Daniel Johnston and his art have always toed the line between what is and what isn’t exploitative.
(Photo: Peter Hutchins)
Daniel Johnston and his art have always toed the line between what is and what isn’t exploitative. Anyone who has seen the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston knows the cult lo-fi hero suffers from both schizophrenia and manic depression. Chased by considerable demons, Johnston has spent much of his life in and out of psychiatric institutions, his conditions held (somewhat) in check by heavy-duty medications. Johnston is in the midst of what may or may not be his final tour, where he is backed by famous musicians from groups such as Fugazi and Wilco, depending on the city. As a concept, this victory lap for Johnston sounds like a great way to close out his career. However, the execution may not have lived up to the tour’s lofty ideals.
For his Portland show, Johnston was backed by Built to Spill, yet rather than have the band play an opening set, Johnston (or someone else) opted to screen The Devil and Daniel Johnston first. It felt really bizarre to start with a nearly two-hour film and then follow it with a set that lasted about an hour. However, the warts-and-all documentary heightened the anticipation to see the man himself. The audience was quiet and reverent. The tell-tale glow of the cellphone was kept to a minimum, and no one spoke above a murmur.
From a point-of-view without any context, the Daniel Johnston-Built to Spill experiment was a failure. Only 56 years old, Johnston looked and sounded terrible. He sat slumped in a chair, his voice ragged, his hands shaking. In many ways, he reminded me of the uncomfortable horror I felt watching Brian Wilson struggle through Pet Sounds last year, except Johnston didn’t have Al Jardine to bolster the sagging bits. Built to Spill members Doug Martsch, Steve Gere and Jason Albertini appeared appropriately respectful when backing Johnston on songs such as “Speeding Motorcycle,” but the show had a joyless and unrehearsed feeling to it. After an hour, Johnston called for “True Love Will Find You in the End,” and then folded up his papers and shuffled off the stage after struggling through the song.
Context makes all the difference. The odds were always against Johnston, and the fact he could even grace the stage at this point of his life makes the performances on this tour somewhat of a miracle. Beyond his worsening mental state, Johnston also recently suffered from a variety of physical ailments, including hydrocephalus, an accumulation of fluid around the brain that causes many symptoms, including a loss of balance.
The concept of the shows seems true to Johnston’s ramshackle aesthetic. Supposedly, the artists who back Johnston get to pick the songs they wish to perform. However, Johnston isn’t necessarily really familiar with their respective work. Johnston would then be handed a list of songs chosen by the backing bands and then do little to rehearse with, or even meet, the musicians until the day of the set.
According to a New York Times article, Martsch was skeptical of the arrangement, saying, “That’s the plan, which I’m not psyched about. We like to rehearse like crazy. We don’t believe there’s any magic in music. It takes hard work and practice. It doesn’t look like we’re going to get much of that, so we’re going to have to hope for the magic.”
The magic of the evening was just seeing a Daniel Johnston performance, any Daniel Johnston performance. Sadly, Martsch’s fears proved to be correct. As the show ended, the woman next to me wiped her eyes as Johnston finished up singing “True Love Will Find You in the End.” The crowd waited for the artist to shuffle off. Martsch basically shrugged, unplugged and waved. It’s unclear if the woman next to me wept from the sentiment in the song, the fragile state of its creator or both.