Sunday, 10 January 2016

Oliver: Daniel Johnston - My Life is Starting Over (12 January 1992)

By watching Jeff Feurerzeig's 2005 documentary about Daniel Johnston, I've been given a completely different perspective on his work.  I never claimed to be an expert on bi-polar disorder and even after watching the documentary I still couldn't claim to be, but I had been guilty of assuming that Johnston's entrancingly childlike songs made his illness seem like a harmless musical on mental health issues.  This was a man who after all sent his manager a recording asking him to contact Yoko Ono to ask her to get the Beatles to reform so they could act as his backing band.  But to hear the man himself telling West Virginia District Attorneys that he forced an elderly woman to jump from a second floor window, breaking her ankles in the process, in order to "cast out her demons" or discovering that his first manager stopped working with him after a schizophrenic episode caused Daniel to hit him three times with a lead pipe, presents a picture which is a million miles removed from the cuddly voiced figure who sings about illness, God, the Devil and his lost love and muse, Laurie Allen.

Most of Johnston's life has been a series of re-starts and re-sets, usually occasioned by spells in institutions and hospitals.  My Life is Starting Over found him back at square one following a spell in an institution, brought about by Johnston nearly killing himself and his father, Bill, when they were flying back from the South by South West Festival in Austin, Texas in Bill's two-seater plane.  Daniel became convinced that he was Casper the Friendly Ghost and inspired by a comic book which showed Casper using a parachute, he tried to encourage his father that they should parachute out of the plane.  Bill demurred on the grounds that, for one thing, they had no parachutes on the plane.  Daniel responded by pulling the key out of the ignition and throwing it out of the window.

"He grabbed the controls, took the plane away from me; he's stronger than me.  We were kinda going straight up and then straight down.  But he kinda let go of it in time for me to get it out of the spin.  Nothing down there but trees..." Bill Johnston in The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005).

Bill managed to crash land the plane into the trees and both men escaped relatively unscathed, physically, though Daniel was committed to a psychiatric hospital for 5 months and to see Bill tearfully recount the story in the film shows that the mental scars would remain far longer than the physical ones.  On his journey home, the deeply religious Bill was amazed to drive past a church which had on its display board, a poster saying, "God promises a safe landing but not a calm voyage".  I love the symbolism of that.

By the time Daniel came out of hospital, his life was definitely starting over again.  Kurt Cobain was shortly about to make him very well known by virtue of spending most of 1991 wearing a T-shirt with the cover art to Johnston's 1983 cassette only album Hi, How Are You on it.  This raised wider
attention in Johnston's music and led to major label interest in signing him.  His manager at the time,
Jeff Tartakov, recalls in the film holding business meetings between Johnston and representatives of Elektra and Atlantic records in the hospital.

After coming out of hospital, Johnston recorded the album, Artistic Vice, backed for the first time by a full band who do a very good job, on the evidence of this track at least, of getting in step with the juddery rhythms of Johnston's music, the aural equivalent of bicycle gears stuck in mid-change.  While Johnston's illness caused him to make bad decisions in the future, not least professionally, where he rejected a multi-album-no pressure to tour-no being dropped from the label for refusing to tour contract from Elektra Records on the grounds that they were satanic because they had Metallica on their roster, in favour of one from Atlantic Records, who dropped him after one album (1994's Fun); he does not seem to have come close to repeating any of the potentially life threatening incidents which he suffered in the mid-80s/early 90s.  The song is an acknowledgement of the need to go easier on himself and to not let his demons drive him to an early death:

"I know that there's no place left to hide.
But I guess that it's better than suicide." (Daniel Johnston)

Video courtesy of M. Cullen.

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