Review of Daniel Johnston's "Story of an Artist"

There’s one version of the narrative behind these recordings that’s romantic but also basically true: that they represent an incredible victory of the artist’s spirit. Daniel Johnston was a young man in West Virginia– 19-22 years old in this period, 1980-83– with no audience, no particular support from his family, no musical community to speak of, no recording equipment but a cheap boombox, a voice like roofing nails on glass, an out-of-tune piano, and chronic, debilitating mental illness. He also had an unstoppable drive to redeem the materials of his life as art, and as ungainly and twisted as his songs were, they had aspects of shocking beauty and freshness. So the songs poured out– hundreds of them, on a series of cheap cassettes that he gave to anybody who might possibly care, until people did. (In other words, there is no valid excuse for not making your art in a world where Daniel Johnston managed to do what he did.)
Another version, which is also basically true, is that this outpouring of songs was thoughtful, focused labor by an artist who was happy to give himself over to the idea of obsession and awkward personal revelation. A lot of Johnston’s signature sound– crappy home recordings on bottom-of-the-line cassettes, naked instrumental fumbling– was more or less forced on him by his circumstances. But it was also a deliberate, fully realized aesthetic– those between-song audio-verité sound collages didn’t get there by accident. To think that Johnston didn’t know exactly what he was doing is to not listen to the work itself.
Granted, it’s pretty hard to listen to some of this particular work: six discs’ worth of early Johnston’s misery, tape grind, piano-banging, and yelping is about eight times the recommended weekly maximum dose. Another problem with the myth of Johnston as “naïve” is the suggestion that his work is all of a piece, which it isn’t by a long shot; some of these tapes are way better than others. Songs of Pain, a compilation of Johnston’s best (and most archly moralistic) early material that he put together for Kathy McCarty, includes a handful of extraordinary songs– “Grievances” is a statement of purpose for the rest of his career, “Never Relaxed” might be the funniest thing he’s ever recorded, and “Living Life” is a bloodied but unbowed power-pop tune. More Songs of Pain— reissued as a twofer with Songs of Pain a few years ago– is a more accomplished if less bracing take on a lot of the same themes.
On the other hand, Don’t Be Scared and The What of Whom, respectively recorded in July and August of 1982, are lacking in quality control– the mock-“disco medley” of “Stars on Parade” is plain awful– and get rather samey (apart from the terrific, self-romanticizing number that gives this box its title). And most of the songs on the two volumes of The Lost Recordings, reproduced from circa-1983 tapes Johnston literally found under his bed seven years later, sound like unfinished sketches and half-hearted demos. It doesn’t help that The Story of an Artist‘s booklet, which includes artwork by Johnston, interviews with people close to him, and notes by Everett True, contradicts itself about some of this material. Did Johnston give Jeff Tartakov the master copy of Don’t Be Scared before he threw most of his belongings into a dumpster, as Tartakov writes in his introduction? Or did Tartakov rescue it from the dumpster, per an editorial note in an interview with McCarty?
Later in 1983, Johnston moved to Texas, and recorded his best cassettes, including Yip/Jump Music and the harrowing “unfinished album” Hi, How Are You. He didn’t really begin to find an audience until a bit later; Tartakov began duplicating and distributing these early tapes in 1987, after Johnston was already something of a cult item. It’s not quite fair to dismiss any set that includes the Songs of Pain as juvenilia, but this box is less the story of this particular artist than a portrait of a difficult artist as a difficult young man.
— Douglas Wolk, July 9, 2010

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