Daniel Johnston

A group of us drove down to London to see Daniel Johnston and Friends at the IndigO2. He played with Jad Fair, Mark Linkous, James McNew and Scout Niblett. We spent the rest of the evening with our friends Jamie and Chloe in Bar Story underneath Peckham Rye railway station. I’m very grateful to Jamie and Chloe for putting us up in their house that evening. We said goodbye to them the following day, enjoying a nice Lunch at Petit Chaut in Peckham before making the return journey.

Driving through central London is stressful and it costs money. Even more stressful as we attacked rush hour armed only with a set of google directions. Hot and sunny too and five of us in a car. This is the kind of situation that separates the wheat from the chaff, as people want to do their best but find it difficult to do so, and everyone wants to help but are not always helpful. We have no map only the route planner instructions, which we constantly veer from then pick up again, also frantically phoning friends and asking them to ‘FIND CHURCH STREET’ on the A-Z. In the back of the car I mainly stay out of it, choosing to observe events and closely observe my copy of ‘Harrington on Cash Games – How to win at No-Limit Hold ’em Money Games’. Intermittently I burst out with a street name or an opinion about our journey choices. I make the conclusion that when looking for a turning from the road on which one is travelling, and when not sure if an approaching opportunity to leave the road is the correct turning, it is always better to not take the turning and keep on going. Better to stay on the road, miss your turning and come back on yourself than to risk deviating from your path into a unknown zone that rapidly becomes more confusing and you get more lost as you go along. But every rule has an exception to it and just after I made that conclusion and spat it out we miss a turning we should have taken and lose our way again.

Theresa and I made sure we were right at the front to see Daniel play. Jad Fair introduced him by saying ‘I know hundreds of creative people, about thirty really talented people, and one genius… Daniel Johnston.’
Daniel played two songs accompanied only by himself on a peculiar and rough sounding practice guitar. One of the songs was called Mean Girls. I don’t know what the other one was called. I was unfamiliar with both of them. Then after a short break he returned with his backing band and performed another ten or twelve numbers. Most of them I was familiar with, some of them I was not. The singer shook a lot as he performed. He was dressed down in a blue t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms. He made me smile as he made a couple of witty comments between songs, and seemed to be enjoying himself. The set was roughly equally divided between up tempo rockers, including a cover of The Beatles’ ‘Rain’, and ballads like ‘Go’. During the ballads very many members of the audience wept.
I enjoyed every moment of the set. For me this was a rare chance to see a Hero, an artist whom I wish to emulate. Daniel Johnston has the same talent as Bob Dylan or Hank Williams or Frank Black and others whose songs, short and uncomplicated, are translated to other arrangements and sung by other singers with great success because there is an unbreakable core within them that is difficult to penetrate so we could call it magic but every song they write has this core and every time the song is sung the core is there and that is what makes the song good. Is that what you call Soul Music?

Looking at Daniel Johnston he’s up there bare and shaking and some of his words are slurred and the core is there unfettered, naked and looking out at you like the sun appearing for a short time between two clouds. So when i’m sitting trying to write songs that have the core in and it doesn’t matter what the words or the chords are or how long it is but it does matter that the song is honest and the creation of the song is honest and it needs to have the core. And if it has the core then i’m really not worried about anything else so therefore I’m happy. And looking at Daniel tonight the hairs are predictably standing on end and a rush of energy fills my face and pushes tears out of my eyes.

Scout Niblett adds harmonies to Daniel’s singing. The sound in this place is fantastic. I go over and look at the mixing desk and its like nothing i’ve ever seen before – a simple row of faders underneath the engineers fingers and he does everything else via four touch screen monitors displaying colourful pro-tools type mods, effects, virtual knobs and dials. When we walk in Daniel’s ‘Friends’ each perform three numbers and they mostly lean into the mic and sing very softly and quietly except in any other venue you couldn’t hear what they’re saying but here every syllable sings out of the stacks and rows of speakers with warmth and clarity like the best studio recording so it almost feels like you’re at the cinema. It would be easy to moan that this experience is too clean or anodyne but I love it i’ve come here to watch a hero and stand close to the stage and hear every word.

I leave feeling high and much inspired. I feel that if I crack on with the things I want to do that will be my fulfillment. What do I have to worry about? I spend the rest of the evening being excited and drinking a little too much. I tell my friends that I’ve experienced a ‘crystalline moment’ during the gig when I realised that I do not have to choose between the three things i’m interested in doing (songwriting/music, playing poker and writing prose) can all be achieved if I just get on with them… now and i’ll need to manage my time well in my achievement of success in all endeavours. Well here goes.

Tonight I had some options but now my poker-playing friend Robin rings me up and asks me to play some tournaments for him. I would not refuse since he earned a good return on my £50 investment last Wednesday when he finished 6th of 90 in a £300 event at the Broadway Casino in Birmingham. Well done Robin!

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