Punching Daniel Johnston
I almost punched Daniel Johnston.
I waited for Colin on the corner of Ashland and Division. The bus was late, and the fall evening was chilling in that quick, Chicago way. Cars flew past while I sat at the bus stop. When Colin arrived, we started walking south on Ashland, if only to get the blood pumping. A few blocks down, we caught the bus and rode it toward the Bottom Lounge.
It’s difficult to talk about Daniel Johnston. On the way to the concert, I called him a “genius” and a “legend.” To be sure, I sounded stupid, but I’m not alone in this appraisal – countless magazines and newspapers refer to him in these same hyperbolic terms. The most common, if misguided, portrayal of Johnston props him up as some psychologically troubled, Brian Wilson acolyte who creates capital-A art. His songs, the story goes, are honest – almost childlike – reflecting the inner psyche of a tortured soul.
This narrative is seductive, but it does Johnston and his music a huge disservice, reducing his musical ability to illness, his songs to diary entries. Johnston’s struggles with mental illness have certainly affected his art (it’s hard to miss the obsessive focus on ghosts/devils, unrequited love, and Laurie), but they haven’t always defined it. Classic Johnston tunes like “Casper the Friendly Ghost” and “Speeding Motorcycle” are catchy and simple because of Johnston’s influences and style, not his illness
Inside the Bottom Lounge, Colin and I were disoriented – we’d been expecting a concert venue, so the large, dimly-lit bar/restaurant area confused us. We walked to a stairwell, thinking the show might be on the 2nd floor, but then noticed a sign advertising some Chicago high school’s 10-year reunion. We turned around and headed toward the small line forming in the back of the bar.
Neither of us knew what to expect from a Daniel Johnston concert. Colin had been to an installation of his art in Spain, and we both had seen clips from the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston. I knew his performances could be erratic and uneven – maybe this was part of the reason why I’d come –but I didn’t know much else. Which albums would he draw from to create his set? Would he play by himself or with a band?
Before answering these questions, though, we had to suffer through a set by Felix & Lyons, a local Chicago alt-folk band led by some bro (Felix?) who yelled “Check us out on Facebook and all that shit!” before launching into their last song, “Broke My Heart.” Standing in the middle of the crowd, Colin and I waited for Daniel Johnston. “It’s got to be difficult to pair someone with Daniel Johnston,” Colin remarked, a much subtler critique of Felix & Lyons than I had delivered earlier (“This band blows”). I agreed, but the truth of the statement didn’t hit me until later. As much as Johnston’s music is a product of his influences, it’s also uniquely his own – more lo-fi than his 60s influences (the Beatles, the Beach Boys); simpler and prettier than his early 90s indie contemporaries (Nirvana, Butthole Surfers).
When Daniel Johnston finally took the stage, the small audience cheered then quickly hushed. We watched as he strapped a headless guitar tightly around his torso. He fumbled with his lyric notebook before starting the first song. The rhythm was frantic and bumpy, and Johnston never averted his gaze from his lyrics. He hacked at the guitar like he’d never learned how to play the instrument properly, his hands shaking over wrong notes and chords. He looked like the tortured artist I’d read about. He looked crazy.
Johnston’s catalogue is a difficult one to parse through. It’s vast and varied and impossible to distill into any sort of musical narrative. The songs he played at the Bottom Lounge, though, captured the blunt, dark humor he so enjoys. On “Mean Girls Give Pleasure,” he sang “And the angel of death is taking you for a walk / Nothing to say / but just small talk / And your head is in a block.” These lines showcase his ability to take a dark image (angel of death), twist it (taking you for a walk), and offer pithy insight (in this case, about how thoughts of a girl can take over your mind and make you crazy). Johnston often uses the same images over and over, but by altering and contextualizing them, he creates new meaning in each song.
After a few more short tunes, Johnston introduced his most famous song, “True Love Will Find You in the End.” It’s a beautiful piece that favors grander statements over the small tragedies Johnston so often sings of: “Don’t be sad I know you will / Cause true love will find you in the end.” The couplet is so simple and universal, but Johnston avoids cliché through succinct phrasing. The line “Don’t be sad I know you will” contains both advice and knowing empathy for the listener faced with the impossible task of following the advice. And even as Johnston dispenses knowledge in his songs, the listener gets the sense that Johnston himself doesn’t always practice what he preaches. He, too, is human.
“True Love Will Find You in the End” was the first song Johnston played that I knew well, so I realized quickly when he screwed it up. He began with the lilting strum of a G chord, but then he quickly switched to the wrong chord. Rushing through to the next chord, Johnston tried to find the song’s center but continued playing odd notes and rhythms. Toward the end, he skipped lyrics and closed the song prematurely, an act of painful resignation. The audience, of course, cheered more loudly than ever. Hadn’t this, in fact, been what we’d all been waiting for? There would be a break, and Johnston would be back with a band. The lights brightened as he walked offstage.
But there would be no band. Back onstage Johnston intoned, “I don’t know what happened to my band.” Was it a joke or had the band really disappeared? I’m still unsure. As with Johnston’s songs, it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish comedy from misfortune. But then he quickly switched from guitar to keyboard and seemed to hit stride. Johnston has always been a stronger piano player and appeared more relaxed behind the cover of his keyboard. The live setting brings out the bluesy feel in his playing with lots of bass notes and plinked high keys underscoring his distinct voice. Then an abrupt ending with Johnston apologizing and muttering about his lyrics notebook. It was the wrong one, and he couldn’t play anymore without the right lyrics. This was no joke.
“Oh my God! That was Daniel Johnston. I almost punched Daniel Johnston!”
Before entering the club, Colin and I waited as the bouncer secured bracelets around our wrists. When it was my turn, I extended my arm at the exact moment Daniel Johnston came lurching out of the club. I pulled back just as Johnston swerved right and stumbled off into the bar. Crisis was barely averted. Inside the dark club, Colin and I laughed in disbelief at how close my closed fist had come to Daniel Johnston’s gut – a few more inches, and I would have made real contact. It was funny and terrifying, but it was also a gift. I’d come to the concert intending on writing a piece about the show. Now, before even walking into the club, I had my hook. All it took was almost hitting an already fragile man.