A few days ago I finally heard, a mere twelve years after it was released, Kathy McCarty’s Dead Dog’s Eyeball, her record of Daniel Johnston songs. The versions are nice as far as they go, but like most covers of Johnston’s songs I’ve heard, they are animated by one mistaken motivation: to realize the potential of the songs. It’s easy to understand the temptation, especially when covering songs from his early homemade one-track tapes like Hi, How Are You, More Songs of Pain, and Yip Jump Music, which mostly used a toy piano as instrumentation and which Johnston usually raced through, eliding much of the songs’ latent melodiousness. But this, I think, is exactly what gives Johnston’s music such power: his reluctance to fully realize his songs, his willingness to let them exist virtually. Like jazz musicians who emphasize particular components of songs as it strikes them during a performance, Johnston has never felt compelled to exhaust the potential of his songs. Instead, the territorialities of pop music are if not subsumed at least equalized to the affective scene in which the music is performed. Too many people who cover him — and too many people who have produced his recent records — consider this a flaw and try to bring out Johnston’s “genius” by making explicit his songs’ melodic depth.
I’m dangerously close to valorizing Johnston via the twin pillars of outsider art: the authenticity of the artist and the purity of the expression. But Johnston shows the impossibility of these and differentiates himself from outsider artists by his attention to pop-music form. It’s not, however, the rigid form that his interpreters wish to impose on his songs but the “minimum of forms and functions … from which to extract materials, affects, and assemblages,” as Deleuze and Guattari put it. I’m also close to arguing that actualization is inherently violent, but I mean to point to the singularity of Johnston’s music that too many of his fans seem to diminish and undervalue.