Spartan South Midlands League Premier Division
Grosvenor Vale, Ruislip
Hobo in my pocket #17
From the Vanity Project archive...
Daniel Johnston and friends. London Barbican Theatre. 14apr06
The Devil and Daniel Johnston (film). Liverpool FACT.
After witnessing the documentary ‘The Devil and Daniel Johnston’ you can’t help but consider why he is such an iconic figure, and whether or not our investment in his music is based on something other than the normal buttons being pushed. His singing voice oftens cracks, for sure, and possibly if he sang at a lower register and without the slight lisp, perhaps we wouldn’t find him so beguiling. Certainly his musical ability can be brought into question when he insists on performing with a guitar, an instrument even his closest friends and biggest fans would admit he cannot play very well. The ‘tribute’ show he himself headlined at the Barbican back in April certainly proved this. After an evening filled with his star-flecked fans, such as James Yorkston, Teenage Fan Club, Vic Chesnutt, Howe Gelb and Jason Pierce playing some songs of their own as well as their favourite Johnston numbers, Daniel himself came on to finish the night. Overweight, his greying hair now a shaggy mop, wearing a baggy jumper and tracksuit bottoms, he never once looked comfortable and was gone after four songs, only one of which was performed on piano, an instrument he can certainly play and which captures him at his best.
While one cannot deny that his story helps in forming the legend, to watch his parents on film constantly worried about his well-being (he still lives in their care at the age of 45 after several periods in and out of mental institutions) and their struggle to keep him musically active and happy is tough to watch. They wish for him to be able to look after himself and be safe, but after periods of intense delusion during his decades of manic depression, which caused him to remove the key from his father’s plane while mid-flight (surviving thanks to his father’s piloting dexterity) and which also sent him on a rampage that saw an elderly lady jump out of an open window to escape him, they know it is a tough road. His ageing father saying “I’m worried we’re running out of time” towards the end of the film through tears is intense and heart-breaking. Despite this troubling back-story, the thing that makes Daniel Johnston such a great songwriter is his innocent and intense belief in love, and the fact that his illness means there is precious little pretence about him. Whether he means to or not, he has a power over emotion that comes in the most part from the simplicity of his work. It is the outpouring of his heavily burdened heart. Perhaps there is something voyeuristic in us for wanting to hear that.
There is, indeed, a concern about exploitation, and initial contact in the film with his ex-manager gives the impression that he may be a sinister, money-obsessed bandwagon-jumper, but when later we discover he now spends most of his time duplicating and copying Daniel’s tape recordings from the 1980’s, despite being cruelly sacked by Daniel a decade ago, it is clear that it is now an obsession for him to get Daniel’s music out to other people who will love it as much as him. The sold out show in the massive Barbican Hall was proof there are plenty who do love it, and are happy to allow fellow fans to flesh out a show that will see the headliner, and subject, perform only 4 songs at the top, before apologizing and shuffling off, with no encore. Daniel Johnston makes music because he has a desperate need to, to fight off his demons, and we invest because it is real and romantic in a world of fakery and sleaze. Skif/Jenny Gilroy