication is more together now and the person that Daniel is beneath his illness shines through in his music. He is 43 and lives with his parents, who are getting old. So some of us got together to make an album covering his songs to raise money for his care.

His insights are astounding and his songs are so universal they could be sung in subways or stadiums. I first got his homemade cassette album, Hi, How Are You? which Kurt Cobain famously wore the T-shirt for. I've since met other people who've got that album and they're all different. Daniel didn't realise you could duplicate, so every take he recorded would be an original master.

Wayne Coyne, Flaming Lips

The pity of the Daniel Johnston story is the purity of expression that comes out of someone who is occasionally "demented". But the simplicity of the lyrics comes from true inner anguish. Madness shouldn't be thought of as people in mental hospitals peeing on themselves. It can happen to anybody. Who's to say at what level all of us don't have some inner struggle? It 's easy to feel uncomfortable about covering his songs and it's difficult to outdo that kind of exorcism. But they lend themselves to reinterpretation because they are the real deal. We did the track Go with Sparklehorse; it's a great, optimistic song. There's a line, "If you think you've found something, don't let it go", delivered with a tinge of regret that he found something and didn't cherish it enough. It's incredibly moving.

Jason Pierce, Spiritualized

The most important thing in music is absolute honesty. People like Daniel and Roky Erikson - 'cos they're slightly damaged - have this great ability to touch your heart because they don't know where to stop.

When a child hits a piano he makes untainted music, and that's there in Daniel. He goes between extremes of naivety and darkness. The song I can never get out of my head is Funeral Home, with the line "Got me a car, all shiny and black/Going to the funeral, I ain't never coming back." There's a recording where he gets the audience to sing along like a church gathering.

Jad Fair, musician/friend

Daniel puts words together in a way that is very heartfelt and original. I first heard him in 1985 when he was making very raw tapes that caused a buzz in Texas where he lives. He puts so much emotion into what he does. He can play for 10 minutes or two hours and I've seen him break down crying but immediately after the performance break out in a laugh. I got together with Teenage Fanclub and we covered My Life is Starting Over Again, one of his most "up" songs, about what would happen if he became a famous rock star. He's aware of the irony and there's a wonderfully dry line: "I guess it's better than suicide." I've known him do a concert and when people scream for more he'll flee out of a back window.

* "I am a dreamer of words, of written words. I think I am reading; a word stops me. I leave the page. The syllables of the word begin to move around. Stressed accents begin to invert. The word abandons its meaning like an overload which is too heavy and prevents dreaming. Then words take on other meanings as if they had the right to be young. And the words wander away, looking in the nooks and crannies of vocabulary for new company, bad company." - Gaston Bachelard


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