How Not To Write A Book Proposal (Rejected Unknown)
Sometimes, when your proposals for articles or books are rejected you feel down for weeks afterwards – like, fuck it, I really was the best person for that job, why the FUCK is everyone still so resentful of me and bugger it, I ain’t going to be buying anything this week either.
Other times, however, you wear the rejection as a badge of honour. I suspect that being turned down by 33 1/3 books might be one of those occasions. Obviously, I do not fit their remit of good music criticism in 2015… looking around and seeing what is viewed as good music criticism, I find myself oddly unmoved by the rejection.
Yes, there are (at least) 83 other music critics in America alone better than me. They have probably all gone to university too. I say America, because only America produces the sort of music criticism that sparkles. And I say university because the person responsible for commissioning the 33 1/3 series – a series that goes some way to helping define what music criticism can be – is also a commissioning editor for Bloomsbury Academic. Who was it who said that “When rock critics started needing university qualifications, it was the beginning of the end”. Ah thank you, Clinton Walker.
And who was it who said, “I think everybody’s a rock critic, to the extent that you when go into a record store and you decide to buy this one over that one, you’re being a rock critic”?
I am interested to see some of the other proposals that have been turned down, though. I mean, if they figure my approach to music criticism to be unsuitable… So please, if you are one of the 522 writers that got passed over, send your original proposal to me. And who knows? If I see enough I find intriguing, I might be spurred into print publishing again.
Here is the complete rejected book proposal. It has since occurred to me that this proposal may have been rejected because of my final paragraph about money. It should be enough for the humble writer to know that her words help keep the book company going, and the editors paid.
I have removed the first part of the proposal (the CV) for fear of being too boring.
2. Table of Contents for ‘Hi, How Are You’
“I believe Daniel Johnston is a ghost of his former self” – Daniel Johnston
There are two (main) narratives running through the book.
Each chapter begins with a capsule (100-300w) review of the song that gives the chapter its title. Having 15 chapters in this short book means that each chapter will be around 2,000 words long. Each one is intended to be read as complete story in itself.
Introduction to Daniel and his family. The Compleat Beatles, two-track cassette recorders, ‘the myth of Daniel Johnston’s genius’. Growing up with Daniel in West Virginia: “The noise of banging on the piano all day and all night was a little bit bothersome to us but we could always close the door.”
Big Business Monkey
Growing up in Chelmsford, U.K. with The Compleat Beatles and two-track cassette recorders. Growing up, isolated, scared. Unable to speak to girls or women. In a Christian family. The songs. My inability to write the beautiful, bruised, bruising songs.
Walking the Cow
Laurie. The symbolism of Laurie. The literary device of Laurie. The myth of Laurie. The relevance of Oscar Wilde to the present-day.
I Picture Myself with a Guitar
Encountering How Hi Are You? for the first time. Introduction to Jeff Tartakov in Brighton, U.K and ‘the genius of Daniel Johnston’s myth’. Colouring washing pink by accident.
Despair Came Knocking
Daniel in the 1990s, the lost years. Stories filtering through from the U.S of crashing planes, disappearing in NYC. The T-shirt. The knives. The story of the Lou Barlow/Beck tape, and hotel rooms in Chicago. The songs. The beautiful, bruised, bruising songs.
I Am a Baby (In My Universe)
An excerpt from a Kim Fowley interview.
An examination of the illusion of authenticity as related to the ideology of rock and the songs of Daniel Johnston. A brief detour towards the Pastels, and back to Brett Hartenbach.
I’ll Never Marry
An explanation of isolation. An explanation of depression. My part in Daniel’s downfall. Record company wars around a mental institution inmate.
Get Yourself Together
An excerpt from a Dick Johnston interview. The songs. The beautiful, bruised, bruising songs.
Meeting Daniel and his dad in Portland OR in 1998. Meeting Daniel again in London, 2002. Egged on the streets of Soho. The strangeness of Daniel Johnston’s ‘fame’.
Desperate Man Blues
Daniel’s dark side (the side that is often referenced but never made explicit). The problem with comic books. Misogyny and homophobia. ‘Real Bad Shoes’. Where the Wild Things Are.
Performing and introducing Daniel Johnston on stage in London, Melbourne, Brisbane.
She Called Pest Control
An excerpt from a short letter to the Women Who Changed My Life (by not being there).
Keep Punching Joe
An excerpt from a Jad Fair interview. Why Gerard Cosloy is wrong about music.
No More Pushing Joe Around
The future? Is there one?
3. Draft chapter (introduction)
Sydney (Monster Children)
The conversation between Loene, Millie and myself goes something like this,
“Looks like it’s going to rain. Let’s go inside.”
“Might not rain.”
“Let’s stay in the courtyard. There’s more room here – and look, here are some beers.”
“It’s going to rain. Let’s go inside.”
“Have you seen the line of kids outside? It’s crazy. Let’s stay outside.”
“There’ll be more atmosphere inside. Daniel’s supposed to be playing an art gallery, not a courtyard.”
So the three of us stand and wait, hemmed in along one side of Sydney’s Monster Children gallery, sweat dripping from every conceivable pore, no microphone except a clip-on one, Millie blowing sweet gales of sound down her saxophone, Loene wrestling tempests from the guitar, as people ask other people ask others, “Is this Daniel Johnston? He looks pretty different in real life.” Meanwhile, close on 500 kids queue patiently outside to get a glimpse of some fellow who might possibly be an Englishman, might not, who cares, it’s free and it’s a happening scene.
Shortly after we finish, the gallery owner announces that as there is no room inside Daniel will be performing on the street and please can everyone keep the beers out of sight and not block the road … so Daniel and his guitarist Brett Hartenbach step up to the plate, steps slippery, Daniel being passed his lyric book by his brother Dick Johnston, maybe taken aback by the strangeness of the scene, maybe not, who knows with Daniel? Two songs in, and he’s reduced the audience to tears. Two songs in – ‘Life In Vain’ and ‘Silly Love’ – and then he is gone, sloped off around the corner to smoke a cigarette.
Sometimes, all you need is a massive heart and naked vulnerability.
“He can do that, you know,” remarks his brother afterwards. “Make the magic happen.”
Brisbane (Laneway Festival)
Around me stand members of Australia’s alternative rock aristocracy, watching this man called Daniel Johnston perform: the voice of a child wavering and plaintive, shaking uncontrollably. His voice is so at odds with the reality of his 49-year-old physical presence, it’s surreal. People so want to believe in Daniel Johnston – the idea that anyone can achieve their dream if they stick with it, the illusion of infatuation masquerading as love, the innocence and pain and inability to relate to the adult world …
After an exquisite handful of opening numbers performed solo, or just by himself and Brett, the set is full-on blues rock: Sydney band Old Man River supply the necessary licks and postures, as Dan sings aloud from his omnipresent lyric book – a handful of John Lennon covers, ‘Fake Records Of Rock’N’Roll’ from new album Is And Always Was. He does this everywhere he tours – someone somewhere decides on a bunch of musicians to play on his songs: he shows up, no rehearsals. They perform. At least Old Man River have paid him the courtesy of learning his songs. Many haven’t. Songs from the cult 2006 documentary The Devil And Daniel Johnston are performed. He attempts a couple of jokes. He picks up his lyric book and shuffles off without a backwards glance. Daniel Johnston doesn’t hang around.
Earlier, I drive the four of us – me, Dan, Dick and Brett – round the winding, leafy streets of Brisbane. Several times, Dan throws back his head and laughs. “I’m having such a fun time today,” he exclaims, knowing that a visit to a comic book store, his one constant in an ever-changing world of tour schedules, is soon forthcoming. He laughs. “This is fun, isn’t it Dick?” His colleagues are more enthused by the fact we’ve just visited Walkabout Creek wildlife centre – home to a real live duck-billed platypus – then picking up more comics, but they go along with the joke.
A week later, on the way to Japan, the travelling troupe is fined nearly $1,400 by Jetstar for the extra weight incurred by Daniel’s comics.
Melbourne (Speakeasy Cinema + Prince Of Wales)
“I don’t want to hear it.”
Daniel starts walking determinedly, and quickly, down the street.
I shrug, and walk back to where his brother is standing. All I tried to do was tell Daniel how I’d tried to show the dragons in Chinatown to my four-year-old son last time I’d visited Melbourne. “Guess you better take this back, Dick,” I say, giving him the $100 note that he’d passed to me. (He’d slipped it to me, under the pretence of me taking Daniel to dinner.)
“Sorry about that, Everett. That’s just how he gets sometimes.”
It had started so well. When I’d arrived at Daniel Johnston’s hotel room the day before, he’d greeted me effusively, like a long-lost buddy, grabbing my hand, talking fast and enthusiastically the way he does: “Hey Everett! Come on in, buddy. I’ve got a load of new comics here! Want to go get something to eat? We could do an interview. You wanna get something to eat? Let’s go!”
So we sit outside the hotel, outside a sushi bar, Daniel scattering most of his food on the pavement for the sparrows, laughing in delight when they take the food. He smokes a few cigarettes, we talk some: about his early recordings which he only ever put on to tape as a way of a thank-you to the handful of art college friends who’d made him feel so special; about his days as a travelling carnie in the mid-80s (where he wound up living in Texas, minus his necessary medication); of the bidding war between Atlantic and Elektra Records that took place while he was institutionalised, that only happened as a result of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain wearing his Jeremiah The Frog T-shirt; even of a weird incident in the early 00s when a Japanese girl decided she was going to marry him and moved out to Waller, Texas …
We walk back to the hotel, Daniel bubbling and excited.
“Hey, you want to talk some more? We could talk some more! Let’s sit down on the couch right here!” Sure, but shouldn’t we find Dick? Maybe we should go upstairs and find him?
And – all of a sudden – Daniel is like:
“Thank you, interview’s over.”
I know that. I was just saying…
“Thank you. Interview’s over.”
And he storms off.
It makes it awkward at the Speakeasy that night. I’m supposed to be conducting a live Q/A session with him between the two screenings, and performing another spoken word set. So Dick and the press agent collude to move Daniel outside while I’m on stage with Brett – Dick has figured Dan doesn’t like the attention being paid to me, and furthermore didn’t like the question about his Japanese suitor.
So Brett plays some of Daniel’s songs on the guitar while I recount the tale of my first encounter with Daniel Johnston in front of a large, scarily reverential audience: through my initial shocked, cynical laughter at hearing Hi, How Are You to my almost immediate conversion – partly because of shared experience: the same inability to cope with girls, the same way we’d used the Beatles songbook The Compleat Beatles to learn and pound the piano, the same love for the same comic books (Jack Kirby, Marvel Comics) – through a strange visit from his ex-manager Jeff Tartakov to my house in Brighton in 1991 when he’d instructed us to hide all the knives and had passed along to me a Daniel Johnston T-shirt with a picture of Jeremiah The Frog on its front…
All this is punctuated by Brett’s beautiful guitar (including ‘The Story Of An Artist’ – a song Daniel never plays on stage anymore), and building up to the incident where I’m having a three-way argument with Kurt Cobain (referred to as “my mother” in the piece) and his wife in LA in 1992: us, mocking Kurt’s taste in T-shirts and pointing out that folk take notice of what he wears on his chest, him whining that he doesn’t own any T-shirts by bands he likes (aside from the homemade Flipper one, presumably) and me saying, “Look, I have this Daniel Johnston T-shirt, but you have to promise me that you’ll wear it cos it’s my favourite shirt, and really special to me…”
“Yeah yeah, Everett. Of course I will.”
And because Kurt never liked the idea of taking anything for free, he swapped it for a Pearl Jam shirt that featured insults hurtled the band’s way by music critics (both he and I despised Pearl Jam). So I wore that, and he wore the Daniel Johnston T, and the rest … well, the rest is right up here on stage next to me, almost physically pushing me aside, now he knows that it’s his turn.
“Thank you, Everett, for that introduction,” he barks.
And once again, the three songs performed – including a truly tear-jerking ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’ – with Brett are magical. The crowd is spellbound, rapt.
“Don’t worry too much about it, Everett,” Brett says the following day. “He sometimes gets like that. He was like that towards me for a whole tour once. And then the next time he saw me, he gave me a massive bear hug.”
Welcome to the world of Daniel Johnston.
4. Blurb for back cover
Daniel Johnston moves me to tears. His painful, eloquent, movingly vulnerable songs: there’s nothing hidden, just the raw essence of emotion, shot through with an abiding belief in the all-conquering ability of love. Forget the back-story, the gossip and rumours and anecdotes. To appreciate Daniel, all you need to do is listen to his plaintive, wavering voice and his beautiful, beautiful songs. Go in search of beauty and eventually you will be sure to find Daniel
On Hi, How Are You – the album that first exposed Daniel Johnston to a wider public – the conflicted genius proved that it isn’t the quality of the recording that matters, or whether there are mistakes, bum notes or out-of-tune instruments. What matters above anything is the quality of the songs – as fans as diverse as Tom Waits, Beck, Kurt Cobain, Sonic Youth, Johnny Depp and Matt Groening can attest.
Hi, How Are You exposed an astonishing natural talent rooted in a love for his beloved Beatles and tempered by his volatile, sometimes desperately sad, life experience. Yet, this vulnerability is what is so off-putting to many people, trained as they are to only accept music that’s been polished to a certain degree. Hi, How Are You? is as rudimentary as music gets.
Author Everett True has been a Daniel Johnston fan since the late 1980s, when he first saw a drawing of Jeremiah the Innocent (the singer’s bug-eyed frog character) on the front of Hi, How Are You.
5. Relevant competition
There have been several projects concerning Daniel Johnston, all of reasonable value (as you’d expect from a figure that commands such love and affection). There is the Don Goede and Tarssa Yazdani book Hi, How are You?: Art, Life and Music of Daniel Johnston, which is a great start but focuses mainly on Daniel’s art and does not go into much explanation of the music. There is the wonderful Phillippe Vergne and Jad Fair hardback Daniel Johnston; again, an art book. There was going to be a more in-depth biography via Music Sales (UK.), Daniel Johnston: The Story of an Artist, written by myself but circumstances meant it had to be shelved (more details below).
More notably, there is the excellent 2005 award-winning film biography The Devil and Daniel Johnston, directed by Jeff Feuerzeig – the main reason we are now having this discussion about a Daniel Johnston book, I suspect. And there is a forthcoming Gabriel Sunday movie, Hi, How Are You: A Short Film Starring Daniel Johnston.
As the above demonstrate, there is a clear demand for quality discourse around Daniel, and this book will complement all the above.
6. Why Am I The Best Person To Write This Book?
First, I’m a great writer and one of Daniel’s earliest supporters in the mainstream. I am featured in his story, as the go-between responsible for passing along a T-shirt (unasked-for) to Kurt Cobain which in turn led to a bidding war for Daniel’s music in the mid-1990s. It is credible to assume that every single person involved with Daniel’s career is familiar with my name, even if they haven’t met me.
When I was researching my own biography on Daniel in 2009-2010 I interviewed over 25 people intimately connected with Daniel – including his brother Dick and his father Bill, and Daniel himself (these interviews lasting for several hours). This source material has never been used after I shelved the project. (I had to shelf the project for personal reasons: first, severe personal illness that resulted in a six-month recovery period, and second, the birth of my second son Daniel.)
Having said that, my intention here is not to draw upon the interviews in any great amounts, but to write the book. I mention them here as evidence of the fact I know Daniel and his music and his story intimately. Daniel to me is a very personal love and so this a very personal book. An intimate relationship with music.
I have introduced Daniel on stage on several occasions – being one of the best-known champions of his music in the press – and have also performed with his guitarist Brett Hartenbach.
I have copies of dozens upon dozens of Daniel’s personal journals (never seen) and a very extensive Daniel Johnston musical collection.
I would expect the support of his family on this book (our relationship has never been less than fully cordial) and also of his ex-manager Jeff Tartakov, filmmaker Jeff Feuerzeig, musician Jad Fair and any number of connected figures.
We would promote the book primarily around his own fan-club and also via the numerous magazines and websites I am connected with. Pitchfork, MOJO, NME, Rolling Stone, Village Voice, The Stranger, Uncut, Bust, Where The Girls Are, Collapse Board et al. With me Daniel being a well-known and loved cult star with a back story that everyone knows already is interesting, publicity should pose no difficulty whatsoever.
I am a quoted source in several academic courses, particularly Music Journalism in the U.K – and again, I would expect a book like this, with such a solid foundation and also varied interpretative approaches would be used in tertiary institutions. This being Daniel Johnston, you would expect some of his more famous fans (some of whom I know personally) to give vocal support.
I am happy to give Bloomsbury Academic the support they require – in particular, I am happy to give interviews or quotes around Daniel Johnston to anyone who so desires (and the potential for me to get hold of relevant people to give interviews also exists). I am also an experienced academic with several years lecturing at university level behind me, and my PhD thesis is about to be submitted.
I can supply references, if you so desire.
7. Which 33 1/3 books I like / Which form of music writing do I prefer?
I like the two most recent 33 1/3 books I’ve seen. The Pete Astor one on Blank Generation, and the Anwen Crawford one on Live Through This – both offer engagement and insight into the subject. Both lead to an understanding of the album under analysis beyond what has been offered before.
What form of music writing do I prefer? Well, considering I’ve just submitted a 95,000 word thesis on this very topic we could be here all day and all night, but in brief (and I hope you don’t mind me quoting myself)…
There’s only one inviolate rule. (This is an unfinished article, by necessity.) It’s about the music. (It’s never just about the music.) Don’t lose sight of that. You get the music wrong, your readers will not forgive you. (You get the music right, your readers will not forget you.) Most people who read me do so despite my gregarious self-promotion. They read me (hopefully) first and foremost because I have a clue. Not much, just enough. An iota of respect. An ability to sort. Then, and only then, they stick with me because I have a style, a ‘personality’. (I am aware this doesn’t always apply.) I’m not scared to champion new artists, not scared to go against the grain, not scared to call time on bullshit. I would like to be loved but prefer to remain True. I don’t follow a consensus. The only history I’m interested in is mine. The only folk I care to cite are those who have a personal connection to me. (Doesn’t mean I have to know them.) I have a proven track record that can be easily verified. You might not agree with me but you sure as hell know what I stand for. Sometimes. (I like to catch folk off-beam, confound expectations, challenge preconceptions … have fun while I’m fucking.) I might try everything within my power to draw attention to my musical preferences and loves, to a degree where it becomes near-parody or incomprehensible or hype or embarrassingly self-referential but I do so because it’s about the music. I care to a ridiculous extent about the fucking music. I started writing because I wanted everyone to dance down the front of shows. I still write for that reason (True, Collapse Board, 2011).
At its finest, music criticism should be an art to rank alongside the medium it is evaluating. Music criticism should enhance the experience of listening to music in every respect—inform, enliven, uncover—but above all, it should entertain.
As Oscar Wilde puts it,
An age that has no criticism is either an age in which art is immobile, hieratic, and confined to the reproduction of formal types, or an age that possesses no art at all (1970, p. 254).
And to quote from my research (forgive me!):
…an idealised function for the popular music critic [is]… a mixture of Mark Sinker’s ‘troll-David’, Christopher J’ Ott’s deliberately provocative series of Shallow Rewards videos, Chris Weingarten’s adventures in Twitter land, Jessica Hopper’s ‘without fear’ approach to tackling criticism head-on, Neil Kulkarni and Scott Creney’s contrarianism, the authority and continual questioning of form of Frances Morgan, and Collapse Board’s sometimes passionate, sometimes experimental approach to ‘writing’ about music. Subjective, infuriating, probing, aware that the music criticism cannot stand on privilege, always ready to start a conversation and keep it going, conversant with the many different levels of engagement the internet provides, aware of gender and race imbalance in popular music, opinionated, soulful, fanatical, and supremely unafraid of reaction (©Thackray, 2015).
8. Potential market for book
The potential market for this book are Daniel Johnston fans (clearly) – a core of which (perhaps amounting to around 5,000) you would expect to automatically buy this book, as Daniel inspires devotion. Then you have a wider potential market, the Guardian/Village Voice readers and hyper-Nirvana fans, who will have seen the film or know about the Kurt Cobain connection and want to discover more.
What are the fans like? Passionate, involved. Committed to their love for Daniel Johnston. And there has yet to be a book on Daniel Johnston that has gone in-depth on his music.
There will also be a crossover with anyone who likes an interesting back story.
Also, there is a residual Everett True fan base (I have no idea how large) that may well be interested in my first proper book since the 2006 Nirvana biography (still in print, still selling, and most often cited as the definitive source by fans of the band).
9. Turnaround time for the book
If required, I could complete this book by October 2015. I have chosen this date because I am shortly about to emigrate to the U.K, and have recently submitted my PhD thesis, and have some time to spare. Otherwise January 2016 is fine.
10. Other comments
If this proposal is accepted, I would like to see a definite advance figure; and also what kind of deal you offer for foreign edition rights. Also, I would expect to retain some form of copyright on my words. Please be aware that we are emigrating in four weeks’ time, so my contact address will be changing.