The Stranger

THIS YEAR, THE Twin Cities Fringe Festival boasts Visible Fringe. In the U.K.--where "fringe" is slang for what we Americans like to call "bangs"--they could say that I, too, have visible fringe. That's what I got when I tried to layer my hair Farrah Fawcett style, couldn't hide the short bits above my forehead, and ended up sporting a headband of hair not unlike the one worn by the robot child on TV's Small Wonder. But the Fringe Festival defines its visible fringe in a different way: It is a collection of outsider art, including works from the Interact Center--a program for mentally challenged adults--that will be displayed in all of the festival's theatrical venues.

What exactly defines outsider art can be hard to determine: Are the creators supposed to be outside the gallery, outside the mainstream, or out of their minds? Artist Jean Dubuffet may have summarized this school most succinctly when he claimed, "I want to replace Western art with that of...the lavatory, the mental institution."

And here in the mentally taxing waste-management site that is the music editor's office, we also like outsider music, such as Daniel Johnston's recently reissued album It's Spooky (Jagjaguwar). Johnston's identity and status in the music community has grown increasingly strange over the years. The Texan cartoon artist (his alien design adorned Kurt Cobain's famous "Hi How Are You?" T-shirt) and lo-fi folkster has been institutionalized off and on since the mid-Eighties, and gets by on a daily diet of lithium and Elival tablets. He once tried to exorcise demons from an elderly woman he didn't know (the frightened woman jumped off her porch and broke both of her legs as a result). And he noted in a Mondo 2000 interview that he was Paul McCartney's twin brother. This is the kind of trivia that makes one think Johnston's status in the music scene is that of a punch line: a wacky musician that people enjoy not because they're interested in his music, but because they take pleasure in the irony of listening to it.

Yet I would argue that Johnston's music has a kind of haunting immediacy precisely because of the way his mind functions. In the Mondo 2000 interview mentioned above, the delusional musician also asserted that Frankenstein wrote the Beatles' "Yesterday" and that comic-book artist Jack Kirby was a religious prophet. Though factually debatable, neither of these claims is completely unwarranted. McCarthy does sing the emotional ballad with the neck-bolted monotony of the resurrected dead. And Jack Kirby's illustrations about the nature of good and evil do take on religious overtones, even if his version of the Savior does turn gamma-ray green and toss cars around. But while Johnston's "twin" knew he wasn't literally a walrus, Johnston isn't speaking metaphorically. He can't: This is a man for whom Casper the Friendly Ghost is real.

But perhaps this is where Johnston's true poetry lies: Sometimes metaphors are only abstractions, distancing us from our most intense feelings. But if we take metaphorical speech as literal, its emotional lyricism can be piercing. In his songs, Johnston does not try to veil his autobiographical confessions, and that makes listeners uncomfortable. But doesn't the best art always make you squirm a little?

First released in 1989 on Jad Fair's own 50 Skidillion Watts Records label, It's Spooky now comes with six bonus tracks and a video performance of Johnston playing the song "Don't Play Cards With Satan." Pairing Fair (whose primitive music and personal quirks brought cult fame to the Eighties punk duo Half Japanese) with social reject Johnston (who has a genuine lack of music education and strives to be famous) seems like a just coupling. Fair's infantile vocals and Johnston's bang-a-gong drums share the raw energy of an elementary-school punk band. Both musicians exhibit similarly bizarre interests: Many of their co-written songs are loaded with id-powered references to eating McDonald's or thinking about monsters.

It is all too easy to praise the "sane" Fair's songwriting as having a DIY punk agenda while dismissing Johnston's as unintentionally strange. But Johnston's sincerity remains more moving in its simplicity than most folk singers' pretentious analogies. Songs like "Nothing Left" (which has the lyrics "There's nothing left for me now/Nothing to do but cry and cry and cry") and "Tears Stupid Tears" ("I got my feelings bent in my head") don't have the kind of lyrics that one can dismiss as symptomatic of poor Johnston's neuroses. They're too authentic and direct, especially amid an expressive soundscape of untuned guitars and pianos and arrhythmic drums.

If you can understand Johnston's unpolished, off-key music on an intrinsic level, identifying with his feelings, then you can get over the unnecessary guilt of perhaps romanticizing an outsider musician's work. It's an unsettling and complicated form of appreciation, not mere condescension. Duke Ellington said, "If it sounds good, it is good." But to paraphrase rock critic and WFMU DJ Irwin Chusid, if it sounds bad, well, sometimes that's even better.

 

The Visible Fringe collection of outsider art can be seen at festival venues through August 12; see this week's cover story.

 
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