The Mental Health Advocate And Daniel Johnston (Part 2)

As I hit play on my phone’s mp3 Google player to the first track of “Don’t Be Scared” the first thing I heard was a crunchy, slightly out-of-tune, dusty piano being played as the musical backing. The sound quality was god-awful. I thought for a second it had to do with poor mastering but ignored this the minute Daniel’s voice came in. It was a very high-pitched, nasily voice that sounded like he was 12  years old (I would soon later find out he was in his early twenties recording this). Also very out of tune was his singing. He sang this song about experiencing bipolar as well as manic depression (which at the time he was unaware that was what he had and was actually singing about)…

“I think of all the times
I felt so low
When I got to feeling better
I got naive
And thought that it would stay

Going down
Going down again

Feeling small, very small
All, all the time
Been feeling like this
Since junior high
When will it all stop

Going down
Going down again”

From then on I listened to the whole album and was blown away at his raw honesty and unmasked lyrics all about his struggles with mental health issues, feeling isolated from the world and also longing for a young woman he was unable to ever go out with. And lastly, there was a strange interlude around the middle section of the album called, “And You Love It”. I will save the description of this track for one of the future parts of this daily post series, but let’s just say it had and still has a profound effect on me and it suddenly made me realize how this album was made…

When it finished I (just like I always do when I listen to an album or watch a movie for the first time) looked up reviews of “Don’t Be Scared” online. What they all said pretty much said was that this was never released commercially until years later (remember it was recorded in July 1982 according to the album cover). Why? Because it was tape-recorded on an audio cassette in Daniel’s mother’s basement with a cheap boombox that was simply placed beside him and his piano. That was it. Given the very very poor sound quality, this made perfect sense. Now most people who are only used to mainstream, commercially released recordings produced in state-of-the-art studios, will dismiss this album as not being polished and not having anything musical or melodic about it. But I fucking LOVED it. It was raw, it was unfiltered, it was honest and most of all, it reminded me of myself.

I’m not sure if this was because of my autism/aspergers but when I was little, I would always make audio-cassette recordings of myself just making up music, silly skits and even playdates with friends who came over. All in a small, portable, toy tape player that was given to me probably around the time I was 4. It was an obsession I had, but enjoyed and it was clearly above all, a sign I was a creative person who loved DIY activities if they involved music or entertainment. Of course, given that this was all in the early 90s, my school psychologist, kindergarten teacher, certain friends and even my parents sometimes were not having it and saw it as a sign I was a loner and didn’t fit the social status-quo. I didn’t play sports with the other kids during recess. I was just singing along to kids-songs on my toy recorder. But I wasn’t hurting anybody nor doing anything offensive, so in reality, just like that “Story of An Artist” song by Daniel Johnston, it was simply a case of me doing what I like, not what others like. “But is that really wrong?”.

Listening to Daniel’s early albums from 10 years earlier from these personal, childhood events brought me back to them and made me an instant fan. But my experience with following this man’s life and mental journey through his music was only getting started…(to be cont’d)




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