How NOT to write about music – 107. Lana Del Rey

lana del rey

She reminds me of Daniel Johnston. Indefensible, really.

Love the opening 1.21 minutes of this video.

Twenty-four hours ago, the first nine songs on the new Lana Del Rey album Norman Fucking Rockwell connected powerfully with me on the 07.37 train to Clapham Junction. I am not into all this California dreaming (the reality of my mundane existence outside my job is too grey for any of that). I do dream of being female, yes. I do think of that hotel where Prince took baths covered in rose petals. Sunset Marquis. All the good girls go to hell. I do occasionally like to recall those moments when I could sprinkle fairy-dust over folk and they would evolve, turn into next level Pokémon. I do not fantasise about being able to say “fuck it, I love you”, though (a lyric Lana lifted from The Lovely Eggs, surely) because the mundane reality of my life outside BIMM does not allow for such fantasies. Maybe it should. But then, I would need to counter the tiredness. And I cannot counter the tiredness. Not without support. And I have no support.

Right now, I just want to listen to the lovely Lovely Eggs. Damn it.

To backtrack a second. I have felt conflicted about my love for Lana Del Rey, since day one really. Angry at those taking her to task over ‘authenticity’. (What the fuck? You don’t call out Springsteen but you call out Del Rey?) Bored of the apparent boredom, the same photograph repeated over and over. I love the way she’s mutated back into whoever she was before Lana Del Rey existed and no one has noticed however (mainly, cos it’s not important). Too many friends whose opinions I value and cannot disregard were voicing their sheer uncritical love for her new album on my social media feeds, however – sure, that sets her up for a fall far as she’s concerned, but fuck it. I love her.

She knows how to do the whole Chan Marshall thing, right?

So yeah. The opening nine or so songs on her new album captivated me, made me switch off the rain and the grey and the crowds and the secondhand smoke smell and those lads boorishly laughing at their own hilarity eight in the fucking morning (but good on them, at least they’re enjoying shit), and made me pull back into my special secret place – the one where I am loved, and can cuddle, and able to decide randomly who to love and when to love – and I felt warmed, given solace. The idea that Lana Del can communicate to me is absurd – correct? – but she can, and she does. That song ‘The Greatest’ is like Berlin or Pat Benator or someone, but from the perspective of… I really don’t know what I am writing here.

She’s my ideal, my New York City to my reality, my Haywards Heath.

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How NOT to write about music – 106. Jad Fair & Kramer

daniel

I’m sorry. I should have been there. I don’t know how it would have been possible and I am scared to venture outside the parameters of my day-to-day existence these days, scared to cross the road, but somehow I should have been there. Jad’s guitar on the following… more even than the beautiful harmonies and keyboards – sum up how I feel. The confusion, the blur of emotions. The futility. The beauty. The distortion.

Thank you Jad and Kramer. Thank you Daniel. Thank you Jeff.

Daniel’s music will live on through the lives of each and everyone of us it touched. It’s easier now, he’s dead: no conflict remaining, just the beauty, stripped-away and laid bare. Stunning in its purity, its innocence. As Daniel intended it to be.

Look at the trees outside. Aren’t they beautiful?

How NOT to write about music – 105. Georgia

georgia

This is boss. This is banging. This is heavy metal. This is my frontal ear lobe, distorted out of shape by the sullen repetitive beats. This is Cristina. This is a (train) ride to nowhere. This is one too many late nights out spent shimmering in a dislocated spotlight, propped up by the bravado brought on by too much alcohol. This is knowledge. This is fantasy. This is a conversation backstage at the Falls Festival in 2008, knowing that whatever happens next will change everything. This is Robyn. This is a pulse, pulse, pulse beat. Moving towards the pulse beat. Moving towards the pulse beat. This is a beauty not dimmed by frequency or repetition but brightened, made more elusive and enticing. This is hope against the grey. This is the pair of you – all of you – fighting over my knees. This is disorientation. This is the roof of the Notre Dame Cathedral, a busted closed door, nothing between us and oblivion except that jutting-out gargoyle. This is Giorgio Moroder. This is smart dance. This is a nonstop erotic cabaret. This is the beginning and the end and the whole and the moment, and the feeling of hanging lost, suspended in time. This is Georgia.

Dancing is always smart.

P.S. If you’re looking for more straight-up euphoric pop…

How NOT to write about music – 104. Daniel Johnston (live)

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Reprinted from Collapse Board. This was supposed to be the introduction to my Daniel Johnston book (unpublished).


February 2010

Sydney (Monster Children)

The conversation between Loene, Millie and myself went something like this.
“Looks like it’s going to rain. Let’s go inside.”
“Might not rain.”
“Let’s stay in the courtyard. There’s more room here – and look, here are some beers.”
“It’s going to rain. Let’s go inside.”
“Have you seen the line of kids outside? It’s crazy. Let’s stay outside.”
“There’ll be more atmosphere inside. Also, Daniel’s supposed to be playing an art gallery, not a courtyard.”

So it was the three of us stood, hemmed along one side of Sydney’s Monster Children gallery, sweat dripping from every conceivable pore, no microphone except a clip-on one, Millie blowing sweet gales of sound down her saxophone, Loene wrestling tempests from the guitar, as people asked others asked others, “Is this Daniel Johnston? He looks pretty different in real life.” Meanwhile, close on 500 kids queued patiently outside to get a glimpse of some fellow who might possibly be an Englishman, might not, who cares, it’s free and it’s a happening scene.

Shortly after we finished, the gallery owner announced that as there was no room inside Daniel would be performing on the street and please could everyone keep the beers out of sight and not block the road … so Daniel and his guitarist Brett Hartenbach stepped up to the plate, steps slippery, Daniel being passed his lyric book by his brother Dick Johnston, maybe taken aback by the strangeness of the scene, maybe not, who knows with Daniel? Two songs in, and he’d reduced the audience to tears. Two songs in – ‘Life In Vain’ and ‘Silly Love’ – and then he was gone, sloped off around the corner to smoke a cigarette.

Sometimes, all you need is a massive heart and naked vulnerability.

“He can do that, you know,” remarked his brother afterwards. “Make the magic happen.”

Brisbane (Laneway Festival)
Around me stand members of Australia’s alternative rock aristocracy, watching this man called Daniel Johnston perform: the voice of a child wavering and plaintive, shaking uncontrollably. His voice is so at odds with the reality of his 49-year-old physical presence, it’s surreal. People so want to believe in Daniel Johnston – the idea that anyone can achieve their dream if they stick with it, the illusion of infatuation masquerading as love, the innocence and pain and inability to relate to the adult world …

After an exquisite handful of opening numbers performed solo, or just by himself and Brett, the set is full-on blues rock: Sydney band Old Man River supply the necessary licks and postures, as Dan sings aloud from his omnipresent lyric book – a handful of John Lennon covers, ‘Fake Records Of Rock’N’Roll’ from new album Is And Always Was. He does this everywhere he tours – someone somewhere decides on a bunch of musicians to play on his songs: he shows up, no rehearsals. They perform. At least Old Man River have paid him the courtesy of learning his songs. Many haven’t. Songs from the cult 2006 documentary The Devil And Daniel Johnston are performed. He attempts a couple of jokes. He picks up his lyric book and shuffles off without a backwards glance. Daniel Johnston doesn’t hang around.

Earlier, I’d driven the four of us – me, Dan, Dick and Brett – round the winding, leafy streets of Brisbane. Several times, Dan threw back his head and laughed. “I’m having such a fun time today,” he’d exclaim, knowing that a visit to a comic book store, his one constant in an ever-changing world of tour schedules, is soon forthcoming. He laughs. “This is fun, isn’t it Dick?” His colleagues are more enthused by the fact we’ve just visited Walkabout Creek wildlife centre – home to a real live duck-billed platypus – then picking up more comics, but they go along with the joke.

A week later, on the way to Japan, the travelling troupe is fined nearly $1,400 by Jetstar for the extra weight incurred by Daniel’s comics.

Melbourne (Speakeasy Cinema + Prince Of Wales)
“I don’t want to hear it.”
Sorry … ?
Daniel starts walking determinedly, and quickly, down the street.

I shrug, and walk back to where his brother is standing. All I’d tried to do was tell Daniel how I’d tried to show the dragons in Chinatown to my four-year-old son last time I’d visited Melbourne. “Guess you better take this back, Dick,” I say, giving him the $100 note that he’d passed to me. (He’d slipped it to me, under the pretence of me taking Daniel to dinner.)

“Sorry about that, Everett. That’s just how he gets sometimes.”

It had started so well. When I’d arrived at Daniel Johnston’s hotel room the day before, he’d greeted me effusively, like a long-lost buddy, grabbing my hand, talking fast and enthusiastically the way he does: “Hey Everett! Come on in, buddy. I’ve got a load of new comics here! Want to go get something to eat? We could do an interview. You wanna get something to eat? Let’s go!”

So we sat outside the hotel, outside a sushi bar, Daniel scattering most of his food on the pavement for the sparrows, laughing in delight when they took the food. He smoked a few cigarettes, we talked some: about his early recordings which he only ever put on to tape as a way of a thank-you to the handful of art college friends who’d made him feel so special; about his days as a travelling carnie in the mid-80s (where he wound up living in Texas, minus his necessary medication); of the bidding war between Atlantic and Elektra Records that took place while he was institutionalised, that only happened as a result of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain wearing his Jeremiah The Frog T-shirt; even of a weird incident in the early 00s when a Japanese girl decided she was going to marry him and moved out to Waller, Texas …

We walked back to the hotel, Daniel bubbling and excited.

“Hey, you want to talk some more? We could talk some more! Let’s sit down on the couch right here!” Sure, but shouldn’t we find Dick? Maybe we should go upstairs and find him?

And – all of a sudden – Daniel was like:

“Thank you, interview’s over.”
I know that. I was just saying…
“Thank you. Interview’s over.”
And he storms off.

It made it awkward at the Speakeasy that night. I was supposed to be conducting a live Q/A session with him between the two screenings, and performing another spoken word set. So Dick and the PR colluded to move Daniel outside while I was on stage with Brett – Dick had figured Dan didn’t like the attention being paid to me, and furthermore hadn’t liked the question about his Japanese suitor.

So Brett played some of Daniel’s songs on the guitar while I recounted the tale of my first encounter with Daniel Johnston in front of a large, scarily reverential audience: through my initial shocked, cynical laughter at hearing Hi, How Are You? through my almost immediate conversion – partly because of shared experience: the same inability to cope with girls, the same way we’d used the Beatles songbook The Compleat Beatles to learn and pound the piano, the same love for the same comic books (Jack Kirby, Marvel Comics) – through a strange visit from his ex-manager Jeff Tartakov to my house in Brighton in 1991 when he’d instructed us to hide all the knives and had passed along to me a Daniel Johnston T-shirt with a picture of Jeremiah The Frog on its front…

All this was punctuated by Brett’s beautiful guitar (including ‘The Story Of An Artist’ – a song Daniel never plays on stage anymore), and building up to the incident where I’m having a three-way argument with Kurt Cobain (referred to as “my mother” in the piece)and his wife in LA in 1992: us, mocking his taste in T-shirts and pointing out that folk take notice of what he wears on his chest, him whining that he doesn’t own any T-shirts by bands he likes (aside from the homemade Flipper one, presumably) and me saying, “Look, I have this Daniel Johnston T-shirt, but you have to promise me that you’ll wear it cos it’s my favourite shirt, and really special to me…”

“Yeah yeah , Everett. Of course I will.”

And because Kurt never liked the idea of taking anything for free, he swapped it for a Pearl Jam shirt that featured insults hurled the band’s way by music critics (both he and I despised Pearl Jam). So I wore that, and he wore the Daniel Johnston T, and the rest … well, the rest is right up here on stage next to me, almost physically pushing me aside, now he knows that it’s his turn.

“Thank you, Everett, for that introduction,” he barks.

And once again, the three songs performed – including a truly tear-jerking ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’ – Daniel performs with Brett are magical. The crowd is spellbound, rapt.

“Don’t worry too much about it, Everett,” Brett says the following day. “He sometimes gets like that. He was like that towards me for a whole tour once. And then the next time he saw me, he gave me a massive bear hug.”

Welcome to the world of Daniel Johnston.

 

How NOT to write about music – 103. Daniel Johnston

Here is something I wrote about Daniel for my International Pop Underground series on the Domino Records website several years back.

I cannot write anything else now. I am too sad.

R.I.P. Daniel. I hope you find the peace in death you struggled to find in life.


Hi, How Are You?
(Stress/Homestead, 1983 / 89)

I first heard Daniel’s plaintive, wandering voice back in the late 80’s. My old best friend from my teenage years was round at my house in Cricklewood, London; he wanted to hear something different. So we slapped on this odd-looking record with a picture of a bug-eyed frog monstrosity on its sleeve. Our first reaction: hysterical laughter. Here was a guy clearly so deranged he couldn’t sing properly, couldn’t draw properly (witness the cover art), couldn’t write songs… yet was still allowed to make records. Oh, what a grand jape.

Days later, I listened to it again. My reaction: it reduced me to tears. Taken in solitude, his voice shook with an almost unbearable loneliness and pain; his songs were naive, direct, deeply moving. Not only that, but the way his voice wavered and shook with dysfunctional desire for females he might once have met on the street, and the need to fit into regular society, reminded me of my younger self. When I was 15, 16, I used to pound the keys on my family’s piano for hours on end, playing my Beatles songbook from beginning to end, adding new meanings and words of my own, repeating phrases endlessly, trying to make sense of life and failing, dismally.

Daniel had reached a step further on from my more naive, purer self, though. He wrote his own pain.

I investigated further, and discovered that he used to wander the streets of Austin, Texas trying to sell his home-made cassette albums to anyone he met. That he had been in and out of mental institutions for most of his life. That he had once tried to push a man out a second-story window, that he was obsessed with a girl named Laura who very probably wasn’t even aware of his existence, that he thought some people to be possessed by demons. That there was something deeply disturbing about his personal life.

But hell, I didn’t care about that. It was his songs; his simple, incisive, painfully lonely songs, that I was interested in, that I couldn’t stop playing. Not the freakshow. It was his voice that moved me, his high, almost falsetto quaver that moved me as profoundly as any bluesman of old. Not the freakshow. Daniel loved The Beatles and Casper The Friendly Ghost (his alter-ego); he couldn’t communicate with girls any which way. I could certainly relate to that. I was still a virgin at the age of 23. (No. Not through choice.)

One by one, I tracked down all of his dozen or so tapes. One by one, I bought the CDs and listened to the stories and to the hipsters who had by now picked up on him. Later, I even gave Kurt Cobain my much-cherished ‘Hi, How Are You?’ t-shirt, on strict instructions that he was to wear it in photo shoots, to give Daniel a much-needed boost of publicity, so he could release more songs. This was after Kurt had complained he never had anything decent to wear for magazine interviews. He eventually swapped it for a funny anti-Pearl Jam top and I later received my shirt back. Which was kinda sad, I guess.

And still I wrote about Daniel, about how he moved me, to tears and beyond…

Once, his ex-manager stayed at my Brighton house and freaked out when I laid a knife on the table. Later, he sent me a signed copy of Richard Meltzer’s ‘The Aesthetics Of Rock’ (one of the first rock criticism books) released originally in the 60s, reissued with a Daniel Johnston cover. A few years later, I met the French A&R man who signed the poet to Atlantic and he gave me a drawing or two. A few days later, my bag got stolen from a hotel room I was lying comatose in at the time. I couldn’t believe it. Fortunately, the bag was found abandoned in a nearby bin; passport and Gameboy missing, but drawing intact. Some people just wouldn’t recognise soul even when confronted with it. The A&R man asked me if I wanted to interview Daniel, but I heard he was ill, so I declined…

And meanwhile, acts like Yo La Tengo and The Pastels and Jad Fair and Sonic Boom were covering his songs, sensitively, soulfully, but never as movingly as the original…

And always I dreamed of the day I would see Daniel live, but I was scared; scared that in the flesh he might disappoint, that the assholes who would doubtless be present with me would spoil my excitement, charge my consciousness with the wrong emotions…

And then, one weekend in 1998, I travelled down to Portland for a music conference, more by coercion than design…

Photography: Steve Gullick