buttonDaniel Johnston
@ Laforet Museum Harajuku (9th Feb. '10)

He Made It This Far

Daniel Johnston
      Daniel Johnston’s music is the sort of ultra-simplistic art that makes one wonder if it isn’t really just an elaborate Warholian put-on by a cooler-than-thou artistic establishment, in this case the American indie-rock scene of the 80’s and 90’s that anointed him. He plays ham-fisted guitar with a poor sense of rhythm. His early albums were straight onto drug store cassette tapes via a boom-box, almost certainly the lowest-fidelity recordings ever to make it into any genre of the popular music canon. Often it seems like he writes lyrics with the first rhymes that come into his head, as would an 11-year old child (“Thought that you were cool, but I was just a fool”). The main thing he has going for him is a clear tenor voice that can be quite beautiful when employed for the right material, and at other times can be so goofy only a superfan could love it. So whence the appeal?

      You could be glib and say he’s kind of a freak show. He has struggled with mental illness all his life, and he has an arrested emotional development that perpetually experiences the joys and pains of life like a child does, intense but usually fleeting and unanalyzed. But the truth is that his troubles are not mere spectacle; they are one and the same with what some call his genius. He puts those manchild feelings straight into his works of art, without the impure motivations that sully most adults’ attempts to create. It’s kind of fleeting thing, picked up on by only a few, and I can’t count myself among them, though I am still trying. Had the establishment not told me to look closer at the morass of his recorded output, and to keep looking even when that didn’t help, I certainly never would have noticed at all.

      This then is a major motivation for seeing him perform live: His original recordings are so poor that you have to think there might be some revelations hearing him on stage, that we might get the essence of Daniel Johnston, minus the 40db of tape hiss. And in fact, I think we did.

      What he brought to the stage at the Laforet Museum in Harajuku was, for one, a very upbeat spirit. This was naturally a question on everyone’s mind, whether the jetlag and culture shock would precipitate any kind of a breakdown; even though by nature he is genial, laid-back and cheerful, anyone who has seen the 2006 documentary The Devil And Daniel Johnston (a candidate for best musician documentary ever made, in my book) is aware of the risks he has confronted every day of his life. He had to reschedule his Osaka show the day before, and among those who weren’t aware that his flight had been delayed, there was some idle speculating about whether it was related to his frail mental state.

      But none of that was evident in Harajuku. We got the genial, laid-back and cheerful Daniel Johnston, playing a pretty straightforward set much the same way he probably plays it in his bedroom, focusing intently on the lyric sheet as he bangs one out and then quickly flipping the page to the next song when he is done to bang another one out, with a serene and slightly nervous grin on his face all the while. His first comment, after the second or third song, was “Man, wow, Japan. The greatest experience when I was a little kid was watching King Kong vs. Godzilla. Man, I loved that movie.” This was the main topic of his patter (plus one attempted joke); he mentioned that film twice more, and then later that “I still collect Godzilla stuff.”

Daniel Johnston      The first 20 minutes he accompanied himself on a minimally functional electric guitar that is designed to sound like a plugged-in acoustic guitar and dispenses with any of the natural acoustic sustain that a real one would have. For any normal performer, its sound would be tremendously irritating, taking the form of a musical instrument―playing notes―without having the function of being musical. I’m sure it has its defenders, that his childish bludgeon-strumming of a crappy instrument where every chord has at least one buzzing string is the very essence of Daniel Johnston, and it’s a valid point, but I think his true talent shone best when he put down his guitar and had an accompanist join him, a conservatively groomed and dressed man whose name I didn’t catch but who played subtle and sensitive back-ups on a real guitar for some of Johnston’s most beautiful and haunting numbers. This guy slowed the tempo down for Johnston and kept it solid, forcing him to find again some of the emotion he felt originally when he wrote these heartbreaking songs.

      Among these beautiful songs was “Living Life” from 1981’s Songs Of Pain, with it’s haunting “this is life” refrain, “Silly Love” from 1990’s Live at SXSW and 1994’s Fun, his one major label album, with the lyric “you must be wrong if you think you don’t love me”, “Mountain Top” from 2003, “True Love Will Find You In The End” from 1984’s Retired Boxer (one of his best known―it was the encore song and also was excellently covered by Beck), and 1990’s “Tears Stupid Tears”. When these songs get the gentle guitar accompaniment they deserve, properly couching Johnston’s plaintive tenor rather than distracting from it, the emotional core of the yearning lyrics and melodies suddenly strikes you and you realize that these are in fact real songs, and quite good ones to boot.

      This was really driven home when he played Lennon’s “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away”. One can imagine this song being suggested for his live set by a friend or handler as a sneak attack at contextualizing Johnston’s own songs. And it worked; my first reaction was to notice the simplicity of the lyric, and how the slight twist it puts on heartbreak―dealing with inner feelings by focusing on outer appearance―is just the sort of thing Johnston would do. This was immediately followed by wondering if I was being manipulated. I finally concluded that “Hide Your Love Away” could almost be a Daniel Johnston song, being just a little (rather than a lot) more sophisticated than the best of his own material.

      (To get an idea of how unsophisticated Johnston’s songs can get, check out the singsong tribute “Lennon Song” from 2006’s Welcome To My World collection: “I idolized you, you were my hero, and everything I know, I learned from you. The Beatles, brought me out of the darkness…” But it does indicate that it’s entirely possible he played “Hide” just because he loves the song.)

Johnston spent about four seconds offstage before coming back on for his obligatory encore. But then after the lights came up the clapping and cheering persisted for another three minutes, and he graciously came out one last time to sing a brief a cappella number, before retiring for good. A Godzilla fan in Tokyo with a fresh pocket full of yen has things to get done, yo.
Daniel Johnston
report by kern and photos by Shunya Arai
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buttonmag files : Daniel Johnston

buttonHe Made It This Far (10/02/09 @ Laforet Museum Harajuku) : review by kern, photos by Shunya Arai

The official site

Daniel Johnston


check 'em? -->MySpace / iTunes

the latest album

Daniel Johnston

"Is And Alway Was"
(国内盤 / US Import / US import - analog / US import - '12 analog / iTunes)

the latest DVD

Daniel Johnston

"Devil & Daniel Johnston"
(国内盤 / import)

previous Book

previous works

Daniel Johnston

"Welcome To My World"
(国内盤 / US Import / iTunes)

"Yip/Jump Music: Summer 1983" (US import / US import - '12 analog / iTunes)
"Continued Story/Hi, How Are You" (US Import)
"Lost and Found" (UK Import - '12 analog)
"IFear Yourself" (UK Import - '12 analog / iTunes)
"1990/Artistic Vice" (US Import - '12 analog)
"Rejected Unknown" (US Import - '12 analog / iTunes)
"1990" (US Import / iTunes)
"Artistic Vice" (US Import / iTunes)
"The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered" (US Import )
"Hi, How Are You" (US Import - '12 analog)
"Fun" (US Import / iTunes)
... and more

check the albums?

the latest album

Daniel Johnston

"Is And Alway Was"
(国内盤 / US Import / US import - analog / US import - '12 analog / iTunes)

the latest DVD

Daniel Johnston

"Devil & Daniel Johnston"
(国内盤 / import)

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