I'd rather eat tacos with Daniel Johnston than swordfish with Damien Hirst

Spiritual squalor at an opening of chunky shock-pop for the rich, and a performance of melting honesty and sweetness by the musical equivalent of Joseph Cornell.

By Cintra Wilson

Published November 11, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

I went to see the Damien Hirst prints at Maggots and Fine Art uptown; they were fairly Kool. The conceit was grocery stuff like mushrooms and Cornish pasties printed in the style of a two-tone medical label -- you know, like the Fleet Enema box (not that I've ever used one). Black, medical-looking lettering: "Hirst" in a logo at the bottom like "Squibb" or some other mighty pharmaceutical company. There was live grass on the floor for that special Art touch. Hirst himself never would have come within grenade distance of this motley little affair; instead, the grass was being flattened by a real sick klatch of Upper East Siders, a species I'd never really observed before, safari-style, where you can smell the cash and all.

Halfway through my second glass of wine I got decidedly obnoxious and started running up to people who were wearing absurdly eccentric personal costumes and screaming, "WON-derful to see you again!" and kissing them on the cheek. I made a lot of new acquaintances; never once did one of them doubt we had met before.

I clung to the lapel of an eerie albino art collector in Nazi spy regalia for a while, abandoning him to chat up an ascoted British cartoonist and his titsy blond date one-fifth his age. Another adult Barbie in a tight little black Versace suit ran up to her husband, an industrial designer with a country-western mustache who I had been randomly haranguing. She grabbed his monogrammed cuff and whispered about a glazy-eyed edifice of a Liz Smith woman in a black muumuu who was staring into middle-distance nearby. "Honey, we met her in the Hamptons last year," said the blond date, but she had an accident and doesn't remember meeting us at all! Isn't that a scream?"

I encouraged a scruffy French songwriter with an unkempt goatee and a long black leather coat to sing me one of his songs:

My dick is in your mouth

You like it baby

Everything is OK

The sky is burning

... or something like that. I only really remembered the "dick is in your mouth" part.

An elderly woman was only too happy to relate how she'd found the hand-woven fabric for her eye-stopping get-up in the village of some remote Indonesian hill tribe and had her tailor make her the fetching she-sherpa ensemble with matching fez.

"How's your ex-husband?" remarked an unwelcome guy with Einstein hair shaved into inexpert whitewalls over the ears, a Rip Taylor mustache and a filthy tweed suit covered with various disease ribbons.

"I have only had two husbands," disabused the elderly sherpa, wilting Tweedle Dum with a flip of the high-hat, "both of whom are dead."

It was all very kicky; the people were sort of interesting in a tragic and expensive way, but I got the murky feelings of spiritual squalor when I met the promoter and he told me that many of the people in the room had found out about the event and had frantically e-mailed him, begging to be on his list, sending lists of all the lists they were on, in order to prove that they were listy enough for the event. The dish I got from one of the P.R. photographers is that the entire event was orchestrated to generate enough torque to draw a celebrity, in this case, Jocelyn Wildenstien, the art-magnate-divorcie-cum-plastic-surgery-disaster with the infamous cat head, who is apparently now considered, during this dark celebrity-rationing time of winter, an actual celebrity. She never showed up.

In any case, Hirst is a wily one, a fun and clever git with the visuals. I find his stuff very toothsome and exciting in a shallow kind of way, which is pretty much all he intended it to be -- good, chunky shock-pop comestible to the rich, the dumb and the apathetic alike.

But it ain't sincere.

I saw Daniel Johnston at the Knitting Factory the other night. A friend of mine gave me a Daniel Johnston CD a while ago, telling me he thought I'd love it. I generally don't like much rock n' roll. I can appreciate the value of it, but chord-progression-wise the old I-IV-V doesn't thrill my soul like the old Stevie Wonder songs do.

I did love Daniel Johnston, though. Part of his mystique is the fact that he is one of Jesus' sensitive souls. Johnston, a Texas phenomenon, has been institutionalized periodically; some say for agoraphobia. It seems, from his music, that he suffers from being too much in love with women who haven't had anything to do with him for years. He seems to have a kid's clumsy heart; his romantic pains and misadventures have the vivid life-or-death mortification of fifth grade.

I've always found "outsider art" really compelling; even though he's not altogether crazy, hearing Johnston for the first time yields the same ticklish surprise as seeing Henry Darger paintings for the first time, without the murky pedophilia vibes. (Darger was a sick old janitor with a shockingly rich interior world; his works were the flights of a hopelessly untethered, late-night fancy: little girls in various states of prosperity and torture; sunbonnet babies frolicking in hallucinogenic fields with enormous plants, in endless playrooms, scattered before enormous screaming weather patterns, hanging strangled and naked by trees with their eyes bugged out -- but the stuff rocked because it was so wholly weird and genuine.) Johnston is more the musical equivalent of Joseph Cornell, America's favorite shut-in, who built beautiful boxes of life while living in his mom's house on Utopia Parkway in Queens and eating blue Jell-O.

One of the first Daniel Johnston songs I loved was a most retarded-sounding cover of the Beatles classic "I Saw Her Standing There," played with just the basic three-note chords -- the kind of arrangement you could teach to a 6 -year-old in a matter of 20 minutes -- on what sounded like a very bad, untuned and moldy piano. However. Nobody can cover the goddamned Beatles, it's ridiculous and impossible, just like you can't cover Stevie Wonder or Led Zeppelin or Aretha Franklin without sounding like some pathetic bawling secretary on a Bailey's Irish Cream 'n' karaoke jag.

Johnston doesn't cover the Beatles, though -- he just sings the song like he's alone in the rec room, with a level of melting honesty and sweetness and belief that distills it down to its simplest and purest. This is maybe one of the best treatments a Beatles song has ever had by the outside world, next to it being sung spontaneously by babies.

Johnston's new recording, "Rejected Unknown" (New Improved Music), is totally fantastic. It outclasses anything I've heard slither down the music pike in years. It is impossible to believe that the perfect, psyche-twirling production is a total garage job; Johnston's songwriting is also enjoying a real cooking-with-gas episode.

I highly recommend contacting New Improved Music or Johnston's Web site
and proudly buying this great recording in great quantities as holiday gifts for those you love, since it is chock-full of the heady and sincere mysteries of the interior life that have been tragically absent from the latest "hip" art.

Give it to anyone you know with a broken heart who likes strange new things. People have too many sexy-looking leather date books in their lives and not enough spaced-out moments in stretched-out T-shirts, listening to the magical emanations of other heads.

Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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