[18 October 2009]
The artist, songwriter, musician, and overall celebrated tortured genius Daniel Johnston performed a capricious set Wednesday night at the Highline Ballroom in New York City. While his severe bi-polar condition and episodes have mythologized his persona and recordings they have also erected a dubious boundary within is work, one between mind and reality, good and evil. One thing, however, remains painfully clear: Mr. Johnston’s songs are haunting vignettes of concentrated emotion, providing mainstream fans, as well as artists, a continuous well of authentic sentimentality, often replete with humor. Though Mr. Johnston frequently cites the humor overshadowing his music (and favorites like “Speeding Motorcycle” easily conveyed this at the Highline) many songs are hesitantly, and uncomfortably, comic, especially after seeing Mr. Johnston’s demons delineated in the acclaimed 2006 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Wednesday he shared a recent dream: “I had a dream last night this guy was sentenced to death for attempted suicide. And that guy was me! And I’m sitting in the back of the courtroom saying ‘No, no, no, you got the wrong guy!’” The resounding laughter presented the obvious question if people were laughing at or with Mr. Johnston. Either way people screamed his name and cheered wildly during his solo set, even while singing sympathetic lines like “I love you all but I hate myself.” Opening band the Capitol Years (Weezer-harmonizing indie pop) then joined Johnston for his second set, accompanying him on both his own numbers, like “Fake Records of Rock and Roll” and “True Love Will Find You in the End” from his latest Is and Always Was, as well as some poignant Beatles covers, “I’m So Tired” and “Day in the Life.” Often times his brother Dick played along on acoustic guitar as Mr. Johnston’s uncontrollably fidgety hands gave up on guitar and also inadvertently unplugged his mic several times, which also prompted wild cheers of encouragement (“You don’t need that thing Daniel!”) Daniel’s own ambitions were always to be a famous artist, but what cost that imposes on his own condition is, at best, difficult to measure and unsettling to endure. Throughout the set his hands tremored and social anxiety loomed. Hopefully his parents and brother can successfully enshrine his body of work so that ultimately they aren’t undermined, or glorified, as a result of his accompanying condition.