"I love to tour. But it’s so, well, it’s kind of scary, actually. It’s kind of scary. I’m happy to get out and see everybody, and, you know . . . but it’s scary…"
Daniel Johnston doesn't make eye contact with me for the duration of our interview, which lasted only a few minutes, in his dressing room, the evening of his show last week. He's decidedly shy, sort of uncomfortable around me at first.
“What’s scary about it, you don’t like being on stage?” I suggested.
“That must be it,” he said. “‘Cause once I’m on stage, like when I try to play my own songs on my guitar, I just can’t do it very well, you know?” He clearly took some comfort in his remedy: “Tonight’s show was changed, upon my request. I’m gonna do the whole show with the band, because I do a lot better with the band.”
The band he’s talking about is Philly’s own indie rockers Sweet Lights, the brainchild of Shai Halperin, whose burgeoning recording career saw some success with other local bands The Capitol Years and The War On Drugs. Halperin opened up that night with a few solo songs -- euphonic vocals that brought the intonation of Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour to mind, an electric guitar, and a handful of sound loops -- before being joined by a full band to round out the set.
And when they returned after a short break, Johnston emerged along with them, in the same gray sweat suit and house shoes in which he had met me backstage a couple hours prior, and took the microphone. And there, on the stage, facing a preemptive ovation from a crowded house, he seemed comfortable, as comfortable as an innately talented artist should be at the helm of his own show. As comfortable as anyone who ever wears a sweat suit.
Having started off recording his own compositions on a little boom box at home, Johnston's music began to gain notoriety when he moved to Austin, Texas, in the mid-eighties. He told me, “I was poor, and I was just making tapes for my friends for years, and they would just treat me like a celebrity, they’d turn the tape recorder on and they would interview me and stuff – it was hilarious…” Johnston was somewhat warmer, at this point, having taken some delight in these memories. A degree of genuine joy was now evident. “I mean, back in those days, a long long time ago, they made me feel like more of a star than these days, even with the big crowds. They made me feel famous. I sort of miss that.”
Speaking of fame, Johnston’s popularity surged when Kurt Cobain wore a shirt that featured one of his drawings to the MTV Music Awards in 1992, hurtling Johnston into the spotlight, at least momentarily, and resulting in thousands of new fans discovering his music. And it wasn’t just Cobain who championed the underground singer and songwriter: Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder sings Johnston’s hit “Walking The Cow” routinely at both solo and Pearl Jam shows, and Yo La Tengo have made a favorite of his song “Speeding Motorcycle.” And Johnston’s tribute record, a double disc called “Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered,” released in 2004, featured twelve songs that were both performed by the artist himself and also juxtaposed with covers of those same songs by the likes of Beck, the Eels, Bright Eyes, The Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano, T.V. On The Radio, and Death Cab For Cutie, among others. All told, it’s a nice panel of names to have as fans in your corner.
When I asked Johnston what it meant to him when he found out that Cobain publicly declared his love for him, he responded exuberantly, and recounted the moment. “My ex-manager came to visit, and showed me [Cobain] wearing a ‘Hi, How Are You’ t-shirt on MTV – you know, it was hanging on my wall!” I noted the obvious: “Sure, that was your drawing.” He said, “yeah! And so, you know. That was pretty cool. He was really famous.”
When asked if that had encouraged him to continue writing his music, in any way, Johnston said, “nahh,” in an enthusiastic whisper. “I love writing. That’s what I like best, writing.”
“And not performing, so much?” I asked.
“Yeah. That’s true,” he replied.
Frankly, it was almost hard to tell that night that this was, in fact, the truth. Maybe it was that he did take his comfort in being backed by a band that sounded as good as the guys from Sweet Lights that night, but he seemed perfectly happy up there on a bright stage, holding his microphone, referring often to his notebook of lyrics, reveling in the applause, the cheers, and the fan declarations of love for the singer throughout a set that covered crowd favorites like “Speeding Motorcycle,” “Fake Records Of Rock And Roll,” “Walking The Cow,” and “True Love Will Find You In The End” (his only encore song), as well as covers of the three John Lennon compositions “I’m So Tired,” “Isolation,” and “Jealous Guy.”
Either way, let’s hope he comes back again soon in support of his new record, “Space Ducks: Soundtrack,” his eighteenth studio record and his first new album in three years.
And if a band is what the man needs to feel comfortable on stage, well then someone, please, get the man a band.