Wednesday, April 2, 2014

30 For 30: Hi, How Are You by Daniel Johnston

I turned 30 on February 18th. I want to celebrate this, and get myself back into writing, by spending a few weeks rambling about the 30 things that have meant the most to me over the years. These will be from music, movies, books, videogames, and maybe even art and other things for good measure. I feel like my life has been much more about the things I've experienced than it has the people I've known or the places I've traveled to, and these 30 things have helped to make my 30 years more than worth all the innumerable bad things. Expect heartfelt over-sharing and overly analytical explanations galore! In part 18, despair came knocking at my door.

In October of 2013, I felt like the bottom had fallen out of my life.

I hadn't gotten a raise in almost two years at my job and conditions continued to get worse. So why not quit and find something else? Well, I've been unable to find any better full-time employment where I live, and I can't just quit You see, in October I finally couldn't ignore my credit card debt which had resulted from years of only being able to pay the minimum required amount, thanks to my low paying job and some irresponsible living/spending from time to time (and irresponsible spending on girlfriends from time to time). I had to swallow my pride and ask my parents for help, a move that I probably should've done earlier but put off for various reasons too personal and complicated to go into (and if you notice how incredibly honest I'm otherwise being in this piece, you can probably guess it's for good reasons).

A couple weeks before I told my parents about my debt, I had met an awesome girl via a dating website. Despite spending one of the best days of my life in Ann Arbor puttering around the city with her—I don't think I've ever made someone laugh that much before—she inexplicably stopped talking to me a few days later and disappeared. Though I had the sense to let it go and not be that creepy guy who continually texts and emails to get an explanation, it still left me feeling confused and frustrated. Just when my life seems like it's going to break one way, all logic and karma goes out the window and I'm back to where I started or a few steps back. It's not that I think my life is some kind of movie or novel in which I'm owed a happy ending and so I'm trying to force it to happen. Maybe I'm just resentful of having to deal with the same problems for so many years when I see everyone around me solving their's and ticking off the checklist that allows one to arrive into the kind of full-on adulthood that is recognized by popular culture instead of the bohemian lonerism I've half 'stumbled into' and half 'willingly entered.' Anyway, I won't bore you with the numerous other less important problems in my life.

A week or so before telling my parents about my money problems, and about a week after things went nowhere with the girl, I began to listen to Daniel Johnston's Hi, How Are You over and over. And over again.

'Poor You'

I had this steady routine where I'd get home from work, crack open a beer, and immediately start listening to the album. Usually I'd replay the first side of the record as many times as seemed necessary before flipping it over. I'd listen to that once and start the process over, until I'd had enough beer and cigarettes and Daniel Johnston that I felt like doing something else. Some nights this would last for hours.

All told, it was probably one of the worst times of my life, certainly of my 20s. Due to anxiety and depression that came in the door with my various problems, I was sleeping only a few hours a night, usually when I passed out from exhaustion that had accrued for enough days in a row or when I got especially drunk. I don't remember being suicidal, because I've walked through so many fires in my life, so to speak, that it'd take something much bigger than my combined problems to do me in. Rather I think it was the one time in my life where I knew true despair. I'm sure I used the word in badly written poetry during high school and meant it, but once you've felt the dictionary definition of despair, you know what it truly is to feel hopeless. It's important to note that feeling hopeless and actually being hopeless are very different things. I may have felt like I wanted to just stay in bed all day or disappear into the wilderness, but I still got up and went to work and seemed mostly normal from outward appearances. I felt hopeless yet there were still some slivers of hope kicking around inside me that kept my sanity and allowed me to function without losing my job or my friends.

'I Am A Baby (In My Universe)'

Since this piece is ostensibly about Hi, How Are You, an album by Daniel Johnston, and not my personal problems, you might be expecting me to now segue into the topic at hand with some line like “Hi, How Are You saved my life.” It wouldn't be true. What would be more accurate to say is that one of the most important things for someone in the midst of despair to feel is understanding, and Hi, How Are You understands despair. By extension, you feel as though it understands you, too. Not your specific problems but the feelings that result from them. It opens with Daniel Johnston saying the album title to the listener, or rather asking the question posed in the album title, which may have been a cutesy whim on his part. To me it sounds like the most humane and caring way to open an album, the sort of thing you'd expect from a saccharine children's music program. Perhaps I'm just projecting here and it was a whim for him; in my repeat listenings over the course of that week-or-so, however, it started to sound like a friend checking in on me.

I said earlier that I used to listen to the first side the most, so let me elaborate. The second side of the album is less focused, more playful and almost theatrical with its boxing motif. So I would still cherish this album just as much if all it had was the songs on side one. I might even like it more, and it's most of what I remember from the record. 'Poor You', 'Despair Came Knocking', 'I'll Never Marry', and 'Get Yourself Together' are all written from different attitudes ('Poor You' seems to even be mocking the listener and/or the writer) and add up to something like therapy. All of the songs on the record don't give you any answers and advice is kept to basic mantras—“get yourself together or fall apart/make your mind up or let yourself down”—that could apply to any number of situations. Expressing something specific in a general way others can relate to is a difficult balancing act for albums like this to pull off. I think it's crucial, too, that Hi, How Are You never seems maudlin or immature. Even the most overtly sad/depressing lyrics are stated so plainly and sparsely that they could just as easily come from an elderly, cynical woman or a surly teenager—“I really don't know what I have to fear/I really don't know why I have to care.”

Truth be told, my personal life isn't dramatically better than it was in October. I'm more happy more often, and my money situation has gone from “critical meltdown” to “bad, but not, like, really bad.” I still sleep poorly most of the time, and anxiety and depression like to turn up a few times a day to make things more interesting for me. I'm still single, working the same job, living in the same apartment I have been since 2009, and I still struggle with drinking and smoking. Most of the time I just want to be in my apartment, alone, away from it all. Most of the time I don't feel like writing or doing anything productive. At least now, whenever I'm feeling particularly bad, with the October 2013 flashbacks creeping up my spine, I have a new companion to help me sort it out. It may seem pathetic to label a record from almost 30 years ago a companion, but it's there for me all the time and it understands what I'm going through. I'm now 30 years old and that's more than I can say for any person in my life.

'Desperate Man Blues'


Sherman Krebbs said...

As a perpetually single retail drone who's just a few years shy of thirty I can understand where you're coming from. Sort of. I've experienced a few different critical meltdowns since graduating from college (three or four by my estimation) and while music has guided me through phases of unrelenting despair, it's doubtful that any record has saved my life. It's helped me understand and contextualize some of these feelings, but there's never been any kind of breakthrough or release. Honestly, I kind of understand why I'm a miserable bastard at this point and the knowledge doesn't really help anything. That being said, while my life isn't ideal by anyone's standards, I've made peace with it. I haven't made any catastrophic decisions that'll cripple me in the immediate future and have managed to save up a decent amount since moving back home. I'm okay with being alone. I don't need another person to complete or nurture me and have seen enough shitty relationships to know that solitude can be preferential to dating or marriage. And while my degree doesn't have much value in a stable economy let alone this clusterfuck (“You have a Master's in History?!? What the fuck were you thinking you fucking stupid asshole?!?”), my six years in the program helped define my worldview and I don't regret the decision. Most days. And frankly, I don't envy those who prosper right out of college. They never realize how bad it is for certain people out there or the fragility of success. Personally, I think every college graduate should be required to work a shitty job or endure unemployment for at least a year. It's what I like to call a “desolation internship,” and I think it cures you of a lot of the selfish habits you develop at school (I'm not just saying this because I've done both and for much longer than a year I might add). Failure should be a prerequisite for success – not the other way around. Anyway, this is turning into kind of a rant, so I'll stop here. Chin up, etc.

Also: I'm more familiar with Johnston through tributes and covers than originals. Any good starting points?

Greg Lytle said...

Thanks for the comments. I feel like we could tell some good stories if we ever met in a bar or on a sinking ship.

Daniel Johnston's voice alone is going to turn most people off of his music. There isn't really a good starting point to help ease you into him, he's like a Tom Waits or Half Japanese kind of artist in that regard. You just have to jump in, and if you hate it, that's fine. I'd say start with the album Yip/Jump Music but then again I'm mostly familiar with his 80s material.