This week: Why I Want to Write a Book about Daniel Johnston
I’m writing a book on Daniel Johnston.
I’m a little worried. Some of the initial response has been–“Daniel Johnston? Really?”– like there should be something odd about wanting to spend 70,000 words discussing the make-up and stories behind one of the most talented, and fascinating, blues singers of our time. A few have mused aloud that they actually thought he was dead (presumably a reaction to the fact folk took a couple of decades to discover his music–a fact acknowledged by Daniel himself with both the cover and title of Discovered Covered: The Late Great Daniel Johnston). And several commentators (mostly the sort who think that because they’re allowed to detail their latest belch on message boards it makes them a valid voice) have even stated their view that Daniel should be, um, ‘left alone’–presumably because that it’s in some way exploitative for folk to listen to his deeply personal, often troubling music.
The subtext to the latter argument almost seems to imply that folk who have unusual difficulty adjusting to the outside world are unable to create great art–a pretty specious argument when one considers the evidence to the contrary. Or perhaps we should be feeling guilty somehow for appreciating the work of Van Gogh, Kurt Cobain, Sylvia Plath et al?
Then there are the friends who’ve been put off by Daniel himself–who feel that he manipulates those around him–or those worried by the fact his family come from solid Christian stock. A few insiders have already hinted at a much darker story waiting to be told, that there is much material left untouched on the cutting room floor of Jeff Feuerzeig’s fine documentary The Devil And Daniel Johnston.
Bugger all that. Daniel’s an incredible songwriter, a fine naïve artist (albeit one that paints in felt-tip and sticky-tapes his work to gallery walls), an inspired pianist and incredibly evocative singer. The latter fact is borne out when you consider the amount of covers of Daniel Johnston songs by established musicians, very few of which stand up to the original recordings.
And, deliberately or not, he’s quite the inspiration to a generation of DIY-heads with his bare home recordings and in-yr-face sales techniques. Why the hell wouldn’t I want to write a book on Daniel Johnston? He’s way more worthy of the biographical treatment than 99 percent of his contemporaries.