Preface for
The Daniel Johnston Handbook

published by
Soft Skull Press

 

 

 

Preface:

Today, the 4th of July, 1999, is the 8th consecutive day of a sweltering 95+ degree NYC heatwave. The entire city stinks like a collosal, swollen bum. Below my 2nd floor window, in glorious colour and riveting, Kurosawian slow-motion, people appear to be melting. Further uptown, Luscious Jackson and Jon Spenser, on a Central Park double-bill, are all the rage. The celebrated annual fireworks display thunders high above the East River mist as the humid air sucks the life out of peoples of all races and sensibilities. Even the detonating gunpowder sounds dim and damp as I sit in front of my aging Mac, hammering out words I hope will make some sense, on this, America's final birthday celebration of the century (as if there is anything at all to celebrate other than, as Groucho Marx once put it when asked at the age of 80 to what he attributed his long life..."To the fact that I haven't died yet") - a fête of Independence. But, I digress. Welcome to the good fight, and welcome to the world of Daniel Johnston.

For myself, a lifetime atheist and avowed skeptic, I view my 15-year relationship with Daniel Johnston as one of enormous mutual respect and ultimate tolerance. As a proudly Christian artist, Daniel, when his vision was clear, always treated the world and those who inhabited it, including myself, as one would the weather. He accepted it (and us), all of it, be it rain or shine, and spoke solely through his art. As a so-called tortured soul, some say Daniel's life as an artist and his life as a Christian warrior were inseparable, that one could not survive or breathe without the other, that his personal convictions crafted his creative output. It would be hard to deny that such a statement bears at least SOME truth, but listen to his timeless song, "I Miss You So Much", and THEN try convincing me that Daniel's heart was crafted. This is a heart that has beat loudly within the soul of mankind long before Daniel inherited it. It is the heart of humanity itself, and Daniel is doing the only thing he can possibly do with it. He is telling us the truth as he sees it, and those who choose to listen are forever enriched. It is the unabridged voice of Truth, and no man, ideology, or game of good & evil can subvert, alter, or silence such a voice. When we hear it, we are beaten into submission by the very sound of it, and all belief systems are rendered invisible. It is an erupting volcano, pumping and pounding and burning a single, collective hole into us all and making us ONE.

Hearing the music of Daniel Johnston, like hearing Dylan, we suspend everything we believe in, and listen in awe. If this present musical era were to be called "post-Dylan," the next should be called "post-Johnston." I know of no clearer voice in MY generation. When Daniel sings of unrequited love, I feel myself to be utterly unrequited and ultimately forgotten. Great art reminds us of how small we are, and when I hear Daniel, I disappear entirely.

Daniel Johnston is the rarest of artists, especially in this era of creative nothingness and fleeting celebrity in which artists can expand their audience only by making a public spectacle of themselves. Daniel Johnston - his life, his art and his sufferings - are private, quiet musings made loud by the hugeness of his talent and resiliance. What makes Daniel so special is the same thing that made William Blake, Thomas Champion, Van Gogh, Kurt Weill, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix so very special: GENIUS. When true genius kicks back its head and laughs and spits at the horrors that sit covertly alongside life's numerous incontrovertible beauties, the whole world should rise up and take notice. Sadly, thanks to a heartless music industry that rewards mediocrity and recycles its own aural garbage, many such voices will never be heard, and much genius will be automatically discarded in blind deference to yesterday's reconstituted trash.

In Daniel's vision, his sound may be that of the trumpets of Jericho. In mine, it is the sound of Daniel himself, poised squatting on a rock at the edge of the sea, like Odysseus, crying to us all, and it is a sound we can see and feel as well as hear. It is the sound of Life itself. It is the wail of birth, and the joyous noise of our own mortality, and no one sings them better than Daniel. It is the oldest sound in the world - the archetype that summons the creative demons that thrive somewhere, somehow, within us all.

I can recall driving Daniel home after a long day of recording for Artistic Vice, debating the concepts of good and evil as we sped along the winding West Virginia backroads marked solely by churches and mountains chewed in half by strip-mining. I remember telling him that John Cage was once asked if he thought there was too much evil in the world, and that Cage responded, "No, I think the balance of good and evil is just right." Daniel laughed and said simply, "Well, that sort of proves he's crazy, don't you think... I mean, why on earth would anyone want to live in a world with ANY evil in it at all?"

Why, indeed. Touché, Daniel. Touché.

Many things have been said and written about my friend Daniel Johnston. Many who don't know enough about music and art to write about it have seized the opportunity to publicize the tragedy of Daniel's mental illness, born solely of a chemical imbalance whose moniker fluctuates as often as the medications invented and re-invented to treat it. Most of what I have read in the press about Daniel deals with that tragedy, but rarely with the triumph of his spirit, his music and his art. I find that very sad. I find it to be a massive sleight to both the man and his life. Daniel has overcome much to give us his art, and I say BRAVO!

It is my hope that the book you hold will fill the gaping hole created by this paucity of journalistic integrity, and that, for once, Daniel Johnston the artist - the singer/songwriter, the MAN - will stand mountainous against the curse of his illness. Though his path through life is resplendent with stories of horror and madness, his artistic legacy was set deep in stone long, long ago, and only imbeds itself deeper with time. Daniel gives himself wholly to you, and all you need do to receive him, is LISTEN.

Meet DANIEL JOHNSTON, the most honest artist I have ever known.

Kramer, NYC 4th of July, 1999

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