Thursday, August 16, 2007

Daniel Johnston

[for London Lite]

Innocence and darkness figure equally in the music of Daniel Johnston, a Texan singer-songwriter whose frail, homespun pop has won the hearts of rock superstars, and whose unlikely, unhappy life story was the subject of award-winning 2005 documentary, The Devil And Daniel Johnston.

Johnston is, in many ways, the ultimate ‘outsider’ artist; diagnosed as manic depressive soon after moving to college, he returned to live with his parents, recording his rustic, simple songs on a tape-recorder, selling his home-made cassettes through record stores in nearby Austin, Texas in the mid 1980s. These songs, while achingly amateurish in execution, won Johnson a cult audience, seduced by the lyrics which referenced both the comic book heroes he loved in his youth (Captain America, Casper The Friendly Ghost), and the obsessive, unrequited love affairs that composed his adulthood.

The Cult Of Daniel has only grown with the passing years; Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain wore a Daniel Johnston tee-shirt to the 1992 MTV Awards, indirectly winning Johnston a deal with Atlantic Records a year later (he was dropped after the album sold barely 6000 copies), while an all-star tribute album in 2004 featured covers by the likes of Tom Waits, Beck and The Flaming Lips.

Johnston’s condition has threatened his career, and indeed his life, on occasion: in 1990, flying back from a performance at Austin’s South By South-West music festival, a manic Daniel damaged the plane enough to force his pilot father to execute a desperate crash-landing. Live performances, meanwhile, veer from the sublime, to the sad, to the ridiculous, depending on Johnston’s mood.

Despite all this, though – or, for some, because of it – Johnston’s cult audience remains loyal and continues to grow, fans drawn to songs so poignantly and perpetually caught between the innocence of childhood and the disillusionment of adulthood, between blind romance and painful truth. Tonight, he performs at London’s Union Chapel, a grand setting sure to compliment the childlike simplicity of his songcraft. If the mercurial Johnston’s on form, it promises to be an unforgettable night, and those with the stomach for a more intimate experience of Daniel’s performance should be informed that he will be playing The Windmill in Brixton the following night.

(c) 2007 Stevie Chick

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