Monday, October 15, 2007

Something in the water?

You're Gonna Miss Me Trailer

The Devil and Daniel Johnston Trailer

The following two well-made documentaries deal with unlikely rock stars, both from Austin, Texas, who made brilliant music despite (or because of) mental illness. And both have happy endings as modern brain candy comes to the rescue and regulates them enough to come out and tour this year.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston is abou a self-made celebrity whose path to fame came through basement tapes recorded on monotrack boom boxes. Johnston gave them away on the streets of downtown Austin along with his own hand drawn art. An MTV show came to town and Johnston wiggled his way briefly into the national spotlight. This was in the mid 1980s.

In the early 90s, Johnston garnered a major record deal with Atlantic Records after Kurt Cobain and others promoted him or did covers of his songs. Cobain often wore a t-shirt of Johnston’s infamous underground tape, Hi, How Are You? featuring a frog alien creature with eyes at the end of long antennas. Johnston’s erratic behavior on and off the stage, brought on by manic depression, scared away Atlantic Records away after one record, “Fun.”

Director Jeff Feuerzeig faced a daunting editing task to plumb the vast video and audio archives Johnston kept of himself from the early 80s onward. The sound and video quality are horrendous, but the footage, including a tripped out rant Johnston gives about aliens and God, gives a summation of his entire mythos. The only real wincing moment came when Johnston encounters Laura, Johnston’s muse and lyrical inspiration for many of his songs. She was a fellow art student with him at community college. Their reunion at some awards banquet was awkward. Laura had a nervous perma-grin the entire time. Johnston was an overweight, toothless wreck. He kept saying like a mantra, “I really love you, Laura.” But his childlike earnestness and plaintive hope is touching. It’s that quality in his music that makes it so popular.

The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a good movie for those who like the independent and underground music and fanzines. Johnston’s grassroots success, gained largely through word of mouth and sheer prolificacy, is an inspiration to unstable-minded artists everywhere making homemade tapes with just a guitar and voice.

Austin is the home turf of another kooky rock and roller, Roky Erickson, whose unique musical path involved copious amounts of psychedelic drugs, being institutionalized in a state mental hospital and given electroshock treatment, and withering away in noise and madness for 20 years. You‘re Gonna Miss Me follows the long, strange, and, like Johnston, prolific career.

This documentary gets its title from the biggest hit Erickson had on his debut album with the 13th Floor Elevators when he was 19 years old. Janis Joplin considered joining the band before she lit out west to Frisco. “You’re Gonna Miss Me”’s appeal is in Erickson howling, high-pitched wail, one of the best in the history of rock and roll. What a pair he and Joplin would have made.

Unlike Johnston, who has mostly played solo, Erickson played with other musicians, both in the 60s with psychedelic 13th Floor Elevator and in the 70s with the heavy metal Roky and the Aliens. These other musicians, most notably Tommy Hall, Erickson’s main songwriting collaborator during his 13th, recall the glory days of excess and confirm the obviousness of Erickson’s mental illness even then.

Between the end of his days with the 13th Floor… and his days with the Aliens, Erickson spent more than three years in a state mental hospital. He was arrested in 1969 for possession of a single marijuana joint pleaded insanity in hopes of avoiding jail time. This turned out to be a bad idea.

After Erickson was declared sane and released, he quickly went to work and re-invented himself with the Aliens. His sound was heavy metal gloom rock, with lyrics about horror movies and grandiose mythic quests. He stopped recording in the early 80s and last performed live in 1987. But since the documentary came out, Erickson has gone on tour and recorded new music.

Erickson’s family plays a prominent role in the documentary. Although Roky lives alone in a cluttered apartment hovel, his main contact in life was his mother, who he saw at least four hours a day. Roky’s younger brother took his mother to court to be the sole guardian of Roky and executor of his estate. The brother, a professional tuba player and pony-tailed new age type, tries to “rescue” Roky from his mother, who exhibits signs of mental illness by living in absolute clutter and filth and hardly making any sense when she speaks.

Both The Devil and Daniel Johnston and You’re Gonna Miss Me tell compelling stories about the redemptive qualities of music. Music saves both men from the brink of insanity and obscurity, yet the touch of madness both men bring to their craft makes their music more original and appealing.
Don’t just list things. List something and then describe it. Don’t just write family members names down, like great grandfather. If you’re going to mention someone as a relative, at least mention their first and last names. How would you feel if years and years from now your snot-nosed little great-grandson didn’t mention you by name in his essay? Don’t mention somebody unless you have something to say about them.
Clouds of black gnats
The biting kind, little chiggers
Dig explorer craft landing
Who knows what they leave behind
Fruit flies in October
The tamarasks are turning
One more big rain
And that will be it
For the leaves .
At the moment the
Coolest word in the world is
Kinda rolls off all wispy
Like grandpa’s cherry tobacco
Or escargot
Which is smoother than slimy snails
You are the burden of your generation
You think that we aren’t talking about you
It’s never scuttling little you that could ever be the problem
Oh unmodified you, pronoun of hope, of inclusiveness
Collective we, interrogative you, whatsa matta you?

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