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Which Dylan was Daniel? (Part 1)

Updated: Nov 27, 2020

They Keep Chaucer-ing Austin, #2

Jeff Feuerzeig’s commentary track brings out the imp in me.

Informal Pronunciation Guide

Feuerzeig \fyoor-zig\

Pennebaker \penny-baker\

Les Amis \lay za-mee\

It’s my third time watching The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and I’ve transformed into the worst kind of viewer. I’m a fault-finding second-guesser waiting for the lights to go up so I can personally cross examine the film’s director.

But director Jeff Feuerzeig has already run the gauntlet of festival Q&A. He’s seen the hands of grand inquisitors raised before he’s finished answering the previous question. He has heard the restless moderators sigh while discontented Q’s, like me, lay out the same tedious non-question:

This could have been a special movie if you had asked for my help earlier.

It’s not just that I’m watching this movie for the third time. I’m also watching it for the second time in a matter of days. I thought it was alright when I saw it in 2006, but I wasn’t in a hurry to re-watch it. Coming back to it now, my new appreciation for the film surprises me.

Between my 2nd and 3rd viewings I re-read every page I own that mentions Daniel. I re-watched the first season finale of Friday Night Lights, where Lyla Garrity ditches her cheerleading identity in a rolling housekeeping cart on her way to the elevators. And the cover of “Devil Town” becomes the unlikely soundtrack for the unlikely champions parade.

Do my tears surprise you? Cool dads also cry.

I’ve turned on the commentary track for my 3rd watch of this haunting film. I’m slow to realize that I’ve unconsciously Mirandized the commentators.

So what got me shadow boxing with a movie I loved at 2nd sight?

The discussion between Feuerzeig and producer Henry Rosenthal is friendly and packed with welcome insights. The filmmakers enjoy a wide-ranging conversation about Daniel’s biography, his aesthetics, and influences. They frame D&DJ as an attempt to give Daniel’s work the context it deserves. This is a movie about an important American artist.

Rosenthal says they wanted the graphic treatment of the film’s title to echo classic Blue Note album cover art.

As we watch the sequence which bears the title graphic, Feuerzeig explains why he shot this performance in black & white. He wants it to look like D.A. Pennebaker’s Don’t Look Back. When we see Daniel take the stage alone at the Key Club in Los Angeles in 2001, the director wants us to recall Bob Dylan touring England in ‘65.

“We wanted to make the statement that in our alternate universe -- that Henry and I live in -- Daniel Johnston is our Bob Dylan.”

We’re not 90 seconds into this commentary, and I get stuck on “our Bob Dylan.” It’s from a voice-of-a-generation introduction at a folk festival. The last thing she says before she retreats from the old-timey spherical microphone to rejoin the congregation.

“You know him. He’s yours, Bob Dylan.”

If this double-wide aspergillum of a microphone were a holy hand grenade, Johnny Cash and Pete Seeger would catch the sacramental shrapnel. They’re around here somewhere rubbing shoulders with the other Dylan shareholders. A Cash sighting would be a welcome consolation prize for any novice time travelers who came here hoping to see Dylan plug in. They didn’t risk butterfly effects to watch Seeger pluck his banjo. They wanna see the old guard raise an axe against the future.

Lord, that Seeger was a cable-choppin’ man.

I’ve seen these space-time tourists, seen them all. These badged-up platinum pilgrims on their teleportional Telecastrian safaris. These positively 4th dimensional dilettantes come and go, talking of Mike Bloomfield. Right place, wrong year.

Why did you leap here?

Nothing to see here

When it’s ‘64

Murray Lerner's film Festival! captures the world orbiting this globe mic at the Newport Folk Festival in '64. Don't Look Back covers Dylan's tour of England the following spring.

A couple threads stretch through nearly every frame of DLB:

  1. Bob Neuwirth doesn’t know Dylan any better than you do

  2. Nobody puts Bobby in a corner

By the time Dylan returns to Newport to singe the body electric in ’65, the filming of Don’t Look Back is in the rearview. They shot the cue card "Subterranean Homesick Blues" opening sequence last.

Spellbound by an Italian poet from the negative first century, Dylan is reading portents and indulging daylit nightmares upon his return to the States.

[… then bloody hands turn on Orpheus, gathering like birds

seeing an owl stray in daylight, like dogs

preying on deer dying in morning’s amphitheater:

after the poet!

[The Death of Orpheus]

Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book 11

Forget the dead you've left, Orpheus. They will not follow you. You were safer underground in the inky dark. See those bleachers in the sun? If you can’t shake this curse, these Maenads will rip from you everything they can steal. They’ll do it with their shadows well hid at high noon on the highway. Use your sense, poet, they just keep chasing. They’re gonna tear you apart.

“You know him. He’s yours,” she says.

You don't. I'm not.

Is what he doesn’t say when he takes his place behind this spinning steel-mesh astrolabe of a microphone. Where not only can he, but will he get away with lyrics like “spinnin’ steel-mesh astrolabe.” And all kinda crazy shit. Because my Bob Dylan enjoys the most extravagant, decades-long, benefit of the doubt in the history of words & music.

I don’t believe lute.

You’re a lyre!

Dylan's good faith force field -- let's call it his Dylan-essence -- pre-dates Pennebaker's production. Bob will try to get away with anything, and it gets ridiculous. It takes vigilance to stay current. In the dozen years since Dylan's Zilker Park performance in 2007, he’s released enough alternate takes, demos, and studio experiments to fill the world's largest shovel. Who could say for sure if “spinnin’ steel-mesh astrolabe” could have turned up on an unreleased vocal from the Blood on the Tracks sessions?

Our Dylan?

Daniel Johnston moved to Austin during the spring of '85 as a complete unknown. He performs in public for the first time shortly after the carnival leaves town without him. Daniel joins the migratory recording tradition of Willis Alan Ramsey and Michael Murphey, as artists who finish work on their most acclaimed albums just before moving to Austin.

Willis, Michael, & Daniel brought songs to Austin that sounded like Austin to people who liked songs that sound like Austin.

As D&DJ leads up to Daniel's MTV breakthrough, Feuerzeig says "I Had Lost My Mind" is Daniel at his most Dylan-esque. Happy hour hypotheticals thrive on this kind of specificity.

I remind myself I’m listening to a conversation between friends who spent 4.5 years making a movie about an artist they both love. They riff about eureka needles in four-track haystacks, medicine bottles recovered, Beatles bootlegs, and madness. But they can't settle in to a natural happy hour rhythm. If they want their reflections to line-up with their movie, they have to keep moving. Their conversation's agenda demands tangential restraint.

Here's D.A. Pennebaker in ’65.

Pennebaker prepares no script, storyboards, or shot list. After his film's initial theatrical run, Pennebaker fills out the film's transcript with some stills & song lyrics and publishes it as a paperback book in '68.

This strip dramatizes the origin story of Don't Look Back. Unconventional artist Pennebaker pitches hero-poet Dylan on an artist-hero-poet collaboration of an unconventional nature. They forge a creative bond from their shared love of cinephile dad jokes, drugs, synchronous slang, performative pretension, drugs, self-congratulation, drugs, & pot. It's The Sixties.

From his study of Daniel, Jeff Feuerzeig knows Daniel studied Dylan. Specifically, Daniel studied Don't Look Back.

When Daniel looks through the lenses of MTV's cameras to sing "I Live My Broken Dreams" to a nationwide audience, Feuerzeig recognizes the precise Dylan performance from Don't Look Back that Daniel is channeling.

It's the only song in DLB that Pennebaker didn't film himself. No black leather jacket, no sunglasses, no light bulbs. It's from a year before the globe mic scene in Newport. The sun's high in the sky as we gaze upon the eyes of Dylan blinking. The folk singer's barely 22.

Which brings me back to these squirrels.

They're not the same age, these squirrels, but their juxtaposition emphasizes their commonality. Reckless comparisons threaten to reduce them to archetypes. But these are unique, individual Austin squirrels.

I took this photo a week ago on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. This unlikely duo crossed paths within singing distance of a treasured Austin landmark, the Les Amis of its era. It's the only documented meeting of these two squirrels, and I was there to record it. Right place, right time.

I can't help it if I'm lucky

Next Thursday I will take a closer look at Feuerzeig's precise comparison.

Daniel loads himself into the live music catapult (July '85)

Dylan plays a Greenwood, MS tailgate (July '63)

Short version: Feuerzeig nailed it. If I had 4.5 years to search out a better comparison, I wouldn't bet on it.

That won't stop me from suggesting two alternatives next Thursday. I've got a clever one and a curious coincidence I can't ignore.

Check back next Thursday for:

Which Dylan was Daniel? (Part 2)

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