- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 30, 2006

In my amateur-songwriter second life, I often find myself consciously avoiding confessional language and reverting to the observational, sometimes the abstract. The reason is simple: My life is for the most part blessedly ordinary.

Daniel Johnston, meanwhile, claims to have written 100 songs, maybe more, about a single person — Laurie Allen, an art college friend whom he never dated, never kissed and yet passionately loves today from a decidedly impersonal distance. (He is now 45 and living under the care of his elderly parents.)

Daniel Johnston suffers from severe bipolar disorder and functions with the help of anti-psychotic drugs. He receives second billing to the antagonist in a fascinating documentary film about his life, “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” because, in the words of filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig, “The devil is very real to him.”

Mr. Feuerzeig calls the documentary, which opens today in area theaters, “a journey through madness and creativity.” The twinning of those elements, he says, is an old story, as old as — and integral to — art itself.

For Mr. Feuerzeig, Daniel Johnston is the paradigmatic “troubled genius” — the artist who suffers for his craft, the acutely sensitive soul whose inspiration and creativity depend on some excruciating clash between internal demons and everyday reality.

A short list of the troubled geniuses of pop music — they’re typically found in, but aren’t limited to, the singer-songwriter genre — might include Nick Drake (a suicide), Kurt Cobain (ditto) and Tim Buckley (dead of a heroin overdose at 28). Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin, although they weren’t pure singer-songwriters, are spoken of with the same mixture of pity and awe reserved for the troubled genius.

With the recent DVD release of a documentary (Margaret Brown’s “Be Here to Love Me”) about another such troubled genius, the late singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, it’s worth exploring whether “genius” necessarily depends on a “troubled” soul.

In the several years he spent researching “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” Mr. Feuerzeig found historical confirmation of the troubled genius thesis in Kay Redfield Jamison’s book, “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament.”

“It’s the exact same thing with all artists,” he says. “It’s no different for Daniel. Manic depression — it just happens to be an inarguable phenomenon that many artists seem to have it. You can Google the list right now. It’s daunting. They all suffered. Why is that? I don’t know.”

Among the manic-depressive artists whom Miss Jamison, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, mentions in her book are: the painter Vincent van Gogh; the novelist-suicides Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf; and the opium-addicted poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Those unfamiliar with Mr. Johnston’s music may, on first listen, scoff at the suggestion that he belongs in such illustrious company. A do-it-yourself artist of the most unrefined order (he records mostly alone in a home studio on piano or guitar), Mr. Johnston’s pitch-challenged voice and slapdash musicianship may strike the average music fan as eccentrically amateurish at best, an unlistenable train wreck at worst.

My own reaction to it was, first, puzzlement, followed gradually by beguilement. Quite simply, I found Mr. Johnston’s songs, as captured in Mr. Feuerzeig’s vast archival footage, impossible to turn away from, even if I wanted to. They are not amateurish so much as innocent; not silly so much as pleasantly bizarre. Their emotional rawness and fragility is their very point.

Mr. Johnston is a hopeless Beatles fanatic, and while he lacks the innate talent of a Lennon or a McCartney, he has a way with melody and a darkly powerful plainspoken lyric sense.

Mr. Feuerzeig likens the fascination and suspense of Mr. Johnston’s work to a “circus high-wire act.”

“Is he gonna fall, or is he gonna make it?” wonders the filmmaker. “To me, that’s art. It’s a breath of fresh air. That’s something we don’t get in our homogenized, commodified culture.”

Although he has made only one major-label record — 1994’s “Fun,” a flop, as it turns out — Mr. Johnston remains a much-loved underground phenomenon. Since bluffing his way onto an MTV feature on the Austin, Texas music scene in 1985 and, later, attracting the attention of Mr. Cobain, Mr. Johnston’s music has been covered by the likes of Wilco, Beck, Death Cab for Cutie and Tom Waits. He has recorded with members of Sonic Youth as well as alums of the Velvet Underground.

Moreover, his artwork — comic book-inspired phantasmagorias done in pen and Magic Marker — fetches thousands of dollars per drawing and is currently prominently featured in the Whitney Biennial at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Mr. Van Zandt died of heart failure in 1997, at 52, after a life of drug and alcohol abuse and institutional maltreatment (his memory function was severely harmed after shock treatment for depression). The influence of his work has been deeply felt, especially among fellow Texas singer-songwriters such as Lyle Lovett and Guy Clark. Alt-country rocker Steve Earle considered Mr. Van Zandt nothing less than “the best songwriter in the world.”

As with Mr. Johnston, the unfamiliar may wonder: Why all the fuss? Mr. Van Zandt was an itinerant folk musician in the shadow of Bob Dylan, only less versatile and more niche-bound. (His best known songs, “Pancho and Lefty” and “If I Needed You,” were made famous by others — the former by Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, the latter by Emmylou Harris and Don Williams.)

At some point, does the “troubled” half of the equation become an excuse for why the public never fully embraced the “genius” half? And to what extent might the “trouble” be a handy image tool, an instrument for cultivating coolness or bad-boy cachet?

While it by no means minimizes Mr. Johnston’s illness, Mr. Feuerzeig’s documentary is frank about its subject’s craving for recognition. Mr. Johnston often used — or deliberately failed to treat — his sickness to create an antic spinoff effect; he sought, in other words, to make his psychosis — often exacerbated by drugs — entertaining.

“He wanted fame,” the filmmaker says. “He wanted to be up there on Mount Rushmore with a handful of great artists.”

It is worth remembering that more conventional artists such as James Taylor overcame depression and drug addiction and continued to create. Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger were drug dabblers but found self-control and lucidity more conducive to creativity than did their more unruly counterparts John Lennon and Keith Richards. (Most would agree that depression was more a debility for Brian Wilson than it was a creative spark.)

It’s worth remembering, too, that the vast majority of manic-depressives aren’t creative artists. They are merely, and tragically, manic-depressives.

As with drugs, mental illness risks being seen as a desirable, if dangerous, accessory to the creative mind.

If all it took to compose “I am the Walrus” or “Gimme Shelter” was the proper arrangement of chemicals in the brain, then we’d all be rock stars.

But we aren’t all rock stars.

Chalking up the artistic temperament to madness may, in the end, be just another case of materialist reductionism, as the artistic muse remains as elusive and unequally distributed as ever.


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