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Story and Photos by Matt SchwenkeThere always seems to be something compelling found in the art of an artist precariously swaying between sanity and insanity-- Van Gogh, Syd Barrett, William Blake, Brian Wilson, etc. And singer/songwriter/musician/artist and Austin, TX personality Daniel Johnston is no different. While his mental problems have created an almost mythical past, Johnston's song writing talent is as real as can be-- it is neither absorbed in his own problems nor blind to them-- and can not be reduced to novelty.
With the likes of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain, the Butthole Surfers, Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder and others promoting his talents during the height of grunge in the 90's, Johnston's music, which was originally disseminated on crudely recorded cassette tapes, gained an instant underground following, which, despite the recent pseudo-posthumous musical tribute to him, The Late Great Daniel Johnston, that includes Tom Waits, Beck, Bright Eyes, The Flaming Lips and others in an effort to raise enough money for the musician to move out of his parent's house, and the documentary film about him, "The Devil In Daniel Johnston," which was an award-winner at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival, and the release of a number of albums and artwork, Johnston has never been fully embraced by pop culture.
Embodying the indie ethic to its fullest, Johnston's songwriting talent transcended his image on stage at Turner Hall--a modestly dressed 47-year-old, portly, eyebrows grown gray and bushy, hands that trembled in between songs, a voice that wouldn't make it past first-round auditions in any talent show, and brief childlike banter with the crowd-- and into a realm of art that, much like the blues, is both personal and universal and was embraced ravenously, if not at some points nervously, by the crowd.
The uneasiness started the moment Johnston walked out on stage with his binder full of lyrics and began singing an a cappella version of "Speeding Motorcycle" before the previous band and stage hands were done clearing the stage for him. As his voice warbled and lisped, the band added a bit of backing towards the end of the catchy tune before Johnston picked up a guitar and ham-handedly strummed through "Mean Girls Give Pleasure" alone on stage. After another tune on guitar and a piercingly bright tune on piano, Johnston invited his old college friend Brett Hartenbach to the stage to take over the guitar duties and smooth out the rough edges for a crowd seemingly unconvinced at the time. In the brutally honest "Life In Vain," from the 1994 release FUN, and "Living In Life," from the 1980 debut Songs of Pain, reassured the crowd of the genius they were witnessing with lines like "This is life, and every thing's alright" sounding very believable and endearing him to the crowd. "Silly Love" came off as a truncated folk ballad, with Johnston quickly and politely adding "OK. Thank you" to the end, while "Grievances" was an honest tune of reflection wrapped in almost comical or fanciful package, with Johnston singing, "I'm looking for a nice girl, and I don't want no cow" and later "Well, I played the game but I failed the test, If I can't be a lover then I'll be a pest." In covering the Beatles' "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," Johnston took ownership of the classic with the chant of "Hey" becoming gravely foreboding instead of reassuring as Lennon had sang it.
Taking a quick break, Johnston returned to the stage with the Milwaukee-based opener The Subcontinentals backing him, and a run through the poignant "Wicked World," the cult classic "Casper the Friendly Ghost" and the rock ode "Rock 'n' Roll / EGA" were built up to impressive power without rendering Johnston's sound bland or taking away from his lyrics. As abruptly as he had initially taken the stage, Johnston humbly picked up his lyrics book, said "Thank you. Goodnight" and quickly left the stage as many in the decidedly young crowd rose to their feet. When Johnston returned with Hartenbach for an encore, he wished the crowd "Merry Christmas," explaining through crowd laughter and general puzzlement that with all the recent snow it seemed like Christmas in Milwaukee to him, and then left the crowd with "True Love Will Find You In The End," which is undistinguishable from an offering of hope to the masses or a reminder of hope for himself. And whether you subscribe to the theory that the exploitation of his illness has created this unlikely, indie rock hero or that it is his struggle to create art that rings true to so many despite his illness, there is only one Daniel Johnston.
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