Daniel Johnston Carries the Crowd to the Other Side

Nick Hilden / August 31, 2011
Daniel Johnston at Wonderland Ballroom   Photos by Nick Hilden and Michelle Caldwell

It seemed like no one had spoken in a while. The stage was vacant and there was still probably time to grab one more drink, but nobody moved. Nobody laughed or looked around leeringly for potential late-night tail. Nobody talked politics or stocked up on hurricane supplies or got their credit rating downgraded. Nobody broke the spell.

All of the sudden the whoops rose up and a wave of excitement ran through the crowd: our shaman had come. His belly loomed precariously over his waistline. His eyes burned—looking into the sun or staring into the darkness too often will do that to you. He carried himself with an air that was almost shy, and he smiled a strange, knowing smile while the crowd poured their love on him. I never knew that a man wearing sweatpants could hold a spotlight so well.

He picked up a small, headless guitar and went right into it. Watching the way he carefully fingered his chords and thumbed at the strings you’d swear that he’d just learned to play the thing. But it’s not that he lacks skill; it’s as if he loves the guitar so much that he’s afraid he’ll crush it, like Lenny with his rabbits. Then that sweet, slightly sad, barely lisped voice fills the room. It’s a voice that absolutely glows with the love that only someone who has walked through Hell for their passion can understand—If I had my own way/You’d be here with me today…

As the song continued, Daniel Johnston opened his hands to find that the rabbits were still there, safe and soft, and his confidence grew in proportion to our love—I said, “Hi! How are you?”—and for a moment there, as we all looked around at one another, the façade dropped and we were all vulnerable and exposed. And happy, especially considering that we’d all heard that he doesn’t do his old songs. But here one was, right at the beginning.

I’m not going to go into Daniel Johnston’s entire history here. To get the whole background, check out the Devil and Daniel Johnston, inarguably one of the best documentaries ever made about music, or about anything, for that matter. Let’s simplify his story, for now. Suffice to say, Daniel Johnston has experienced far off places that you don’t visit with your body. He has been convinced that Satan was after him in such forms as Metallica, Elektra Records, and his manager. He has also pulled the keys from the ignition of a plane, thrown them out the window, and survived the crash.

Going into the show, I was under the impression that I would hear only new material. Daniel had claimed that he couldn’t remember any of the old songs. Couldn’t or wouldn’t?, was my question. I had watched people slip into and out of madness before; that real, frightening madness. When a person goes to that place, it threatens to never let them go. It’s a lonely place where everyone you knew and everything you had done seems like a mirage. Daniel had seen the other side. It made sense that he didn’t want to return. Perhaps he was afraid that the old songs would bring him back to that old place.

But he played them. He played them with such touched sincerity that we were all brought there and back again. Daniel Johnston has the power to cross those borders.

He began with a handful of acoustic tunes before bringing out a band to back him up. As the band plugged in he made one of the only non-lyrical statements of the evening: I had a dream last night. I had a dream about a man who was on trial for taking his own life. And in the dream the man was me…

The soft warmth of acoustic gave way to an energetic romp that brings to mind Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps, with Seattle’s Motopony playing Daniel’s Crazy Horse. At some point someone yelled out that Daniel is a genius, to which he responded with a cynical cock of the head. One gets the sense that in Daniel’s mind, he is not the maker, just the instrument. And maybe he’s right; perhaps he’s just a divining rod for the great lightning strike of music and energy. Maybe that’s all any of them are.

As the night wore on, it was clear that the outpour had taxed him. But Daniel is a music machine that runs on love. When he ended the set, he stood with a quick thanks before leaving the stage. The audience cheered and called for more, and he brought it.

He was back on the stage in a hurry, almost seeming in a rush to get back in the light for just one more minute. It was clear right then that something was different. Daniel’s eyes had changed, and they pierced the darkness of the hall with an illuminated azure. He was in the other place right then. He was there and we could see it all in those eyes, like looking into the depths of a clear sea. There were monsters in there, yes, but there was also light, and compassion, and beauty. But most of all, there was love.

He plugged in and started right into “True Love Will Find You In the End”, my personal favorite. True love will find you in the end, You’ll find out just who was your friend…

Suddenly there is no past, present, or future tense. It is timeless and it never happened at all and it will always be happening forever. I’m looking around and all I see are people, a room filled with people, a planet filled with people, and all of them desperately hoping for connection, terrified by the Space that seems to lie between everything…Don’t be sad, I know you will…

We’re all terrified. Terrified and in love and sane and crazy all at once…This is a promise with a catch…Everyone is watching the stage but I’m watching the faces of the crowd, this nameless mass that has come together to stand shoulder to shoulder, chest to back, without knowing each other’s names. We’ll probably never speak to one another…Only if you’re looking will it find you…The breath that each of us exhales is breathed in by another…’Cause true love is searching too…

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