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Big Business Monkey
by Daniel Johnston
Austin, Texas, songwriter Daniel Johnston has died, aged 58. Johnston began writing songs at an early age, first making his mark via home-dubbed cassettes, decorated with his own drawings, that he distributed himself around town beginning at age 20. I lived briefly in Austin in the early '90s and remember when you could buy these tapes in baskets on the counter at a local ice-cream parlor. Firmly positioned outside any performance style that would have granted him normal entree to the music business, Johnston remained on the fringes his entire career despite eventual celebration by musical giants such as Kurt Cobain and, briefly in the 1990s, a major-label contract. It is Johnston's original 12 cassette releases that capture the most of his magic, though sitting through just a few seconds of this material a listener may wonder how and why Johnston came to be recognized as a genius. Obsessed with the Beatles, Johnston had an innate understanding of pop structure and songwriting techniques; his singing, which became more gruff as he aged, was untrained and unusual yet could carry a tune, and his instrumentation primitive--many of those early cassettes are recorded entirely using a chord organ, an electric keyboard present in countless middle-class homes across America at mid-century--yet he harnessed it all to create songs, usually about love, that spoke powerfully to the human condition for those who would let it in. His sixth album Hi, How Are You (1983) is one of Johnston's peaks and a longtime favorite of mine, and I've coincidentally been revisiting it for the last month and a half. Big Business Monkey is the first full track on the album after a short a capella piece, and it explodes with sound as Johnston pounds the chord organ intensely alongside a lyric about greed and rudeness. "He runs his house like a Burger King manager/And the only jokes he knows are the ones that will put you down" is a characteristically insightful Johnston couplet. Troubled by mental illness since adolescence--he once caused his father to crash a small airplane because he thought he saw demons in the air--Johnston managed nonetheless to be, however unlikely, one of the finest American poets in song.
1983 - self-released
Posted: 11th September 2019
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