Wood Jackson

July 31, 2014

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Wood Jackson.

[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.*

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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…

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“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.

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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.

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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.