I’m just back from a gig, my first at Islington’s lovely Union Chapel. It’s a beautiful church with a round chapel area that hosts frequent performances by a certain breed of folk-rock singer-songwriter. But something exceedingly strange happened tonight.
I only caught the last song or two of the first act, a guy with a guitar named Jake Bellows. He was okay; his last song was best, when he pumped up the distortion and sounded a bit like Neil Young.
The second act was another singer-songwriter with a guitar, only this one was gentler and folkier. He was called James Yorkston. He was also decent.
The exceedingly strange bit happened when the headliner came out and performed: yet another singer-songwriter with a guitar named Daniel Johnston. His voice was high and weak, and often off-key. His hands shook. His guitar and piano playing were rudimentary. He sang songs with lyrics so simple as to be childish. It felt almost awkward and embarrassing.
It was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.
Daniel Johnston is an outsider. I won’t repeat his whole story here –read it – but I didn’t know that much when I went to this gig. I knew that he was respected enough to have a tribute album recorded by people like Mercury Rev, Tom Waits, M. Ward, and Beck. I knew that he was from Texas, and that Kurt Cobain revered him. I know that there was a documentaryabout him. I knew that he had been recording since the ’80s. I also knew that he has extreme bipolar disorder. I had heard a couple of his songs, and they sounded sort of weird.
Johnston is gripping. This is the most perfect example I could imagine of my theory that good music is emotional music. That you don’t need complicated musical structure or precision musicianship or a soaring voice if you’ve got songwriting talent and total commitment to your vision. Johnston has none of the former and tons of the latter.
He sang songs – he played guitar and piano for some, and had musicians for others – that are so simple and straightforward that they seem innocent, naive, embarrassing. But they’re so moving, so touching. It’s sort of light rock, sort of pop, sort of troubadour. A lifetime of emotion-controlling drugs make his hands shake uncontrollably and have cost him his teeth, resulting in a high-pitched lisp. It should be awful, but it’s fantastic.
I have never, ever been so moved by a live song by any artists in any gig I have ever seen as when Daniel Johnston sang “Some Things Last a Long Time”. I was shaking during his performance. The crowd erupted in applause and cheers when he finished.
“Casper the Friendly Ghost”, “Speeding Motorcycle”, “True Love Will Find You In the End”, and “Story of an Artist” were all very well-received. He covered one of his favourite bands, The Beatles, by performing “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”. His encore was a quick a capella version of “Devil Town”. It was a perfect way to end the night.
I’ve never been so emotionally moved by a performance that was so hard to watch.