They're Spooky Daniel Johnston and Jad Fair's Primitive Classic Reissued after 12 Years

By Guarino, Mark | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), July 6, 2001 | Go to article overview
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They're Spooky Daniel Johnston and Jad Fair's Primitive Classic Reissued after 12 Years


Guarino, Mark, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Mark Guarino Daily Herald Music Critic

Daniel Johnston is 40 years old. He lives with his parents. He has severe manic depression and has spent time in and out of mental hospitals.

Yet his songs have been covered by the likes of Pearl Jam, Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth, Beck and Wilco. Kurt Cobain was a fan and regularly wore a T-shirt with one of Johnston's designs. But perhaps most ironic of all, Johnston - who displays no sense of star power - was discovered by MTV.

The phenomenon around him started when he was in his early twenties and could be found on the streetcorners of Austin hocking his early recordings on lo-fi audio cassettes. Since then he became the poster boy for primitive music, a genre whose imperfections are its very draw.

The musicians considered outsiders generally sing off-key, write simple tunes and record using primitive equipment (Johnston first used a Sanyo boombox). But the spirit of the music - unaware and unironic -excuses its oddities; its warmth is what makes it so special.

"It's Spooky," the 1989 album by Johnston and another primitive musician, Jad Fair, has just been reissued by the Bloomington, Ind. label Jagjaguwar after 10 years of being out of print. For many, it's considered a genre classic.

"When I first heard it, it was a shocker," said Jonathan Cargill of Jagjaguwar. "It opened my eyes to music that is not super polished and highly produced. It was just guys hanging out in their living room banging on instruments, yet writing intelligent songs with witty lyrics. It was refreshing to hear."

The idea of primitive music didn't start with Johnston. Fans of the genre point to the Smithsonian's Anthology of American Folk Music, first released in 1952. Archived by Harry Smith, it introduced to the world dozens of blues and hillbilly singers, gospel shouters, jug bands, bluegrass groups and others ignored by the commercial record industry because either it didn't understand them or were unaware of them altogether. When Bob Dylan and The Band recorded their "Basement Tapes," Dylan's very idea was to shut off the world and re-create the rudimentary purity of that collection.

Johnston was born in West Virginia, but migrated to Austin where he and his self-released tapes became notorious. Jeff Tartakov met Johnston on his own front porch. He heard Johnston outside, singing songs with Tartakov's roommate. Tartakov ended up working as Johnston's manager for seven years (Johnston's father manages him today).

"When I first met him, he was famous for giving away tapes and spending all his paychecks from McDonald's on making them," Tartakov said. "I convinced him that he could at least break even."

Tartakov helped Johnston set up a publishing company for his songs and he also created Stress, a label to sell his music.

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