I intend to write a post about traveling to Vancouver and going to the Winter Olympics, but I just watched all but the first ten minutes of The Devil and Daniel Johnston and I want to write about that first.
For it to be cool, you would have had to have liked Daniel Johnston in the late 80's and early 90's. The frog mural on Sound Exchange was already there by the time I moved to Austin in January 1994. I couldn't tell you the first time I saw it, but I saw it a lot and I remember thinking, "That's simple and kind of shitty." Little did I know that it was done by an artist that many people consider to be a genius. I knew Daniel Johnston was a musician, but I had never heard any of his music as far as I knew. (Turns out that I probably had heard some of his music for the first time when I watched the movie "Kids" but I had no idea at the time.) I remember hearing about some benefit to raise money for Daniel Johnston's health care needs. Something about mental illness, as I recall, but I could be remembering something for Roky Erickson.
Anyway, so I watched the documentary tonight that won an award at Sundance. The documentary was fascinating, but it was also very frustrating and confusing. Much of the Daniel Johnston music that they played in the movie was of low production quality and to my ear, sucked. I'm listening to this and watching the story play out of this guy, who started out as basically this delusional kid who thought he was a musician, so he was. For some reason that totally escapes me, people who ought to know musical genius caught on to this kid and started treating him like this undiscovered musical genius. I just didn't see it at all. Later in the documentary I heard snippets of lyrics that I thought were pretty good and even some of the music sounded good to me, but musical genius? That was the frustrating part. I felt the same frustration when listening to Jandek.
So here's what happens: a group of people who devote a good bit of their lives listening to music and developing an ear for what's really good find the ultimate gem - someone who is totally off the radar, totally undiscovered and noncommercial who is doing something totally different. Something totally unheard of before. Something that could possible defy any genre. Sometimes I think that's what these people are - musical wildcatters who prowl the globe looking for the big find. When they find it, the only status symbol is how close to first you were to finding it. And because this group of people think this musician is cool, the musician becomes cool. Right there you've got this chicken and egg conundrum. I'm always on the outside looking in when it comes to art. I'd never recognize that kind of genius in any artistic medium. I'm just not tuned into it. I react to it the same way I reacted to the frog mural. Then I find out later that this was a work of genius. Or worse, I get some music snob telling me how great this shit is and if I don't get it I get this look of pity or disdain or dismissal. But it's really not about whether or not I'm cool. I'm not. I just want to get it. And I don't. I suppose part of this could degenerate into the definition of cool. I could probably even relate some of Malcolm Gladwell's Tipping Point to explain it if I wanted to.
Maybe the whole discussion is about art and what is art and what makes art good. After digesting the documentary for a while and seeing how this guy conducted himself you get to understand a little bit about how he, or others like him, generate their art. To me, it looks like guys like Johnston and Jandek just make shit up. There is no polish, no craft. It's just whatever comes out right then and that's it. Like if I just pulled out a piece of paper and started scribbling on it and said this is my art and what I do. I've considered that maybe the art they are producing in a single moment is actually the product of thousands of hours of practice and honing that have come before and that it's not necessary to hone and craft an individual piece. But those individual pieces still seem slapshod to me.
I've also considered that maybe really good art, or at least art like this, is really just the perfect expression of an individual without any restraints or outside influences. I watched another documentary about the Flaming Lips not long ago and they seemed that way - totally uninhibited and uninfluenced. They just did whatever the fuck they wanted to do. Whenever I've sat down to create a piece of art I'm thinking about the way it will be perceived by others and that influences what I turn out. Daniel Johnston and the Flaming Lips and Jackson Pollock weren't writing songs or painting and thinking, "Are people going to like this?" That was totally beside the point. People responding to or liking the work was totally incidental to the artist, it appeared to me.
So the documentary showed that Daniel Johnston gained a following in Austin and around the world. People highly anticipated his few shows and I'm sure it was a hard ticket. It's been suggested that the entertainment value there was not the music, but the eccentricities and the freakshow factor of "What is this dude going to do next?" Knowing that the guy suffered from pretty severe mental illness, I can't help but thinking that's more than a little sick. On some level and for some people, they just want to be entertained without any regard for the reality of what they are seeing. No one (except my brother) is watching the donkey show and considering the plight of this poor Mexican woman and her humanity (or the donkey and it's feelings). They are just there to see the spectacle of a woman putting a donkey dong inside of herself. There's a whole other discussion about the relationship between entertainment and art. I mean seriously, how did the art of acting or singing or playing of an instrument get reduced to only entertainment value? Actually, I can answer that - some things transcend their money value.
Anyway, I guess what I'd really like is just an explanation of why Daniel Johnston is a genius. Something other than, "Because I said so," which is kind of what it feels like to me now.
Tom? Ted? Any of you guys still out there who can help me out?