Review Summary: there's a heaven and there's a star for you
On the seventh day of the internet God rested and Usenet came in to fill His blanks: not *quite* websites, precursors to BBS and forums that are ubiquitous throughout the internet today, users with cro-magnon computer models and barely tenable internet links could join "newsgroups" that aligned with what were, predictably, varied but predominantly niche, abstruse interests (if you ever want to know the ins and outs of various amphibians: hmu). The one that has always stuck with me, reading through the history of the internet, is the alt.suicide.holiday board. It is invariably referred to in academic literature with a pejorative, almost sanctimonious, chiding, submitted as evidence of the evils the nascent internet exacerbated and often conflated with illegal material. It was a place where people with suicidal ideation would convene (although perhaps rendezvous is a better word, considering the stigma that still surrounds mental illness) and share experiences, feelings, ideas, impressions, and, admittedly, advice. Of all the usenet boards A.S.H became the most durable, surviving long past the developments of the 1990s: its users called themselves "ASHers".
What moves me tremendously is the greeting and motto of the boards in all their iterations:
"Welcome to A.S.H. Sorry you're here".
I'll admit it: before Daniel Johnston passed away I rarely troubled myself with his work. That's not to say I was unfamiliar with Hi, How Are You (on the contrary) or that I disliked it; it's more that it filled voids that other music couldn't contextually based on specific moods. Jandek too delphic, too impenetrable? Hi, How Are You. Ween too silly, too invested in tomfoolery? Hi, How Are You. Captain Beefheart veering more towards the Captain Beefcurtains of his childish humour? Hi, How Are You. I have had this album, and been listening to it, for ten years and didn't bother to rate it (and frankly have no idea how to do so now: consider the above an approximation at best): it occurred only in the peripheries of my musical choices, a delicate carpet-scrunch to be righted and vacuumed, a brief glimpse of the duvet beyond the pages while reading a book, say, or the cursory, barely-registered moment when your eyes stray from the screen and you are briefly aware you're in a cinema, residing in a location where things are happening beyond the boundaries of the art you're consuming.
I guess that's how I considered Daniel Johnston: beyond art. I think that treatises about how difficult his music was, or him as an outsider artist, are belaboured; rather he is akin to those poor (in every sense of the word) Blues musicians who record companies would exchange music from for a bottle of bourbon throughout the 1950s, mined by the unscrupulous until they succumbed to cirrhosis. It was rough, haphazard, seemingly nonsensical, but possessed a visceral rawness that put him in that tradition. I suspect he, too, was not remunerated sufficiently for his work (he famously favoured mountain dew over spirits), but he differs in a crucial way. Or so I believe. You'll see. Perhaps.
The tag "lo-fi" is generally and almost universally attributed to Hi, How Are You, and in terms of content you'd be hard-pressed to disagree. In terms of form you'd be wrong. Hi, How Are You isn't lo-fi, so much, as pre-loved, not a euphemism here but a gorgeous, well-tailored item of clothing you pick up on a dime from a second store because:
Imagine a copy of one of your favourite books. The colour is originally set in exquisite, scintillating, vivid white or at least a tasteful, elegant cream. But the more you read and thumb it, the more detritus amasses and inevitable deterioration sets in, it looses its sheen, becoming blotched, moving from off-white to an unpleasant neutral dog-eared bland. The contents of the book remain the same: the casing, while not an aesthetic marvel any more, betrays only the investment the owner has bestowed upon it.
This is how Hi, How Are You entered the world: the lo-fi necessary because these are songs, emotions, lyrics that have been loved, lived in, enmeshed in - the agoraphobe repeating the same mantras over and over, thought patterns repeating ceaselessly. Not an aesthetic contrivance but the only honest way to do them justice: where the album has a naive, childlike disposition (Big Business Monkey, Walking the Cow) it doesn't reflect the artists naivety, but rather thoughts parsed for years until they reach their barest, most honest and authentic bones. And if Hi, How Are You is anything, it's honest right? A mentally ill person letting you inside the chaos of their head, incoherent thoughts babbling into ill-formed lyrics, a curio and freak show disguised as an album, which would be nice and easy if you're a critic,
Except it's not true.
Sorry you're here. Hi! How Are You? Despair came knocking and I let her in for a whi-- Hi! How Are you! Sorry you're here. I began to feel tired. Sorry you're here. Hi! How are you? Blach Blah Blah. Nobody wants to lie in bed with you while your flesh is rotting. Hi! How Are you! I'm a desperate man a lonely scared sad sorry man. Sorry you're here. Blah Blah Blah Hi! How are you? Poor you. Poor you. No-one understands you.
Sorry you're here.
That "sorry you're here" mantra isn't just a mordant joke, a piece of black humour for people in places where there are few laughs to be found, although it is. It is also acknowledgement: that what the afflicted are going through is real, and that people feel and care for them or at least know on some level what you're experiencing. It's funny and tragic: the almost throwaway, casual line is more than what most mentally ill people will get from Doctors, friends, family.
I think that the repeated motif of "Hi, How Are You" works in the same vein: the intended audience of this album have not been asked this question sincerely and honestly in a very, very long time. If the lyrics are naive, they're designed to draw you into a place of childish carefree and not the genuine longing for human interaction, for help, for something, they so subtlety mask. But it's more complicated than that still: if we take it that the intended audience for this album are suffering on the margins, what do we make of Poor You? The sing-songy sung lyric "late at night, he had a mistress / in his dreams, and in his sleep / and she would say / "poor you, poor you. no-one understand you, poor you, poor you"" isn't just about loneliness: it's about reaching a stage where relishing that loneliness, that sense of alienation, supplants any desire to make a tangible effect on self-inflicted sense of alienation (i mean christ there's even an alien on the cover) and is honest only in its brutal self-deprecation, self-pity as "saviour". The song can be experienced as both sympathetic and a challenge.
But if it was a challenge, it was one made in remarkable humanity and kindness, one which grounds the intended audience in dignity and affords absolute humanity. There's a moment of absolute magic on the album, and it's when Johnston sings, voice cracking, trying to convince himself as much as his imaginary interlocuters, "there is a heaven and there's a star for you". Childish wish-fulfillment? maybe. but, crucially: i believe him.
People, I think, consider "dehumanising" as a synonym for "'inhumane" rather than it's real term: after exposure to Hell's, personal and due to societal stigma, people stop feeling human. Johnston's greatest success as an artist was reminding his intended audience that they were, and would never diminish their value, and would probe and ask questions so gently it seems that most critics aren't aware they'd been asked. When I think of Hi, How Are You now, I don't think about some weirdo outsider artist or transient music between the next fixations or some superhuman lo-fi masterpiece. I think of Johnston's emotional generosity, his re-configuration of Blues to address mental illness, his recognition of humor and, dare I say it fun -- and I think about loneliness, and the place I occupy, and what I'm doing, and how Johnston lived a life with mental illness with repudiary dignity, and most days that's enough. And, yes, after I finish this I'm going to smoke a cigarette, and look up at the stars, and see if I can see Johnston's. And late at night? ...I'll forego the mistress.