Mental instability has always held a special place in rock music, a genre that prides itself (at one time validly) on its outsider status and reckless disregard for conventional norms. The canon is filled with both literal and figurative lunatics, and rather than pity or even shun them, rock audiences reward these icons of aberrance with legendary status. The record racks at Tower are looking a little Gumpier than usual these days, growing more and more indistinguishable from the self-help shelves at Barnes & Noble. Psychological imbalance isn't so much a side effect of rock-derived fame anymore as it is a prerequisite to it.
Perhaps, at a time when everyone's sanity is increasingly under assault, the public is seeking solace in the empathetic voices of those who have already been there. Maybe it's a '90s twist on the laws of idolatry: We've always required a fatal flaw and subsequent downfall from our heroes, and, in this age of convenience, we've taken to ordering our idols pre-broken. Or maybe it's just simpler rule of human nature: that we're all, in essence, a bunch of heartless fuckers who get off on copping cheap yucks at the expense of those less fortunate than ourselves.
In the case of Austin-based manic-depressive singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston, who graduated from cult status to the big leagues last year with the Paul Leary-produced Fun on Atlantic, it's probably all of the above. For all the talk of Johnston's “genius,” the accolades are inextricably linked to mentions of his mental disorder. In a way, it's appropriate: Johnston's homemade tapes do boast a high voyeuristic value, his troubled psyche virtually unspooling into his faulty tape recorder.
Genius, though? Possibly — such estimations are generally in the eye of the beholder — but one has to wonder if that's the main attraction for Johnston's champions, especially in light of their other fascinations. Fans Sonic Youth and Mike Watt have also cheekily extolled the virtues of Madonna and Huey Lewis; Leary and his Butthole Surfers bandmates are virtual poster boys for puerility who play things like child molestation for laughs.
Johnston, for his part, seems well aware of the ambivalent nature of his following, if the lyrics to “Like a Monkey in a Zoo” are any indication: “I don't have no friends/ Except for all the people who want me to do tricks for them/ Like a monkey in a zoo.” He also seems, by and large, not to care. “(I)f people are making fun of me … then that's just as good, really,” Johnston told Rolling Stone earlier this year. “Maybe I'm more of a comedian than they know.”
One Johnston fan who's not laughing is K. McCarty, who released Dead Dog's Eyeball: Songs of Daniel Johnston (Bar/None) just prior to Fun. “What I really wanted to do is show people who consider Daniel a real bizarre, poke-fun-at-it thing that they're missing the point,” the former singer of Austin's Glass Eye explained in Option. “His music doesn't have to be presented in such a way that his personal eccentricity is the focal point.”
McCarty's mission was a success, though Eyeball is more a testament to her own arranging abilities than the quality of her subject matter. McCarty infuses Johnston's basic blue with a stunningly, well, schizophrenic array of hues; “Wild West Virginia” is an Allmanesque power-chord extravaganza that rolls like the hills it describes, while “Desperate Man Blues” vamps along like a lost Patsy Cline track. Most effectively, McCarty transforms “Oh No!,” a simple piano dirge on Johnston's Retired Boxer tape, into a “White Album” outtake, which surely must have pleased Johnston, who ranked said Beatles' record as his second favorite of 1994 (Eyeball weighed in at 10). True to McCarty's word, there is evident genius in Eyeball's tracks, only it's not primarily Johnston's.
Chicagoan Wesley Willis is another hyperprolific, self-publishing songwriter who's developed a rabid following among the underground musicians of his home turf. And Willis, too, isn't quite right in the head. So we're told on the back cover of Wesley Willis: Greatest Hits (Alternative Tentacles), a collection culled from unreleased material and 10 official discs, all released within the space of a year: “Wesley Willis stands 6'5″ tall and weighs 320 pounds. For years he has sold his drawings on the streets of Chicago. On October 21, 1989, he began hearing voices and is now diagnosed chronic schizophrenic,” it reads.
Willis himself describes his malady early on, in the self-explanatory “Outburst”: “My yelling got me put out of the art store/ The voices in my head cussed at me/ I was yelling like a wild animal,” then, “I freaked out a lot of customers/ I also said, 'Suck my dick,' in front of a lot of people,” he notes, not without a hint of pride. In the more lighthearted cuts, the inimitable Double W imparts nuggets of homespun wisdom in the slice-of-life vein: that people flock to McDonald's to hear the rock music. That Richard Speck is an asshole. That the chicken cow can stab you in the ass when it's cold outside. That the source of his girth is five years' worth of McDonald's greasy burgers, but he's fixing to lose weight.
Needless to say, Willis' oeuvre will not draw much of a “Genius or mere weirdo?” debate. His musical accompaniment recalls Johnston's in its minimalism, but Willis opts for a Casiotone-cheesy, preprogrammed arrangement on his portable keyboard, making him Trent Reznor to Johnston's Jimmie Dale Gilmore. Sounding nearly identical, the songs display a rigid homogeneity: laconic, spoken-word verses; a painfully yowled chorus; and the inexplicable coda of “Rock over London! Rock on, Chicago!,” inevitably tagged with some bit of Madison Avenue detritus (“Folgers, it's good to the last drop”; “Diet Pepsi! Uh huh!”). When one first reads that none of Willis' albums took more than five hours to complete, it sounds impressive. After listening to Greatest Hits, though, one wonders what took him so long. So what's the appeal? The answer should be obvious by now — he's crazy, man!
Or maybe not. Both Willis and Johnston, and/or the people backing them, are savvy enough to parlay mental imbalance into a thriving career. They weren't the first ones — witness Frank Zappa's “discovery” of Wild Man Fischer and the bizarre images deliberately cultivated by mainstream artists like Michael Jackson — and they certainly won't be the last. On the local front, Twisted Image wunderkind Ace Backwords' recently released Telegraph Street Music chronicles the disjointed rantings of Hate Man and Rare, among other East Bay eccentrics. And Chicago's neo-industrial Filter, a sane pair of lads if ever there was one, titled its debut Short Bus, after the modified transport for “challenged” students. “Filter believes that there is much to be learned from the special and the different,” the press kit explains.
Nice thought, really. Now, if Filter walks it like it talks it, we can probably look forward to Chicken Cow: Songs of Wesley Willis sometime soon. Just in time for the Christmas rush, I'm guessing.
K. McCarty plays Thurs, June 22, at the Kilowatt in S.F.; call 861-2595.