The Devil has Texas

By Jesse Sawyer

I’ve never been to Texas. But within the mythological schema of America, we all know what Texas means. It’s a point on the imagined American constellation as important to our cognitive mapping of identity as either New York or California, a depository for our most nightmarish projections of ourselves as well as our greatest delusions of grandeur. “Everything is bigger in Texas” precisely because Texas the myth supersedes Texas the physical terrain.
I’ve spent the last month in Texas. In Texas there are no classes, and there are no papers. Time drifts past like tumbleweed, thoughts amble through the ghost town of a fractured psyche, and a tumbler of bourbon is rarely out of reach. I’ve been in Texas because Minnesota finally broke me, and I had nowhere else to go.
Turning my room into my own private Texas is as easy as turning on the stereo. It’s a matter of putting on the works of two reclusive Lone Stars who have been churning out highly idiosyncratic, damaged-sounding music on a regular basis for three decades. My Texas is the Texas of Daniel Johnston and Jandek, artists who have similar followings and career trajectories and yet present completely different views of the state (and state of mind) that looms so large in their respective bodies of work.

Deciding which of my muses to turn to each morning is the most important choice of my days here in Texas. Daniel Johnston is a manic pop genius, an eternally optimistic and unmistakably childlike persona. In comparison, Jandek may as well be Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. His music is murderous and his moaning voice and spare guitar dissonance ooze pure unadulterated dread. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s also highly rewarding.

Today is a Daniel day. Daniel Johnston first began recording in his parents’ basement in the early 1980s, making lo-fi cassette recordings years before this method became a genre unto itself. A sufferer of acute bipolar disorder, he interprets the world around him through a complex scheme of comic book heroes and villains, characters that surface in his music as well as his visual art, which has itself garnered considerable fame. Upon first encounter with Johnston’s music, what is most striking is his voice. A fragile tenor with a discernible lisp, the voice is one of bright naivete fighting to break through the sometimes dark depression and unrequited love of its lyrical content.
Early recordings, from Songs of Pain (1980) through Continued Story (1985) are piano-based pop gems recorded on low-quality boomboxes and four-tracks, often with broadcasts of religious programs in the background. To sift through any of the eight recordings from this period is to confront a prolific and developed musical sensibility creating Beatlesesque love pop with a manic desperation. They are life-affirming in the most earnest sense; for Johnston, the act of creating music is an act of salvation.

The easiest way to engage the Daniel Johnston persona is by watching the recently released documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, directed by Jeff Feuerzeig. A heartbreaking documentary regardless of your feelings on Johnston’s music, it delves into the maelstrom of mental illness and creative brilliance behind the songs that reverently does justice to the emotional nakedness of Johnston’s songs. It’s on near-constant play here in my own private Texas, always showing at a drive-in for one.

Yesterday was a Jandek day. Successfully reclusive for over twenty years, with no public appearances, interviews, or photos (outside of album covers, which show Jandek at various anachronistic ages in blurry photos), he made music headlines by playing a surprise set at the 2004 Instal music festival in Glasgow, Scotland. Beyond creating a buzz, this performance served to show fans across the globe that the man behind Jandek is not the retard-savant that most make him out to be. Instead, it places him within the canon of outsider/avant-garde artists whose music is purposely confrontational to traditional expectations.
Jandek’s music is atonal and haunting. His first album, Ready for the House (1978) doesn’t sound much different than his most recent, What Else Does the Time Mean (2006), forty-four studio albums later. The lyrics are elliptical and force the listener into drawing frightening conclusions that the lyrics themselves never admit to. The first song on Ready for the House, “Naked in the Afternoon,” describes a neighbor’s daughter “who’s growing up naked in the afternoon.” What the lyrics point to, but never explicitly describe, is the possibility of sexual assault or, at least, voyeurism, on the part of the narrator. Similarly, on Jandek’s best album, Interstellar Discussion (1984), a song entitled “Rifle in the Closet” addresses “John,” with Jandek caterwauling “Hey John, I aint been doin’ what a good boy should.” The title looms over this intimation, until finally Jandek reveals the joke at play: “Hey John… the Rifle in the Closet…. is just the name of the song.”
Like Daniel Johnston, Jandek is also the subject of a documentary. Jandek on Corwood (2003), directed by Chad Friedrichs, released prior to Jandek’s first public performance, examines the relation between the myth and the music, focusing on the way the enigma feeds the art and vice versa. While The Devil and Daniel Johnston demonstrates the way in which Johnston’s life and persona illuminate and deepen his already personal music, Jandek on Corwood shows the way in which Jandek’s absence makes the music, already unsettling, all the more frightening, since it has no safe flesh-and-blood entity attached to it.
Today was a Daniel Johnston day. Tomorrow is a Jandek day. The days don’t change beyond this single distinction. I live in a Texas built on myth, just as the real Texas is. My myths are built on two musical polarities who have garnered devout cults of fans through their abilities to navigate and personify specific mythological characteristics. If I wake up and the sun shines through the blinds like a desperate plea for hope, it’ll probably be a Johnston day. If, instead, the room takes on the qualities of a nightmarish cell, I’ll reach for the Jandek. The difference is great, but the state remains the same. I’m in a Texas of the mind, to crib from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s playbook. It’s a damaged place, one of quiet desperation and mental instability. But with Jandek and Daniel Johnston howling through my speakers, at least I know I’m not alone.

For your own private Texas:
Daniel Johnston 1990
Rejected Unknown
Fear Yourself

Jandek

Ready for the House
Interstellar Discussion
Glasgow Sunday