Friday, September 29, 2006

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: DUO, NOT SO DYNAMIC

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
September 29, 2006


Jeff Feuerzeig’s disturbing but strangely heartwarming documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston was finally made available on DVD last week. Even if you saw it when it played in Santa Fe in May, you have to check out the DVD version, if only for the filmed reunion of Johnston and his longtime muse/unrequited love Laurie Allen. I figured she probably had a dozen restraining orders against Johnston, but I guess I was wrong.

This film, in short, is one of the most moving musician documentaries I’ve ever seen (compared with this, the Townes Van Zandt bio-doc Be Here to Love Me is a virtual laugh riot). And even though Johnston is still too dang weird to ever become a “star,” the movie is bound to attract more interest in his music, and a lot of people will inevitably be led to the latest CD involving Johnston.

That would be The Electric Ghosts by Daniel Johnston and Jack Medicine. But, gentle readers, unless you’re already a Johnston fanatic, heed my words and don’t start here.

The CD cover art — a pretty cool cartoon of Daniel as a fat Batman and Medicine as Robin — isn’t an original Johnston drawing and lacks the strange monsters, frogs, or naked female torsos that grace nearly all of his other releases. (There is a Johnston rendition of Casper the Friendly Ghost on the back, though.)

Like other Johnston studio albums in recent years, this one is a radical departure from the lo-fi, hiss-addled cassette tapes of the 1980s that made us love Johnston in the first place.

To be fair, that has to be the hardest part of producing a Johnston album these days. His infamous “basement tapes,” which he used to dub himself and give away on the streets of Austin, are unlistenable to the average Joe. But when you try to make his music more audience-friendly, you take the chance of marring the very spirit that made those recordings such a raw joy to those with ears to hear. Most of the cuts on Electric Ghosts seem slicker and ultimately more colorless than his other albums from the last 10 years.

According to the liner notes, Mr. Medicine (real name Don Goede) was Johnston’s tour manager for three years. These notes, written by Goede, are so self-serving they put Bill Richardson’s press releases to shame.

“You see, Dan loved my music,” he writes in the second paragraph. Later, referring to The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Goede says, “I am proud to say I helped Jeff Feuerzeig the director out a lot with that movie preparing shots for him while Dan and I were touring.” He concludes by thanking Johnston for being “my biggest fan,” and correctly, for “letting me ride his coat tails.”

There you have it.

But don’t get the idea that there’s nothing worthwhile on The Electric Ghosts. The opening cut, “Sweetheart (Frito Lay),” a ’50s-ish melody with echoes of doo-wop, reminds me of the bizarre Mountain Dew jingle (heard in the documentary) that Johnston recorded in a mental hospital.

Johnston’s “cover” of David Bowie’s “Scary Monsters” is almost worth the price of the CD. Let’s just say he takes some liberties with the original, but, after watching The Devil and Daniel Johnston, the idea of the singer being tormented by monsters isn’t just metaphorical.

And, in fairness, one of my favorite songs here is “Blue Skies Will Haunt You From Now On,” which Johnston wrote, but Goede sings. It’s bluesy and spooky to the point of Satanism.

But as I said, new Johnston fans should start the proper way, with those old tapes (some are available on CD) on which Johnston’s cracking voice rises above the tape hiss and cheapo chord organ as he sings his guileless songs of pain and love that will never be. You can find most of them at www.hihowareyou.com. (One good place to begin your journey might be Discovered Covered: The Late Great Daniel Johnston, a 2004 “tribute album” that has one disc of acts like Beck, Tom Waits, and The Flaming Lips covering classic Johnston songs and a second disc of the original Johnston versions.)

Recommended:


Echoes of the Past by Dead Moon. This garage/punk/psychedelic/trash-rock trio from Portland, Ore., is one of the great unsung bands of the last 15 years or so, though I’m a recent convert myself. Fans of The Cramps, Roky Erikson, The Fleshtones, and the Nuggets compilations will welcome this collection of singles dating to the late ’80s.

Even though Dead Moon goes back that far, its beginning is only about the halfway point of singer Fred Cole’s career. He’s been around as long as Roky and is not kidding when he sings, in “Poor Born”: “I’ve been screaming at the top of my lungs since 1965.” He was a member of The Lollipop Shoppe, a ridiculously named band whose mid-’60s single “You Must Be a Witch” can be found in the first Nuggets box set.

Cole’s quasi-falsetto screaming graces most of the 49 songs on this two-disc set, though his wife, Toody Cole, the band’s bass player, steps out front for girl-punk vocals on songs like “Johnny’s Got a Gun” and sings Exene Cervenka/John Doe-style harmonies with the hubby on songs like “Jane.”

One of my favorite moments is Fred’s guitar intro in “Over the Edge,” which reminds me of Robbie Krieger in The Doors’ “The End.”

Dead Moon’s music, though simple, is dark and a little mysterious. Some of these songs could be from the soundtracks of movies about serial killers. Visions of dark alleys and lonesome graveyards will dance in your head.

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