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A unique and prolific songwriter, a raw soul, a painter and a singer, Daniel Johnston died last week, drawing reflections from unlikely quarters (Mark Ruffalo tweeted “Living your broken dreams forever. Thank you for your art.”) as well as from fellow musicians such as Jenny Lewis who called him “the great American songwriter”.

Able to write from a perspective some called childlike, capable of drawing on troubling as well as joyous depths, Johnston had a talent for melodies hard to equal. But, as with the second half of Brian Wilson’s life, his career and his performances raised some questions not always easy to answer. As was canvassed in this review of a Sydney show from 2010.



Metro, January 4

The questions began even before Daniel Johnston’s raw, undoubtedly genuine singing of the line "I love you all but I hate myself" was greeted with a perverse but not uncommon whoop of pleasure by a fan in the all-but-full room.

Watching this portly middle-aged man who began the show with his face obscured by both a hat and the fact that he was looking down to lyrics on a stand, I wondered why we were here. His playing of a stumpy electric guitar was erratic, his singing ragged, his early songs veering from fascinating to haphazard to near collapse as he went on unfettered explorations of alienation, fragility, fear and mostly unrequited love.

What exactly did we voyeurs want to get from someone who has spent a lifetime dealing with mental illness while simultaneously exploring an obvious talent as a songwriter in dozens of lo-fi recordings?

How much of this attention was for the songs and how much was for the same almost morbid fascination we have for potential train wrecks/damaged artists such as Syd Barrett, Skip Spence, Brian and Dennis Wilson at their most vulnerable?

Or Cat Power when she was as likely to hide behind her piano as sing, and recently Victoria Williams and Vic Chestnutt who played here last year constantly hovering on the line between intense and debacle?

Alongside me, a friend who had first played me Syd Barrett's crumbling mind recordings 30 years ago, argued that artists without as many “appropriate” controls were also artists without as many barriers between their emotions and thoughts and we the listeners. That this was art at its purest. Yes, but did that make it right? Is it any different to venerating atavistic societies as innately superior because they are not "burdened" by sophistication (call it these days the Avatar effect)?

And anyway, was it good?

When Johnston was joined by long-time collaborator, guitarist Brett Hartenbach, and reverted to only singing, part of the answer became clearer. Some better material but also some more clarity in performance showed up songs which were thoroughly engaging and touching without mawkishness. Funny often too.

Two John Lennon songs, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away (“Everywhere people stare/Each and every day/I can see them laugh at me/And I hear them say/Hey you've got to hide your love away") and Isolation ("People say we got it made/Don't they know we're so afraid?/Isolation/We're afraid to be alone/Everybody got to have a home/Isolation") were apposite and scene setting choices.

Less successful was the introduction of the band, essentially support act Old Man River’s musicians. They played well, with enthusiasm and affection, but whether with Johnston’s songs or a third, and this time out of place Lennon cover, Revolution, this set-up laid on a veneer of normality, a barrier of regular rock stylings, which was at odds with what we’d been experiencing.

And of course, contradicted my initial recoiling at the lack of normality.

Thankfully, Johnston closed the encore on his own. Smiling, vulnerable, raw and damaged.

I’m not sure all my questions were answered. Or maybe they were.

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