Saturday, 11 April 2009

Another beautiful day in Germany's capital. Woken early by strange men revving a car in the back courtyard. What goes on in that place? There is a service lift on the outside of the building, a wire-framed column reaching to the top floor that moves up and down all day transporting nobody to ceiling height blue doors surrounded by hazard tape. I have never seen anyone in it and yet the lift continues moving, up and down.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston – I watched this film two nights ago and have not been able to let it go. Most people I know have been aware of Daniel Johnston and his work for years but – even though I had seen an exhibition of his drawings – his music had somehow eluded me. His songs are honest, low-fidelity interpretations of musical movements that had gone before, with Dylan and The Beatles unavoidable touchstones, but with an earnest set of lyrics and delivery that transcends mere influence. His drawings are felt-tip cartoons mainly, placing childish motifs alongside comic-book heroes and fantastical characters borne of his imagination, yet undeniably singular and alive.

Neither his music nor his visual art hold any real, real interest for me – this is only, however, a matter of taste. He is proficient and honest, his work is witty and heartfelt, his entire product is without doubt pure expression. So forgetting personal preference, what is it that has struck me about the man?

Most know his biography as a man who struggles with bi-polar syndrome, a man spent most of his life living with parents or in a mental institution. This, as context, as a reason to like him, makes me slightly uncomfortable. There is real evidence of a shallow pity in many of the mainstream press reviews of his considerable output. Many mention his mortality, his financial situation, the need for him to live independently, with record sales implied as a path to this. There's a certain voyeurism here, a non-committal mental tourism in which troubled young record buyers can take a sanitised, vicarious trip into cognitive and emotional instability. But that is what rock and roll is all about, no? A carnival for the emotions, a reversal of order that reinforces the hierarchy of the everyday.

The documentary about Daniel Johnston reveals something crucial, something that explains his appeal in a truer sense. The footage of his early years, his fascinations with musical forms, an almost relentless output of drawings, the sense within himself of stardom, of having something to tell, his dramatic graphs of confidence – all this presents a unity, an artistic unity that I find completely compelling. This is not about genius, nor images of a savant, but unity.

Happiness, Cara tells me, is doing, saying and thinking the same thing. Johnston is a prime example of this, and so beyond the Hollywood plans for his life, the Converse range of Daniel Johnston footwear and the awkward, sympathetic record reviews is a life with a singular, encompassing mode of expression that far exceeds the focus and output of many artists.

The slogan by which Johnston is most well known provides a perfect microcosm of his worth. His 1983 album title, now legendary and replicated on t-shirts, prints and building murals is HI, HOW ARE YOU. The lack of question mark says it all; Johnston's life is a rhetorical inquiry, a study that needs no answer because it already contains everything it needs, both evidence and conclusion. There's a compassion there, a genuine need to reach out to people, but a saddening isolation – it's a title that doesn't allow a reply, it is a question that knows not how to ask itself. So, we as the questioned, simply receive a one-way communication.

The natural response here is one of imagination then, to try and fill his words and works with symbolism, to develop a fanaticism and love for everything he stands for, to try and connect to his vision and expression through an almost obsessive listening, collecting, remembering. Audiences and fans are engaging in an act of rare reciprocity, a mass social empathy with a communal utterance of – all together now – don't be scared.

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