Friday, January 13, 2006

Music Out There: Daniel Johnston and Van Dyke Parks

Time to compare and contrast two new music purchases, since I had so much fun doing that last time.

Fearing that my tastes were too pedestrian, I decided to spend holiday gift certificates on music that was decidedly strange, to wit, Daniel Johnston's "Songs of Pain" and Van Dyke Parks's "Song Cycle." In retrospect, I think that only the latter is truly weird; it is a complex, and even maddening assemblage of snippets of beautiful melodies reminiscent of... well, something vaguely musty and sepia toned, strung together using orchestras playing multiple rhythms that go in and out of phase, à la Charles Ives. The overall effect is stunning, but hard to listen to.

The story behind this album is that Warner Brothers hired former child prodigy Van Dyke Parks in 1967 to create the Next Sergeant Pepper, giving him free reign. A year and $50,000 later (thus making it, believe it or not, the most expensive record ever made up to that point) the album was released in 1968 to great fanfare. Needless to say, the record-buying public wasn't ready for such an album. In all honesty, I'm not sure I'm ready for it either.

I also bought Daniel Johnston's "Songs of Pain," a collection of recordings Johnston made in 1980-81 in his parents' living room on a boombox. Johnston eventually found a cult following that included a fair number of celebrities, but his struggle with bipolar disorder made him unable to reach a mass audience.

I'm left wondering if anyone would consider Daniel Johnston an "outsider artist" if his recordings were professionally made, or if they were ignorant of his mental illness. His music is incredibly straight-forward -- simple direct melodies, truly astonishing in their elegance. The lyrics are sometimes a bit odd, but so are most lyrics. On the other hand, perhaps if the recordings sounded more normal no one would notice them.

In the end then, even when I try to buy weird music I wind up getting normal music that just seems weird.

As a sad footnote, Daniel Johnston was hospitalized recently for various serious health problems. He's out of the hospital now; let's wish him a refuah shleimah.

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