A friend of mine, on hearing that I was to see Daniel Johnston perform live, said, "his stuff is rough, but he is plugged into a scary truth."
That is a brilliant summary of Johnston's music. His style is raw and unsophisticated, but also hyper-direct and fiercely penetrating. His lyrics contain a truth so pure that it is both surface and symbol. Johnston's songs are simply devastating, rich with an unexplainable and strange emotional depth.
Daniel Johnston requires no mythologizing. This is a man who was revered as a genius by Kurt Cobain, literally ran off with the circus, became the king of weirdo capital Austin, befriended Sonic Youth, crashed an airplane. They made an award-winning documentary about his life and his art.
All of this - the infamy of Daniel Johnston - is what rattled about in my head as I waited for The Baptist Generals to finish. It's a lot to take in. It's a lot to consider before an artist has even taken the stage. Consequently, it's also a lot to live up to.
In a blue, dark room, on a gray Saturday evening, Daniel Johnston took the stage at Kessler Theatre. Twitchy, mumbling, and with guided, tiny awkward steps, the eccentric artist lumbered his way to the microphone. He didn't seem entirely aware of where he was or where his guitar might be located, but within a few short minutes and with a pinched grimace on his face, he launched right into song.
The silence that fell in response to his abrupt start was immediate, thick, and complete. The mood of the room was like that of a hushed body of disciples hoping to receive revelation from on high. On stage, Johnston's gaze was glassy and his intensity bordered on total detachment. If it weren't for his occasional all-knowing smirk, and a few spoken interactions with the crowd, he might have been playing only to himself.
Johnston's performance began with an acoustic, two-song set that found him alone on the stage. This was the best part of the night. The man really can't play the guitar and he can't sing, but he's a singer-songwriter like you've never heard. After only two tracks, I had already been drawn into his world, spun in an emotional centrifuge, witness to stark revelations and red-hot epiphanies.
It was the words of opening track, "Lost In My Infinite Memory," that first left me frozen in thought. The pangs of mental illness never sounded so real: "I feel like my life is already gone/ And it seems so hard just to get it on...I love you all, but I hate myself/ And there doesn't seem to be anyone who can help." My mind reeled. This was the sound of what it feels like to be completely hopeless, and he had just spelled it out in ten seconds. Daniel Johnston is a master of this, in that aim that is the goal of every great artist: the purification of his craft into its most pure and effective form. He can say in two minutes what novelists take two hundred pages spit out. There are no roundabout qualities in his music, just a series of lyrical gut-punches set in hyper-drive.
Hearing his lyrics live had the sensation of peaking behind the curtain, seeing the world for what it is, and in the wake of that, being scared shitless. Luckily for us - the less courageous - Johnston takes the burden of these truths on his own shoulders, carrying and suffering for us like the savior-like figures that appear in much of his art. Few consider the consequences of doing this, of purging one's soul. The resulting fruit can be grand, but the cost is great. This is a risk that is very real to Daniel Johnston; he suffers from manic-depressive schizophrenia. He's an artist with an imagination, made terrifying by delusion, heightened and tortured by the consequences of both mental anguish and an insatiable compulsion to create. In not so many words, Daniel Johnston has paid for his music with his life.
The courage Daniel Johnston must have is beyond me. Hell, anyone can talk about love and loss when it's kept at distance; but to observe and report on the devastations of the storm while you're in the midst of being ravaged by it, is nothing short of heroic. His voice on this night, as always, is fragile and small, but, surely, the guy has balls the size of Texas.
I have a pad and pen, but it's increasingly difficult to write anything down. I can't seem to pull my weteyes off of Daniel Johnston and his erratic strumming. I'm not alone; the Kessler is packed tonight, splitting at the seams with old, diehard fans and young, newly minted disciples. This is a signpost of powerful music. After all these years, Johnston's songs have shown themselves to be timeless things, capable of collecting new appreciators in dense, cult-like clusters.
After playing only two songs, Daniel Johnston exited the stage. A short while later, the band members of The Baptist Generals returned with Johnston to back him for the rest of the evening. Every member of the group, had his focus glued to Daniel as he sang. Like the audience before them, these men were clearly humbled. This second portion of the set was great, but it never quite reached the dry-mouth awe that Daniel commanded as a solo performer. The striking, unselfconscious intimacy so characteristic of Johnston's music was, to some degree, lessened.
Even so, the rest of the evening was something to behold. Daniel Johnston and band played roughly thirteen songs, including an inspired two set encore, which, momentarily, restored the immediacy of Johnston's earlier solo performance.
The performance came to a close with the haunting verses of fan favorite "Devil Town"-- a glimpse into Johnston's symptomatic paranoia distilled into one short song. "I was living in a Devil Town...And all my friends were vampires/ Didn't know they were vampires/ Turns out I was a vampire myself/ In the Devil Town."
Johnston was then guided off stage and swept into a curtained backroom. A collection of fans quickly assembled at the mouth of this room, hoping for a chance to meet the man who just tore at their collective heartstrings.
I found myself back there, nervous, unsure of what to expect. I shouldn't have been. Daniel was courteous, kind and down to earth. Unsolicited, he offered to draw me a cartoon. He asked if I could publish it with this article. That's what you see at the top.
It sure is weird. It could be the motto of Daniel Johnston's entire life. But to me, it's a beautiful reminder of a poignant evening, and a strange, immensely gifted artist that shattered all my expectations.