Friday, February 08, 2008

The Exploitation of the Ghost of Daniel Johnston

Saturday night, I found myself in Omaha, Nebraska to see Daniel Johnston. Yes, that Daniel Johnston. The show was at Saddle Creek's venue, Slowdown, within their hipster complex of shops and entertainment arenas near downtown Omaha.After a couple of forgettable openers, Johnston came out to play a few tunes on guitar. The sound almost didn't cooperate, but he eventually began playing. His voice was hoarse and the guitar playing was awful, but the songs were true. A session player joined Mr. Johnston on stage to accompany him on several older tunes.

Johnston took a break before returning with a full band to flesh out his bedroom, tape-recorded journal entries. He struggled to holler his once-personal songs as the band almost rocked like one of those Vegas reviews. This is when surrealism set in.

I began to think back to the documentary about Johnston's exploits that I had seen two years ago at True/False. The Devil and Daniel Johnston told the story of how Johnston craved fame and attention as he created deeply personal art in the form of songs, film, and drawings. All this occurred before, during, and after Johnston's many manic episodes.

One of the most important themes of the film, and Johnston's life was the idea of exploitation. Amidst mental breakdowns and hospital stays, Johnston's music was exploited to sell records (or in this case, cassette tapes) and concert tickets. Anyone from his manager to pseudo-girlfriends used this man's highly-inventive songs for their own gain.

Later, the same would occur with Daniel Johnston's bizarre drawings. He was hailed in the New York Times as the next big thing in "outsider art". His Crayola drawings of eyeballs and superheroes were fetching four and five figures apiece primarily because the man was looked at as a sort of idiot savant.

The film that depicts this artist's life even stinks of exploitation. Somehow the filmmakers were able to piece a narrative from Johnston's own home movies into a story of his lifelong mistreatment. The filmmakers used this story to further their own careers despite their original intent of exposing the world to true genius.

Even Johnston has exploited his own mental illness for his own fame. He found his way onto MTV in order to tell the viewing audience that he had written his album in the midst of a mental breakdown. His heartbreak and mental struggles have turned out to be his most profitable skills.

This brought me back to last night's performance. The show was highly orchestrated to include Johnston's most beloved songs with a Vegas-like showmanship never seen in the underground from which he rose. It was uncomfortable to watch kids gyrate to "Grievances", kids who weren't born by the time he first entered a mental hospital or dropped acid. They probably have no idea what a cassette tape is.

I wanted to know who orchestrated this tour. Who was exploiting Daniel Johnston now? Then I realized it was me.

Well, it wasn't just me, but I was one of many. The caricature or ghost of what was once Daniel Johnston was in Omaha to provide a place for hipsters to be seen. He provided a quirky artist for all of us to claim as our own. He is the topic of this blog post. Now we've all exploited this mess of a man.
The show was memorable but strange. Memorable in that who knows how many more times anyone will be able to see Daniel Johnston live? He is a living legend, the Bob Dylan of the indie world.

The show was strange in its practice and celebration of the exploitation of what Daniel Johnston is and was. Skinny kids who don't know what the man has been through or aging hipsters hanging on to their glory days both clang to something not even the performer was in touch with anymore. Daniel Johnston was a ghost of himself, grayed and misshapen.

Much like his fading voice, Daniel Johnston was a unique piece of American musical lore. The sad part is that he faded, broken and hoarse.


Anonymous said...

Alright, I know the lore of Daniel Johnston, but what about Wesley Wilis? Have all of us except the few in N. California forgotten about his genius? I mean, he was a genius in his own right? Right?

JLWingard (friend of R's)

comoprozac said...

Kurt Cobain never wore a Wesley Willis t-shirt. I'm not saying that refutes his genius, but it does explain why people talk about or still pay money to see DJ...that and the fact that Willis is no longer with us.

Anonymous said...

Wow, I think you use the word hipster more than misery now. Maybe you should rename your blog "Living in Hipstery". neener, neener! Happy Birthday Big Brother!

ATR said...

I think I've already commented on this. However, there is always more to say: I was thinking, about the exploitation aspect, that Johnston is a grown man, not a child. He is aware of his own place in lore and life, and, I would imagine, he's capable of making his own decisions. I don't think he is being exploited (unless by himself (possible?); in which case, the exploited is we). After all, he does live in a house NEXT DOOR to his parents, now.

ATR said...

Oh, and, Dude: how'd you post on a Saturday show on the Friday before?

Anonymous said...

Why so cynical? I am really sad that you came all the way to omaha and that was your impression. From my vantage point (playing guitar in the "Vegas act") everyone there was was having fun celebrating Daniel's music. If you had a chance to spend time with him like we did, you would realize that although he has an illness which requires medication, he is in no way a "mess of a man." Quite the contrary, he was very joyful, friendly, lucid and appreciative. And as far as being exploited, I'm not sure how you can make that claim, when he is compensated quite well for his shows and lives off this income. I can also attest to the fact that nothing was so "orchestrated" as you seem to think. We're were asked to to back him up by our friends who promoted the show who knew were were huge fans. We picked the songs and didn't even practice with him once before we took the stage. It was a true honor to be able to share the stage with him. It is a shame that you were not able to have a better time. I know we did, the crowd did and so did Daniel.

comoprozac said...

Whoa. You all have been busy.

Thanks, Kate.

ATR-You bring up a good point. He is an adult. However, I do think I addressed his part in the so-called "exploitation". I kind of wish we had visited this topic some more while in NE. I think I started a post on the upcoming weekend but never finished it. Then I wrote this post sort of over that post. It's sloppy, I know.

Mike-You must be the first performer to ever respond on this blog. I don't want to be misunderstood. I love Johnston's music and art. Also, I'm sure you are more aware of his current state than I am, but this post just expresses my perspective on the show. If that perspective is cycinal, then so be it.

I have been piecing this argument together ever since I saw the film at T/F. There is actually a lot of literature on the topic (not specific to DJ) in the area of disability studies. Whether you agree or not, it is a valid critique.

Anonymous said...

Thank God for you Mike we have the true authority on all things Daniel Johnston to post on this blog. I can imagine you became life-long buddies with Daniel just because you were in his backing band. How long were you on your MacBook googling Daniel Johnston + Omaha to see if anyone had written about your crappy band? Luckily I wasn't there and I am cynical.

Anonymous said...

I just interviewed Daniel for my site last Thursday. I haven't posted the transcript yet but it should be up soon.. Oh, and I've bumped Wesley in the head too and his new Documentary has been shown at the Noise Pop festival and will be appearing in Canadas at Hot Docs, as well.

Exploitation is tricky. If you want to know who set up the tour, his brother did. Daniel's loot is watched over by his family. His dad is the Manager, his brother is the Road Manager, and his sister deals with his art. The money was used to pay for a house to be built next to his dad's in Texas and for groceries, etc.

Daniel is medicated, sure but he's a human. It was a difficult interview to do because I wanted to talk about music, production, etc. The fact is, it didn't go as smoothly as I hoped and eventually we had to talk about his mental issues. It was the elephant in the room. If you think that his voice was every perfect or on key then you don't know Daniel. His songs are still amazing, it's just too bad that he can't play his instruments all by himself anymore but he is still creating valid material all of the time.

I've watched my interview, which was cut short, over and over. I don't want him to look foolish in it. I've thought about that. I had to cut it short and, when I left, I had more questions than ever. I know that if I lived in his town I would try to visit him as much as possible. What I do know is that he deserves to make some money off of his music and art, and I don't think that makes it any less authentic

comoprozac said...

Thanks Dead C for your comments. They were much more balanced and thoughtful than that Mike Friedman.

You make good points and I appreciate the insider's viewpoint.

However, I have to make a few points of my own. First, I never thought that DJ was a gifted singer. His voice was terribly strained that night as he struggled to holler over the band. It was so bad that he didn't come back out for the encore.

Secondly, this idea of exploitation is way more complex than what is being discussed in this forum. It's not as easy as he's exploiting DJ, and that's bad.

I admit my own part in the exploitation. Hell, this blog has benefited greatly from this post. The point is that it was difficult to there, to be a part of it all.

Ever since I saw the doc, I have felt DJ has been part of this exploitation as well. I don't think this jeopardizes the authenticity of his work or his right to make a living. It just leaves me with an uneasy feeling that I think is a legitimate topic of discussion.

Again, thanks DC for comments. BTW, what's your site?

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that my second comment didn't post last night.

My site is called and it's only on wordpress right now but should hopefully be transferred to a new server in the next week or so.

What didn't make into the comment section, however, is the part where I actually commend you on your concern. Although I don't necessarily think that Johnston is being exploited to a damaging degree, I do believe that it is an issue that should, at least, be considered. I believe that the people around him use the compassion and care that is necessary to use with him to avoid certain pitfalls, but that, if they did not, it could definitely go in a completely different direction. The concern and awareness that you are trying to bring to his situation, is the same concern that the people around them are using to try and steer his situation in the right direction.

At points in talking to him, I felt like I was putting him through hell so I finally ended the conversation, but at other points, I felt like I was really giving him an opportunity to speak with someone as he was laughing and getting energized and enthused (not manic). It changes so quickly though.

I've read where he said that he loved the documentary and, in other interviews, where he said that he did not. He told me that he thought that it made him look like an "idiot".

I spoke with real fans. People who were there, most likely, migrated towards me because they noticed that I had just interviewed him, and a couple of people that it turned out that i went to highschool with. They had genuine concern for Daniel as well as admiration and respect. That's why I started the night with a different perspective than you may have had, but i cannot disagree with you because even here, in Seattle, I found myself standing next to some cheese-dick hipsters and even some Abercrombie wearing motherfuckers doused in cologne who talked over the show, and I wanted to knock them in the throat.

comoprozac said...

Thanks again, DC. I will check out your site. I really appreciate the insight. You make great points. this conversation just gets richer and richer. I'll see you around the blogospere.

Yeah, I hate mooks at indie shows. I might be in Seattle next month.

Thumb said...

im a huge daniel johnston fan. Its great to see him getting more and more recognition. he's ten times what willis was imo.