Living The Blues|
Kicker: Casper the Friendly Ghost comes to town
Here's the deal.
I have been waiting 10 years to see Daniel Johnston perform live - ever since I heard his plaintive, wandering voice on Homestead LP Hi, How Are You? with a friend back in London. Our first reaction: hysterical laughter. Here was a guy clearly so wacko he couldn't sing properly, couldn't draw properly (witness the bug-eyed frog monstrosity on the record's front cover), couldn't write songs... yet was still allowed to make records. Days later, I listened to it again. My reaction: it reduced me to tears. Taken in solitude, his voice shook with an almost unbearable loneliness and pain-his songs were naive, direct, deeply moving.
I investigated further, and discovered that he used to wander the streets of Austin, Texas trying to sell his home-made cassette albums upon anyone he met. That he had been in and out of mental institutions for most of his life. That he had once tried to push a man out a second-story window, that he was obsessed with a girl named Laura who very probably wasn't even aware of his existence, that he thought some people to be possessed by demons. That there was something deeply disturbing about his personal life. But hell, I couldn't give a fuck about that.
It was his songs-his simple, incisive, painfully lonely songs-that I was interested in, that I couldn't stop playing. Not the freakshow. It was his voice that moved me, his high, almost falsetto quaver that moved me as profoundly as any bluesman of old. Not the freakshow. Daniel loved the Beatles and Casper the Friendly Ghost (his alter-ego), he couldn't communicate with girls any which way. Hell, I could certainly relate to that. I was the UK's most famous virgin. At the age of 23.
One by one, I tracked down all of his dozen or so tapes. One by one, I bought the CDs... and listened to the stories, and to the hipsters who by now had picked up on him, and to his songs, always to his songs... I wrote a little about him, about how he moved me-to tears and beyond...
Once, his manager stayed at my Brighton house and freaked out when I laid a knife on the table. Later, he sent me a signed copy of The Aesthetics of Rock, one of the first rock criticism books, released originally in the '60s, reissued with a Daniel Johnston cover... A few years later, I met the A&R French man who signed him to Atlantic and he gave me a drawing or two. He asked me if I wanted to interview Daniel, but I heard he was very ill, so I declined...
And meanwhile, acts like Yo la Tengo and the Pastels and Jad Fair and Sonic Boom were covering his songs, sensitively, soulfully, but never as movingly as the original...
And still I dreamed of the day I would see Daniel live, but I was scared-scared that in the flesh he might disappoint, that the assholes who would doubtless be present with me would spoil my excitement, charge my consciousness with the wrong emotions...
And then, last weekend, I traveled down to Portland, more by coercion than design...
And still I have no words to offer you.
Daniel played two shows-one during the afternoon in a record store, accompanied by a beautiful female who struggled to find the right notes on her blues guitar. One where he covered Wings "Live And Let Die" and tore the song apart, reinventing it as his own, adding words of brutal betrayal and hopelessness, reducing me to silent tears once more. One where he looked fine-even if his hair was a little unruly and his stomach bloated. One where he covered the Beatles' "What Goes On", where he again reduced me to tears... man, you don't even want to hear my story about how that song ties into my life. One where he remarked after the ultra-sensitive, saddened "Dairy Queen, "I'm sorry I'm playing the guitar so badly. You can fill the notes in in your heads"... in our hearts, Daniel, in our hearts.
One where he played six or seven songs, including "Casper", and not a single person in the place was left unmoved, touched by his naive, child-like passion and hurtfully evocative self-deprecation.
And one during the evening, in front of a crowd of music business assholes, with a pick-up band that sucked so badly and played so loudly, often drowning Daniel himself out, that it was acutely painful to witness... and all we could do was stand on our chairs and dance the blues away. Some other bands played too, I guess, but... y'know.
Fact: you ain't never even heard the blues until you heard Daniel sing live