Monday, December 20, 2010

Musical Memories, No 2 - Daniel Johnston on some steps

To someone like me, who considers Moldy Peaches to be one of the best bands of all time and Jeffrey Lewis to be the greatest lyricist in the world, strolling ten minutes from home to see a performance by the man who was the forerunner of the anti-folk scene seemed too good to be true. To some, Johnston is little more than a curiosity with his fragile, trembling vocal, his child-like lyrics about love and the artwork that explodes from his brain. But anyone who has watched the stunning documentary about him, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, would find it hard not to become emotionally engaged with his yearning, heart-breaking work.

And so, on a warm summer's night in Sydney, a big chunk of the city's indie fraternity made their way to Monster Children Gallery, which housed an exhibition of Johnston's vivid artwork and where, we were promised, the man himself would play a few songs. Amazing!

The exhibition was initially soundtracked by a performance from legendary UK music journalist Everett True that was, in equal parts, tuneless, confusing-as-hell and awesome. His band, made up of Millie Hall from Bridezilla and Loene Carmen, did their utmost to improvise around True as he ranted and raved. To be honest though, and without disrespecting a man that I grew up reading, no-one was there for True, and most people spent the duration of his set enjoying the free beer in the gallery's courtyard.

It soon became apparent that there was no way everyone in attendance would fit into Monster Children's tiny one-room space. Was there a plan B? Where would Johnston play? Would he even turn up? Time was ticking on and there was no sign of the dear fellow.

A short while later, someone from the gallery made an announcement. Uh-oh, here goes, I thought. His performance was going to be postponed. Well, joyfully, the announcement was to say that, while trying to squeeze everyone into the venue would both defy the laws of physics and be quite the health and safety hazard, if we were all really good, if we stayed on the pavement and didn't drink on the street, then Daniel would play a couple of songs outside. It was like being told that good behaviour would result in a nice present from Father Christmas. Of course, the now massive crowd was already on its very best behaviour (I mean, come on, what harm are a bunch of indie nerds going to do at their most boisterous, let alone when quietly waiting for one of their heroes to appear?).

And so, completely without fanfare, Johnston ambled onto the steps that overlooked the quite awful Gaff pub, just across from the gallery. Considering the steps are more used to being the scene of drunken Brits vomiting and all manner of dishevelled revellers stumbling away from Sydney's Oxford Street, Johnston actually fitted in quite well; unshaved, overweight and looking like a vagabond in a scruffy grey tracksuit with stains down the front. Supported by a guitarist and with a folder of typed lyrics gripped between his shaking hands, it seemed unreal that this was the man that had written some of the sweetest, most evocative songs ever. He just looked like your everyday bum.

But when he opened his mouth, it all made sense again. He only sang two songs, including the amazing Silly Love, before shuffling off  but, as he let out his iconic vocal, all other noises from the city's rush hour dissipated to the point of non-existence. It was just Daniel Johnston and a whole bunch of people that empathised with what he was saying.

Life doesn't often make sense. Plug A rarely fits nicely into Slot B. People conflict and contrast, friction prevails. Sometimes though, very, very occasionally, everything comes together. And, as I stood on the steps, looking over Johnston's shoulder onto a crowd that were hanging on his every word. It was clear that these were my people, and this was my soundtrack. If only life were always like this.

Taking photos in the background (above) and meeting a legend (below).

Check the video that one punter took below:

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