Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Songs of Pain

My day job's webmaster sweetly mocked my iPod a few weeks ago.

"You know they are in color now. This is an antique." He said it with a smile, not maliciously, and anyway, it's true.

I weakly told him he should have seen my old iPod. 5 GB and made for Mac only, in January of 2002.

I stayed home from the day job today, to color some comic books for my other job (but not my book-writing job—I have too many jobs). So I plugged in my antique and put on Calexico, a kind of "spaghetti western music," as Sean described it when he first put one of their songs on a compilation CD he sent from Sydney.

It rolled on through the other C artists and into D. Daniel Johnston started his caterwauling.

I was floored the first time I heard Daniel Johnston's homemade cassettes in 1986. A friend of mine was studying in Austin, and I'd gone down there to do an internship at the Austin Chronicle. Or I went down there on a whim and ended up at the Chronicle, more accurately. My friend played me a few songs and I went over to Record Exchange (or was it Sound Exchange then? I forget) and bought Yip/Jump Music and Hi, How Are You.

Daniel noticed me at McDonald's a few days after that—and I sure noticed him as all I knew was that a rather strange man kept staring at me and smiling broadly, like he was waiting to talk to me. I got the hell out of there.

That same night, the publisher and editor of the Chronicle were getting into my car when the publisher said "Hey, there's Daniel. Want a ride, Daniel?"

Sure enough, it was the same man from McDonald's. When I got out of my VW Rabbit to let him into the back seat, he was floored.

"You're the girl who was in McDonald's today."

"Yes, get in."

He did, but was totally silent as we drove him down the Drag and left him but Dobie Mall. He lived behind it in a single room with shared bath.

After that, Daniel showed up every day at my office.

Long story short: I went back to my college in Ohio to play his music on my middle of the night radio show. It was so raw and painful to listen to, but so melodic and masterful. This was a man who studied the Beatles relentlessly and never let you forget it.

As the years went by, he went off the deep end. He was brought home to live with his parents in West Virginia, a few hours from where I lived in a little town called Yellow Springs. I'd go see him. I always took a school video camera with me, and I always kept it on. When the camera was on, he was too busy performing to hit on me. And Daniel liked to hit on girls.

Eventually, the family moved to Texas. I saw him a few more times and even took him up to Marvel Comics once when he was playing the Knitting Factory in New York, which made him really happy as the only thing he likes more than the Beatles is Jack Kirby. Or maybe I have that backwards. He had gained a lot of weight and wore a dirty shirt that day, but my co-workers didn't seem to mind.

I don't see Daniel a lot anymore. It's a tough situation. I can never make sense of where the exploitation ends and the support begins. Was I supporting a flawed genius? Was I enabling a crazy man to behave even more crazier? I never made sense of the situation morally and it made me uncomfortable to think I was part of the problem. I never made the video I always said I'd make.

But someone else did make an entire movie of it, and about three minutes of my footage is in the movie. The Devil and Daniel Johnston has not been released yet, but it's in the works.

It's been years since I could listen to Daniel's music aside from the live shows. It's too painful, too raw, after all the madness that came after. It's amazing, though, although it's not for everyone. My friend Yancey thinks I'm crazy for liking it, and Turbo the Aussie found it very questionable. Herr Marlboro was delighted to support me by attending the NY premiere at MOMA with me, but he forced me to go home and listen to some "real" music after that, some Bavarian folksy thing that made me laugh out loud. My pal Jonathan Babc0ck, who lives for live music, never lets me go to a Daniel event alone, to the point where Daniel always sneers and asks if I could leave my "boyfriend" at home next time.

Tonight, when the iPod rolled right through to D, I at first went to hit the skip button. But I got distracted, and the entire Songs of Pain played through, and then it went on to Yip/Jump Music and Hi, How Are You.

By the time it hit Worried Shoes, I remembered. Yeah, this stuff is amazing. And how 'bout that artwork? Captain America never had it so good when he worked with the Avengers. Daniel gives him an armed force of ducks.


scarfalonius said...

Are those albums on CD? Recently I discovered my old Yip/Jump cassette covered in mold and cobwebs, and it left me with pangs.

In the midwest, the Taliban have thoroughly gerrymandered the place. If you wait a couple of years, you'll probably have more rights in Kuwait.

Chip said...

I hear Sound Exchange is now a chain restaurant.....I'll never get Daniel's drawing's from the side of that building out of my head...

Did you know Kim worked at Sound Exhchange in '87-'88?


Fat Free Milk said...

Just jumped over here from Warren Ellis' site and damn, it's amazing how much I just learned about a guy that I never knew about. I'll be checking him out.