How NOT to write about music – 104. Daniel Johnston (live)

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Reprinted from Collapse Board. This was supposed to be the introduction to my Daniel Johnston book (unpublished).


February 2010

Sydney (Monster Children)

The conversation between Loene, Millie and myself went something like this.
“Looks like it’s going to rain. Let’s go inside.”
“Might not rain.”
“Let’s stay in the courtyard. There’s more room here – and look, here are some beers.”
“It’s going to rain. Let’s go inside.”
“Have you seen the line of kids outside? It’s crazy. Let’s stay outside.”
“There’ll be more atmosphere inside. Also, Daniel’s supposed to be playing an art gallery, not a courtyard.”

So it was the three of us stood, hemmed along one side of Sydney’s Monster Children gallery, sweat dripping from every conceivable pore, no microphone except a clip-on one, Millie blowing sweet gales of sound down her saxophone, Loene wrestling tempests from the guitar, as people asked others asked others, “Is this Daniel Johnston? He looks pretty different in real life.” Meanwhile, close on 500 kids queued patiently outside to get a glimpse of some fellow who might possibly be an Englishman, might not, who cares, it’s free and it’s a happening scene.

Shortly after we finished, the gallery owner announced that as there was no room inside Daniel would be performing on the street and please could everyone keep the beers out of sight and not block the road … so Daniel and his guitarist Brett Hartenbach stepped up to the plate, steps slippery, Daniel being passed his lyric book by his brother Dick Johnston, maybe taken aback by the strangeness of the scene, maybe not, who knows with Daniel? Two songs in, and he’d reduced the audience to tears. Two songs in – ‘Life In Vain’ and ‘Silly Love’ – and then he was gone, sloped off around the corner to smoke a cigarette.

Sometimes, all you need is a massive heart and naked vulnerability.

“He can do that, you know,” remarked his brother afterwards. “Make the magic happen.”

Brisbane (Laneway Festival)
Around me stand members of Australia’s alternative rock aristocracy, watching this man called Daniel Johnston perform: the voice of a child wavering and plaintive, shaking uncontrollably. His voice is so at odds with the reality of his 49-year-old physical presence, it’s surreal. People so want to believe in Daniel Johnston – the idea that anyone can achieve their dream if they stick with it, the illusion of infatuation masquerading as love, the innocence and pain and inability to relate to the adult world …

After an exquisite handful of opening numbers performed solo, or just by himself and Brett, the set is full-on blues rock: Sydney band Old Man River supply the necessary licks and postures, as Dan sings aloud from his omnipresent lyric book – a handful of John Lennon covers, ‘Fake Records Of Rock’N’Roll’ from new album Is And Always Was. He does this everywhere he tours – someone somewhere decides on a bunch of musicians to play on his songs: he shows up, no rehearsals. They perform. At least Old Man River have paid him the courtesy of learning his songs. Many haven’t. Songs from the cult 2006 documentary The Devil And Daniel Johnston are performed. He attempts a couple of jokes. He picks up his lyric book and shuffles off without a backwards glance. Daniel Johnston doesn’t hang around.

Earlier, I’d driven the four of us – me, Dan, Dick and Brett – round the winding, leafy streets of Brisbane. Several times, Dan threw back his head and laughed. “I’m having such a fun time today,” he’d exclaim, knowing that a visit to a comic book store, his one constant in an ever-changing world of tour schedules, is soon forthcoming. He laughs. “This is fun, isn’t it Dick?” His colleagues are more enthused by the fact we’ve just visited Walkabout Creek wildlife centre – home to a real live duck-billed platypus – then picking up more comics, but they go along with the joke.

A week later, on the way to Japan, the travelling troupe is fined nearly $1,400 by Jetstar for the extra weight incurred by Daniel’s comics.

Melbourne (Speakeasy Cinema + Prince Of Wales)
“I don’t want to hear it.”
Sorry … ?
Daniel starts walking determinedly, and quickly, down the street.

I shrug, and walk back to where his brother is standing. All I’d tried to do was tell Daniel how I’d tried to show the dragons in Chinatown to my four-year-old son last time I’d visited Melbourne. “Guess you better take this back, Dick,” I say, giving him the $100 note that he’d passed to me. (He’d slipped it to me, under the pretence of me taking Daniel to dinner.)

“Sorry about that, Everett. That’s just how he gets sometimes.”

It had started so well. When I’d arrived at Daniel Johnston’s hotel room the day before, he’d greeted me effusively, like a long-lost buddy, grabbing my hand, talking fast and enthusiastically the way he does: “Hey Everett! Come on in, buddy. I’ve got a load of new comics here! Want to go get something to eat? We could do an interview. You wanna get something to eat? Let’s go!”

So we sat outside the hotel, outside a sushi bar, Daniel scattering most of his food on the pavement for the sparrows, laughing in delight when they took the food. He smoked a few cigarettes, we talked some: about his early recordings which he only ever put on to tape as a way of a thank-you to the handful of art college friends who’d made him feel so special; about his days as a travelling carnie in the mid-80s (where he wound up living in Texas, minus his necessary medication); of the bidding war between Atlantic and Elektra Records that took place while he was institutionalised, that only happened as a result of Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain wearing his Jeremiah The Frog T-shirt; even of a weird incident in the early 00s when a Japanese girl decided she was going to marry him and moved out to Waller, Texas …

We walked back to the hotel, Daniel bubbling and excited.

“Hey, you want to talk some more? We could talk some more! Let’s sit down on the couch right here!” Sure, but shouldn’t we find Dick? Maybe we should go upstairs and find him?

And – all of a sudden – Daniel was like:

“Thank you, interview’s over.”
I know that. I was just saying…
“Thank you. Interview’s over.”
And he storms off.

It made it awkward at the Speakeasy that night. I was supposed to be conducting a live Q/A session with him between the two screenings, and performing another spoken word set. So Dick and the PR colluded to move Daniel outside while I was on stage with Brett – Dick had figured Dan didn’t like the attention being paid to me, and furthermore hadn’t liked the question about his Japanese suitor.

So Brett played some of Daniel’s songs on the guitar while I recounted the tale of my first encounter with Daniel Johnston in front of a large, scarily reverential audience: through my initial shocked, cynical laughter at hearing Hi, How Are You? through my almost immediate conversion – partly because of shared experience: the same inability to cope with girls, the same way we’d used the Beatles songbook The Compleat Beatles to learn and pound the piano, the same love for the same comic books (Jack Kirby, Marvel Comics) – through a strange visit from his ex-manager Jeff Tartakov to my house in Brighton in 1991 when he’d instructed us to hide all the knives and had passed along to me a Daniel Johnston T-shirt with a picture of Jeremiah The Frog on its front…

All this was punctuated by Brett’s beautiful guitar (including ‘The Story Of An Artist’ – a song Daniel never plays on stage anymore), and building up to the incident where I’m having a three-way argument with Kurt Cobain (referred to as “my mother” in the piece)and his wife in LA in 1992: us, mocking his taste in T-shirts and pointing out that folk take notice of what he wears on his chest, him whining that he doesn’t own any T-shirts by bands he likes (aside from the homemade Flipper one, presumably) and me saying, “Look, I have this Daniel Johnston T-shirt, but you have to promise me that you’ll wear it cos it’s my favourite shirt, and really special to me…”

“Yeah yeah , Everett. Of course I will.”

And because Kurt never liked the idea of taking anything for free, he swapped it for a Pearl Jam shirt that featured insults hurled the band’s way by music critics (both he and I despised Pearl Jam). So I wore that, and he wore the Daniel Johnston T, and the rest … well, the rest is right up here on stage next to me, almost physically pushing me aside, now he knows that it’s his turn.

“Thank you, Everett, for that introduction,” he barks.

And once again, the three songs performed – including a truly tear-jerking ‘True Love Will Find You In The End’ – Daniel performs with Brett are magical. The crowd is spellbound, rapt.

“Don’t worry too much about it, Everett,” Brett says the following day. “He sometimes gets like that. He was like that towards me for a whole tour once. And then the next time he saw me, he gave me a massive bear hug.”

Welcome to the world of Daniel Johnston.

 

How NOT to write about music – 93. No Sister

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It bothers me that when I try to capture beauty I usually end up bruising it.

  • Odd. But perhaps not that odd. I was talking about you a few days ago with a couple of friends, I’m guessing you know who.
  • You are one of the people I miss from Brisbane, although I am also guessing you no longer live there.
  • I nearly wrote about your band once before, but didn’t because, I’m guessing you know why.
  • I always thought it is better to try and direct the conversation than reveal, but these days there are no sureties.

It bothers me that so few people are bothered.

  • This music leaves more questions left unsaid then it does provide answers.
  • Shopping malls and aerosols is a great rhyme.
  • This music is more reminiscent of the loneliness of overheated suburban Australian playgrounds and half-empty English hair salons than of the rain-splattered American streets reflecting neon.
  • The greatest moment in this song occurs at around 1.27, if we follow the A Certain Ratio guide, which we shouldn’t.

It bothers me that I have never attained the level in my writing style where I can be direct without being dull.

  • I have no idea what you’re thinking.
  • This is way better than you think it is, however good you think it is.

It bothers me that when I try to capture beauty I usually end up bruising it. This one line from the band themselves: No Sister’s upcoming release is an acknowledgement of an elemental, unavoidable creative facet: influence: is brilliant. Hemmed-in, but with the creative freedom such acknowledgment brings.

Building on the shoulders of giants. This is a billowing, bruised beauty – isolation and solace and the echo of late night footsteps receding. So fine. You don’t have to believe me. Just play the song over and over again, thinking of me playing the song over and over again, grappling to articulate emotions the closer I get to the further they slip away.

If you want more detail, the band put it far better than I can. There again, I have nothing riding on this. This, and Tropical Fuck Storm, are the two bands you should be listening to right now.

‘My New Career’ — a song exploring a simultaneously hyperbolic but very real sense of DIY feminism — abounds in influences. The opening lines “I used to do my hair with rollers, but now I use spray cans and pliers” were borrowed from an artwork by Melbourne artist Ruth O’Leary, with the song’s sentiments further propelled by writers such as Sheila Heti and Anne Boyer. Meanwhile the musical and aesthetic influences range from David Sylvian, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Prince and other 80s fascinations — in their new EP No Sister expand their post-punk sound to include influences from both sides of the Atlantic (and Pacific).

Self-released in Australia by No Sister, Influence was recorded by John Lee and Pat Telfer at Phaedra Studios (Beaches, Love of Diagrams, Small World Experience, Lost Animal, Stonefield), mixed by Mino Peric and mastered by David Walker at Stepford Audio.

How NOT to write about music – 74. Parsnip

parnsip the shifters

I jumped the shark a while back.

I turned my back (once again) on the community I helped create and nurture, and instead foraged out wildly by myself, flailing, friendless, still not understanding the need for support while all around me, everywhere, the argument against loneliness, against isolation, is so apparent. My life outside my work and my children does not exist. I float from sleep-state to sleep-state, not picking up the phone, not sending messages, not (heaven forbid) arranging to meet anyone or wander outside (if I do go outside it is to stare blankly at rows of meaningless goods in Sainsbury’s). Not watching TV, not reading books, not writing about music, not listening to music. Tell you what I will do.

I will try and counter that. One reason I rarely ask for recommendations from friends is: what do I do with this profusion of music, this outpouring of delights? How many times can I sing praises into a darkening sky? Should you still perform after the room has emptied, save for a bartender disinterestedly polishing glasses in the corner? How many references to the past does one throw in before  no one takes any notice?

I want to write about Parsnip. I love the warm burr to the voices and guitars, the way their songs put me in mind of Dunedin on a rainy day in 1999. That sounds so fucking long ago now. I want to write about Parsnip, the way this clatter of female harmonies and warming keyboard remind me of meadows somewhere outside London with my friends Twelve Cubic Feet three lifetimes ago in 1982, set out another few darkened treasure trails for no one to follow. I want to sound optimistic and happy that somewhere out there the community still exists – back then, we could have expected one Peel session, maybe two – I want to reach out and dance. I want to reach out and dance. Please dance with me.

Hello?

This could be from Hobart, or Melbourne. This could be from 2019 or 1979. This could be blissful dreaming or futile hurling. This could be your life. This band has always been your life. This could be Whaaam! Records or some Continental or Japanese label I will never know the name of. Heart Beach. The Wendy Darlings. Keen. The B-Girls. This is my community.

And no one knows my name.

 

How NOT to write about music – 72. Tropical Fuck Storm

Tropical-Fuck-Storm

Whiny, maleficent malcontents. Bruising, beautiful brawlers. Out of tune, out of time, dissonant and a glorious sprawl of ugly loose-ends and shimmering dissonance. Anger, isolation, fuck you attitudinal beauty. Drug-fueled inertia. Disgust and disillusionment given vent in a way no male American rock band has managed in two decades now. Jesus, this is so good. Jesus, this makes me feel so homesick – no not for fucking Brisbane but for my core city of Melbourne with all its rain-washed grimy streets and sun-burnt rock formations in the middle of the fucking beyond. Jesus, this makes me want to tackle that fucking right hand turn single-handed. Jesus, this makes me want to drink and brawl and fuck and fight and argue loudly with whoever the fuck comes into the vicinity, and go twirling round numerous beer-soaked dance-floors and laugh at that fucking excuse of a beard on your face. Jesus, but this is glorious even if the dweebs do round off the song about 10 minutes too early, just as it’s getting going and becoming Coloured Balls epic. Fuck death and depression when there is shit like this still happening, still being created out there in the world.

This is Gareth Liddiard and Fiona Kitschin (of the Drones). I don’t want to say this, but what a pair of fucking ledges. What. A. Pair. Of. Fucking. Legends. And yes of course they have released 15-minute battles of wills before now.

At one point, I was even talking about how I was missing gigs in the mainstream press:

Damn it. The Drones’ fourth album – the melancholy, incendiary Havilah – came out a couple of months ago in Australia (it’s out worldwide in January), and the hipsters and the diehards, the drunks and the seafarers have been foaming at the mouth ever since. And rightly so. New single, The Minotaur, contains the insouciant swagger and intricate guitars that have been so sadly lacking of late from Australian rock. Not for singer Gareth Liddiard the self-serving histrionics of a Daniel Johns or the laddish “charms” of a Powderfinger. He sounds possessed, the way all great rock singers sound possessed, as he beats the shit out of a stray vowel. The song is brutal, brilliant. Drums crack like Lewes firework displays, beats stutter to a halt among bruising repetition. You don’t need to understand lyrics to understand emotion.

Interview with Liddiard here.

How NOT to write about music – 22. (reprinted from 2015)

ScotDrakula

I don’t know why I continue this blog.

No one reads it. It frustrates me no one reads it because I think the way I write it is both entertaining and sufficiently different to the majority of music criticism out there to be of note, and (more importantly) most of the music featured is SO DAMN GOOD. My motivation has remained constant throughout the years. I started writing about music because it just wasn’t enough for me to listen to it, to be a passive consumer. I wanted to be part of it, give something back. I did this initially through dancing down the front, whether anyone else danced or not. I continued dancing for decades… even now, I will shuffle to the left, shuffle to the right, send my arms wheeling in semi-circles, if a band moves me sufficiently. It’s more fun experiencing live music that way, and serves as a necessary release. Back then, a lot of my energy came through sexual frustration, doubtless. Plus ça change.

I wanted to give something back. So I started writing about music, trying to convert everyone to my cause. Even early on – especially early on – I knew that was a futile quest, but that made it all the more fun. If I didn’t think I could change the world through my writing I wouldn’t be doing it, even now. Especially now. I want to communicate the emotion, the rampant emotions that lead me to dance. I want to make everyone else dance. I barely go out to concerts these days – perhaps one every couple of months – but that’s still the case. I still want to make everyone dance. I still want to change the world.

These years, I’m whistling in a wind tunnel, pissing in the billowing ocean.

My own music is so magical, different, unique. Know the last time I released a record, an MP3? Over a decade ago, easy. Pissing in the wind.

It’s a constant source of annoyance to me that if I write about anything from the 1990s, more people will click through. If I write about something that everyone else is writing about, more people will click through. (Surely, the opposite should hold true.) It’s like I’m not allowed to grow or discover, to change as a person, to be enthused by new music.

My audience is decayed and dying so I should be. Maybe I am and I don’t realise it? Of course I am. Maybe that’s the problem.

Here’s the new Song of the Day. It’s from an album I just spent a very enjoyable hour reviewing for Mess+Noise (the review should appear next week), even in the context of thoroughly knowing who Blank Realm are. It gives me release. It tallies with the whole dance scene thing. It’s grungy (with a small ‘g’) and woozy and boozed-up and wonderful. I am loving this song.

And no one will ever know, will they?

How NOT to write about music – 9. Amyl and the Sniffers

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Wow. OK.

Clash magazine has it that Melbourne band Amyl and the Sniffers are “a bunch of deviant children enjoying illicit behaviour and the odd pineapple juice”. Beat My Bones says, “Their songs are as fast as the Ramones with the obnoxious smuttiness that the Sex Pistols had”. It is not in my nature to quote other writers when it comes to hyperbole but OK. Wow.

Watching Amyl and the Sniffers at The Windmill in Brixton yesterday evening is what I imagine it must have been like going to CBGBs in ’75. Not that there’s anything four decades old about Amyl and the Sniffers. Not even vaguely.

This clip partly captures it…

Great harmonies.

What this clip fails to do is capture the hi-octane movement of Amyl herself, shaking herself into a frenzied ball of excitement and inspiration, passed across the heads of the audience as she attempts to pull the lighting rig down from the ceiling, super-cool yet super-intimidating (precisely cos she is so super-cool), the humour, the laconic asides, the bare chests of the lads gleaming with perspiration and the righteous heritage of Coloured Balls, GOD and AC/DC, the short punchy songs about lust and shopping centres and boozing and revenge, the harsh metallic clash of second generation punk – we’re talking ’78 here – songs that are equally rooted in 1970s Aussie boogie and 1970s UK Oi!…

Old school.

The guitar dude reminds me of Fast Eddie.

What this clips fails to do is capture the infallible exhilarating sense we have (I’m speaking for others here, but surely everyone must feel this) that we are bearing witness to a Rock Star. For Amyl is without a shadow of a doubt, a fucken Rock Star.

Shameless, and direct, like all great Rock Stars should be.

“There’s no way they haven’t heard Cosmic Psychos,” the 50 per cent Australian part of me (check my passport) yells to my neighbour.

“No fucken way.”

I’d shower you with song titles and raucous commentary – ‘Cup Of Destiny’, ‘Westgate’, ‘Balaclava Lover Boogie’, ‘Stole My Push Bike’, the one where Amyl just lets rip with a long list of expletives – but I’m gasping too hard to take notes.

OK. Wow.

I can see why Amyl and the Sniffers have signed to Rough Trade, why folk in the UK are going ape-shit though in fairness tonight is pretty much exactly what my last five years of gig-going in Brisbane was like. Except the figurehead. Except Amyl. Saw plenty of cool shit but never saw anyone like Amyl the whole time  I was out there.

Truth is: Aussies know how to rock.

Truth is: Aussies do garage and punk (and mullets) better than most anyone simply cos Aussies never stopped doing garage and punk (and mullets).

OK, wow.

Great fucken music to listen to on the train.

Everyone in the Sniffers has mullets. Of course everyone has mullets. Haven’t you seen The Chats? This next clip captures another side, street talking.

It took me 20 minutes to conceptualise and write this blog entry, approximately the same length of time it took these Aussie punks to write, record and release their debut EP Giddy Up.

Some Mutts
You got a new dog do you remember me she walks around on my old leed
You got a new dog do you remember me am I just a memory
You got a new dog do you remember me she walks around on my old leed
You got a new dog do you remember me is she just as good as me
Oh. No.

‘Some Mutts (Can’t Be Muzzled)’

Here is a video from last night, but I am not convinced this manages to capture the feeling either.