I wish I were a tortured soul. I want to have
inner demons that confuse me, make me unsure and unpredictable,
and cause others to see my rantings as that of some hidden genius
that even I didn't know existed. For one thing, the chicks dig
it. For another, it has the ability to turn an otherwise nondescript
talent into a superstar. The status of your art is enhanced. As
badly as I have wanted it, though, the tortured thing was never
to be for me. I had too much confidence and was too self-aware.
I've never for a moment doubted my abilities, and I have always
been lucidly focused on one thing: being a massive disappointment.
turns out that being a huge failure does not impress the ladies.
It doesn't matter how many schools you flunk out of, or why you
don't have a driver's license or that you don't have a steady
job because you drink too much. I have yet to meet a lady who
gets turned on when I ask her for five bucks. And only one girl
ever got aroused when she found me puking in her planters. And,
Jesus Christ, was she nuts.
a tortured souls is easy to fake, and a million jerks act like
they have one. They mope along as though life's unfair and that
they're underappreciated. That's easier to do that than face the
reality of being dull and stupid, or that their life is shitty
by their own doing. That's why I envy people with mental illnesses
and debilitating diseases. They have a built in excuse for every
failure. Like Lou Gehrig said, they're the luckiest people on
the face of the earth.
Johnston, a lonely, nutjob singer-songwriter who made a splash
on the college radio scene in the 80s is a lucky son of a bitch.
Imagine being so manic-depressive that nobody can really blame
you for anything. Sure, you piss people off, break hearts, disappear
for days at a time, and occasionally crack open a skull with a
pipe. But, come on, how long can people stay mad at you if you
have medical documentation showing you can't help yourself? It's
every man's second favorite fantasy, man. The first, being, of
course, the Double Dip.
Johnston wrote and sang loopy, innocent songs full of pain and
loss in a high-pitched atonal voice. He played a dumpy old organ,
or an out-of-tune piano or guitar, and recorded on scratchy monophonic
tape players in a bedroom, basement or garage. He didn't know
how the music business worked and believed that if he just kept
recording and passing out homemade tapes he would eventually become
was right. He showed up in the right places at the right times
and his music was eventually discovered by indie scenesters, who
embraced him half because they thought he was a Chauncy-Gardiner-like
genius, and half because they thought it was cool to be into the
ultimate outsider. Kurt Cobain wore his T-shirt, MTV embraced
him as an oddity and the college kids played him whether they
understood him or not.
he got a movie made about how brilliant he is, and how he was
sabotaged by his mental illness, not by the wavering quality of
what he did. Hell, nobody ever made a movie about a man sabotaged
by his own mediocrity, but if anyone wants to, give me a call.
I have a hell of an average story to tell. The Devil and Daniel
Johnston is a documentary about the singer that follows him
from his teen years, through his time of underground fame and
on to his current fat, confused middle age. It includes his Christian
upbringing and how he was different from the rest of his conservative,
industrious family. It covers his years in Austin when, on the
edge of superstardom he succumbed to manic-depression and was
convinced there were devils everywhere, including in his manager
and the major label that wanted to sign him to a lucrative contract.
It talks about the time he was in his father's plane and took
the controls in an attempt to crash and kill them both. And, finally,
it ends with him now, in a fragile mental state, still creating,
but also living in his elderly and loving parent's home, under
their supervision as a permanent child.
his life, Johnston was driven to create and, apparently, record.
There are reams of home movies, video tapes, and audio tapes of
him acting and revealing his thoughts and arguments. Some are
barely audible, some are old Super 8 film that is badly deteriorated.
Worse, some of it repeats points the movie has already made, or
makes no point at all.
believe the purpose of The Devil and Daniel Johnston is
to paint a portrait of tortured genius and it captures the tortured
part fine. But it starts out with the assumption that the audience
already believes Johnston is a musical savant and gives little
reason for doubters to agree. There are snippets of his music;
some is corny, some is brilliant. There isn't enough of it, though.
I've listened to his music and even have some, but I never thought
ofhim as a coulda-been Bob Dylan or Lou Reed so much as he seems
a sweet oddity. Songs like "Walking the Cow" and "Rocketship"
are naive and touching, but also simple and awkward. The people
who raved about him to mewere mostly phonies who had to mention
very early in a conversation that he was nuts, as though that
made the art better, or at least their appreciation of it more
important. Like with Wesely Willis, a fog of self-satisfaction
hangs over the music by people who are proud of themselves for
listening to a crazy person. It's hard to cut thruogh to find
out who really loves it and who just says he does.
would have preferred more depth into Johnston's process and his
music, and less of an attempt at validation from indie scene talking
heads declaring their love for him. I don't trust them because
I think they are in the fog. Rather than them make up my mind,
I'd rather do it myself.
If Johnston is a misunderstood genius, the movie doesn't convince
me. Instead, it shows that he's a cartoonist not quite as weird
as Henry Darger, but also obsessed with a narrow range of confused
and simple imagery that would look cool on a Pee-chee. There is
almost no focus on the music he makes now or what he personally
believes in. Even though he is alive, he says less than probably
any of the people trying to speak for him in the movie.
result is muddled. The Devil and Daniel Johnston will appeal
to those already convinced of his genius, and it won't change
the hearts or minds of anyone else. The guy's a lucky bastard,
though, getting that free ride at his parents' sweet pad. Three
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