The first thing Daniel Johnston does after ambling onstage and offloading his file full of lyrics is open a bottle of Mountain Dew. The crowd cheers. Anyone who knows Daniel Johnston or has seen the 2005 documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, is aware that he loves Mountain Dew—he has even penned an ode to the sugary, caffeinated drink. With every hearty swig, the crowd continues to cheer. They also cheer the eccentric one-liners and lovelorn lyrics that litter his bittersweet songs like they would homemade Valentines. It’s clear that, notwithstanding his lifelong battle with mental illness, this sold-out crowd genuinely loves Daniel Johnston.
When several people audibly make their feelings known, Johnston acknowledges the adulation sheepishly, like it’s the first time he’s heard it. Later, though, the crowd’s comments become a little disconcerting. After he introduces a tune from his 1981 debut, Songs of Pain, an audience member shouts: “We love your pain.” Others concur with hoots and hollers. It’s an awkward moment. Do they really love his pain? Herein lies the question that haunts the cult of Daniel Johnston: Why are we here—for the songs or for the story?
Johnston was, at one time, a genius. It’s a statement backed up by the age of the songs played tonight—the majority are more than 15 years old. Still, his old material, played in the achingly raw fashion for which he is legendary, is far better than the work of most of today’s troubadours. The reason is that Johnston is one of the few performers out there who have the ability to be completely open. His songs are written, and performed, with childlike wonder and bewilderment. There’s no shut-off valve. There’s also no denying that his mental illness has made him even more precocious to his legion of fans. Yet, there’s something slightly surreal about seeing this performer, a person whose life has turned not a few dark corners, on stage, singing songs of love and life, hope and redemption. At times, it’s bracingly honest, difficult to imagine a truer performance. At other times, it’s slightly overwrought, and a little unbearable.
As usual, Johnston looks weathered. His hair is grey, his features grizzled. He’s wearing his trademark sweatpants, and his patented sheet-music stand holds the musings his head no longer can. Next to him is a stool, on top of which sits his magic elixir, Mountain Dew—he drinks three bottles during the show. Opening with “Mean Girls Give Pleasure”, he plays a tiny acoustic guitar that seems even smaller when pressed against his swelling stomach. The sound is bass-heavy, the top strings carrying a resonance that reverberates around the room. His guitar playing is as rudimentary as ever, and his vocals, which lack the range of his younger days, sound as emotive and impassioned as they always have. When he screams his way through a cover of John Lennon’s “Isolation”, it’s hard to imagine that this rawness isn’t coming from a very real place.
Whether we should pity or praise Daniel Johnston is difficult to say. But one thing we can do is relate. While few fans can identify with his mental issues or understand what his various stints in state institutions must have been like, his lyrics, which often deal with unrequited love, speak to the masses. Despite his heart being consistently broken, he doesn’t want to be “free of hope,” as he tells us during “Life in Vain”. But his lyrical insights do go beyond love. In the same song, he sings: “Flip on your TV and try to make sense of that.” Perhaps it’s his way of telling us that, while he may see things differently, the world we view may not be right either.
Tonight’s show is split into three disparate phases. The first, a three-song solo suite performed by Johnston, alone, jabbing at his guitar, is as close as we get to the real Daniel Johnston: the Johnston we might have seen twenty-something years ago. It’s a primitive performance, raw and unrefined. A reverential silence swells before each song, with the first chord often ringing like a gesture of goodwill. For his second act, he brings out an old college friend, Brett Hartenbach, who provides musical backing via acoustic guitar, while Johnston holds onto the mic stand and sings along. It’s a slick encapsulation of his songs, with Hartenbach adding rolls and fills. Only Johnston’s rough vocals remind us that we’re not at the Newport Folk Festival. That said, the songs the duo play are pretty awesome, especially a particularly raucous cover of “Hey, You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”. To anyone who hasn’t heard the Beatles (if such a person exists), this cover, with its self-deprecating lyrics, could easily be misconstrued as a Daniel Johnston original.
Indeed, Johnston seems happiest when covering the Beatles, or more specifically, John Lennon. For the final third of the show, he is backed by Philadelphia-based five-piece, The Capitol Years, who reinterpreted Johnston’s “Story of an Artist” as a jazzy instrumental number during their own support slot. Together, they perform nine songs, including two Lennon covers. Despite Johnston’s obvious joy at being able to live out his Beatles fantasies, his take on “I’m So Tired” is a little strained, coming across, at times, as bad karaoke. Still, there’s something slightly harrowing about watching him spit out the lyrics: “You know it’s three weeks, I’m going insane / You know I’d give you everything I’ve got for a little piece of mind.” In a similar fashion, “Isolation”, coming from someone who has spent a sufficient amount of time in mental institutions, often locked up, alone, is also difficult to take. It’s hard to tell whether Johnston views these song choices as satirical and tongue in cheek or as heartfelt appreciations of what he once felt and perhaps still feels.
With that in mind, the Daniel Johnston whom people paid money to see is undoubtedly present. His appearance is slightly unkempt. He shakes and sings to his lyric sheet rather than to the crowd. He seems shy and nervous and continually asks how we are doing. He even tells a terrible joke. The only thing that seems out of character is the number of songs he plays: eighteen in all, which, for Johnston, is a marathon show.
His encore, however, is as short as they come. Johnston bounds back onstage for the a-cappella “Devil Town”. His backing band and the crowd sing along like a national anthem. At this moment, it seems clear that most people are here for the songs and the story.
There’s no denying that Johnston was a genius who wrote some great songs that are forever attached to a sad story. But even though he enjoys wallowing in his own pain, it’s perhaps inappropriate for us to do the same. There’s a moment during The Devil and Daniel Johnston when Johnston declares his desire to be able to buy his parents’ house so that they don’t have to make any more payments. It’s a sweet sentiment, but it also brings home reality. One can’t stop hoping that this show, highlights and all, wasn’t just a way of making March’s mortgage payment.