One of the best moments in my sometimes semi-professional career as an indie rock writer occurred yesterday evening, some time around 8 PM. A few moments earlier, I'd been interviewing Daniel Johnston, only for a handful of minutes, but his brother, who serves as Daniel's manager, had pulled him away to sound check, promising he'd be back in a few minutes when done.
For Johnston, these days sound checks are more like mini-practice sessions where he's meeting his band for the first time, often only a couple hours before they perform. Johnston travels from town to town and uses local indie bands as his backing band and, as different as scenes are from city to city and all bands are from one another, you can imagine how unique the sound each night becomes.
I never caught the name of the band that was playing behind Johnston at this show, held at Ann Arbor's Blind Pig venue, but they were hard and loud. Often times bands playing behind Johnston are poppy, and keep things restrained to avoid overwhelming his frequently meek vocals, but these guys played some straight-forward hard rock ... and Johnston dug it. The memorable moment mentioned at the beginning of this post came when Johnston decided to run through one of his most famous songs, "Speedy Motorcycle," with the band. Clearly, the band had been instructed to begin the song only pairing single keyboard notes timed to go with the songs opening lyrics ("Speedy Motorcycle, won't you change me/Speedy Motorcycle, won't you change me/In a world of funny changes/Speedy Motorcycle, won't you change me"). After Johnston repeats "won't you change me" that third time, the rest of the band comes in, providing the backing for the rest of the song. And when they came in this time, they came in heavy, taking Johnston by welcome surprise to the point that he shouted "Oh, right on!" and laughed before starting to sing along. I turned and smiled at my friend, Leia, who had come up to Ann Arbor with me on this one-day road trip, and saw that I wasn't the only one tickled by Daniel's sincere and spontaneous response. A few minutes later, the song ended, and Johnston immediately thanked and commended the guys in the band for playing it so heavy, saying that usually bands playing behind him want to play it like a calypso, but that he really liked how they played it loud: "that's rock and roll, man!"
A few more songs and the soundcheck ended, and Johnston headed back over to the table where Leia and I waited, snagging a coke from the bar on the way over. We talked for another twenty minutes or so, about forthcoming projects (he has two albums and a movie in the works, and is hoping to build a home recording studio), the process at work when he creates his visual art, his visits to comic book stores in the various towns on tour (and why he'd recently switched from buying cheap comics in bulk to buying nicer collectibles), his favorite producers to work with, and the experience of having a famous documentary film made about him (he groused,
"Yeah, they really did me well there - they called it The Devil and Daniel Johnston - I'm not going to live that down even if I become 100 years old!").
As interesting as all those topics were, movies are where you can really see Johnston's eyes light up. I'd learned this a few years ago when I was living in Texas, a town or so over from the hamlet where Daniel makes his home, and I'd had the opportunity to visit him at his house and conduct an interview in his living room as we watched The Deer Hunter, drank generic orange soda, and smoked menthols. This time, Johnston brought up the topic of movies, saying he spent a lot of time watching movies, and I asked him what his recent favorites were. He started off listing a bunch of old horror movies, King Kong, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Frankenstein and the Wolfman, Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Shining, and then stopped himself, saying "Boy, you asked the wrong guy about movies. I could go on and on, list a hundred!" I chuckled, but Leia jumped in, saying back, "No, we asked the right guy then." He looked directly at her for a moment, seeming to appreciate that perspective, and then started listing more movies, these more surprising. He mentioned how he loved The Nutty Professor, and then how he thought Schindler's List was one of the best films ever made. This reminded him of the recent Tom Cruise movie where Cruise plays a Nazi officer trying to assassinate Hitler (Valkyrie), and then led him to start talking about the Cruise remake of War of the Worlds. Then, for a few minutes, Leia, Daniel, and I discussed the career of Tom Cruise and how the ladies seem to like him.
About this time, it became clear our time with Daniel was about to end. Folks from the venue and his backing band were coming by, one by one, to shake hands and meet him, and soon a tall man with a tough-to-place accent came over. Daniel shouted, "Elvis!" and said to Leia and I, "Guys, this is my friend Elvis Costello." The man smiled and rolled his eyes and introduced himself - he was Ralston Bowles, longtime Michigan-based singer-songwriter, and was schedule to open the show for Johnston. Apparently there was a history between the two, as Daniel kept calling him Elvis and laughing, and then asking if he'd be willing to come on stage later and sing on "Man Obsessed with him" and if Bowles wanted to join his group for pizza in a few minutes. Ralston agreed and then excused himself, and Leia did me a solid that releases her from buying me birthday presents for years to come - pulling my Daniel Johnston-designed Jeremiah the Innocent vinyl toy sculpt out of her bag, snagging my sharpie from my shirt pocket, and getting Johnston's autograph for me on the bottom of it. We had time for one quick picture before Johnston and his group hustled out the door for their dinner, but a thousand new memories.
A few minutes later, we left ourselves, meeting an old friend of Leia's and eventually seeking out dinner at the same pizza shack as Johnston and company. We had a fine time, then hit the basement dive bar/pool hall before venturing up to the sauna-like concert hall. We arrived just as Bowles was finishing his set, and waited with a almost three hundred Michigan hipsters for Johnston to make his way onstage. He soon did, solo and wielding an acoustic guitar. He played like that for thirty minutes, mostly either back-catalog or not-yet-released songs like "Freedom" and "Life in Vain" (which was WONDERFUL) that the audience wasn't able to sing along with, though they did join in earnestly when the first chords of "Silly Love" were strummed. At one point, someone in the crowd shouted "We Love You, Daniel!" and Johnston responded, deadpan, "That was Kurt Cobain."
After a short break, Johnston came back with the same backing band we'd seen soundcheck with him before, playing a few more back catalog tunes, including a tumultuous "Walking the Cow" and the aforementioned "Speedy Motorcycle," which although it didn't have the intimacy and spontaneity of the soundcheck version, still rocked in a way that assured it was the audience favorite of the set.
For me, however the highlights were different, and three-fold:
First, when Johnston's microphone persisted in acting up and he moved over to a different one, he said something along the lines of "Sorry folks, no refunds if this one doesn't work" (though that joke wasn't half as funny as his earlier one about the guy about to be sentenced to death for attempting to commit suicide). Second, when he played "Rock n Roll EGA," a tune as sorrowful and beautiful as any he's written over the decades, particularl the lines "If I ever thought that I could be happy/Dreams like that always faded away/And all the girls already had boyfriends/I was alone as lonely could be." And, finally, third, when Daniel introduced his friend "Elvis Costello" to the stage (again, Bowles) and they played "Man Obsessed." The audience roared when Costello's name was mentioned, and I leaned over and asked Leia how many people she thought were in that audience that were going home that night and telling friends they'd seen the man responsible for "Veronica" and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding." I didn't think about that for long, though, as the song was a wonderful mess. Clearly Bowles had no idea how the song was supposed to go, but the band and Johnston made it through just fine anyway. At the end, an energized and well-humored Johnston impishly grins and gestures at Bowles and shouts to the audience, "Elvis Costello!" And then walked off the stage.
2 years ago