HK and Cult Film News's Fan Box

Saturday, January 31, 2009


"I had a dream that this guy was sentenced to death for attempting to commit suicide."

He has a beautiful voice, though it's rarely on key. His lyrics are often stunning and emotionally complex, though they don't always make sense. Each song is deceptively simple and touchingly heartfelt, yet on a technical level he'd probably get kicked out of a high school talent show.

No doubt about it, Daniel Johnston is one of the strangest musical stars of all time. Never heard of him? Just check out his new concert DVD, THE ANGEL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON: LIVE AT THE UNION CHAPEL, and get ready for something completely different. If you're a fan but, like me, have never seen one of his performances in its entirety, then this is your ticket to spend a little quality time in that cheerfully surreal dimension where Daniel lives.

If there was ever a self-made musician, this is the guy. As a kid, Daniel began recording himself singing his own songs of teenage angst and romantic yearning while banging out the music on a piano. Crashing an MTV taping in Austin in 1983 with a guitar and a handful of cassettes, he managed to get himself on TV and lay the groundwork for a growing cult following that would lead to concerts, a record contract, and a seemingly bright future. There was just one catch--Daniel was a severe manic depressive with a tenuous grasp on reality, and over the years his increasingly erratic and irrational behavior sabotaged any potential he had for breaking into the big time.

In my review of the brilliant documentary THE DEVIL AND DANIEL JOHNSTON, I described him as "a Syd Barrett who never gave up his music." These days he's an overweight, graying, middle-aged man who lives with his parents in Waller, Texas, but never stopped writing songs or dwelling upon his various muses. And after being discovered by some local musicians who were amazed to find the legendary Daniel Johnston living in their town, he found himself back onstage.

Recorded in July 2007 at London's beautiful Union Chapel, a spacious yet somehow intimate venue whose stained-glass atmosphere is a perfect setting for Daniel's often spiritual lyrics, the concert features over an hour of his best songs including some familiar oldies that sound better than ever.

With a jovial "Hi, everybody!", he begins by strapping on a guitar and performing "Mean Girls" while artlessly strumming the chords just like he did in the old days. "Mean girls give's my greatest treasure" he sings, still speaking for every awkward, lovestruck teenage boy who ever went down in flames.

Settling in behind a piano for the haunting "Love Enchanted", a song vaguely similar musically to "Hotel California" but with much more emotional resonance, Daniel holds the audience in rapt attention. The solo portion of the concert thus over, various musicians join him for the rest as he simply stands at the microphone and sings while reading his lyrics from a notebook, hands shaking. It can't be easy playing backup for Daniel because he doesn't always stick to the beat, but these guys are good at fitting the music to Daniel's style of singing.

The familiar "Some Things Last a Long Time" weaves a spell that continues through a series of quirky gems such as "Try to Love", "Speeding Motorcycle", "Walking the Cow", and his classic "Casper the Friendly Ghost", about a guy who had to die before anyone gave him any respect. His voice shifts constantly between caterwauling to high, Neil Young-type clarity and is often surprisingly poignant.

All in all, there are eighteen songs about life and love, brimming with vaguely Beatlesque melodies, from a cockeyed point of view that is sometimes disarmingly amusing and often strikes a deep chord with its honesty and perception.

As he sings, I can see flashes of that young kid that still lives inside him. As I once wrote about him, "it's as though the patron saint of guys who sing in front of the mirror took pity on him and made all his musical dreams come true (well, a lot of them, anyway), which is really an amazing sight to behold." Even now, he can't believe it himself--"Are you still with me?" he'll sometimes ask the audience between verses. And they always are.

Surrounded by a band and buoyed by the good spirits around him as the performance nears its end, Daniel's "Rock and Roll/EGA" progresses from a spare little tune into a rousing rocker with some impressive vocals. The beautiful "True Love Will Find You in the End" closes the show. As an encore, Daniel saunters back onstage and sings "Devil Town" all by himself, then waves goodbye to the crowd as they give him a standing ovation.

Director Antony Crofts provides a good no-frills record of the concert with some imaginative camerawork. The sound is available in both stereo and 5.1 surround. The bonus features include rehearsal footage of "Some Things Last a Long Time", plus two more solo songs from the concert, "There is a Sense of Humor Way Beyond Friendship" and "And I Love You So", that didn't make it into the final cut but are well worth having. There's also a post-concert interview with Daniel that finds him happily discussing, among other things, his obsession with The Beatles and his lifelong love for horror movies such as HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN, Hammer films, and his favorite movie, KING KONG.

The way I see it, Daniel Johnston is a seemingly ordinary guy with an inner musical genius trying to get out, but he could never quite get all the way out. So his fans are gladly willing to meet him halfway in order to reap the rewards to be found in Daniel's songs and performances. When he eases into what I consider to be his theme song, "The Story of an Artist", he recalls his parents' long-ago admonition: "We don't really like what you do, we don't think anyone ever will." He says his family's still trying to figure him out. Good luck. I don't think anybody's ever really going to figure this guy out.

Available at and

No comments: