Sentenced to death for committing suicide


By Matthew Ralph

As far from being New York City as even the progressive pockets of Louisville may be, I felt like I was was in New York City again for about 20 minutes when Daniel Johnston showed up to play some songs at a local folk art festival earlier this month.

The king of pre-Internet self-promotion back when he was a novelty act conning music critics and concert promoters to make his off-kilter lo-fi pop known to Music Television viewers and hipsters the world over, Johnston drew the kind of crowd to a converted meat packing plant that only two decades of being name-dropped and a popular documentary film exposing his genius and madness to a wider audience could have produced.

Like a NYC flash mob, people came out of the woodwork just before the clock struck two to get a glimpse of Daniel with his guitar. Along with his presence at a booth for his artwork, his appearance was by far the most hyped feature of the three-day festival. The very capable and entertaining bands preceding him – The Parade Schedule and Centralia Massacre – were mostly regarded by festival goers as Bush leaguers to Johnston’s major league event. As much as I enjoyed both bands – there were a slew of others I missed – they weren’t what drew me either. I was there with a friend in tow to see someone whose music I’ve appreciated since the movie “Kids” had everyone in my high school talking and “Casper the Friendly Ghost” repeatedly cranking on my brother’s crappy factory car radio.

I knew enough from the more awkward parts of the “Devil and Daniel Johnston” DVD – especially the extra scenes of him at Sundance – and his interactions on camera in the Danielson documentary that it would be foolish to assume I would be hearing anything closely resembling the hundreds of recordings I have on my iPod. The unpredictability of it all though still probably had me more excited than I should have been.

When he took to the plywood stage with his binder in one hand and his bottle of Mountain Dew in the other, I was struck more with curiosity than I was with his star status in the indie-rock world. There’s something about watching one of your favorite songwriters spill Mountain Dew on his already stained version of the made-famous-by-Kurt-Cobain-shirt that puts things in perspective.

That a guy as unpolished as Johnston can be the centerpiece of a festival where the mostly young, image-conscious crowd is anything but unpolished, is refreshing even if his popularity does produce the kind of claustraphobic crowd and blog-driven documentation response that has become typical of indie shows everywhere.

His set was four anything but epic songs long. Daniel, notorious for playing nerve-wracking stage fright-shortened sets, hammered through his songs with his beat the hell out of the strings on the guitar style and promptly busted through the crowd with guitar, case, binder and Mountain Dew in hand and made for the exit.

He also told a joke from an old song of his – twice because he messed it up the first time – about a dream he had that a guy was being sentenced to death for trying to commit suicide. The first time he said it it came out that the guy was sentenced to death for committing suicide. It’s apparently a standard ice-breaker he uses from the stage.

That’s about all that can be said about the show itself. Short and too the point the way opening acts no one in the crowd knows should, but rarely ever do it.

If someone had stumbled into the show and not known about Daniel Johnston’s back story or had heard any of his songs on record or covered by artists like Wilco and Bright Eyes (“Devil Town” has been featured prominently in the Friday Night Lights TV show) they may have thought it was a re-creation of Improv Everywhere “Best Gig Ever” because the crowd, my fanboy self included, was soaking up a performance that billed under anyone else’s name would probably be dismissed as pure drivel than it was in reality.

Out of the 200 or so people packed into the tight space, there were probably close to two dozen people, counting me with my crappy camera, taking photos. By Monday, the local Metromix page had a gallery of 30 photos almost exclusively taken during the show. My sun-glared glasses and intense face were in five of them.

And here I am blogging about it all, perpetuating the phenomenon of an experience that looks way cooler on Metromix and YouTube than it was in reality. Don’t get me wrong, getting to see Daniel Johnston in person for the first time was great, but the show itself was probably the most underwhelming aspect of an art and music festival that despite being too big for its space featured fantastic music and art that would have been worth checking out even if Daniel Johnston hadn’t been landed as a headliner.


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