Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Under The Influence

Each month we pick an influential band or musician that you might not know so well and tell you how they have influenced those you do. This month we are looking at the crazy-ass, Casper-the-Ghost loving, singer/songwriter, Daniel Johnston. Johnston, a diagnosed schizophrenic, has often led a life that has overshadowed his music. That life was brought to focus a few years ago in the terrific documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, where we learned about his long list of inappropriate (to say the least) behavior. We learned, for instance, that Johnston once tried to crash a plane his father was flying on purpose because he thought he was already a ghost and also how Johnston once scared an elderly woman so much (believing that she was Satan) that she jumped out of an apartment window (a few stories up) to escape (she lived). But all that would be relatively uninteresting if it wasn't for the other thing that Johnston does - make heartbreakingly sad and sincere pop tunes. Although Johnston is far from a talented musician technically speaking, he has an uncanny knack for melody and the type of touching lyrics that only a self absorbed, clinically insane person could get away with. Much like the late Vic Chestnutt, it's Johnston's limits as a musician that emphasize how much he needs it in his life to express himself, elevating what could be written off as sloppy musicianship to a rare form of high-art. But don't just take my word for it. Here, a list of music-makers who cite Johnston as a major influence.

Kurt Cobain
Often seen wearing a t-shirt that depicted the front cover of Johnston's album, Hi How Are You? Cobain was both a huge fan and deeply influenced by Johnston's work, which can be heard in a song like "Pennyroyal Tea."

Mark Linkous, the brains behind Sparklehorse, is basically what Daniel Johnston would be if he were a fully functioning human being that didn't go around trying to kill devils all the time. Linkous has gone on to produce a tribute album for Johnston and his music is heavily influenced by the troubled singer in the best possible way. The two artists' parents have even become friends over the years!

While you might not hear it in a spazzed-out, electro-funk anthem like "Where It's At," take a listen to Mutations or even Sea Change to hear the super honest, lost-in-the-world-without-you tunes that Johnston does so well. Not sold? Beck also appeared on the tribute album, The Late Great Daniel Johnston and when you hear him do the song, you hear how easily it could have been one of his own.

Bright Eyes
Daniel Johnston has had such an impact on Conor Oberst that it's really hard to imagine Bright Eyes existing if there were no DJ. Oberst has, in fact, taken Johnston's song, "Devil Town" and made it into a crowd-favorite staple of his own live shows.

Sonic Youth
Though they cite him as an influence, frankly I don't hear it (unless you count the sheer dissonance in their music that for them is experimentation and for Johnston is, well, just how he plays). But there is no denying that they have great affection for him (and incredible patience) as is on display in the movie The Devil and Daniel Johnston.

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