Press "Enter" to skip to content

ACL explains it all: Daniel Johnston

Most genres have some redundancy built in; it allows people to find new music they like (“if you like this band, then you’ll like that band“). This is a tried and true way to discover music. If it were the only way to discover music, though, Daniel Johnston would have zero fans. Because Daniel Johnston doesn’t sound like anybody.

Much has been made of Daniel Johnston’s struggles with mental health, and it’s tough to keep up with what he is doing (in fact, one of my friends who runs a different music blog thought he was dead, and I can’t really fault him). So when I saw that he was playing ACL this year, I immediately got excited. Since it’s hard to keep up with Daniel Johnston, it’s rare that I see and am able to attend a concert of his – I thought I would never actually get to do it.

What’s funny about this set-up is that even though his ACL set will be one that I most anticipate, it probably won’t be one of the sets I most enjoy. Not that he’s going to perform poorly; I expect him to get up there and do his thing with the best of them. But his voice is so peculiar and his songs are so unique that I’m going more for the experience of seeing Daniel Johnston than I am of actually hearing his songs. I don’t know how others feel about Daniel Johnston; perhaps some are really hardcore into his songwriting. But I have a pretty high tolerance for annoying music (being a Mountain Goats obsessive and all), and Daniel Johnston’s work is still hard to stomach in long stretches.

But with the mysterious mental illnesses and the general mystique that has built up around him, he’s going to have lots and lots and lots of people at his set. Because everyone wants to see what it’s about. It’s more about the event of seeing him and validating (or debunking) this mysterious aura that’s been built around this quirky songwriter. Just like coolness is kind’ve hard to pin down, the mystique is hard to pin down. Where does it start?

But it’s pretty easy to tell where it ends. I may not like Daniel Johnston as much after the set; if he seems like a relatively normal person with a weird voice and an acoustic guitar, I’m going to feel kind of cheated. If he seems genuinely eccentric and a little bit crazy, I’m going to feel like it was worth it. If it seems that this is kind of mean to be doing this to an artist with such problems, I would suggest that this is the only possible way to view Daniel Johnston’s work (unless, as I have said, you are totally into his voice and songwriting, which I’m only mostly ruling out). Daniel Johnston is the sum of everyone’s talk about him; whether he lives up to his hype or not is not dependent on what he creates. Instead, it is in how he presents it.

Is this saying that his health would be a jeopardy to his stature in my eyes? I think so. Is this horrible? Yes. Is it true? Yes. Everyone wants to be able to say that they saw a tortured genius. I would have loved to have seen a Nirvana concert or an Elliot Smith concert, just to have had that tangential exposure to tortured genius. It seems so romantic; and if we encounter it, brush up against it, idolize it, then we can have some of the romance and none of the tortured part.

Because, I bet you could ask any of the three guys in question and they’d tell you that the “tortured” part of the “tortured genius” title sucks a lot. But we romanticize it in film (A Beautiful Mind), music, and life in general. It’s just part of our mythos. It helps us feel like geniuses are human, and it makes us feel a little better that, if we are not as smart/talented/pretty/funny as that famous person, at least we’re a bit happier. It’s a consolation prize, but it’s a prize. And then when we are feeling tortured, we can access their genius, channel it, and try to feel better about ourselves through their genius by communing with the pained. We basically get everything we need out of tortured genuises without actually having to be one.