As the kind of geek who knows 90% of the lyrics to The Smiths back catalogue by heart, and whose mother feels as sorry for screen villains as she does for heroes, I fully admit my heart strings are there for the tugging when it comes to the music of US musician and artist Daniel Johnston. His songs are sympathy for the underdog writ large. He's in with the out crowd, and in more ways than one.
Johnston has long suffered from extreme manic depression, a condition that has informed both his output and audience reactions to his work. A permanent index fixture in 'outsider' music books, he's a cult figure in alternative music circles (Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo and Kurt Cobain have all paid homage), where his world of unrequited love, Caspar the Friendly Ghost, Captain America, and the Beatles inspires fervent devotion from his fans. His cracked, high-pitched voice is about as musical as Dylan on helium, but with lyrics such as 'I took my lucky break and I broke it in two' ('Worried Shoes') or 'I'm drinking my life away, even though it's only with Kool-Aid' ('Kool-Aid') who cares? Johnston's musicianship may be a little rough around the edges, but singers as inexplicably successful as Ryan Adams or Dave Matthews could do with a few song craft lessons from him.
Some Jeremiahs have suggested that Johnston's popularity stems from the cheap thrill hip musos get when explaining that they're into music produced by an unstable mind, and that interest in his music and art is more exploitative than supportive. That never stopped anyone listening to Syd Barrett or Roky Erikson. Certainly, during Johnston's recent London gig a few audience members looked around nervously to see whether it was OK to laugh when Johnston stated with the utmost sincerity, 'It's great to be here in England. The Beatles are from England. You must be very proud.'
Accompanying himself on the acoustic guitar and the piano, Johnston's enthusiasm kept the crowd rooting for him as he rattled through a dozen or so of his vast number of songs. Upbeat versions of 'The Spook' (concerning hick town small-mindedness) and 'Caspar the Friendly Ghost' ('He was smiling through his own personal hell, dropped his last dime in a wishing well, but he was hoping too close and then he fell and now he's Caspar the Friendly Ghost') were followed by 'Funeral Girl' and 'Dream Scream' on the piano, slices of stark melancholia that elicited a pathos most emo-Rock has numbed us to.
'King Kong', Johnston's unaccompanied threnody for the silver screen's most famous ape, was the starting point for Peter Friedl's recent show at the Chisenhale. The song is Kong's side of the story - that of a proud, noble beast unable to have the woman he loves. Friedl's video depicts Johnston sitting in a suburban park singing 'King Kong' while a group of children look on. As the camera pans a slow 360 degrees, some sit quietly listening on the grass, some horse around, while one or two others awkwardly attempt to dance. What appears to be a park in a US inner city is in fact in Sophiatown, a South African suburb that hosted another King Kong - a 1959 jazz opera about the life of heavyweight boxer Ezekiel 'King Kong' Dhlamini. It is an intelligent layering of meaning, but Friedl's references are unfortunately so subtle as to be opaque - utterly unreadable from the video work alone. According to the accompanying blurb, it 'represents a cross-section of Western ideas of exoticism and monstrosity'. Does this mean Johnston is an example of one of these ideas? He's fully aware of his self-image - 'I'm not really Jerry Lewis but I understand that I'm kind of humorous', he once told an interviewer - but isn't casting him as a King Kong for the sake of a smart set of no doubt well-intentioned lateral connections getting into turbulent water?
Both Johnston and Friedl are art school-trained. Both produce work that employs complex sets of associative references (the cast of comic book characters and pop heroes that appears in Johnston's songs and drawings, for example). But one is known almost as much for his personal history as his creative output. Maybe none of this matters.
Art Black once said of Johnston's deep religious convictions, 'Fuck Jimmy Swaggart. Fuck [Jim] Bakker. The Lord's got Daniel Johnston on his side.' Well, Johnston has Captain America, John Lennon and King Kong on his. Rock on, Daniel.