Daniel Johnston and his Love for The Beatles
Daniel Johnston isn't pretty. He just looks that way.
Johnston took to the stage Saturday night at The Mod Club wearing sloppy, green sweat pants that barely held in his generous paunch. His unkempt, grey hair and lispy delivery kind of added to his charm.
Watching Johnston live isn't an easy experience. His hands tremble uncontrollably at his side, likely a side-effect of his meds. Between songs he mostly just nods to himself and stares down at his music stand.
Since seeing a documentary on him, The Devil and Daniel Johnston. I became intrigued by this character. And what a character he is. He's bipolar, most likely an idiot savant and quite possibly a genius. Some of his songs rival the best Neil Young.
Johnston originally gained exposure at the 1992 MTV Music Awards, when Kurt Cobain wore a t-shirt of his. It's no surprise then, that the merch table at this show was swarmed before he even hit the stage. At just $15, t-shirts were a hot item, along with $20 prints of his cartoon-like drawings, alongside CDs.
Show openers The Capital Years and Giant Head warmed up the crowd with straight-ahead rock, amidst a heavy dose of smoke and flashy lights. Then came The Beatles, played over the speakers in between sets.
Johnston is a big Beatles fan. "We have a lot of Beatles songs tonight. Is that alright?" he asked, mid-way through the show, and the packed crowd cheered. Jealous Guy was particularly touching the way Johnston sung it. It sounded really heartfelt, as if it could've been written expressly for him.
The set started with just Johnston on stage, barely making any eye contact, rushing through about three or four songs, accompanied on his small electric guitar. After a few songs he announced, "You get a more professional guitarist now" and a slight, unassuming man joined him on the stage, a few paces back.
When Johnston sung without his guitar, he didn't seem to know what to do with his fidgety hands, clenching his meaty fists at his side as he rushed through his songs. It took him a while to find True Love Will Find You as he leafed through two binders on the music stand in front of him.
After about half an hour or so into the set, he announced that they'll be back after a short break. We got more Beatles songs to listen to while we waited for his return on stage. Back with a four-piece backing band this time, I half-expected Johnston to move around a little more on stage. But he stood in the same spot, head down in concentration. Intense.
The chintzy, swirly lights that shone on a circular screen behind the drummer may serve well for DJs at The Mod Club, but it added nothing but distraction at this show.
In one of Johnston songs, he sung, "The only way to get her to look at you is if you die. Why don't you die?" Can't get much more emo than that. Towards the end of the show he sung Rock 'n' Roll:
My heart looked to art and I found the Beatles
Oh God I was and am a true disciple
Look for the fun you'll start a happy cycle
The music will make you come alive
Oh that rock 'n' roll it saved my soul....
After seeing Johnston perform live, I truly believe it.
Press photo courtesy of REMG.
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