Saturday, January 27, 2007

Yip/Jump Music: Summer 1983, Daniel Johnston, 1983

Daniel Johnston
Yip/Jump Music: Summer 1983


Daniel Johnston was born in 1961 in Sacramento, California to Christian fundamentalist parents. When Johnston was still a young boy, his parents moved the family to New Cumberland, West Virginia, when the father, an engineer, was offered a job with Quaker State. As a young man, Daniel Johnston originally attended Abilene Christian University in Texas, but had to transfer to Kent State because creeping emotional and mental problems that would continue to dog him for the rest of his life began to surface.

His parents, feeling that Johnston was an ill fit for college suggested he quit school. In 1983 he moved to Houston Texas, to live with his brother, where he worked at the six flags theme park Astroworld. In the basement of his brother’s Houston house, Johnston kept a chord organ—a wheezing keyed instrument that uses air blown through reeds to make sound—an exceptionally out of tune guitar and a tape recorder. With barely anything else, Daniel Johnston created his classic album of love lost, pain, confusion, innocence, The Beatles, salvation and hero worship with an inelegant and brutally messy grace that is scarcely heard in popular music—Yip/Jump Music.

The songs themselves are somewhat arresting and more than a little confusing upon first listen. The first song on the album, "Chord Organ Blues" is literally banged out on a chord organ and is a kind of churlish sounding boogie woogie, driven by Johnston’s feverish and percussive, locomotive slamming of the keys. One would be forgiven, if at first, they did not know what to make of the juvenile and simple scrawl of a song. I would imagine that some might even find Johnston’s work to be a case of the emperor wearing no clothes. Though I would forgive that thought initially, hopefully by the time one sifted through the entire album, and listened closely to its final track "I Remember Painfully," one would jettison such wrongheaded notions.

"I Remember Painfully" is a savagely sad and hyper-literary song that defies all songwriting logic, it is a classic and excruciatingly destructive ballad written in a sad and innocently angry hand: “And I remember you at the funeral shaking hands and hanging coats. And I remember you standing pregnant at the art room. It was weird, but what is it now, it’s pain.” And then: “When I saw you at the department store I said, “Have a nice baby.” You were standing happy. I left you with that smile on your face. Years later I was hitchhiking and that mortician picked me up. Then he said to me, he said ‘good luck.’” Yip/Jump Music is Johnston’s most lucid and well-written work, before his psychosis bloomed and his lyrics became increasingly (more) childlike, biblically oriented and weirdly psychedelic.

Much has been made of Johnston’s mental illness. Besides for perhaps his music, his lunacy has formed the greatest bulk of the singer/songwriter’s myth and renown. Like other, somewhat similar, artists—Skip Spence, Roky Erickson, Syd Barrett—some of Johnston’s fans subscribe to a kind of cult of mental illness, meaning that many seem to ascribe a certain amount of credibility to Johnston’s creative output (he has also become a popular visual artist) because of his long history of mental troubles. It seems as if some have made him into a chaste vessel of truth and purity for having a history of psychosis. Johnston seems to have, over the course of his life and career also become a kind of damaged trinket or ornament for celebrities; a badge of legitimacy (or a shirt, as it were) to wear.

I would hope that people would take Johnston’s music for what it is worth, not because he has spent great portions of his life deranged and in some cases quite destructive. Mental illness is no great claim to artistic legitimacy—there are far more great songwriters who have managed to get by without being institutionalized than the other way around. Johnston is a singular talent though, managing to make something quite breathtaking out of musical detritus and a very strong, vividly emotional lyrical style. Yip/Jump Music is a triumph of simplicity, heart and shockingly proficient and unique songwriting. If poor recording technique, ramshackle instrumentation and deficient musicianship are not attractive to you though, and you are still curious about Johnston, I would start with his major label debut, 1994’s Fun, which is a more proper affair.



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