A Lot On The Subject of The Surreally Wonderful DANIEL JOHNSTON Live (Plus Photos! Video!)

Daniel Johnston, pic by Mikala Taylor/backstagerider.com

“Wooooweeelooveyoudaniel”. The sound around us as Daniel Johnston shlumpfs on stage in a hockey jerseything tied with a rope belt, is the sound of support. It’s also the sound of a small and weird crowd – beardy hipsters, young Dan Clowes Ghost World girls, drunk Aussies and stoned doods.

He clutches the white binder with his song lyrics (The Beatles’ “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” is the more efficient “You Got to Hide Your Love Away”), straps on his strange matchboxy guitar and bashes away at it. He furrows his brow. He cannot really play guitar. Nor can he really sing. He has that high-pitched, childlike yelp that is only Daniel Johnston’s. At first, it’s noise, just like the guy in the wonderful documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston said…

…but then words of epic and heartbreaking struggle come, via his first song, “Lost In My Infinite Memory”:

Hi!  How are you these days?
Everything seems sort of crazed
And I feel so lazy I could cry
I feel like I could lay down and die

And I feel like my life is already gone
And it seems so hard just to get it on
Though I think I’ll try just for fun
Though I fail

I love you all, but I hate myself
And there doesn’t seem to be anyone who can help
And everything has turned out bad

I’m so sad

And your ventricles swell and pop and you sort of look down and fiddle with your fingers between shooting pics and you know: this is a guy still fighting hell, still plagued by his demons and saved by his superheroes, and wrestling medication for severe manic depression. But it’s inspiring, too, that an artist who spent bouts of adulthood in psychiatric hospitals dealing with paranoid mania is now, in his 50th year, just healthy enough again to tour his songs; to draw a comic book called Space Ducks: An Infinite Comic Book of Musical Greatness; to have kids queueing to buy photocopied cassette tapes; and to sell drawing after drawing, along with THAT t-shirt that Kurt wore.

Daniel Johnston, pic by Mikala Taylor/backstagerider.com

And that, friends, is the miracle. And you think: “Bloody hell, Daniel Johnston, well done.” And you think, yeah, I can understand why 150+ artists (from Flaming Lips, to Yo La Tengo, to Mike Doughty) have covered your songs. You are so very, very special.

Also special is when, after just four songs solo, and at the end of “Freedom“, that voice mumbles, “thanks, we’ll be right back with the band”, and a few minutes later, returns with his openers, the perplexing Seattle band Motopony. (An aside: Motopony are currently being hustled by record companies, and are a band who weirded me out- mainly thanks to their former fashion designer singer Daniel Blue’s hippie-high talk of the audience’s heart vibrations, how he likes visiting foreign countries – yo, dude, Seattle’s three hours from Vancouver – their unexpected  cover of Starsailor [!] track “Alcoholic” and impressive/ridiculous dancing. Still, good keyboardist. Extra bonus points go to Johnston later, when he quips [I think?’] “Thanks to – what’s the name of this band? Rent a pony?” Bahahahaha.)

Daniel Johnston, pic by Mikala Taylor/backstagerider.com

ANYWAY. Johnston returns and sits down, the proficient band behind him and launches into the “one song you wanna hear”, which is “Speeding Motorcycle”. It’s sublime.  Folks yell out for “WALK THE COW! WALK THE FUCKIN’ COW! To which Johnston replies to the drunk chick, “Sorry, m’am, but we don’t know that one.  But here’s another Beatles one…” and heads into the aforementioned …Hide (which comes a couple of tracks on from his “Revolution” cover. Along with Mountain Dew, Captain America, Casper, and the Devil, Johnston was obsessed by the Beatles).  “Life in Vain” goes back to ruin and heartbreak, “High Horse” is a love song…and then he cheekily asks “OKAREWEREADYTOROCKTHISTOWNTONIGHT?” while he and the band…sorta do.

Daniel Johnston, pic by Mikala Taylor/backstagerider.com

Then he leaves – again – and comes back with “Okay, here’s the song you want for Christmas” and he’s right. It’s “True Love Will Find You In the End” and your heart cannot take it. It’s just so raw and weird and sad and wonderful.

Then he leaves again, and comes back with a cigarette and stands, in a black t-shirt, his hands shaking, and recites a version, kind of, of “Worried Shoes” in which his characters know what it feels like to be dead (rhyming with “let the train run over his head”). The he leaves us for good and and you can’t help but think you’ve seen something you’ve never seen before and it is car-crash and tragic and beautiful and you are thankful for Daniel Johnston tonight. \m/

Daniel Johnston, pic by Mikala Taylor/backstagerider.com

Print by Daniel Johnston, signed in Vancouver

One response to “A Lot On The Subject of The Surreally Wonderful DANIEL JOHNSTON Live (Plus Photos! Video!)”

  1. What a wonderful review. You captured perfectly Daniel’s appeal for me. He’s such a lovely, brave, flawed, sweet, tortured soul. Even his worst songs reveal a glimpse of that, while his best are devastating.

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