A Stop on Daniel Johnston’s Final Tour

IMG_4621To the devoted fans of Daniel Johnston, the troubled outsider songwriter behind “Speeding Motorcycle” and other indie favorites, an  introduction would certainly not be necessary.

But what’s being billed at Johnston’s final tour begins with a lengthy intro: The whole of Jeff Feuerzeig’s remarkable 2005 documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” which chronicles the fascinating and heartbreaking story of the creative young man from West Virginia who is hit hard by unrequited love and even harder by bipolar disease and over-reliance on LSD.

Despite his extreme and sometimes scary personality quirks, Johnston is something of a pop music savant, able to turn out endless rough but tuneful songs based on his own devotion to the Beatles and other rock touchstones. (And when he wasn’t recording songs, he was tossing off thousands of charming cartoony drawings).

Abandoned in Austin by a traveling carnival where he worked, he grew to have a following there, and was able to shoulder his way into a Texas-based 1985 episode of MTV’s “The Cutting Edge” to gain his first national attention. People really looked him up, though, after some other MTV exposure: When Kurt Cobain wore his “Hi, How Are You?” T shirt at the 1992 VMAs.

By this time, Johnston was deep into his mental ailments. Nevertheless, record companies had a bidding war at a mental hospital where he had been committed.

That Johnston is able to appear now — 12 years after that movie wrapped — is a testament to the refining of psychotropic drugs.

He trots out on stage at Washington’s Lincoln Theatre much like the latter day Brian Wilson, to whom he is compared in the film. He pads out in mud-splattered pants with a white binder of the lyrics he’s chosen and looks straight down at them on the music stand without ever looking up at the audience.

At just 56, he looks much older than Wilson, with short white hair and beard, bushy dark eyebrows and a permanent scowl. His vocals were never great, as he admitted very early in his career, but he’d go through periods where his shouts sounded OK.

The main problem is that in each city he’s visiting, he’s backed by local heroes who claim to have been influenced by him. That means Wilco in Chicago Oct. 20, Built to Spill in the Northwest Nov. 8 and 10, Cibo Mato and Beirut in New York Oct. 7 and so forth.

In D.C., on only the second night of the tour, he got the awesome rhythm section of Fugazi – drummer Brendan Canty (fresh off another local art rock assignment, the Hirshhorn’s Yoko Ono tribute) and bassist Joe Lally.

But more musicians were needed; Johnston, playing neither the piano, chord organ or guitar that he once played so distinctively, only stood and held on to the microphone as if to save his life (and it was a shaky save, since medication apparently makes him quake as violently as a Parkinson’s patient).

Rounding out the sound was the inspired addition of Janel Leppin and Anthony Pirog, art rockers themselves, who have recorded and performed around town together (and at one time were the D.J.s who came on after me at Radio CPR.). She plays cello, adding emotional underpinning to his ballads; he plays a sleek and precise electric guitar.

There was some switching around on instruments. Leppin moved to keyboards at times and hit the See N’ Say to start “Walk the Cow”; Canty moved to congas and piano for a few tunes.

The big problem was the same for all of the local pickup bands that ever backed Chuck Berry — rehearsal. Most of the songs were played hesitantly, as if it were the second time they had all played together, which it probably was. If anyone, it was Johnston, though, who was a little off the beat, or threatening to lose his place in the songs.

It was deeply affecting, though, to hear him sing his aching songs of love and disappointment after seeing the whole life story. None more so than “Story of an Artist” in which he recounted his parents’ arguments against his chosen field: “Why are you so odd? We don’t really like what you do. We don’t think anyone ever will. It’s a problem that you have, and this problem has made you ill.”

It was an exceedingly short show, with just eight songs over a half hour before he announced a break. Then after 10 minutes, it was just five more songs; no encore.

“We’re cutting the show early tonight,” he apologized, in what turned out to be his only address to the audience, ”but I offer this Christmas wish to all of you.” It was his sublime, mournfully optimistic “True Love Finds You in the End.”

And he might have actually thought it was Christmastime.

All in all, it could have been worse; for the tour opener last week in New Orleans, he reportedly only managed six songs, leaving the rest of the performance to the backing Preservation Hall All Stars to jam away (and he influenced them how?).

In D.C., he played long enough to have his anthems stick in the mind all the way to his extensive cassette ’n’ T-shirt merchandise booth.

Hope it only goes better as the tour goes on.


The setlist for Daniel Johnston Tuesday was:

  • “The Spook”
  • “Mountain Top”
  • “Life in Vain”
  • “Speeding Motorcycle”
  • “Walk the Cow”
  • “Must”
  • “Bloody Rainbow”
  • “Living Life”
  • “Story of an Artist”
  • “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances”
  • “Syrup of Tears”
  • “Rock n Roll / EGA”
  • “True Love Finds You in the End”


This entry was posted in Music, Review. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.

  • Recent Posts

  • Categories

  • Archives

  • Google AdSense ads

  • Amazon associates