In this version of the non-existent biopic that no one is making for Daniel Johnston, they dress up the actor in a paint-speckled gray pocket-shirt, the front of which is tucked into a pair of gray draw-string sweat pants. The make-up department sets him up with those great eyebrows that would be the dominant feature of his face if it weren’t for his fantastically bulbous nose. The set director gives him all his characteristic props—the saintly attributes that disambiguate him from every other martyr of the stage: a chair with three identical water bottles, a guitar that resembles more of a ukulele when nestled into his torso, and a pair of converse. And of the actor’s props, the most outstanding is the pair of converse. They are pristine and blue, and say, “despite how he appears, he actually is slightly concerned with coolness”.
But it isn’t a movie. It’s Daniel Johnston, dressed up as himself, at Neumos in Seattle [August 24, 2011]. By now, in his latter—but not quite as late as you might think—years, Johnston is something of a loving parody of himself. He looks and sounds just as the crowd expects to see and hear (all except for a surprisingly well-kept beard that defies his characteristic baby-face). And in its predictability, the evening had the tight and tingly sense of sacrament, which begins at the base of the spine and works its way up with the words that everyone knows they are about to hear.
And with any good liturgy comes call and response. It’s the first song, and Daniel is playing solo, clumping more than strumming; and of course, no one cares because they all expect it. That’s part of the ritual, clumping. He’s half way through the song, “There’s a Sense of Humor Way Beyond Friendship“, a he quietly calls, “You guys still with me?”
“Amen” is heard in frightening unison.
And someone breaks routine. They shout out, “Speeding Motorcycle!”
and Daniel says, “We’re gunna.”
and then I say, “Rock this town tonight!”
and Daniel says, “Okay.”
and someone else says something I didn’t quite catch
and Daniel says, “I’m gonna kill you…”
Daniel Johnston is his own high priest. He mediates between himself and his people, and hears their petitions; but on the occasion that his people cross that invisible line–set foot on the holy mountain,–the priest-self is not always great enough to counter his vengeful-god-self. So a death-threat was made, what’s the big deal? The priest steps in-between, and mass continues: “Speeding motorcycle, won’t you save me?”
In the end, it comes back on itself: Daniel Johnston’s iconic struggle with the devil takes place in the public arena for all to see. With openers, Motopony providing a full-band backdrop, he’s no longer playing guitar, but rather, holding onto the microphone as though it were the edge of a cliff. He selects one of his water bottles, looks it over, and sets it down again, favoring the identical one next to it on the chair. Daniel begins his semi-last song, “Rock This Town Tonight”. His battle against evil comes to this: can he get enough sweaty censers swinging to ward off the demons? Not tonight. The crowd stands in a religious trance, with the ecstasy of St. Theresa. Save for a couple of potheads in the back, and the band on stage, the room is totally still. And that’s fine. I was really hoping we could beat that devil tonight, but I guess that’s for another time and place. Ritual, after all, is about maintenance, not expansion. For this very special evening, Daniel will settle for a show and some fans. And, as though he is dictating a thank-you card for the Christmas present you sent him, he closes the night, “I’m gonna use the money to buy a lot of comic books”.
Ben Rowe (text & illustrations) also fronts the 8-piece band, Friends and Family.
Find out more at www.friendsandfamilyband.bandcamp.com.