As much as it can be argued that the term “living legend” is oxymoronic in its very nature, there is one man whose status definitely qualifies him for a title of such pedigree. He released a career-spanning compilation entitled The Late, Great Daniel Johnston (featuring himself on the cover, visiting his own grave). A heart-wrenching, vault-digging retrospective documentary about his life neglected to actually feature him in the present tense. There is a merchandise industry – usually reserved for the dead – based around his drawings and doodles. And a tribute album to him featured heavy-hitters such as Beck, The Flaming Lips and Tom Waits re-interpreting his old demo tapes. Wonderfully though, the artist at the centre of all this acclaim is alive and well and is actually here to enjoy this typically posthumous furore around his life’s work.
After the release of his debut cassette, it took Johnston 26 years to take the trip from his native Texas to Ireland. Now, just three years later, we’re about to experience his fourth show on our shores, this time accompanied by the eleven member Dutch BEAM Orchestra (which also marks Johnston’s first foray into the world of strange offbeat lounge music). But before any group theatrics begin, the overweight enigma solely emerges, uncharismatically charismatic and endearingly uncomfortable with the idolising crowd.
It’s difficult to describe what exactly is so beautiful and brilliant about a 49 year old man who plays a scratchy guitar badly and sings in a gummy quiver. But this is certainly not a freakshow, which some have suggested as a reason for Johnston’s adulation. No, this is one of the greatest, most meaningful songwriters ever just trying his darndest to emote; somebody who succeeded at his craft without ever making a questionable move or compromising his authenticity in any way.
Running through some songs from 2003’s Fear Yourself (‘Must’, ‘Syrup of Tears’), he pauses to mention Mark Linkous, who produced this record, accompanied him on his last jaunt here, and took his own life just last month. Worryingly, Johnston requires prompting from the audience to remember his friend’s name. Excusing himself, he acknowledges the sheaf of lyrics which he relies upon for reference throughout the show, as evidence of his all-round forgetfulness. Another time, he amusingly (yet semi-sincerely) asks which country he’s in. Twice, he sits in silence staring into space while the orchestra await his cue, before jolting back into the room with a sweetly innocent “Oh! I forgot we were doing a show! I just zoned out thinking about getting back to some comic books I bought earlier.”
These rather saddening little incidents manage to come off as little more than quirks for Johnston, as does his telling of a joke which he seems to tell at each and every one of his shows (it’s about a man who is sentenced to death for attempting to commit suicide, but then protests his punishment).
Musically though, the night is weird and wonderful. The transformation of these songs from tape recorder chord organ blues into big band orchestral showtunes is an unexpected one; probably for everybody involved. One begins to wonder what exactly some of these middle-aged proficient musicians actually think about the unschooled, rhythmically unsure and frail rasp which wanders in and out of tune over their rich and lavish tapestries. Tom Jones he ain’t, but it’s such an interesting concept that the novelty prevails throughout, with ‘High Horse’, ‘Devil Town’ and ‘Hey Joe’ providing the highlights. And although Johnston seems unsure of ‘Wicked World’s melody, and sets his own time signature for ‘Walking The Cow’, the arrangements and calibre of these songs ensures that they too shine, regardless.
After having finished with’ Fake Records of Rock and Roll’ (from this year’s Is And Always Was), we selfishly insist upon disturbing his well-earned cigarette/comic time, coaxing him back to perform the classic ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’. He says goodnight and wanders offstage, leaving the band fading out for several minutes with a technicolour jazz improvisation based around 1984’s simple little love song. Almost three decades later and still single, it’s difficult to discern how accurate he considers his old advice to be, but it’s a sweet song anyway.
It’s also difficult to tell for how much longer Johnston will be able to tour and grace us with his company, but it’s certain that each time will be a very special pleasure no matter how he (or his entourage) decide to present these songs to us. Though he may sometimes seem to be – in his own words – “like a monkey in a zoo”, he’s surely enjoying the happiest and most comfortable life possible to him right now (in exchange for singing a few songs every so often). Through the medium of music, he has turned tragedy into triumph, although still quite a large dosage of heartbreak remains.
Photos by Damien McGlynn.