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The Late Movies: Daniel Johnston, Beautiful Singer of Broken Dreams

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Daniel Johnston is a singer, songwriter, guitarist, pianist, and visual artist...who happens to suffer from crippling bipolar disorder. His songs are generally sweet, vulnerable, and at least a little weird. As Johnston has aged, his delivery has become increasingly warbly, though his youthful spirit shines through: the man radiates a wonderful mixture of joy and grief. There's a quality to his work that's disarming in the extreme -- assuming you're along for the ride. Among my friends, Daniel Johnston is either someone who makes you cry with joy or makes you hit the STOP button promptly. I hope that tonight I will turn you into the former kind of person by showing you ten lovely songs.

(By the way, if you look Johnston up you'll note the Hi, How Are You art which was popularized to many music fans via Kurt Cobain's shirt featuring the frog. You'll also come across the excellent, heartbreaking documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston -- if you're at all interested in this man, watch the trailer and then rent the film.)

"Story of an Artist"

From the Don't Be Scared album. "Listen up and I'll tell a story about an artist growing old. Some would try for fame and glory; others aren't so bold." Clips from The Devil and Daniel Johnston.

"Go"

"To understand and be understood is to be free." One of the most tender, heartbreaking performances I've seen. From The Angel and Daniel Johnston - Live at the Union Chapel, a live concert recording.

"Life in Vain"

With Swell Season and a children's choir on Austin City Limits. Beautiful. "It's so tough just to be alive when I feel like the living dead. I'm giving it up so plain, I'm living my life in vain, and where am I going to?"

"Grievances"

"And I saw you at the funeral, you were standing there like a temple. I said 'Hi, how are you, hello,' and I pulled up the casket and crawled in. Yes, I did." Stick around for the brief discussion at the end.

"True Love Will Find You in the End"

Live at the Black Cat in DC, February 2008. "Ladies and gentlemen, merry Christmas, thank you very much, good night."

"I Live My Broken Dreams"

From one of the times Johnston was on MTV. 1985, Austin, Texas. "My hopes lay shattered like a mirror on the floor; I see myself and I look really scattered. But I live my broken dreams."

"Worried Shoes"

"I took my lucky break and I broke it in two; put on my worried shoes." 2009. "Okay, thanks, but maybe that song's a little bit too long for you."

"Mask"

Live on the Henry Rollins Show, with a somewhat awkward intro explaining a bit about who Johnston is. "Another day in the past, and every hour I'm haunting. Everybody is wearing a mask, playing skip-to-the-lou, my darling."

Piano Improvisation

2008. Johnston improvises at The Smokebrush Gallery in Colorado Springs. My favorite part starts about two minutes in. Watch him pull together all sorts of melodies and styles into a sort of freeform ragtimey jazz.

Interview and Snippets of Songs

"Just because I drew a boxer doesn't mean I want to box." Check out the bit of "Mean Girls Give Pleasure" around 2:30.

Post Your Favorites

YouTube is full of beautiful Johnston performances. Post your favorites in the comments! Also, very special thanks to my friend Kelli Rule, a painter and graphic artist who found most of these videos.

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Epic Records
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Pop Culture
How a Throwback Rockabilly Jam Made Its Way Onto '90s Mainstream Charts
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Epic Records

The '90s airwaves were full of catchy, confusing pop hits. What exactly is a "chica cherry cola"? Did anyone ever figure out the correct syncopation of "MMMBop"? Why was Deee-Lite grooving to Dr. Seuss books? And who were all those Rays that Jimmy was singing about?

It's been nearly two decades, yet 1998's "Are You Jimmy Ray?"—the one and only hit by gloriously coiffed British pop rocker Jimmy Ray—stands out as one of the more perplexing hits of the era. For starters, whose idea was it to mix twangy '50s rockabilly with the sunny '90s alt-rock style of Smash Mouth? The combo clearly worked, as Ray's retro-modern anomaly reached No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100, earning him a slot opening for the Backstreet Boys on a 1998 U.S. tour.

And then there are the questions built into the song itself. "Are you Johnnie Ray? Are you Slim Ray? Are you Link Wray? Are you Fay Wray?" Jimmy Ray sings in the chorus, apparently echoing things he has been asked on a regular basis. The only answer he provides, of course, is another question: "Who wants to know?" Factor in the music video, wherein Ray and a bunch of hip-hop dancers cavort around outside a trailer home, and this mystery seems like something David Lynch and Carson Daly might've somehow cooked up together.

Fortunately, Jimmy Ray is on LinkedIn, and last fall, the 46-year-old London native wrote a candid and insightful article explaining how he—a guy who sounded like Sugar Ray auditioning for Sun Records—scored such a massive pop hit.

"I have been asked questions about it that surprised me," Ray says of his signature song. "Surprising considering the music press received the song as nothing more than a boneheaded piece of self-promotion."

"Are You Jimmy Ray?" might have been self-promotion, but it wasn't boneheaded. A longtime fan of '50s rock, Ray had actually gotten his start in a '90s techno group called A/V. After they split up, he landed a management deal with Simon Fuller, the guy who created the Spice Girls. Someone at Ray’s label suggested he collaborate with Conall Fitzpatrick, the pop songsmith behind the British duo Shampoo's 1994 hit "Trouble." Fitzpatrick obviously had a flair for booming drums and repetitive catchphrases, and before the two even sat down for their first writing session, he had come up with the "Are You Jimmy Ray?" hook.

Ray wonders whether Fitzpatrick might have been "subconsciously influenced" by the cryptic "Who is Christian Goldman?" graffiti seen all over London at the time. Fitzpatrick claims he got the idea from the 1988 film Midnight Run; in one scene, Charles Grodin's character asks a bartender, "Who's in charge here?" to which the fellow replies, "Who wants to know?" As for all those "Rays"—pre-Elvis teen idol Johnnie Ray, "father of the power chord" Link Wray, King Kong actress Fay Wray, the Chevrolet Corvette Stingray—they were also Fitzpatrick's idea. But Jimmy Ray knew what Fitzpatrick was going for.

"Retro heroes and heroines who symbolized my own cultural interests from music, film, and … motoring haha!" Jimmy writes in summary. "I couldn't even drive a car at this time."

Portraits of Johnnie Ray, Fay Wray, and Link Wray.
Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Eric Frommer, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY–SA 2.0

Fitzpatrick knew the kind of stuff Jimmy dug, but the two weren't 100 percent on the same page. Working with Fitzpatrick's gear, in Fitzpatrick's studio, Ray felt like his debut album was slipping out of his control. "Before then, I had always been in the pilot's seat making my music, so let's just say there was a teeny-weeny bit of tension right from the off," Ray wrote.

For instance, he had to fight to replace the original fake-sounding synth-bass with "a different, more realistic synth bass." He alludes in the LinkedIn piece to other battles, but ultimately, he might not have pushed too hard. After all, he didn't think "Are You Jimmy Ray?" was going to be a single.

Alas, the execs at Epic Records knew they had a hit on their hands, and just like that, Jimmy Ray was all over the airwaves with a song that "wasn't really my idea." While Ray insisted that he respects and admires Fitzpatrick for creatively handling the pressure of having to produce a hit record for a major label, the tone of the LinkedIn piece suggests that Ray might've gone a different route if he'd been in the driver's seat.

Ray actually may get that do-over, as the singer is prepping a new album on his own La Rocka Records tentatively titled Live to Fight Another Day, which is set for an October release. He has posted some demos online, including one Morrissey-esque cover of Elvis Presley's "Devil In Disguise." It’s a cool track that sounds as though he's moved beyond the "pop-a-billy hip-hop" that put him on the charts back in the day. And with other '90s acts making the most of nostalgia ticket sales (after all, Jimmy Ray's old pals the Backstreet Boys have a world tour planned for their 25th anniversary next year), it seems like the right time to revive the old question of just who this Jimmy Ray fellow is.

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entertainment
Her Other Forte: Comedian Phyllis Diller Was Also a Concert Pianist
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In 1971, a promising concert pianist made her symphonic debut, her fingers flying over Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1. But the concert included a few surprising notes: The pianist was a woman. She was 53 years old. She just happened to be one of America's most famous comedians. And her concert was like nothing the classical music world had ever seen.

Even then, the thought of Phyllis Diller embarking on a career as a classical pianist was laughable. Since the 1950s, Diller—born 100 years ago, as Phyllis Driver, on July 17, 1917—had been breaking ground for women in comedy, morphing from a prop comedian to a TV and musical theater icon. But even though a spoof of a classical concert was one of the acts that propelled her to fame, Diller had long since given up on her dream of playing piano professionally.

As a child growing up in Ohio, Diller trained as a pianist. In her comic memoir Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy, she recalls her mother pushing her toward piano, and though she was "no Mozart," she took intensive lessons and imagined herself "sitting before a fabulous concert grand" instead of giving performances for a piano teacher and her sleepy dog. She even studied piano in college. But eventually, Diller told a reporter, "I decided it was too stodgy for me. So I gave it up."

Music filtered into her comedy repertoire, though, and when the Pittsburgh Pops came calling in the 1970s in the hopes of having her perform a stand-up routine with the orchestra, she stunned the representative by telling him she would perform on the piano, as well. It's safe to assume nobody from the Pops had seen her on TV with Liberace two years earlier, her fingers flying over a piece she'd written herself called "Phyllis's Fugue." Diller signed on for a show called The Symphonic Phyllis Diller, never suspecting that her concert career was about to begin in earnest.

The show was half-gag, half-serious piano performance. The orchestra would perform without Diller, but eventually she'd make a grand entrance as Dame Illya Dillya, a diva who took forever to begin playing. Dame Dillya wore an 8-foot-long train and opera gloves and performed a 12-minute silent pantomime aping the pretensions of classical musicians.

"During the musical prologue, I'd dust the piano, check the score, and look at the audience through my binoculars—it was a long preamble," Diller later recalled. Then she launched into Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1. "Once I was into the music, I was serious," she wrote, "and many in the audience were more than a little surprised."

During her concerts, Diller played selections from Bach, Chopin, and other classical musicians. Over time, she earned a reputation as a solid performer, with one reviewer calling her "a fine concert pianist with a firm touch." Eventually, though, Diller tired of the brutal regimen and retired from the concert circuit. "It became drudgery, it was taxing," Diller told The New York Times. "I needed at least three hours a day of practice and I didn't have the time."

Though her concert career was over, her comedy career certainly wasn't. After retiring from symphonic work in 1982, Diller did stand-up for another 20 years. She died in 2012 at the age of 95—and while her comedy is rightfully her biggest legacy, her surprising skill on the piano is worth a standing ovation as well.

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