Probably one of the most compelling documentaries I’ve seen in recent years is ‘The Devil And Daniel Johnston’ about the gifted yet deeply troubled cult US singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston. Sensitively directed by Jeff Feuerzeig, it is a brilliant and deeply affecting portrait of a life in turmoil and how a unique talent was constantly at war with the scourge of his own mental illness. It is also about unrequited love, the unconditional love (some) parents bestow on the their children and how music can sustain a broken life more strongly than any branch of religion or medicine can. Up until seeing the documentary, Johnston was always someone on the periphery of my musical tastes. A name I knew simply because Kurt Cobain, back in the early Nineties, was always photographed wearing his now iconic ‘Hi, How Are You’ t-shirt, usually under some tatty cardigan. The simple act of Cobain wearing his t-shirt resulted in Johnston being dragged along in the Nirvana slipstream as the grunge band went stratospheric. Suddenly people were asking ‘Who Is Daniel Johnston’?. The record label Elektra took an interest and offered him a record deal but Johnston turned it down as he refused to be label-mates with Metallica. He believed they worked for the Devil and would beat him up. Johnston’s moment had come and gone and within a couple of years Cobain would be dead.
Yet, a few weeks ago, Johnston came to Dublin for two sold-out shows at Whelans. It was billed as an ‘Evening with Daniel Johnston and Friends’. His friends being Scout Niblett, Jad Fair from Half-Japanese, James McNew of Yo La Tengo, Norman Blake of Teenage Fanclub and Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous. Before Johnston came on stage, they each did a few songs of their own. A gaunt-looking Linkous treated us to a couple of tracks from his dark canon of songs and Norman Blake did a solo run-through of ‘Everything Flows’ ,which is, of course, one of the greatest songs ever written. When Johnston came on stage, he was helped by Blake. With his sensible haircut and specs, the Teenage Fanclub frontman came across like a male nurse helping a middle-aged man recuperate and find his feet again.
Johnston is still only forty-seven but a tortuous life has aged him at least ten years. With his huge pot belly, as if he’s hiding a basketball under his white t-shirt, and thick head of grey hair, he’s probably the unlikeliest rock star ever to grace the stage of Whelan’s. He started off with three songs by himself on acoustic guitar. It was rough and ready and a little shambolic. He’s clearly still not fully comfortable playing on stage and, to be honest, he’s not a great guitarist. His natural place is at the piano. But it was when he went electric and his indie superstar friends filled the stage and filled out his sound that Johnston really shone. He did ‘Speeding Motorcycle’ and ‘Casper The Friendly Ghost’ and ‘Devil Town’ and, with the band behind him, he grew in confidence. His music is not pop or indie or straightahead rock, it has elements of all these yet remains indefinable. It’s raw and innocent, at once full of pain and yet full of a child-like optimism. It’s as real as music gets. With a little help from his friends, Johnston is enjoying a second-coming of sorts, a hugely deserved second-wind that no one, especially those who saw ‘The Devil And Daniel Johnston’ saw coming.