Daniel Johnston to Wu-Tang Clan: 10 Musical Mythologies

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Some artists release a series of good albums over a long period of time, call it a day, and become legends. But other artists become legends after releasing one album, disappearing completely and leaving their fans with a few simmering rumors; or by linking a vast, elaborate mythos together through song-titles, album-art, live-show iconography and cryptic interviews; or by going completely insane.

This list focuses on those latter groups of legends, the musicians that are arguably more fun to read about than listen to. Here are 10 mystifying—and horrifying—artist mythologies.

10. Jack White

Jack White makes his way onto this list not because he’s got a massive, interconnected universe behind his music; in fact he hasn’t really shied away from media appearances and interviews. He has however, been one of the most eccentric, engaging and maddening figures in pop music history. It’s hard to think of anyone else who’s stuck so vehemently to his wardrobe, who willingly misleads the world to think his only band member was a sister or who had the gusto to throw a “divorce party” at the end of a public marriage to an English supermodel. Even in the post-White Stripes era he’s kept us guessing, you might catch him casually street-performing during this week’s SXSW—sure he isn’t the cosmological, illuminati-aping performer that some of the people on this list, but he’s always given us a good dinner conversation.

9. Neutral Milk Hotel

It’s sometimes hard to remember that once upon a time, Neutral Milk Hotel was just a regular ol’ indie-rock band. They had an indie-rock tour, playing indie-rock shows in support of an indie-rock album. That was, of course, all before Jeff Mangum flew off the handle and embraced anonymity for nearly 15 years. In the interim, In The Aeroplane Over The Sea has arguably become the most fussed-over, dissected and truly cherished album in indie-rock history. Catch a music forum on the right night, and you’ll see kids go back and forth on the record’s subtext and imagery. The face of the woman on the cover has become a minor meme on the Internet (It’s a potato! It’s a drum!) The rich, otherworldly emotion helped build a lengthy mythology, something only reinforced with Mangum’s absence. Right now he’s slowly crawling back into the public eye, putting out a massive reissue and booking festival gigs, but his legend was built on teenaged bedroom floors, late at night, wondering if the album’s mystery would ever be revealed.

8. Insane Clown Posse

Any list about music mythologies without the Insane Clown Posse is just trying to be cool. With scarce signs of big-budget backing or promotion, Detroit’s most infamous clowns have welcomed in their frighteningly large fanbase with comic books, DVDs, wrestling, clothing, jewelry and their very own, often snickered-about music festival. Oh yeah, you can’t forget the goddamn cosmovision that all their records are built from. In the Juggalo-universe, all of our souls are sent to the Dark Carnival, a sort of trailer-park purgatory, where we await final judgment. Those ICP albums? Yeah, they’re like the Ten Commandments to a certain demographic.

7. Throbbing Gristle

Throbbing Gristle is the kind of band that gets talked about in hushed tones in the dark corners of noise-house shows. Still revered by some, they were a controversial, albeit short-lived collective of artists operating out of a mid-sized town in the middle of England. They were also ferociously, most would say stupidly, provocative. Perhaps we should mention the grotesque, abrasive live performances that routinely included blood, sex and images of Nazi concentration camps—enough to get them publicly dishonored in front of Parliament. Or we could mention how a number of the members spent a significant portion of their lives living in a bizarre hippy commune, ate maggots, had sex on awkwardly-angled statues and used the bathroom in the open in order to “free” themselves from the human condition. Or, of course, we could mention that during her time with the band, guitarist Cosey Fanni Tutti could be found starring in a number of porno flicks that the band would project during their sets. The legacy of Throbbing Gristle still makes a generation of amateurs consider if such a brashly shocking life would be for them.

6. Mayhem

The Nordic black-metal scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s was full of bizarre, often horrifying tales of unchecked agenda, most notably the poetry and pitfalls of Mayhem’s relentless extreme-metal machismo. When the band brought in a replacement frontman named Per Ohlin in 1988, he quickly adopted the stage-name “Dead.” But that was just the tip of the iceberg. Widely regarded to be a melancholic, depressed and potentially insane individual, Dead’s misery became a primary aesthetic for the band’s live show. Decked in corpse-paint, he would usually bury his clothes in order to grab a faint, rotting smell. He’d often cut himself with broken glass and hunting knives on stage, sometimes refusing to eat in order to get the starve-wounds. He might’ve been the first guy to put a decapitated goat head on a pike in the middle of the stage, you know, just to make sure everyone who showed up knew what they were getting into. After a short, but talked-about career, Dead was eventually found dead in 1991, his wrists slit and a self-inflicted shotgun blast to his head, the suicide note? “Excuse all the blood.” Later a picture of the scene would be used as the cover an officially-released bootleg. This naturally all made Mayhem one of the most-listened and legendary black metal bands of all time. Nothing encapsulates the brutality of that scene better.

5. Wu-Tang Clan

In which nine friends from the grimy underworld of New York adopt monikers taken directly from B-grade samurai flicks and suddenly find themselves kingpin of a great, geeky empire. The Wu-Tang kingdom may not be the deepest, but it is easily the most consistent. From every full-band LP to independent solo endeavor, to clothing lines and accessories, to clan-approved movies—everything with the group’s name on is held to the same format. That’s why there’s sword slashes and croaked, Japanese-guru wisdoms on every album. That’s why the term “shaolin” has bewilderingly entered common lexicon. That’s why every nerd coming of age in the mid ’90s knows that “the game of chess, is like a sword fight.” There is a lot of self-serious, furrowed-brow mythology on this list, but the Wu-Tang have been running with the same silly conceit for more than two decades now, and it’s always been a lot of fun.

4. The Residents

The Residents are one of those experimental, outsider-art collectives who’ve never been extensively referenced in mainstream reporting, they’re scarcely listed as an influence, and their discography is so knotty anyone who’s looking for a way in will be left hopelessly without a lead. A quartet of dapper men with tophat-bestowed eyeballs for heads, they make flamboyant, sound-collage, overtly eccentric pop inversions, and they bewilder nearly everyone they come in contact with. Who are they? We honestly don’t really know, names pop up from time to time but nothing has been even close to confirmed. They’ve been active since 1969 without publicly exposing their faces. Rather impressive really. They’re also a touring machine, cranking out high-scale live shows that seem wholly engineered to push their mythos even further. In terms of showman excess, you can’t get much deeper than The Residents.

3. Daniel Johnston

Psychosis and musical brilliance often make for a good story, but that almost feels like an understatement when you’re talking about Daniel Johnston. Austin’s favorite son, Johnston’s powerful, overrunning career practically defined an entire ethos of a city. There are literally hundreds of songs to his name, the emotional lyrics spilling out of him. The classic albums—Hi, How Are You, 1990—are portals into a deeply disturbed man, still living with his parents after all these years. It’s that honesty, that sense that this person is practically incapable of being dishonest, that made him a legend. It’s discomforting, but also irresistibly seductive in a macabre sort of way. Of course there’s also the story where he wrestled control of a small plane from his dad, threw the key out the window, and forced a crash landing.

2. Robert Johnson

The folklore says that Robert Johnson made a deal with the devil at midnight at a lonely crossroads. It was there he was given mastery of the blues, only to be poisoned to death a few years later at the implication-ready age of 27. This, of course, did not happen, but it’s only a tribute to the everlasting legend of Robert Johnson that such a tale could be repeated for so long. The man we would later call the king of the blues sold almost no records when he was alive, and got by playing juke joints and street corners throughout the ’30s. He left behind a small, obsessively-discussed batch of songs, and barely any biography to speak of. At this point he might as well be a fictional character, a Socrates of sorts, someone we don’t have trouble making up stories for, because honestly there isn’t enough history to dispute. Johnson has been dead for 74 years, and he’s still constantly taught, discussed, played and covered. We will likely never know anything more about him, which draws us in even more.

1. Jandek

Jandek is likely the most obscure artist on this list. Undoubtedly that’s the way he’d like it. More than anyone else mentioned, Jandek has dedicated his entire career to building his mythology on his strict, personal terms. If you don’t know, Jandek is the name given to a musical concept of an anonymous man (although we’re pretty sure his name is Sterling Smith, he’s been releasing albums via his own label, Corwood Industries, since the late ’70s, and we know absolutely nothing about him. His discography spans more than 60 records, and ranges from dissolved, atonal folk to noisy freakouts to spoken-word rambles. When he does perform live, it’s usually a jam-heavy, sharply-angled iteration on his aesthetic, and he always refers to himself as “a representative from Corwood Industries.” He has done two interviews, neither with any meaty or iconoclastic information. And he’s got a reputation for showing up unannounced at the University of Rice Radio to play a set.

All of this, from the music to the mystery, makes Jandek a truly inimitable presence. There has literally been nobody like him in the history of commercial music. He doesn’t just have a mythology, he is mythology.