Notes on Daniel Johnston, 'Dead Dog's Eyeball,' and the soundtrack of our lives
Originally published on April 29, 2005 in the Austin Chronicle
My wife, Annie, and my son saw the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston – about the singer, songwriter, artist, and legend – at South by Southwest, mostly because I'm interviewed in the film a couple of times. I tell the story of the first time Daniel was taken to a mental hospital. It was right before Christmas 1986. Dragged out of bed, where I was suffering with a 103-degree flu, I had been one of those who were responsible for committing him. My son was quite taken with the film and the person, who turned out to be sitting about five rows behind us, where he was laughing at some of the strangest times. My wife, on the other hand, reserved her opinion (more on this in the coda). One of the few complaints, among the many glowing observations, voiced by the crowd afterward was that the film didn't immerse you in the music as much as tell you about it (though there is a lot of Daniel's music in the movie). This comment, of course, was most often made by those who hadn't really known much about Johnston going into the movie.
One night Annie and I were driving along, headed out for the evening. I played a song on the CD player, asking her to listen without telling her what it was. At the end, she looked at me both interested and threateningly (as if to say, "Don't play games – tell me what the damn song is!").
"Kathy McCarty doing a Daniel Johnston song from Dead Dog's Eyeball, her 1994 album of all-Johnston covers. I wanted you to hear what Daniel's songs sound like as music, divorced somewhat from Daniel," I replied
"When we were listening to Daniel's music," I went on, "that's the way I was hearing it."
The look Annie gave was a couple of full spins of contempt past skepticism. A gifted musician herself, she knew I was so beyond tone deaf that "totally dead ear" was still a compliment.
"No, no," I quickly noted. "Not producer Brian Beattie's astutely appropriate, often lush arrangements! I didn't hear the work that elaborately in my head. But when I first heard the music, they were emotionally coherent, bull's-eye-effective songs. That's my point."
Now, after a couple of generations of lo-fi sprawl, hearing Daniel's music for the first time might easily lead one to miss its power – the genius of the melody and the words carried by the complex emotional persona of the singer. My wife did not look convinced (again, check the coda).
During the years after he first gave me a tape, playing Daniel's music was usually less like just listening to songs and more like undergoing an endurance swim that almost drowned me. I almost never put the tapes on casually, almost never listened to just one tape, but plunged in for hours. Sometimes, I would listen to no other music for days; in a world where innocence and experience are so twisted and confused, almost anything else would have been a too-disruptive intrusion. The experience was more electric-shock-therapy, sense-and-memory free falling than music.
When Dead Dog's Eyeball, an album of Kathy McCarty covering Daniel Johnston songs, produced by Brian Beattie, first came out in 1994, I had it playing in the car's tape player nonstop for weeks. I loved it, though early on I stopped listening to the whole; I just played one song over and over.
"Living Life" was like receiving a positive electric shot of energy over and over. I would have loved the song anyway for rhyming "couple" with "Mott the Hoople" by pronouncing it "hop-ul," but each and every time the song swept me up and pushed me higher. "This is life/And everything's all right!" kicked off the chorus, then the rising, joyous "Livin'livin'livin'livin'livin'livin'livin'livin'" to the drawn out "life!" The chorus ripped through my way too worn-out and tired self like fresh air blasting loose everything in its path.
Recently, at a SXSW Film party, I got to talking with someone who had the same addiction. Reinspired, I was soon playing "Living Life" over and over in the car. I soon remembered the frustration of the end of the preceding song bleeding into it, so you had to use manual rewind to find it. Even a couple of seconds – more in traffic – allowed my exhilaration to lose momentum. I wanted to be lost in that song!
When I got the recently reissued Dead Dog's Eyeball, at first, after a couple of cursory listens, I returned to just listening to "Living Life," over and over, louder and louder. Finally one night, the roads empty, heading to a party to pick up my son and gang, I got distracted from playing the one song over and over. Instead, I listened to the whole album, really focusing on it. I've always thought it was a stunning album, but that was after barely hearing it. What an overwhelming masterpiece!
Although there are songs I still can't listen to because they are too closely associated with Daniel and the emotionally devastating storms of two decades back, mostly I grow deeper and deeper into the album.
The songs are almost becoming a whole – one massive piece of music – but currently they are still distinct. The epic "I Had a Dream" travels through a variety of song forms by lyric inference rather than DJ mixing. A tragic lament, classic romance by way of pop radio, as if a medieval ballad mated "McArthur Park." Among Daniel's songs, it is one of the most encompassing, rich in his recurrent images and obsessions (dreams, clowns, monkeys, music being made, dancing, rejection).
"Hey Joe" starts riffing on "Hey Jude" before daring to explode into an invocation of the glories of the universe.
Sure, I could go on; song after song mines radically different but all contiguous musical veins. The trio of brilliant talents – writer Daniel Johnston, performer Kathy McCarty, and producer Brian Beattie – together transcend their previous, extraordinary output to achieve something unique and wonderful. I will write more on this – but go out, get this CD, and listen to it.
CODA: Okay, back to the beginning: It's December 1986. Owning no shorts, no car, one horrendous pair of shoes, and falling-apart pants, making far less than $10,000 a year, living on food rifled from the lunches the Chronicle was getting on trade, I had just begun dating Anne S. Lewis, attorney, world traveler, gourmet, art collector, and writer. Already, she was having trouble wrapping her head around many aspects of my life, especially having to do with style, choices, and goals. The graduate-student decor and freshman-dorm odor of the one-bedroom apartment of this 36-year-old she seemed to find somewhat less than exciting.
Still, she did not abandon our relationship, but steadily and bravely pioneered through the muck. There were two weeks at the end of the year that were packed with social engagements because of the holidays. Most of the time, Anne would make the dinner arrangements, because they were with her friends. We had not yet been going out a month.
I would get messages that we should plan on meeting for "dinner at 7pm" or to remember "their party starts at 6:30pm." I would respond by leaving messages on her answering machine that said, "Can we do dinner at 7:30pm instead, because I'm going to see Daniel and visiting hours at the mental hospital aren't over until 7pm?"
I'm not sure exactly why, but those messages (of which there were at least a week's worth) seem to have colored her view ever since. Not of Daniel, but of me. I bet I get in her car some day, however, and she's playing Dead Dog's Eyeball. If I ask, and I won't, she'll act as though she has no idea what I'm talking about, and that she bought it because she heard a song from it on the radio.