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Daniel Johnston - The Story of an Artist

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Artist: Daniel Johnston

Album: The Story of an Artist

Label: Munster

Review date: Aug. 4, 2010

During a public interview at last year’s South By Southwest festival, Daniel Johnston said that the setting made him feel “like a monkey in a zoo.” He’s been saying that for 30 years, but in 2010, he basically is one. At this point, what could Johnston do to surprise? Thanks to his songs and drawings, canny marketing, celebrity endorsements and a mental disorder, Johnston and those around him have built a myth that nearly suffocates the man. This isn’t an evil, per se — the world is a better place with more Daniel Johnston fans. But as the beats of Johnston’s life are told and told again, it becomes harder to form the deeply personal attachment on which his work thrives. It’s a lot easier to identify with a depressed kid at a piano than a living legend.

While The Devil and Daniel Johnston had some amazing footage and worked well as an overview of Johnston’s life, its brisk pace forced it to gloss over the songs. It’s ultimately more Johnston myth-building. As a point of comparison, I just watched a new, absurdly lengthy documentary on the Nightmare on Elm Street series. It’s four hours long, which actually works in its favor: the more time the film spent interviewing the cast and crew of each forgettable sequel, the more I appreciated the goofy mix of business and affection behind those films. If Freddy Krueger gets four hours, surely Johnston’s 1980s work deserves more than one.

A six-disc box set of early works entitled The Story of an Artist, complete with 64-page booklet and Johnston poster, might seem like another monument to Johnston “The Genius,” and it is. The title beats you over the head, and the booklet doesn’t do much that the movie didn’t already do. However, a curious thing happens when you sit down and listen. Though everything here has been previously released, listening to so much unfamiliar material in one place sort of forces you to actually pay attention, and it ends up doing what The Devil and Daniel Johnston didn’t do and what “Speeding Motorcycle” can’t do: it makes Johnston new again.

Songs like “Speeding Motorcycle” and “True Love Will Find You In The End” are rightly canonized, but how many times has “Void (Space For the Memories)” from The Lost Recordings I come up in the Johnston conversation? Like songs you’ve heard before, it’s just Johnston and his piano, poorly recorded on cheap tape, singing about his loneliness, and it’s astounding:

    Space for the memories
    Room for the pain
    Space for the memories
    Five miles from outer space

    Look up at the night sky
    The black and endless void you see
    Is small when compared to
    The emptiness you left inside of me

Forget about Laurie, the bipolar disorder, the 1985 MTV appearance, the Jad Fair collaborations, the Kurt Cobain t-shirt, the art world interest. This is simply a kid singing about how the entirety of everything known is smaller than his hurt. The greatness is that Johnston knows this posture is ridiculous, continually points it out, yet still hints that it’s the truth. Another “lost recording” called “There Ain’t Much You Can Do” sums this up nicely. In 41 seconds and one verse, Johnston goes from painfully earnest to slyly ironic, then ends on a crudely hilarious note. He sings, “There ain’t much you can do / To stop me from feeling blue / You might try / God bless you / God bless youuuuuuuu / You might try,” then belches. End of track.

The Story of an Artist collects six albums recorded between 1980 and 1983, right before Johnston started recording his most well-known songs. Of course, not every track is gold. Far from it. But the gems are so good, and there are so many of them, that it doesn’t really matter. All of Johnston’s themes (death, Laurie, God and the Devil, good and evil, etc.) are present, and he addresses them as powerfully as he ever did. Just one example, from “Don’t Be Scared,” on death: “There’s a calm that’s real somewhere / There’s a jungle stream, and a band that’s playing / There’s a tune worth whistling to / Don’t be scared.” Though this isn’t the material for which Johnston will be most remembered, it’s undeniably from the same mind and heart.

By Brad LaBonte

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