Why Does the Devil Have All My Best Songs? Daniel Johnston, David Liebe Hart, and the Living Outsider Artist
I. The Insider’s Desirous Gaze
Some would try for fame and glory;
others aren’t so bold.
—Daniel Johnston, “Story of an Artist”
We attend concerts for many reasons, and in the more obscure corners of pop music, we may worship artists because of peculiar factors. If pressed, we may confess to attending performances mostly in order to play a role in what Guy Debord called “The Society of the Spectacle”; that is to say, we participate in a surface-level experience where the veneer becomes, for us, the core of the event and thereby consumes the artist. This voyeuristic mood is particularly manifest in our fascination with outsider artists, a diverse label applied so widely as to include the reclusive Jandek (who almost never performs and shies from publicity) to the late Wesley Willis, an electronic artist diagnosed with schizophrenia.1 Whether artists acquire the label outsider contemporaneously or ex post facto bears upon their treatment and how we may consume their art. The work of James Hampton, a janitor-gone-visual-artist, was discovered posthumously, so his elaborate altar of garbage was dealt with purely as a memory—there was no spectacle for an audience to misuse and fetishize. In contrast, singer-songwriters Daniel Johnston and David Liebe Hart are currently pursuing their art as outsider artists and are thus all the more susceptible to the effects of spectacle and voyeurism. Here, I will tackle the consequences of Johnston and Hart being labeled outsider artists by captive audiences.
Drove those demons out of my head.
With an organ and a pencil full of lead.
—Daniel Johnston, “Sorry Entertainer”
Before hearing Daniel Johnston perform last August, I read an article in the Stranger that touched on many of my points of attraction to Johnston but slipped into a familiar trap. “It’s impossible to talk about Johnston, of his brilliance and his honesty, without talking about his [being] institutionalized and manic-depressive,” wrote Kelly O in the August 23, 2011 edition. To summarize his undulation between rags and riches, mental institution and cult fame (always cult fame, naturally) has become all but obligatory in accounts of Johnston’s life. To be fair, Kelly O wrote this in praise of Johnston, against a voyeuristic reading of his career that naively overemphasizes his unfiltered honesty and “lack of pretension.”
But this ubiquitous caveat, to frame excellence and sincerity as symptomatic of psychopathology, reflects a broader phenomenon with artists like Johnston, a multivalent spectrum on which he is one type and Amy Winehouse, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and Joy Division’s Ian Curtis inhabit other points. For all such artists, illness, depression, or drug addiction de facto render their work increasingly sincere, and Johnston’s work epitomizes the expectation that the more troubled an artist, the more totally “nothing is feigned or derivative.” Kelly O’s article certainly did not espouse this perspective, but nonetheless, Johnston’s illness is often treated as a crucible through which the listener must pass in order to actually hear the genius behind the simple tunes. It is as if one cannot enjoy him in a vacuum, only if his crackly home recordings echo the Beatles through a screen of illness.2 But this caveat is rarely a point of concern for the listener; it is merely a convenient lens that returns the listener to the seat of power in the artist-listener relationship.
Shortly after he first encountered Johnston, my friend used him as subject matter for a painting assignment. In the painting, Johnston sits on a bed, using the power of his frantic guitar playing to drive away a hoard of demons. This is a motif that writers on Johnston often highlight: the ubiquitous demons who “know [his] name” and present for him a very real, tangible threat and the irreplaceable role that music plays in his fight against them. Songs with such haunted titles as “Devil Town” and “Lonely Orphan on the Run” depict fears of damnation that are hardly abstract. Take for instance Johnston’s belief that demons were behind a record contract offered by Elektra because that label had previously signed Metallica.3 Thus, despite the fact that this deal left ample room for him to deal appropriately with his mental illness, he signed with Atlantic, only to be dropped after his first release proved unsuccessful.
Johnston’s schizophrenia and manic depression form a well-publicized aspect of his career, and the public’s knowledge of these factors somehow makes his music more digestible. Both a luxury and a curse, this visibility differs greatly from the expectations with which listeners approach David Liebe Hart’s concerts. Johnston is framed in the canon of pop music as a sincerely confessional songwriter; the alignment between the mythical characters of his imagination (Caspar, the headless woman, Superman) is seen as devoid of irony. Conversely, before my band opened for Hart, I had every reason to believe that his songs were anything but sincere. Listeners usually discover Hart through the world of the AdultSwim show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! (as I did), Christian Science public access television, or his busking at the curb of the Hollywood Bowl. Like Johnston and his demons, Hart has a thorough, detailed mythology surrounding another world, including a complex, cosmic family tree of (friendly) aliens. However, unlike Johnston’s network of demons, Hart’s aliens seem to be part of the bigger routine of his work with Tim and Eric, work that seems anything but autobiographical. Thus, I naturally assumed his aliens were no more real to him than were the Muppets to Jim Henson.
But during our evening together, before he even performed, I quickly realized that this was no joke and that these aliens and sexual fantasies, which appear throughout his Tim and Eric sketches, were very real. While we set up, he communicated with his alien friends in Redmond via Bluetooth, showed us their languages (as archived on archaic floppy disks), and explained to me that I—being of Scottish descent—was a descendant of the Omegans from Star Kalidan, who colonized Scotland. And as I would later discover in Kevin Schreck’s documentary The World According to David Liebe Hart, the material for his most famous song on Tim and Eric, “Salame,” is grounded in his real-life encounter with an alien named Jezebel, whose big toe is in the middle and who bid him farewell saying, “Go into the light until we meet again. Salame!”4
Both Johnston and Hart are writers who persistently evoke their own lives in their songs, yet only Johnston is framed in this way. Hart, an equally autobiographical and earnest songwriter, is swallowed up in the comprehensively mimetic undertone of Tim and Eric. The sketch-based show consists mostly of celebrities performing parodies of orange spray-on tan surfers, cooking show hosts, and perverted work bosses. But wedged between these painfully obvious jests are segments performed by Hart and others (James Quall and Richard Dunn among them) who are not listed as characters, but as “themselves.” Tim and Eric have the luxury of being listed as “various,” for the multiplicity of their characters mark them clearly as multifaceted parodies.5 They may write and sing uncomfortable songs as outsider caricatures, but the contrast between our concert with Hart and the television show was staggering. Here was a legitimate outsider singing songs about personal struggles with women, “demons in the church,” and being used by the industry.
Here I saw the frightful combination of the fact that Hart is canonized in a certain sense—being propelled by a widely broadcasted avant-garde comedy show—and yet he barely seemed able to make it home from the tour in one piece; he hardly sold any albums during the show. Here he wasn’t known as David, but as “that guy from Tim and Eric.” We thought he was a newfangled Andy Kauffman, but instead we found a man with real stories to tell and nobody ready to hear them. Schreck’s documentary aside, there is little in the way of official press or critical study of Hart, but suffice it to say that numerous others, in the context of blogs and smaller magazines, have articulated a similar experience, transitioning from a portrait of a genius comedian to one of a puppeteer on “the edge of sanity.”6 But often, many of these accounts, such as one from Patrick Fisher’s blog, degrade into pitiful portraits, laying fault with Hart for creating a self-victimizing “vicious cycle” surrounding his dreams of fame.7 This kind of reaction blatantly ignores the factors beyond Hart’s control as an artist, and moreover, it sets a troubling double standard if Fisher believes Hart truly does need clinical help.8 Most importantly, the fact that writers can hold a double standard of this sort betrays their position of power in determining the position Hart occupies. He can conveniently be crazy and funny, without the writers changing their behavior.
III. Scapegoats of the Artistic Sphere
I’m a street musician
that’s my true religion.
—David Liebe Hart, “Street Musician”
Broadly speaking, outsider artists are labeled so thanks to their lack of formal training, a lack that is often augmented in its effects by isolation and being discovered late in life. But a bizarre thing occurs when a living artist is approached and sold as an outsider (Hart markets himself self-consciously on Facebook this way, in fact). If we only intend “outsider” to suggest some sense of being hermetic, it makes no sense to describe living artists who reach out for an audience as outsiders; nobody writing on Bob Dylan would label his hermetic years as his “outsider” period. Instead, artists are often tagged as outsiders in virtue of a mental instability (whether real or perceived) that accretes the lack of classical training or deprives their training of canonical meaning. The label simultaneously becomes a term of endearment, pity, and repressed revulsion. The mental adversity the singer faces, often a universe that is noticeably other to that which is faced daily by the audience, thereby becomes multiplied once it can be manipulated in the public arena.
The ease with which a mob can distort the reputation of its outsiders is of keen interest to René Girard, the contemporary French philosopher most famous for his interdisciplinary insights into the origin of societal evil and violence. The cyclical nature of societal inequality—made manifest in the play between mimesis, scandal, and the scapegoat—is well articulated in I See Satan Fall Like Lightening. Girard sees in the sacrifices of ancient myths an indelible pattern—the mob perpetuates the sacrifice mechanism under the expectation that it will serve to extinguish societal problems—and he sees in the crucifixion of Jesus the upending of this cycle (more on this later). When plagues and war threatened their civilization, these people believed sacrifices served to stabilize the forces of nature. This forms a scandal in which the sacrifice becomes not only a salve to a disaster but the very cause of it. The trigger behind this shift is mimesis. Society relies upon mutual imitation between its members, but that very imitation inevitably gives rise to “mimetic rivalries” in which two parties compete in emulating the others’ desires such that when a crisis occurs for which there is no direct source for blame, the two parties seek targets for blame that have nothing to do with the disaster at hand. This process multiplies, and various smaller conflicts (“all against all”) absorb other rivalries between increasingly large parties, finally conflating to blame one scapegoat, “all against one.”9
In the artistic sphere, the mimesis by which artists emulate one another’s desires takes the form of formal clichés. That is to say, clichés not only are the byproducts of mimicry; less obviously, they constitute the subconscious object of desire after which the artist strives. Yet the original sources of those desires are quickly forgotten (or sublimated,) and the desires become the subject of ridicule. I propose that the artist who is approached primarily as an outsider is scandalized in the same manner as those Girard dubs the easiest targets, those whose “imitation is innocent and trusting,” those more “easily scandalized.”10 Girard’s insights suggest that we don’t scandalize outsider artists because they are different; rather, we attack a perceived mimicry by which they try to achieve social normalcy. The insider feels threatened by outsider artists and makes a mockery of their work. The outsider artist uses the same clichés as the listener and the insider artist but the latter only can don them self-consciously or in jest, having not truly earned them as the outsiders have.
IV. Differences Defused
—David Liebe Hart, “Politricks”
Is one of these two artists a truer outsider than the other? At the close of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Johnston’s parents express worries as to how he’ll take care of himself when they die.11 Neither his fame nor his more obviously confessional songwriting can free him from the risks his schizophrenia has posed in the past. Hart views his meager fame optimistically, using the opportunity to foist himself into the public sphere just as Johnston did in 1980s Austin. Tim and Eric do not seem malicious in their inclusion of Hart, who said in Schreck’s documentary that they have been instrumental in moving him beyond public access television.12 All this is to say that though their methods differ, Johnston and Hart took the same risk in releasing their reputation to the will of the public, and both share a compulsion to create art, compulsions that have found healthy advocates in Adam Papagan (Hart’s co-composer) and Don Goede (Johnston’s former manager, current cassette duplicator.) Neither merely wants attention—both want to create in the world of art. Johnston’s childhood friend the poet David Thornberry says that Johnston “exudes art.” Hart’s similarly insatiable thirst to create is epitomized in his song “Artist and Creator,” a repetitive chant that he creates “from the heart.” Though he considers the caricatures of passersby that he peddles by the La Berea Tar Pits to be the artistic equivalent of “TV dinners,” they nonetheless are his creations, and he takes pride in them.13
A simplistic line of contrast would paint Johnston as one who participates in the canons of pop music and Hart as a crazy street performer whose creative philosophy happened to be picked up by a network television show (albeit a strange one). After all, Johnston makes persistent reference and in-text asides to the pantheon of pop stars and celebrities through his songs and drawings—the song “Living Life” being one of many examples.14 But this contrast ignores important features to both of their careers, art, and personalities. As listeners, we do not arrive at Johnston’s mimicry of pop in an unmediated manner; instead, we first pass through the prerequisite narrative surrounding his mental illness. Yet we only expect to find something behind Johnston’s well-documented mental illness because this reputation precedes him. Conversely, thanks to being framed by Tim and Eric, Hart’s original oeuvre is in a state of arrested development, for his apparent genre encourages a parodic reading. But he also frequently alludes to pop culture: he sold T-shirts at our concert that emulated the cover for the Descendents’ Milo Goes to College, an iconic punk album, and he cites Jim Henson, the creator of the Muppets, as one of many influences.15 Both singers venerate the saints proper to their callings, but Hart is not yet part of the fold, and so his self-awareness goes unnoticed.
V. The Hegemony of the Fame Machine
True love will find you in the end.
You’ll find out just who is your friend.
—Daniel Johnston, “True Love Will Find You in the End”
Given that intrinsic artistic or personality differences between Johnson and Hart are, after further reflection, few and far between, we are left with an unsurprising but crucial conclusion: the expectations of an audience are dependent upon the narrative forces surrounding the artist’s work. The perceived legitimacy of an artist’s outlet determines the semantic meaning of mental illness and one’s outsider artist typology. This means that the living outsider artist is never taken as an outsider; once approached as an outsider, one is not judged on artistic terms but those of a circus—recognized as a performer but never as a legitimate one. This may seem obvious, but it is palpably so to the artists themselves. The landscape is filled with false promises and entities (metaphysical and human) that aim to quench their work. Just as Johnston suspected Elektra records, Hart decried a similar demonic possession in the church itself, citing specific churches from his past in “The Devil’s in Church (Hope Lutheran Church).”16 At our show together, prior to singing this song, Hart claimed that these demons led his ex-wife to leave him for the arms of a corrupt pastor.
The common factor that leads us to be attracted to, to mistreat, and to categorize Hart and Johnston as outsiders is not their sincerity—most listeners don’t realize Hart is singing about himself in the first place. Instead, viewers and listeners circle around Hart and Johnston because their songs are mimetic. Put another way, they, like the bizarre characters of Tim and Eric, are riddled with clichés. And although their struggles are often articulated through unique imagery, listeners do not approach them because they offer something different or unusual in an aesthetic sense, but precisely because they don’t. Outsiders are framed so thanks to the characteristics of the people who frame them; insiders cannot get outside of themselves. Here I disagree fundamentally with readings of such artists that frame them as “nonmusic . . . [that] so insistently yearns for this nonsemantic meaning,” as Barry Shank suggests concerning Johnston. When one frames Johnston as “fetishized sincerity that represented the extreme boundaries beyond which this aesthetic could not stretch,” one ignores that the audience’s attraction is precisely because such songs are so familiar.17 And therein lies the primary offense on the part of the audience, that we blame the outsider artist for our failed attempts to realize clichés in our own art or lives.
Clichés are endemic to every artistic practice, but each time an artist invokes a cliché, there is a corresponding sense of guilt, for the use of a cliché can feel like an escape from creating something more unique. The outsider artist presumably reveals the impossibility of our clichés—as Johnston shows in the trials of unrequited love that he narrates in “Living Life”—because their struggle to realize clichés is all the more difficult, being outsiders. Thus, they become the cleansing object of blame; clichés become crazy, other, and threatening to the mimetic manner in which we normally process them.18 Thus the mob is turned in upon itself, ultimately leaving the outsider artist the more damaged for it.
In the hands of an insider artist, a song so literal about “learning to cope / with the emotion-less mediocrity” would be unsatisfying, but it also would be nothing more than a cheesy pop song. Thanks to the forces of mimesis, the outsider artist arrives at cliché with a different vitality, but only is tolerated so long as the outsider is not viewed as a threat, as someone whose sincerity might reveal the falseness of other clichés. Indeed, once an outsider artist reinforces bourgeois guilt for insincere desires, violence occurs in the form of insincere or ironic adoration on the part of listeners. So artists are either taken into the fold, conditioned into something the industry will take seriously, or left by the wayside. In all cases, however, the outsider status is maintained as it befits the insiders’ needs.
How do we listen to fringe artists without our listening turning into a power dynamic? Here a return to Girard and the autobiographical nature of this inquiry is necessary. Girard illustrates a difference between the mimetic cycles found in myths and found in the Gospels: in myths, “collective murder is essential to the[ir] generation” as they stake out the boundaries of culture, boundaries that are always grounded in violence. Though the Gospels “re-present” the scandal of such sacrifice, Christ’s “love and suffering reveal our violence for what it is.” Put another way, as Christ offers himself, he deprives the scapegoat mechanism of its power. A similar adjustment is necessary to remedy the orientation of insider listeners (such as myself). We must unlearn our propensity to let cliché become a source of envy, recognizing that the uneven demarcation of one population of artists against that of another is inherently violent in nature. Girard hopes to move away from readings of the cross that rely upon a model of “compensation” or “military triumph.” The audience must fight the temptation to confuse the real factor of the victim mechanism with a “theme or motif,” such as the peculiar aesthetics of untrained artists.19 A dangerous double standard emerges when the artist is both paradoxically identified with the spectacle and as an exception that threatens the status quo of that very spectacle. Just as Johnston and Hart accept reputations that are not of their own making, we listeners must make a similar sacrifice if we are to avoid the temptation of violence and exclusion. Otherwise, the risk lies purely in the hands of the artist while the listener has the undeserved privilege of judging the artist’s place in the cosmos of pop culture, free of responsibility
When I finally came to Hart on his terms and ceased to consider him as a product of Tim and Eric, I found that I could approach him with (slightly) fewer false motives. True, his punk songs sound unusual at times—he hardly sounds like Sid Vicious—but his are true stories, and if he can trust me so freely as to divulge them, I now realize that he deserves my self-sacrifice in return. Indeed, I am most responsible as a listener when I perform my most basic function: listening. And so, insofar as it is possible, by attempting to abdicate my insider status and admitting that my listening abilities are inadequate because I fall short of cliché, I can come closer to being a receptacle for the stories of outsiders.
1. The (non)tradition of the outsider artist (and its related problems) is not restricted to music, but the factor of performance and fandom is more complicated in musicians.
2. The Devil and Daniel Johnston, directed by Jeff Feuerzeig (New York, NY: Sony Picture Classics, 2005), DVD.
4. The World According to David Liebe Hart, directed by Kevin Schreck (New York, NY: Kevin Schreck Films, 2010), DVD.
5. The Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, season 1, directed by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, aired 2007 (Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2008), DVD.
6. Victor, “David Liebe Hart: L.A. Public Access T.V. Legend,” Losanjealous, October 13, 2005, http://www.losanjealous.com/2005/10/13/david-hart-public-access-tv-legend/.
7. Fisher, “Suffering from a Broken Hart,” I Live My Broken Dreams (blog), accessed September 25, 2011, http://myperegrination.com/Journal/Entries/2010/1/13_Suffering_from_a_Broken_Hart.html (site discontinued).
8. Given the relative lack of press surrounding Hart’s condition as compared to Johnston’s (whose diagnosis is well documented), I will refrain from labeling Hart mentally ill or stating that mental illness is the cause of Hart’s visions. After all, the purpose of this essay is not to compare the diagnoses of these two musicians (or lack thereof) but to illustrate that diagnosis is not the factor that affects audience expectations for these artists.
9. Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightening, trans. James G. Williams (New York, NY: Orbis,  2001), 22. Italics in original.
10. Ibid, 17.
11. The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Feuerzeig.
12. The World According to David Liebe Hart, Schreck.
14. Johnston, “Living Life,” on The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered (Gammon, 2004), CD. Also see “Story of an Artist,” “Sorry Entertainer,” and “True Love Will Find You in the End” on this record.
15. The World According to David Liebe Hart, Schreck.
16. David Liebe Hart and Adam Papagan, “The Devil’s in Church (Hope Lutheran Church),” on Monsters (Self Published, 2010), CD. Also see “Politricks” on this record and “Street Musician” on The DLH Mixtape (Self-Published, 2011), CD.
17. Shank, Dissonant Identities: The Rock’n’Roll Scene in Austin, Texas (Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan, 1994), 160 and 159.
18. Johnston, “Living Life.”
19. Girard, I See Satan Fall Like Lightening, 141, 143, and 146.
A former intern for The Other Journal’s creative writing section, Nathaniel Rogers finds his greatest joy in playing the role of the catalyst for the creative visions of others. As a musician, he writes arrangements for and helps craft songs with Friends and Family, the Quiet Ones, and other groups. When he works in film, often with SHEP Films, he loves to fine-tune the imagery that serves a director’s vision. And as a writer—aside from the occasional poem—he loves the critical and editing tasks most of all. He lives in Seattle and works a hodgepodge of jobs.