Daniel Johnston

ICA, London - 4 July 2003

"This is atrociously trashy... it must be art"

[Daniel Johnston - cult icon] Daniel Johnston was brought to many people's attention through his contributions to the soundtrack to the film Kids. His recent album Fear Yourself was hailed by David Bowie as "One of my favourite albums of the year". Johnston is both artist and singer/songwriter. Both modes of expression have a stream of consciousness, a somewhat 'rough about the edges' quality. So much so, that when I first heard his first contribution to the Kids soundtrack I could not believe my ears that such amateurish trash had received a major label release.

Looking like a man older than his years, with wild greying hair, a Southern drawl, a lifetime couch potato physique, it comes as little surprise to know that Johnston has been in and out of asylums throughout his life. His self-released cassette albums come on the cheapest quality tape you can get and each have (often illegible) handwritten tracklistings and illustrated sleeves. "I can't see you, but I really appreciate you all coming here to see me tonight" he said earnestly. This rare UK appearance was part of the ICA's season on comic book culture - ComICA, and copies of Johnston's artwork were also on sale. The performance itself was as remarkable as it was short.

Just managing to come in at over thirty minutes in total, the set's brevity nevertheless meant that, with most songs lasting little more than three minutes a piece, we still got to hear a lot of Daniel Johnston songs. The set was split into two halves. The first part was Johnston and his cheap and battered acoustic guitar. Each song being based around three or four main chords that Johnston strums both repeatedly and vigorously, if only occasionally in time. The second half of the set was precisely the same except that the guitar was placed with a cheap-sounding piano noise from a keyboard. This must be art. On the face of it, initially at least, this is atrociously trashy where the good intentions far outweigh any musical talent. But before very long your brain begins to adjust, adapt, learn and one is drawn into the surreal oddball spectacle of it all.

It was readily apparent that I was in the minority this evening. Most here seemed to be hardcore Johnston fans and from the extrovert on-stage introduction through to the ten minute cries for "Encore!", the crowd went berserk. The American's shy if polite demeanour meant that most of the intersong chat was kept merely to introducing the next title (which he did doggedly). There was a rare "How y'all doin' tonight?" once he had settled down, which brought the response from someone in the crowd "How are you Daniel?", to which Johnston replied with some uncertainty "...pretty good". This was one of the ICA's infrequent sell-out gigs - that in itself demonstrated the cult following this unassuming middle aged American has. His rendition of the insanely sublime Casper, The Friendly Ghost was belted out with such vigor that at the end of the set Johnston not only sounded horse but looked close to collapse. He was helped off the stage and was never seen again.

Rob Dyer