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Daniel Johnston, the old man that sang like a teenager

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by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor for outsideleft.com
Frank Sinatra or Alice Cooper or KISS in their prime wish they had the sense of spectacle and love of a room that weak-voiced Daniel Johnston had at that moment...
by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor for outsideleft.com
Frank Sinatra or Alice Cooper or KISS in their prime wish they had the sense of spectacle and love of a room that weak-voiced Daniel Johnston had at that moment...

I owe a lot to Daniel Johnston.

My first big time writing assignment for the Oxford American was a profile of Daniel Johnston, though I couldn't reach him through the troubles he was suffering around 2007, I told the stories I knew, could verify and what I could feel, acres of words and Marc Smirnoff red-penned three pages worth and said, your story starts here. And it did. I kept the writing game up for a decade until my whims led me back to my guitar and putting voice to my own stories. The first song I covered, embodied in the way little thieves like me do was "I Save Cigarette Butts" by Daniel Johnston, because it spoke to a disjointed weirdness with the world that I felt, the curious path blood flows through our hearts to our busted bloodvessels of frustration and our ebbing tide of relief.

When I was writing my article, my young daughter was in the backseat, subject to my control of the CD player and she'd ask "Daddy, play that old man that sings like a teenager." As she grew older, I introduced her to the budget thrill of thrift store shopping and her first big score was a "Hi How Are You" shirt at the Goodwill. I thought maybe she knew this was that same old man teenager, but she just liked the frog. She came to me shocked at twelve that this was that same guy.

On her own teenage journey warped by me, one of her early concerts was a screening of The Devil and Daniel Johnston at the Joy Theater, which had us both crying at the end. Then when the curtain raised, she shouted, a little angry, O GOD, NOT ACTUAL DANIEL JOHNSTON! I CAN'T HANDLE THAT RIGHT NOW! and it was true. For her. For me. For him. He made it through three songs with the kindness of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band holding him up before skittering backstage. Clint Maedgen, an old friend and P Hall singer/saxophonist and DJ superfan coaxed him back out where he bellowed "Funeral Home"  - GOT ME A COFFIN SHINY AND BLACK! GOIN TO THE FUNERAL AND NEVER COMING BACK! and he left and Frank Sinatra or Alice Cooper or KISS in their prime wish they had the sense of spectacle and love of a room that weak-voiced Daniel Johnston had at that moment. 

So I'll keep trying to open my heart up enough to let any nascent real feelings inside pour out, just to pay the first installment on my debt to Daniel Johnston. 

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Alex V. Cook
Music Editor

Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com

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