I saw Johnston perform at Lupo’s Heartbreak Hotel on the Summer Solstice of 2008. Coincidentally it was Gay Day in Providence and the city’s narrow streets were carpeted with families, nut vendors and pole dancers. It was all in good fun.
Admittedly, I’ve only known Daniel Johnston’s work for the last year and a half or so. This fact could easily clump me into the mass of recent fans who saw a documentary called, “The Devil in Daniel Johnston,” but at the time of my discovery, I didn’t even realize there was a film, so I’m stuck somewhere between earnest “oldschool” fans and “n00bs.”
I found his work when I was making a theme cd centered around the idea of being an “artist,” whatever that means. The song that led me to Johnston was “The Story of an Artist” performed by a predominant member of Portland’s lo-fi scene, M. Ward.
Later I realized that Daniel Johnston himself is a cultish lo-fi hero: He’s an artist’s artist, making music that the radio’s advertisers would certainly shun, but would eagerly and immediately overplay his fans.
Having M. Ward’s silky voice and soft guitar – in some ways – was an unfair representation of Johnston’s work. But, truthfully, had I heard the uncovered version without introduction, I may not have given it a second listen. Or maybe I would have, had it been the right time. As it stands, it happened this way and I am all the better for it.
The album in which Johnston’s work had been covered appeared to be a memorial album, titled: “The Late, Great Daniel Johnston, Discovered Covered.” But the joke was totally on me: Daniel Johnston is not dead. At least not yet.
At the show I became overwhelmed with a surplus of ideas. Frenzied, I sought a chewed pen and a photocopy poster of the show and wrote for twenty minutes while Johnston bled words from his abdomen. My initial thought was that he might be likened to a musical version of Bukowski but without Buk’s snarky, belligerent disposition. More to the point, like Bukowski, Johnston’s craft is in carving honest art. This is what makes Daniel Johnston an artist’s artist. Further comparison notes the rawness of Daniel Johnston that makes him special in a world full of polished pop stars.
He arrived on stage in street clothes: a normal guy. A guy nobody would notice. He might have even been wearing sweatpants. They might have even been from K-Mart. And it didn’t matter: he is what he is, truthfully. This alone is immensely rare.
He sort of plays a guitar, or rather a sort of guitar he plays. Bringing lo-fi to the extreme, Daniel delivers nonsense with reality and it is often difficult to distinguish between the two. His words and melodies roll straight from his mind in a manner that feels barely edited. If that sounds like a criticism, it surely is not.
His lyrics are simple and concise and reflect a sense of the Human Condition: ““Hold me like a mother would, like I’ve always known somebody should” or “It’s so tough to be alive / when I feel like the living dead.” These and countless other lines describe a man who is both terribly afraid and not at all afraid. His vocal delivery is both sweetly naive and brutally direct.
He shook either out of nervousness or illness, I’m not sure, but at one point someone brought him something to drink and I suspiciously surmised that it had contained some sort of sedative. His voice, raw and vulnerable, spoke quietly but sang almost violently.
The Beatles’ hit “Help!” transformed from a sixties pop jingle into an actual cry for help. His own songs discuss the social landscape and interpersonal emotions of an outcast. Not so much maudlin as perspective, he phrases situations in a way that is both relevant to the human condition as it is to the individual: We’re all outcasts sometimes.
As I understand it – or at least as I believe it – artists are artists because of human sameness, not the differentiation. I believe artistic genius occurs when there is no pretense: it can be found just as easily in the guy on the bus next to you as he raps quietly beneath his hoodie or in a dog’s sigh; beneath the hum of traffic or confined to the walls of a museum. Art is a level of understanding between two beings. Within this understanding we gain a sense of relation to ourselves within the world in which we live.
When I saw Daniel Johnston, regular guy being so *not* regular, and still somehow still *totally* regular, I was blown away. This is the kind of artist I aim to be and I am unequivocally grateful I had the opportunity to see him perform.