16 February 2008

The Devil and Brian P.

When we were in high school, there was this kid Brian P. and he had something. Not "had something" like a talent scout says you have something, not an x factor or a je ne sais quoi. He had something like he walked a bit funny, talked a bit funny, was in some kind of way differently abled. But bright enough to be in the "regular" classes and, I suppose, bright enough to be made frequent sport of without guilt pangs too acute. And when he was teased and tousled he would grin crooked and say things like "Alright, that's enough."

When we were seniors someone thought it would be funny to nominate him for class president. But Brian P. didn't think it was funny, he took it serious. He gave a speech in the cafeteria. He won and he revelled in the job, giving over-the-top morning anouncements over the intercom. Everyone seemed to be having a swell time - laughing with, laughing at ... who cares? But it always made me a bit uneasy.

I brought something like that feeling to First Avenue the other week to see Daniel Johnston - the autistic, bipolar singer/songwriter whose already formidable cult following was bolstered by a 2005 documentary. [and a good one ... I recommend The Devil and Daniel Johnston if you haven't seen it. But not some of the crazy / tragic talent docs it spawned like the ones on Roky Erickson and Townes Van Zandt.]
Johnston has a tremendous gift for melody, which is evidenced by how many amazing artists have covered his songs (one recent covers album features Tom Waits, Clem Snide, M. Ward, Flaming Lips, Sparklehorse, Bright Eyes). And his songs can be powerful because of (or sometimes in spite of) what one Onion AV Club writer called Johnson's "crushingly naive" lyrics. So he's not like Wesley Willis (the late schizophrenic cultstar singer) - his songs feel more like songs than like crazy.

But I wonder at what we hear when we listen to DJ, what we consume when we buy his records. And the show didn't really help me with those questions. He came out with a tshirt tucked into sweatpants and joked (I think) about being in "Indianapolis." His hands shook when he wasn't holding a guitar and he played a pretty short set. Moments of it were funny, moments of it were gorgeous. But when an anonymous hipster yells "I love you Daniel" from out of the dark, why do I hear the cheers at Brian P's campaign speech? Of course he loves playing music, but I hope he loves playing shows ... he might not. He might even need the money. Or just want to get out of his parents' house (he's 47).

I'm not saying anyone should feel bad about listening to or going to see DJ. And I'm not saying DJ has anything substantive in common with Brian P. (who I hope is doing well). I'm just saying there can be a rather complicated transaction when you look at stuff, depending on what you're looking at.

1 comment:

kris said...

I have a lot of the same funny feelings when I listen to the Kids of Widney High -- Widney High is a special ed. school in L.A., and the kids write and perform their own songs (with the help of their teacher Michael Monagan).

Some of the songs are great ("Every Girl's My Girlfriend" is catchy enough to be Top 40), and all of them are a kind of a joy to listen to. But the kids are, you know. Special ed.

There's humor in the music. On purpose humor. But how can you be sure you're laughing with them?

I haven't listened to Daniel Johnston, but from what I've heard about him -- he's good. As are the Kids. Which is the test maybe? And Brian P made a good class pres after all?