Saturday, May 8, 2010

Ten from the 90's Part 1 (1990): Daniel Johnston- 1990 CD (Shimmy Disc)

It seems a bit odd in retrospect, but 1990 was the first gospel recording to enter the hallowed confines of my record collection back in the year of its release. What’s even odder is how, even though the record far from resembles a traditional gospel album, it took me over a decade to recognize it for what it clearly was. This largely speaks to my (former?) knuckle-headedness and lack of maturity, but it also (just a little bit) points to how aberrant was the concept of spiritual music in the scene that then embraced, with varying degrees of ironic distance, Johnston’s work. There was such a range of appreciation from the guy’s fans (along with naysayers who harrumphed that his popularity was just one big hipster put-on, though happily this has largely subsided), from borderline exploitative (curiosity seekers) on one side to naively adulatory (“outsider genius”) on the other. In the days before Cobain donned a HI HOW ARE YOU? T-shirt there was much debate over Johnston’s underground popularity. One odious line of thinking accused his musician collaborators and the wealth of his fans of using Daniel for credibility and cool-points. Time has proven this to be nonsense, of course (IMHO there were undoubtedly higher percentages of phonies professing to love Sonic Youth during this same period, but that’s another story). 1990 has moments of sheer beauty, but it’s also a troubled, rough, and at times difficult record to listen to, and I can sorta see it from this distance as a goad to those who were suspicious of the Johnston phenomenon. The original LP release featured eleven songs, six produced at Mark Kramer’s Noise New York studio, four live and one non-Kramer recording of a Beatles’ song. Six of the tracks are overtly spiritual in content, a couple more are ambiguously so. An additional few touch on the familiar Johnston themes of love and pain. But the whole damn thing feels like the testifying of a tortured man desperately in need of salvation. The studio cuts work best, stripping Daniel’s music of the tape hiss and “amateur” status that previously adorned so much of his work and in turn adjusting/sharpening the focus. It enriches the acapella opener “Devil Town”, making it sound huge where on a home-tape it would likely be quaint. And the studio really becomes an additional instrument on “Spirit World Rising”, where moments of intense quiet and the resonating of guitar strings combine most excellently with the booming yet adenoidal echo of the voice. Both “Held the Hand” and “Lord Give Me Hope” benefit mightily from the crisp studio atmosphere and how it not only captures the mood of injured desperation but also the later song’s sharp shifts in dynamics. Johnston’s piano playing displays incredible musicality (though he’s no virtuoso), even when the instrument sounds out-of-tune and possibly broken: “Got To Get You Into My Life” becomes deluged in cascades of rumbling low notes and the song is cagily transformed from The Beatles’ ode to sexual yearning into one of religious need. But it’s the pristine rendering of “Some Things Last a Long Time” that provides the album’s highlight. A haunting tune of love and loss, it’s one of Kramer’s strongest productions and really shows how adept Johnston is at interpreting other’s material (words are by Jad Fair). The live tracks all pass muster at differing levels, though “Don’t Play Cards with Satan” and “Funeral Home” both sound superior on the Mike McGonigal compiled long OOP Atavistic Video MOUTHFUL OF SWEAT. And “Funeral Home”, recorded live at Jersey record store Pier Platters (RIP), gets us back to the opprobrium of the naysayers. As a lazily strumming Johnston encourages a sing-along, it’s difficult to swallow the laughter of some attendees, which definitely feels aimed “at” the performer not “with” him, because the player clearly ain’t laughing. This contrasts sharply with “Careless Soul”, an acapella cover of a fire and brimstone gospel chestnut where the crowd is so quiet you can hear a pin drop between the anguished, emotionally distraught verses (I can positively feel the tears on his cheeks) and the dissonance between one believer and a room full of probable cynics is thick as George Steele’s neck. Yes, I’m inferring some of this, but only because on more than one occasion I witnessed folks become uncomfortable with “Careless Soul” (as well as other parts of 1990). Once a house guest asked me if the song was “some kind of fucking joke”. Um, no. The joke is on you I’m afraid. What’s also interesting is how I feel quite different about Daniel’s getting into the emotional deep weeds on MOUTHFUL’s organ drenched version of “Don’t Play Cards with Satan”. I can clearly see the tears on that clip, but in this case my heart swells up with empathy (instead of concern) since he’s being taped not in a club but in a house and is clearly amongst friends. I’ve felt for a while that the inclusion of “Careless Soul”/”Funeral Home” on 1990 was an attempt to delineate between the listeners who truly accepted and embraced the full range of Daniel’s artistry and personality from those who perceived it as some sort of yuk-it-up eccentric fun-fest (I can’t help but view the lingering notoriety of the late Wesley Willis through this lens. If this makes me a killjoy, I’m sorry to leave that impression. I’m really a fun loving person. Honest injun. Equal to a barrel of monkeys, in fact). I think Kramer (who ran Shimmy Disc, still does I think) largely succeeded in separating the lovers from the fakers, so to speak, and he surely had a helping hand from the advocacy of Kurt: three years later, Daniel would release another studio album, this time on a major label (Atlantic), the far more fine-tuned and stable FUN, with production from longtime friend and Butthole Surfer-member Paul Leary. Its title was accurate and fitting, but it was also more than just that. It deserves a separate post for ample discussion. These days, Johnston’s songs have been covered by dozens, he’s collaborated with just as many, his art’s been bound in books and displayed in New York galleries, and he’s the subject of a great, loving documentary. Success is surely sweet, particularly when it’s so hard fought. 1990 is an unflinching portrait of the trouble along the way, but it’s also a fine study of the work’s severe quality and the sincere beauty of the man. As such, it’s one to cherish.

photo by Michael Macioce


Sean said...

given their proximity here in town i've often wonder why Dan and Roky have never wonder near an open mic being recorded together.

Joseph said...

The Jad Fair/Daniel Johnston collab LP that was released around the same time as 1990 has a song titled "I Met Roky Erikson" They met while Daniel was working at McDonalds. They should do a collab LP with Okkervil River backing them up.