Thursday, November 09, 2006

american hardcore and daniel johnston

two recent music documentaries have caught my attention. american hardcore looks at the rise of hardcore punk across the country in the early 1980s. an interesting piece as both sociological study and nostalgia trip, neither lacking in problematics. the film begins the story in southern california (LA and orange county) and tracks a parallel movement in the I-95 corridor (NYC-DC-Boston), and from there shows a spider's web spreading inward from the coasts. the do-it-yourself ethos and anti-commercialism were really at the heart of this nationwide movement, and this comes out in the movie with a certain exuberance.

i really caught the tail end of it all: mid-to-late high school for me was a transition from euro new wave to american indie music as we would call it now (back then it was "college radio") so that by the time i saw black flag (w/tom troccoli's dog and SWA) at cleveland public theater (july 20, 1985), henry and the boyz were full-on into the metal sound (this was the loose nut tour). by which point the bright lights were the minutemen and the hüskers. besides i was a little scrappy dude and was never going to stake out much turf in a mosh pit, tho i did take an elbow to the jaw at this show that stayed with me for a couple of days. nevertheless, it was not just the thrilling energy of the music that appealled -- and you knew as the energy built up in the pit that when henry shouted "my....WAR" it was all going to explode -- this was all also very political, a fact that american hardcore touches on but never really explores beyond showing footage of both reagan's inaugurations. i knew at age 13 when he was first elected in 1980 that reagan was a fraud, but while the rest of the country seemed awash in blissful ignorance, the only ones who seemed to share what i knew, who spoke to what i knew, were the dead kennedys (also curiously absent from this movie).

so the fun of watching american hardcore was reliving some of that time and those feelings and taking pride in something that i was perhaps only belatedly or obliquely related to, with the nostalgia comes the unpleasant reality that this was largely about pissed-off white suburban males who were in many respects terribly unenlightened.

the devil and daniel johnston easily ranks with genghis blues and in the realms of the unreal as one of the most moving documentaries about the life and work of an artist i've ever seen. (american movie would be another reference point except that johnston and darger are actually brilliant artists in their own ways.)

i didn't know much about johnston beforehand aside from yo la tengo's cover of his song "speeding motocycle" (on genius + love) and that he figured prominently (with syd barrett, roky erickson, nick drake, skip spence, alex chilton) in the ranks of the mad genius singer-songwriter. there was a tiny buzz around him in my freshman year among those small ranks of us who went to see the butthole surfers at the old 9:30 club in september 1985. this was right around when johnston was beginning to promote himself and his music in austin, texas, handing his homemade cassette hi, how are you to anyone who would listen.

what's amazing about the film is the extensive personal and family archives the filmmakers had to work with. johnston was basically a talented but shiftless (or "lazy") kid who knew one day he would be famous, the great irony being that his most significant career opportunities almost always coincided with his most acute battles with mental illness. but he documented the whole journey meticulously -- in this respect the film bears some resemblance to tarnation, both in this and in the jaw-droppingly tragic nature of their subjects' respective plights. regardless, you can believe i will be hunting down some of his CDs.

[note: worth watching among the bonus features is the deleted scene with johnston and gibby hayes of the butthole surfers, which features johnston in a 12-minute semi-delusional diatribe occasionally related to hayes promptings.]

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