[The Legendary Stardust Cowboy] is an outsider artist, he’s playing with a different deck of cards…[and] Daniel Johnston is like a one-man Brian Wilson/Beach Boys. He comes out of Austin, Texas, also another lad who had a lot of problems with thinking. He was in different institutions and hospitals all his life and would make funny little cassettes of all his songs, on an out-of-tune piano or guitar: beautiful, poignant, sad little pieces. And he’d take them into the local comic shop and swap the cassettes for comics.
Bowie to Paul Du Noyer, Mojo, 2002.
I bet you never knew
What I went through
What I had to do
Just to bring you a lonely song
Daniel Johnston, “A Lonely Song.”
In early 1972, as Bowie was finishing Ziggy Stardust, a teacher from the University of Kent in Canterbury named Roger Cardinal published a survey of “marginalized” artists, some of whom were schizophrenic and confined to mental institutions. Cardinal wanted to call his book Art Brut, honoring the term the painter Jean Dubuffet used for such artists, but his publisher blanched, wanting “something more easy to get on with the English ear.” So Cardinal went through hundreds of potential titles (one was “the art of the artless”) until settling on Outsider Art.
Given a name, the genre soon accumulated critics, collectors, exhibitions. But reviewing Cardinal’s book in the New York Times, Corrinne Robins pinpointed flaws of his approach: the conflation of surreal, obscure artists with artists who suffered from schizophrenia; the treatment of these artists as Noble Madmen (with an element of the freakshow to it); the idea of “outsider art,” because of its lack of technique, as being more “pure” than the contemporary art scene. As Dubuffet said in 1951, “Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses—where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere—are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals.”
Once the art world became a wing of the stock market in the Eighties, the idea of outsider purity further blossomed, even though outsider art itself became more collected and so more valuable. It could seem as if the only remaining uncorrupted artists were Sunday painters, odd grandmothers, troubled children, Jesus enthusiasts, recluses and hermits, few of whom were recognized in their lifetime. And at its best, outsider art truly was visionary and astonishing: James Hampton’s The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly, a new Ark of the Covenant that Hampton built in a rented garage (see below), or Henry Darger‘s 15,145-page illustrated epic The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal.*
I think David thought that he was more practical and that they were loonier artists in the real sense of artists as madmen. He felt guilty. Because David was never a madman [and] how could you be a really good artist without being a madman? And now he had two of the maddest madmen in the world, one on each arm.
Danny Fields, on Bowie’s recruitment of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop in 1971.
Bowie had become taken with “outsider” painters while working up Leon/Outside in the mid-Nineties (visiting the Gugging Clinic’s artist wing with Eno), but his affinities for musical outsiders went much further back. As a teenager, he sought out the professional or actual deranged, in part inspired by a favorite book of his adolescence, Frank Edwards’ Strange People, a chronicle of various real or fictional persons who had ESP or third eyes or who’d been struck by lightning and now could talk to ghosts.
His love of oddballs like Biff Rose and Ken Nordine, and of the “feral” Iggy Pop, stemmed from this. He savored performers who lived in their own bright, strange worlds, whose moves didn’t seem calculated, whereas his entire career had been nothing but calculation. His discovery of the Legendary Stardust Cowboy was another glorious find (and of course Ziggy Stardust was the marriage of Iggy and “The Ledge”). Bowie was fascinated by the singer. Was “The Ledge” a put-on, or was he actually insane? Did he really think he could sing? Was he a genius or some talentless clown? The Cowboy’s appearance on Laugh-In offers the 1968 equivalent of a crowd baiting a medieval fool. (See next entry.)
Punk and indie rock purists (I’ve been and known some in my time) followed a similar route. The more obscure and penniless the band, the more mentally disturbed the singer, the better. It became a game of oneupmanship: who can find the biggest unknown weirdo? When I visited an old high-school friend in Chicago in 1995, he pulled out a cassette from “this unbelievable fucked-up amazing homeless dude” and played me Wesley Willis. Every song seemed to have the same refrain: Kurt-Co-bain, Kurt Co-bain; Re-tard bus, re-tard bus. “It’s amazing, amazing,” he said, laughing a bit too hard. Something felt off about it all—sitting in his brick-walled loft apartment in Wicker Park (we were far away from the old punk days by now), listening to and laughing at a man who sounded mentally disturbed.
The tunes they call creative when they’re running out of names…
“Wood Jackson,” though Bowie didn’t quite admit it to Paul Du Noyer, was his tribute to the musician Daniel Johnston. (The name possibly came from an SF pulp writer; another Nicholas Pegg suggestion, a reoccurring private eye character of the mystery writer M. Scott Michel (“Wood Jaxon”), seems less likely, though as it is Bowie, you can’t write anything off).
Born in 1961, Johnston kicked around the country and wound up in Austin, Texas, where he worked at McDonald’s and was a musician who handed out demo cassettes; sometimes, as Bowie mentioned, he bartered with his tapes for comics. Taken up by Austinites, who have a studied taste for the eccentric, Johnston appeared in a few local concert films and was recruited by the New York producer/musician Kramer, with whom he recorded his first professional record, 1990. His reputation was made on his self-recorded cassettes of the Eighties, though, particularly Hi, How Are You, whose cover Kurt Cobain often sported as a t-shirt.
Johnston suffered from manic depression and suffered schizophrenic episodes. Convinced he was Casper the Friendly Ghost, he nearly killed himself and his father in 1990 by yanking the keys from the ignition of a two-seater plane, forcing his father to land the stalled plane in a forest. Committed to a mental institution after causing an old woman to leap from a two-story window (he was trying to exorcise demons from her), Johnston also rejected a deal by Elektra Records (the label of Metallica, whose music he considered Satanic) to keep issuing his own tapes.
These stories gilded his legend. “When a child hits a piano, he makes untainted music, and that’s there in Daniel,” Spiritualized’s Jason Pierce once said. This “untainted” art ideal went back to the counterculture and far beyond—the idea of the child’s nascent creativity as a pure state, untouched by ambition or money or labels or journalists. The child may not know how to draw a straight line, but what matter? A bourgeois sniffing in a gallery that a child could draw that! was a badge of honor for modern painters.**
Everything about Johnston—his wavering, sometimes-tuneless voice; his lack of interest in production “values”; his vivid imaginative world (which resembled Henry Darger’s with its battles of light and dark by cartoon avatars); his artless, seemingly stream-of-consciousness lyrics (“hearts upon his sleeve and his blade,” as Bowie sang)—was a rebuke to the singer who takes two weeks to cut a lead vocal, the guitarist who’s deliberately referencing John Fahey in a riff, the lyricist who makes Sartre references or spins intricate rhyme schemes. He was an artist’s “anti-artist.”
As Sean O’Hagan wrote, this all removed Johnston’s agency, ignored his intelligence and his own self-awareness, to make of him a sort of Holy Fool for indie music. To wax how “untainted” Johnston’s music is, to rack up the stories of his breakdowns and institutionalizations as if they were batting statistics, is to diminish Johnston as a human being, making him some primitivist art project for your secret benefit. You hear something in Johnston—a deep privacy, an inner richness that dwarfs your own—and you eagerly pass him on to others, and soon it’s easy to regard him as an exotic object; you become a collector, a Victorian slum-tourist, despite your best intentions. But Johnston was aware of the game. Listening to Johnston’s songs, you can hear cynicism and sadness, a weariness at life and the role he’s been assigned in it.
Released as a B-side but recorded in the Heathen sessions, Bowie’s “Wood Jackson” had ties to “Uncle Floyd,” another song about an obscure “savant” figure who never quite made prime time. If “Wood Jackson” was Bowie’s interpretation of a Johnston song, rather than cutting it on four-track or a boombox cassette, he made his track as spacious as a three-story house. It was as though he was making the song that Johnston was hearing in his head.
Bowie also couldn’t resist playing on his own history, with references to “The Bewlay Brothers” (“to tayke away“) and “All the Madmen” (see Tony Visconti’s recorder accompaniment). It’s a man going back over old ground, looking for landmarks. “Bewlay” and “Madmen” were songs about his lost half-brother, his odes to madness, his pledges of allegiance to the raving men who lived in a way that he couldn’t. As with the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, all Bowie could do was tip his hat to Johnston and use him as the meat of a song.
It opens with Jordan Rudess on Hammond organ, a grand version of the toy organ Johnston would use. A Matt Chamberlain drum loop, Visconti’s bass and David Torn’s sliding, spectral lead guitar are other main players. Bowie’s Wood Jackson is both Christlike (taking beatings, being threatened by mobs) and Satanic, giving away his cassettes in exchange for souls. Such a shay-hay-hayme, Bowie sings. Jackson just wants to play: he just wants to be heard, not pitied or honored.
Back when Heathen seemed like one of Bowie’s last records, a track like “Wood Jackson” had finality—it was the last word on old obsessions: the raving men, the mad saints, those who’d burned more brightly than him. And it was a confession of sorts: he’d used these sad, lonely men for his own ends, he’d tasted their madness and their eccentricities, and had stolen from them happily. Now he was saying goodbye, shuffling off, wishing them well.
One of his saddest and loveliest B-sides, with its autumnal vocal melody, its jostling rhythms (see how the shaker and congas play off each other, or how the late-arriving acoustic guitar serves as another percussion line) and its gorgeous tapestry of organ, guitar and backing vocals (Bowie and Visconti), “Wood Jackson” still seems one of Bowie’s last chapters, regardless of where it now falls in his work.
Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 5 June 2002 as a CD bonus track on the “Slow Burn” EC single (ISO/Columbia COL 672744 2) and later in the UK on the “Everyone Says ‘Hi'” single.
* The influence of Darger on early 21st Century pop culture is near-inescapable, from the band Vivian Girls to the cover of Animal Collective’s Feels to John Ashbery’s Girls on the Run to a photo spread in Rookie and so on.
** I have a London friend whose mother was rather set in her ways. He took her once to the Tate Gallery and she spent the entire trip tromping from painting to painting, each time saying loudly, “Well, I could’ve done that!” After a time he started mumbling “but you didn’t, did you” under his breath. “Never take your mother to an art gallery,” he said afterward.
Sources, quotes: Robins, “A Vocation for Madness and Art,” NYT, 8 April 1973; Willem Volkersz, “Roger Cardinal on Outsider Art,” Raw Vision No. 22; Fields quote from Marc Spitz’s Bowie; O’Hagan, “At War With His Demons…and Metallica,” Observer, 1 April 2006.
Top: Darger, “GIGANTIC ROVERINE WITH YOUNG ALL POISONOUS ALL ISLANDS OF UNIVERSAN SEAS AND OCEANS. ALSO IN CALVERINA ANGELINIA AND ABBIEANNA,”; Hampton’s Throne; Kurt Cobain sporting Daniel Johnston t-shirt, ca. 1992; more Darger; Simon Sparrow (b. West Africa, c. 1925; d. USA, 2000), Assemblage with Painted Frame.
I am with deep appreciation to you for continuing to add to this compelling history of all things Bowie. It is indeed a labor of love and one that has answered many questions about his past and present life and creative influences. Would love to have this chronicled in book format. Thank you so much!
1. Good God, how did I never hear this gem before? It’s gorgeous, and very Syd Barrett. Like Emily, Wood “just wants to play” (rhymes with “pie”, of course, the way “sane” sounds like “sign” in the Bowie mockney). But his eccentricity puts him on a collision course with society.
2. I’ve met Daniel Johnston a couple of times. The image that lingers is of him at the opening of the 2006 Whitney Biennial, which featured his drawings. He had a surprisingly trendy Paul Weller haircut, and seemed to be holding court rather articulately. It was, in a sense, his art world apotheosis.
3. That’s the thing about Outsider art: the very thing that makes you appealing to the art world (your otherness, the sense that you can’t be tamed) leads to your assimilation and capture. Knowing how much to give and how much to hold back is the thing. Knowing when to play the game and when to rebel. These things are, I think, instinctual.
4. This is a wonderful write-up. I’d take issue slightly with the idea that Bowie is all calculation and Johnston all splurging insane spontaneity. Certainly Bowie coyly mentions in his Cavett interview that he’s reading Machiavelli. His interest in mind-control and manipulation is no secret; I call him a “dybbuk”, because he steals souls with glorious charm and efficiency.
5. But interestingly enough Bowie sees Johnston in this song as doing the same thing, just on a slightly less industrial scale; he “stole twenty souls a day, and no complaints”. And I think that’s right. It’s not that one is “outside” and the other “inside”. These things are all relative.
6. Sanity and insanity scale into each other. Is it sane and calculating to declare bisexuality or mar the commercial potential of a catchy song with a lyric about a character falling wanking to the floor? It might be a ploy to court the gay subculture, but it’s a high-risk strategy. And do the insane talk up their art at a museum opening, wearing a fetching feather-cut?
7. I think a better term than “calculation” is needed, though I’m not quite sure what it might be. Something to do with the hipster’s instinctual sense when something is “coming” or “over”.
8. I was interested to read in a recent Iman interview that Bowie spends a lot of his time “making his money work for him”. Which suggests calculation. Bowie’s next statement (a message read out at a gay benefit) stressed that he’s working on new music. But a part of me thought: “He’s just saying that to counter-balance Iman’s statement about the money thing, because he thinks it looks uncool to be seen to be doing nothing but that.”
9. So even the distractions from calculations may be calculated.
10. The difference between a kitten and a lion is mainly one of scale.
Wood Jackson would make an amazing cover, if you’re taking requests…
Re calculation: a proper mathematician might want to comment but, to most people, myself included, who never went further than GCSE maths, a calculation is a simple thing and the answer is either right or wrong. I like the point in Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently books, that catching a ball actually involves differential calculus (I don’t know if it does), but you make the calculation instinctively. The more you look into it the more one concept flows into the other.
This song. My experience with Wood Jackson takes me back to your entry for ‘sound and vision’. A few years back I hit a particular low point in my personal life, it seemed that everything that could go wrong did go wrong all in a very short space of time. I found myself listening to a particularly sombre playlist that I had made previously which contained this song. And I played this song over and over again, more than any of the others. I couldn’t get away from it, I didn’t want to get away from it. It was the perfect song for my mood at the time. Feelings of futility, of rewardless struggle and of course being on the outside of things. On a fairly regular basis I will go back and listen to it, usually a couple of times on repeat and it doesn’t just bring back memories, it transports me back directly to a time and place and all the sights, sounds and smells associated with it. But the song doesn’t bring me down, in a way its a symbol of a very important turning point in my life. Thankfully I am in a far better place these days. Wood Jackson is by far the song, any song, that I have the most personal relationship with. It suits the hipsterish narrative that it would be an obscure B side! Hey Hey
And on the song itself, One gripe of Bowie’s output from Hours right through to The Next Day is generally I don’t like his choice of keyboard sounds. Often they are thin, stock sounding affairs. So the appearance of the hammond organ instantly lends the song weight. It is a heavy song and probably its timbral similarities with Slip Away kept it off the album. I love the production, the drums are right up front and lets the restrained music just shift around in the background. Torn’s guitar is perfect, getting so much out of very few notes actually played. Bowie’s vocal is delicate and expressive. I love it all. Surely one of his greatest non-album tracks.
This is lovely, so lovely even the slow-mo funky drummer percussion can’t spoil it. I can hear Syd Barrett in it too. If time travel was possible it could hop back to 1993 and slot very nicely onto TBoS.
Much better than Cactus… My word that song’s awful… I’ll get me coat…
Listen to the descending organ chords that open Pink Floyd’s Arnold Layne; pretty much identical to this. And of course Bowie would stand in for Syd in a live rendition of Arnold Layne in 2007.
or maybe as well a bit of Lennon-ish descent, cf. ‘cry baby cry’? I’ve never heard this before; lovely song, and fantastic write-up as always.
Thanks for shedding light on the possible meaning behind this song.
Although I’ve always enjoyed its’ grandiose melancholy (I would even go so far as to suggest that it could have been included on Heathen at the expense of Slow Burn, although many posters on here would disagree emphatically), as a B-side I never bothered to delve into it too much.
Your insights into Daniel Johnston and the life and work of Henry Darger in particular were fascinating. I would disagree with Danny Field’s assertion though that Bowie surrounded himself with the likes of Lou Reed and Iggy Pop because “David could never (be) a madman” himself. I don’t know what other term could possibly be applied to a person who allegedly used to store his own urine in the fridge to prevent wizards from using it.
All paranoia aside, just on a practical note here, you’d think that the best way to actually prevent someone from accessing your urine in the potential practice of black arts, would be to do what 99% of humanity does and simply flush it down the toilet.
As is my motto with Heathen’s B-sides and outtakes, if only this was on the album instead of A Better Future.
I know a lot of people get frustrated, not this song in particular but in general, with Bowie ‘showing his age’ on Heathen but I really think the album is him as near to the top of his game as he could get.
I agree this should be on there. But I adore A Better Future. I’d gladly lose Waiting or Slow Burn, however.
Off topic, but for what it’s worth, Wesley Willis was a rather charming and friendly individual once you got around to meeting him. It’s a shame his memory is largely reduced to minstrelry by puerile fratboys when there are several documentaries that treat him like a human being.
Having seen one of those documentaries, I also feel that it’s necessary to point out how many of his songs were meant to be as funny as they are. People may have been laughing at him for all the wrong reasons, but he had a genuinely good sense of humour.
just to clarify what I hope came through in the post: yes, both Willis and Johnston are far more subtle, funny and self-aware than their broad reputations suggest. I do think the Johnston documentary (from mid 00s) comes close to “oddball voyeurism” a bit at times
Another lovely piece of writing, Chris.
Wow, I’ve never heard this one before. Fantastic song!
Great write-up. I’ve always been of two minds regarding the cult of Johnston and, especially, Wesley Willis. I understand the allure of naïve art, but detest the Romantic notions that accrue around it. Anyway, I’m just rehashing what you and other commenters have expressed far more eloquently.
Can’t wait for the Gemini Spacecraft writeup. I’ve loved the Legendary Stardust Cowboy since hearing “Paralyzed” on a compilation of eccentric Texan garage rock many years back.
Great song. Possibly the best Bowie outtake ever.
Mate, best blog on the web, like, ever. But, yeah, you should have called the book `Fantastic Voyage’ – Bowiesongs is pretty damn good, though.
Doubt if you’re up for it after this, but have always longed to read commentary of this quality about Another Green World and Before and After Science… (That 331/3 book on AGW is now used as an illustration in the OED for “missed opportunity”)
Excellent entry. Johnston is one of my favourite songwriters and it never once occurred to me that this song could be about him. Now that I read the lyrics it’s quite obvious (I knew Bowie was a fan, but I didn’t realise to what extent).
Another ‘outsider’ (god, I’ve never been comfortable with that phrase) Bowie would be name dropping during this period is ol’ Florence Foster Jenkins, but hers is a very different story indeed!
So much of a fan of both David Bowie and Daniel Johnston that I was recently humouring the idea that Bowie’s Letter to Hermione wasn’t too far from the delusional pining featured in Johnston’s songs about “Laurie”. Right down to unashamedly naming names in the song’s title.
Just moved for a new job in the States, so it’s lovely to come back to a meaty entry like this one. I’m in NYC now, that haven of outsider artists. Perhaps I’ll catch the next savant phenom singing on the subway (or Mr. Jones himself?)…
I’m definitely a sucker for those who beat on the outside. Moondog, The Shaggs, Shonen Knife, Daniel Johnston, etc. Yet the appeal seems multidimensional.
The occult interpretation of the “Fool” card in Tarot captures the savant mythos perfectly. There’s the most obvious depiction: either a court jester or a vagrant, the butt of everyone else’s jokes. Yet the societal rejection can also be solemnized, and the Fool is seen as an embodiment of the Suffering Servant passages of Isaiah, just like Christ. More importantly, the deeper meaning of the card is the divine state of Nothingness; the transcendent bliss of the Holy Fool. There’s inspiration, admiration and derisive distance all wrapped up in one package. Most importantly, there’s the knowing wink of the Fool, who’s in on the joke, even if no one notices.
I also tend to liken this to the appreciation of camp, most prevalent in theater, film, and television. Camp is a multilayered thing. There’s the ironic affinity for cluelessness and bad taste. There’s the simultaneous admiration of something truly unique, or larger than life. There’s the sincere honoring or envying of a norm-shattering lifestyle. It’s owning and distancing all at once.
Some less cultured types just stick to the most superficial layer of camp, and laugh at the expense of artists who don’t seem to know better. Most of the “fans” of Wesley Willis that I knew also guffawed at the clumsy execution of The Kids of Whidney High—a school for students with Downs Syndrome. But a proper appreciation of camp brings out the divine light of the village freaks. At the very least, they are humanized, if sometimes over-idealized.
As someone with a documented appreciation of glitter and feather boas, I think that it’s safe to say that Bowie’s appreciation of outsider art is informed by the aesthetic philosophy of camp. If personas are thought to be like costumes to wear and sell, it’s not the authenticity of the madman that is admired, but the freedom and the audacity. As such, Bowie’s tri-part tribute to his beloved madmen feels very much of a piece with the larger themes of Heathen discussed in earlier posts.
The L.A. County Art Museum had an Outsider show many years back, and I was overwhelmed by Henry Darger’s work. Using the most primitive means, he created some of the most powerful images ever of the horrors of war. You are obliged to see them in person – reproduction doesn’t do them justice.
David Bowie’s ongoing committment to rock ‘n’ roll is perhaps his connection to the spontaneity and directness that he perceives in artists like Darger. Without that, his work would probably be unlistenably precious.
A bit late….nevertheless…great post, Chris!
Have never heard this song before, actually, definitely don’t have it. It’s lovely indeed.