In the music documentary “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” Daniel Johnston says, “It was my fate to become famous and also to be damned.” This may be the best way to sum up the enigma that is Johnston, a musician who has so often been described as genius. And it all manifested at The Orpheum on November 2.
Johnston is on the Daniel Johnston Friends: Hi, How Are You Tour. The set includes a screening of “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” followed by a performance where the backing band rotates in each city. In Los Angeles, Johnston was supported by Ben Lee, Maria Taylor, Mike Watt, Guy Blakeslee, Joey Waronker, Jess and Holly of Lucius and the Silver Lake Chorus. At each show, the band creates the set list. Of the 121 songs, Johnston sang 11 Friday night.
The performance lasted just under an hour, meaning most of the night was devoted to the documentary screening. It was probably a re-watch for many in the audience, but it was the perfect setup for Johnston. It made his appearance that much more extraordinary. The film was a deep refresher on his life, allowing the audience to grasp the peculiarity of how Johnston gained such cult status in the music industry. Laying out Johnston’s musicianship alongside his manic depression and schizophrenia was a prologue for the man with white hair and a tremor that later appeared onstage.
Johnston began the performance with “True Love Will Find You In the End.” He sat at a chair, a book of lyrics in front of him and warm lights shined down. The hopeful tune about finding love felt good and reassuring. It was an uplifting moment after watching such a troubled tale. Johnston often went right into the next song, following up with “Life in Vain” and then “Casper, the Friendly Ghost,” to much approval by the audience. And though Johnston couldn’t help his shaking hands, it seemed at times he hands shook a little more, but in this case with feeling the song.
After “Casper,” there was a slight delay. “I don’t remember this one,” Johnston said, to which the band members assisted in choosing another. “I don’t like that song,” he said. Laughter rumbled. He ended up going with “My Life is Starting Over.”
Toward the end of the set, Johnston asked the crowd, “Ladies and gentlemen, how many artists are in the crowd tonight?” Gentle “woos” and hands abounded, giving way to “The Story of an Artist.” It appeared to be Johnston’s most vulnerable moment of the night, though who knows if he really felt that way. Still, there was a definite parallel between the 56-year-old outsider hero artist and the words he sang: “Listen up and I’ll tell you a story about an artist growing old.” What’s more is this song amplifies the documentary’s portrait of Johnston. It is clear his artistic skills derive from his mental illness and though deemed a genius, he is not totally on a pedestal. People sometimes fear him and fear for him. Sometimes people laugh at him. In other words, as Johnston puts it, “the artist walks alone and someone says behind his back, ‘he’s got some gall to call himself that. He doesn’t even know where he’s at.’ “
Even in the category of honored musical geniuses, Johnston is unique. What goes on in his brain seems to go beyond the understood darkness of people like Kurt Cobain and Vincent Van Gogh. Between songs, yells of affection for Johnston burst out of the audience. His response was a slight nod as if agreeing with this matter of fact: “Yes, thank you, you do love me.”
Johnston and friends finished the night with “Silly Love.” At song’s end, he immediately shut his book, stood up and walked off stage. And though Johnston was out of sight, the audience continued to stand and cheer for the misunderstood man they so seemingly understood.
- True Love Will Find You In the End
- Life in Vain
- Casper, the Friendly Ghost
- My Life is Starting Over
- Speeding Motorcycle
- Try to Love
- High Horse
- The Story of an Artist
- Mind Movies
- Silly Love