The True Report – 1: Daniel Johnston in Australia, 28.01.10-03.02.10
Sydney (Monster Children)
The conversation between Loene Carmen, Millie from Bridezilla and myself went something like this.
“Looks like it’s going to rain. Let’s go inside.”
“Might not rain.”
“Let’s stay in the courtyard. There’s more room here – and look, here are some beers.”
“It’s going to rain. Let’s go inside.”
“Have you seen the line of kids outside? It’s crazy. Let’s stay outside.”
“There’ll be more atmosphere inside. Also, Daniel’s supposed to be playing an art gallery, not a courtyard.”
So it was the three of us stood, hemmed along one side of Sydney’s Monster Children gallery, sweat dripping from every conceivable pore, no microphone except a clip-on one, Millie blowing sweet gales of sound down her saxophone, Loene wrestling tempests from the guitar, as people asked others asked others, “Is this Daniel Johnston? He looks pretty different in real life.” Meanwhile, close on 500 kids queued patiently outside to get a glimpse of some fellow who might possibly be an Englishman, might not, who cares, it’s free and it’s a happening scene.
I performed the piece about giving my mother a Daniel Johnston T-shirt, and the one about being fucked up on alcohol, and… Bangs alive, I don’t know. Plenty. Drenched in sweat and tiredness and wondering how much longer I could keep the energy going.
Shortly after we finished, Joseph (the gallery owner) announced that as there was no room inside, Daniel would be performing on the street and please could everyone keep the beers out of sight and not block the road… so Daniel and his guitarist Brett Hartenbach stepped up to the plate, steps slippery, Daniel being passed his lyric book by his brother Dick, maybe taken aback by the strangeness of the scene, maybe not, who knows with Daniel? Two songs in, and he’d reduced the audience to tears. Two songs in – ‘Life In Vain’ and ‘Silly Love’ – and he was gone, sloped off around the corner to smoke a cigarette, the magic still lingering for days afterwards.
Sometimes, all you need is a massive heart and naked vulnerability. It was, without a doubt, the shortest set I’ve seen Daniel play. It was also, without a doubt, one of the most moving.
“He can do that, you know,” remarked his brother afterwards. “Make the magic happen.”
Brisbane (Laneway Festival)
Shortly after introducing Daniel’s set at Laneway, I receive a text message from a friend, three km down the road in New Farm: “I can hear you from my living room”. Around me, members of Bridezilla and The Dirty Three stand, watching this man called Daniel Johnston perform: the voice of a child wavering and plaintive, shaking uncontrollably. His voice is so at odds with the reality of his 49-year-old physical presence, it’s surreal. People so want to believe in Daniel Johnston – the idea that anyone can achieve their dream if they stick with it, the illusion of infatuation masquerading as love, the innocence and pain and inability to relate to the adult world…
After the exquisite handful of opening numbers performed by just he, or he and Brett, the set is full-on rock: Sydney band Old Man River supply the necessary licks and postures, as Dan sings aloud from his omnipresent lyric book – a handful of John Lennon covers, ‘Fake Records Of Rock’N’Roll’ from new album Is And Always Was. He does this everywhere he tours – someone somewhere decides on a bunch of musicians to play on his songs: he shows up, no rehearsals. They perform. At least Old Man River have paid him the courtesy of learning the songs, inside out. Songs from the cult 2006 documentary The Devil And Daniel Johnston are performed. He attempts a couple of jokes. He picks up his lyric book and shuffles off without a backwards glance. Daniel Johnston doesn’t hang around.
Earlier, I’d driven the four of us – me, Dan, Dick and Brett – round the winding, leafy streets of Brisbane. Several times, Dan threw back his head and laughed. “I’m having such a fun time today,” he exclaimed, knowing that a visit to a comic book store, his one constant in an ever-changing world of tour schedules – is soon forthcoming. He laughs. “This is fun, isn’t it Dick?” His colleagues are more enthused by the fact we’ve just visited Walkabout Creek wildlife centre – home to a real live duck-billed platypus – then picking up more comics, but they go along with the joke.
A week later, on the way to Japan, thetravelling troupe is fined nearly $1400 by Jetstar for the extra weight incurred by Daniel’s suitcase of comics acquired in Australia.
Melbourne (Speakeasy Cinema + Prince Of Wales)
“I don’t want to hear it.”
Daniel starts walking determinedly, and quickly, down the street.
I shrug, and walk back to where his brother is standing. All I’d tried to do was tell Daniel how I’d tried to show the dragons in Chinatown to my four-year-old son last time I’d visited Melbourne. “Guess you better take this back, Dick,” I say, giving him the $100 note that he’d passed to me. (He’d slipped it to me, under the pretence of me taking Daniel to dinner.)
“Sorry about that, Everett. That’s just how he gets sometimes.”
It had all started so well. When I’d arrived at Daniel Johnston’s hotel room the day before, he greeted me effusively like a long-lost buddy, grabbing my hand, talking fast and enthusiastically the way he does: “Hey Everett! Come on in, buddy. I’ve got a load of new comics here! Want to go get something to eat? We could talk [I’m in the process of writing a biography on Daniel for a UK publisher]. You wanna get something to eat? Let’s go!”
So we sat just outside the hotel, at a local sushi bar, Daniel scattering most of his food on the pavement for the sparrows, laughing in delight when they took the food. He smoked a few cigarettes, we talked some: about his early recordings which he only ever put on to tape as a way of a “thank you” to the handful of art college friends who’d made him feel so special; talked about his days as a travelling carnie in the mid-80s (where he wound up living in Texas, minus his necessary medication); talked of the bidding war between Atlantic and Elektra Records that happened as a result of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain wearing his Jeremiah The Frog T-shirt, that took place while he was institutionalised; talked even of a weird incident in the early 00s when a Japanese girl decided she was going to marry him…
We walked back to the hotel, Daniel all bubbling and excited.
“Hey, you want to do more interview? We could do some more interview! Let’s sit down on the couch right here!” I was like, sure, but shouldn’t we find your brother Dick – I wasn’t sure what time we needed to be at the venue. Maybe we should go upstairs and find him? And – all of a sudden – Daniel was like:
“Thank you, interview’s over.”
I know that. I was just saying…
“Thank you. Interview’s over.”
And off he storms.
It made it awkward at the Speakeasy that night. I was supposed to be conducting a live question-answer session with him between the two screenings, and
performing another spoken word set. So Dick and the PR colluded to move Daniel outside while I was on stage with Brett Hartenbach – Dick had figured Dan didn’t like the attention being paid to me, and furthermore he hadn’t liked the question about his Japanese suitor.
So Brett played some of Daniel’s songs on the guitar while I recounted the tale of my first encounter with Daniel Johnston in front of a large, scarily reverential audience: through my initial shocked, cynical laughter at hearing Hi, How Are You? through my almost immediate conversion to his music – partly because of shared experience: the same inability to cope with girls, the same way we’d used the Beatles songbook, The Compleat Beatles, to learn and pound the piano, the same love for the same comic books – through a strange visit from his ex-manager Jeff Tartakov to my house in Brighton in 1991 when he’d instructed us to hide all the knives and had passed along a Daniel Johnston T-shirt with the picture of Jeremiah The Frog on its front…
All this punctuated by Brett’s beautiful guitar-playing (including ‘The Story Of An Artist’ – a song Daniel never plays on stage anymore), and building up to the incident where I’m having a three-way argument with Kurt Cobain (referred to as “my mother” in the piece)and his wife in LA in 1992: us, mocking his taste in T-shirts and pointing out that folk take notice of what he wears on his chest, him whining that he doesn’t own any T-shirts by bands he likes (aside from the homemade Flipper one, presumably) and me saying, “Look, I have this Daniel Johnston T-shirt, but you have to promise me that you’ll wear it cos it’s my favourite shirt, and really special to me…”
“Yeah, yeah , Everett. Of course I will.”
And because Kurt never liked the idea of taking anything for free, he swapped it for a Pearl Jam shirt that featured insults hurled the band’s way by music critics (both he and I despised Pearl Jam). So I wore that, and he wore the Daniel Johnston T, and the rest… well the rest is right up here on stage next to me, almost physically pushing me aside, now he knows that it’s his turn.
“Thank you Everett, for that introduction,” he barks, missing out the unsaid, “Now, GET OFF…”
And once again, the three songs – including the truly tear-jerking ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’ – Daniel performs with Brett are truly magical. The crowd is spellbound, rapt.
“Don’t worry too much about it, Everett,” Brett says the following day. “He sometimes gets like that. He was once like that towards me for a whole tour. And then the very next time he saw me, he gave me a massive bear hug.”