On Top Of A Mountain Top
Daniel Johnston, Stereo, Glasgow, 10th August 2003

We arrive early, to find a tiny venue: a long narrow pub with a stage six inches high at one end. Sitting behind a keyboard accompanied by several entourage types is a large man in white (white hair, white tracksuit), ghostly in the unlit gloom. We get drinks and are asked to sit outside: Daniel's about to soundcheck, and he doesn't want an audience. So we sit in the sun not believing that Daniel's real after all, sitting only a few feet away; that he's going to play his songs this very evening, the best songs that ever were, for us; that... hey, isn't that ´Speeding Motorcycle' he's soundchecking with? That we can hear slightly muffled, sitting in the sun grinning big stupid grins, not believing our luck? He came out west looking for the best. He's got a lot to get off his chest, and he's here tonight: ladies and gentlemen, Mr Daniel D. Johnston.

We arrive again later on when it's dark. Outside by the door is the entourage at a table, selling tapes, CDs, drawings. Fans crowd around, whilst a few feet away Daniel sits by himself smoking a cigarette, angelic this time in the glow of the outdoor lighting. Chris gets me to take a picture of him with Daniel, who obligingly stands up and smiles. Click. We thank him, and he sits down again to resume his cigarette.

I have to admit, I was half dreading coming to a Daniel Johnston concert. Half more excited than I've ever been in my life too, but still half dreading. I thought he'd be a mess, and I didn't want him to be. Reading ahead through what I've written, it sounds voyeuristic, but that's the thing with Daniel: it's impossible to be a fan and not end up caring a great deal for the man, not end up worrying he's killing himself for his art and wishing he'd stop beating himself up in his songs and go and do something less harmful instead. The songs are so beautiful though. His home recorded cassette only albums from the early '80s (available through www.museumoflove.com) are to me and every Daniel fan what The Beatles' records are to Daniel himself: they're the real deal, as good as music gets. The nervy music hall blues of ´Hi, How Are You', the big piano despair tunes of ´The What Of Whom' (my favourite), the carefree circus troubadour songs of ´Yip/Jump Music' and ´Respect' (my other favourite). Through these Daniel redefined pop, the lovesong, the blues. If you want to hear just how affecting the human voice can be, if you want to hear what it is to be human, if being human is about the impossibility of community, the intolerability of isolation and the transcendence of these barriers through art, then this is the place to go.

To my delight, Daniel isn't a mess. He's businesslike, about having his photo taken with a fan, about singing his songs. He seems, as far as it's possible to tell, at ease with who he is and what he does. He's in good voice too, standing eyes glued to the music stand reeling off half a dozen new songs alongside ones from ´Fear Yourself' which, that being his latest LP, is exactly the businesslike, unit shifting thing to do. ´Produced by Sparklehorse', he reminds us, driving the point home. ´Casper The Friendly Ghost' is the only old song to get an airing before he puts his guitar away and moves over onto piano which, much as I love his four chord fumbling, is where he belongs. A three chord romp which begins ´Well I love your love / I just can't get enough / Of your loving stuff' proves, if proof were needed, that he hasn't lost his ear for the simplest and catchiest of melodies, and one with a chorus which goes ´And wherever she goes / I'll be loving her SO' impressively gets away with sounding like something from a rock opera, not that I've ever heard a rock opera. Best of all, genre-striding Daniel plays a free jazz take on ´True Love Will Find You In The End' which, while it may be no match for its simply strummed recorded version (and which possibly lacks good business sense), shows a singer at ease with his art, willing to have fun with his songs. For those of us who just want to see him happy, it's a joy to behold.

© 2003 Chris Fox