Graded on a Curve: Daniel Johnston,
Fun

Today we remember Daniel Johnston who passed away on Wednesday, September 11, 2019 with this look back from our archives.Ed.

Of all the fine stuff scheduled to hit the racks last week for Black Friday, one item particularly stood out in large part due to its belated appearance on vinyl. In all the excitement and hubbub of the holiday festivities, it was easy to miss the last minute cancellation of this record, shifting the focus below from an appreciation of a long-delayed vinyl slight to a consideration of a release whose LP coronation continues to be denied. The subject is Fun, the sole major-label entry in the discography of Daniel Johnston, originally issued by Atlantic Records in 1994. Hopefully its eventual emergence on vinyl comes sooner rather than later.

While I won’t be so bold as to say there was no middle ground, the reaction to Daniel Johnston’s original home recordings did largely run to extremes. On one hand, there were those who championed a new and startlingly unique pop singer-songwriter. On the other were the strident doubters and the often exasperated reactions of folks who considered it all a big put on.

Johnston’s advocates largely felt that his crudely recorded homemade cassettes were just as legitimate and deserving of attention as anything being produced for mass consumption in the spacious multi-track studios of the big label machine. Many listeners not smitten with his considerable output identified it as another example of underground tastemakers locating a marginal artist and then lording it over those with enough sense to not buy into the hype.

As more people became acclimated to the uniqueness of Johnston’s work, either through the stumping of music journalists and critics, the name dropping of assorted clued-in musicians, and via his now legendary appearance on MTV’s The Cutting Edge Happy Hour, where he performed during his lunch break at McDonalds, it started to become clear to some of the previously doubtful that the passionate reaction of so many was indeed sincere, the music having struck a deep chord. A fair number of these agnostics listened again, and what had initially sounded strange shifted into something special.

But it’s also true that quite a few people enjoyed Johnston’s unusual story almost totally as spectacle, getting off on the sheer “weirdness” of a musician whose rise to cult status had little if any direct precedent. Here was a guy that didn’t fit into pop music’s tried and true models, a person that many would have immediately tagged as unfit for the performing arts, his aura similar to the “outsiders” that occasionally inspire interest from the guardians of the contemporary art word.

Comparing him to The Shaggs or Jandek was off base though, for Johnston largely worked in well established song forms and had recognizable (if for some still debatable) musical skill while the Wiggins Sisters and the proprietor of Corwood Industries both essentially created their own musical languages. He’s been described as an early example of low-fi, but in his case it was a sound born from necessity and not a premeditated statement. DIY? Sure. But again, it wasn’t a deliberate blow-off of other people’s monetary interests and/or a defiant insistence on complete artistic control. Johnston simply wanted people to hear his music, and the most efficient route in his case was to press play and record on the tape deck simultaneously.

And those that were fixated on Johnston’s image and behavior often missed the forest for the trees; the basis for his success stemmed from his often brilliant songwriting and a playing style that, while never possessed of virtuosity, was frequently capable of great beauty. In short, Johnston was no Wesley Willis.

Bipolar, schizophrenic, deeply religious, and prone to bad decisions, he was also a great romantic, and one of his biggest recurring themes was unrequited love. Casper the Friendly Ghost and King Kong also figured in the mix. If forced to sum Johnston up in a lofty sentence, I might describe him as a stereotypical comic-book loving introvert who was knocked sideways by The Beatles and along the way fell in love and got his heart busted, a circumstance that inspired him to write a bunch of songs and record them into a boom box through modest but often captivating ability. The problem is this synopsis only addresses the first stage of his career.

In 1991, Johnston recorded Artistic Vice for Mark Kramer’s Shimmy Disc label, a record that’s largest significance lies in its genesis in a real recording studio and in its use of a full band. And it’s a pretty good album, occasionally flashing towards great, but it pales next to his prior record for Shimmy Disc, the still startling 1990, an LP that was reflective of a very tumultuous period for Johnston. His disorders were getting the best of him, combining with his fervent and no bones about it fundamentalist-derived religious beliefs, a situation that caused all sorts of problems for both him and his close supporters. It was here that some naysayers began pointing the finger and making the charge of exploitation on behalf of a guy they mostly didn’t even like. Harrumph.

1990 is basically a gospel record, a very dark, troubled one. It found him in the hands of a talented producer, working in Kramer’s Noise New York studio with high-profile guest musicians from outside his Austin, TX base of operations, and additionally captured him live in performance in front of NYC audiences that in part didn’t quite know what to make of the sincerity of it all.

From there his mental health got worse and he returned to his home state of West Virginia, where he recorded Artistic Vice. Then the whole Kurt Cobain t-shirt thing happened, during which time Johnston was institutionalized. The major labels, sniffing out anything with even a hint of hip aroma, were undeterred, bidding furiously for a piece of the action. Notoriously blowing off a multi-album deal with Elektra due to his belief that label cash-cow Metallica was possessed by Satan, Johnston signed with Atlantic. The single album that resulted, 1994’s Fun, was a commercial flop.

Fun was produced by Paul Leary of the Butthole Surfers, an old pal from Johnston’s emergence in the Lone Star state. In fact, back in ’87 the Surfers had included a pair of twisted and highly uncharacteristic recordings of Johnston on the Caroline Records-issued brain squeeze A Texas Trip. Fun diverts sharply from that record’s acid-drenched indulgences; at its core it’s a pop record, cleanly produced and emphasizing the artist’s songwriting abilities and the singularity of his personality in equal measure.

It’s also a problematic release, though one that’s much better than its general reputation suggests. Fun often gets dogged as a prime example of ‘90s major label folly, specifically the urge to sign anything in sight in hopes that one of those things will result in a goldmine. Longtime fans had often speculated what an unadulterated pop record from Johnston would sound like, but once they heard it many were disappointed or nonplussed. New listeners using Fun as an introduction were obviously missing needed context, getting something much different from the organic brilliance of Yip/Jump Music or Hi, How Are You.

Fun starts strongly with three diverse cuts. The first “Love Wheel” is a bold rocker that gains much of its appeal from a vocal presence that frankly isn’t a natural fit for the realms of bold rocking. That’s one of Johnston’s most endearing qualities; that he often goes where conventional logic says he shouldn’t and yet has the gift to make it so much more than an example of being “so wrong that it’s right.”

And that voice. It was one of the earliest and lingering points of contention regarding his music, where partisans found it heartfelt and fragile, detractors bluntly derided him as an amateurish non-singer. He was surely limited in a traditional sense, and instead of avoiding the dangers of those limitations Johnston would often push beyond as the song saw fit, his voice straining and sometimes breaking, and the result, as in the highly emotional and intensely personal closer to Yip/Jump Music “I Remember Painfully,” could be breathtaking. Over the years, the numerous covers and tribute albums that have focused on Johnston’s songs have vindicated him as a songwriter, and the debate over his music’s legitimacy has largely been laid to rest. But as good and even great as many of those covers/tribs are, Johnston alone remains the best interpreter of his material.

“Life in Vain,” Fun’s second track and the album’s clear standout, really emphasizes Johnston’s aptitude for self-interpretation, and it shows that he can hold his own in an ornate, maximal musical environment. Loaded with lush strings and glistening guitars, the raw nerve endings in the singer’s delivery imbues the song with great power, and the lyrics, which from a more conventional vocalist would risk registering as callow bitchiness, instead connect as achy and heartfelt.

The brief “Crazy Love” comes next, Johnston alone on vocals with touches of his trusty keyboard, and it’s an exquisite bit of yearning. It’s also very restrained if emotionally nude in its ode to the source of his desire; the man comes off as quite the gentle smoothie. And it’s in the little mini-songs like this one that Johnston’s range and savvy is illuminated. He packs a lot into “Crazy Love.” While concise, it’s far from a fragment.

From there Fun engages in a series of qualitative peaks and valleys. As an acoustic blues, “Catie” is fair but it loses steam after an ill-judged belch from Johnston, the participants seeming unsure of just how to end it. “Happy Time” is a very good song utilizing only voice and cello, but through those elements it attains an artiness that’s maybe not the best fit for the man. And this artiness pops up elsewhere; see “Jelly Beans,” which is brimming with idiosyncrasies but perhaps due to studio crispness, saunters close to a refined, calculated flavor of the kooky that’s not as rewarding as Johnston in prime mode.

Maybe that’s why a noisy rocker like “Psycho Nightmare” works so well. It’s also unrepresentative, but it ultimately feels more in touch with what Johnston is about. The same is true for mainly acoustic based songs like “Mind Contorted,” “Foxy Girl,” and “Lousy Weekend,” or the also brief “Circus Man” and the vocals-only “When I Met You.” But the stuff that doesn’t work as well stymies the album’s flow somewhat, with the result that Fun has always been a keeper for certain prime tracks, but only infrequent plays in its entirety.

If a bit erratic in its aspiration, Fun is still an important entry in the accumulated work of a great leftfield musical success story, and one whose overdue appearance on vinyl continues to be delayed. But after considering the many struggles Johnston has overcome, that’s a minor setback indeed.

GRADED ON A CURVE:

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