A Death in Old Weird America

Sad to wake up to the news this morning that Daniel Johnston has passed away.

My first thought was of my good friend Daniel Mawer who has led countless encore renditions of Johnston’s song “Devil Town” when playing gigs solo or with his bands in and around Hull. It felt like, via Mawer, that the song was adopted by us as a kind of regional anthem for our “crap town”. It is a good anthem for weirdos everywhere.

Johnston is an artist who I feel epitomised a kind of Southern Xenogothic. His songs have always been heralded for their “childlike” qualities, simply because of how Johnston sounds in his nasal lo-fi, but there’s also a deep melancholy and darkness to his writing.

Johnston was perfectly American in that sense. Listening to him this morning before I go to work, I’m reminded of Leslie Fiedler’s point about so much of America’s classic literature. No matter what darkness the Great American Novel seeks to plunder, so many of its works are seen as works for “adolescents”. For Fiedler, this is simply a reflection of America’s own adolescence — its social growth and finding itself — and it is an adolescence like any other, far less innocent that social expectations like to imagine.

Fiedler would often hold up Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as perhaps the greatest and most American of novels, existing uncomfortably as a book for children that nonetheless contains a scathing critique of American social values. How many children’s books today deal so openly with racism, alcoholism, death and murder? The sequence in which Huck and Jim find a naked dead back in a seemingly abandoned house feels like a weirdly classic American excursion, a rite of passage.

This is the same Old Weird America, the same Southern Gothic America, that Johnston occupied as a child-like persona obsessed with monsters and ghouls and death, and in that sense, despite his inimitable cult status, he was an American classic.

He’ll be missed. RIP.

Leave a Reply