THE LIGHT AND THE DARK
It's a minor miracle that Daniel Johnston will be performing at Club Congress this week.
Diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, Johnston began recording original songs using a chord organ, piano, guitar and boombox in the late '70s. In the early 1980s, he moved to Austin, Texas, where he began handing out his crudely home-recorded tapes and gained a sizable cult following. In 1985, he was featured on an episode of MTV's The Cutting Edge, which is where a lot of people—myself included—first became aware of him. That episode showed him singing the song "I Live My Broken Dreams," which is about his decision to live free and roam the world instead of being locked up in a hospital for the umpteenth time: "The wildest summer that I ever knew / I had a flat tire down memory lane ... And now I'm here / And here I stand / With a sweet angel holding my hand / I lived my broken dreams."
As demonstrated on that episode, and in most of his music, Johnston is nothing if not a romantic. He's constantly pining for lost love, and for a better life than the one he was dealt. He does it in such a sweet, childlike manner that it almost makes you forget there's a very dark side to his situation.
Johnston is able to tour these days due to modern medicine—the ability of his doctors to find a pharmaceutical cocktail that allows him to exist in the world with the assistance of a handler. But before that happened, he was a danger to himself and others. His fixation with comic-book characters—most notably Spider-Man and Casper the Friendly Ghost—and the devil says a lot about how he sees the world, and the struggle between good and evil, the light and the dark. (These characters also figure prominently in his drawings, which have become sought-after over the years.)
When the dark side is winning, it leads to episodes like the time he was flying back from a music festival in 1990, in a two-seater plane, with his father, a former Air Force pilot, at the controls. Johnston, having a manic episode in which he believed he was Casper, took the key out of the ignition and threw it out of the plane. Somehow, his father was able to crash-land the plane, destroying the plane but avoiding injury.
You wouldn't be able to gather as much from his demeanor and the childlike simplicity of his songs. But listen closer, and you'll realize that those songs aren't quite as simple as they appear. He may not be a very good guitarist or piano-player, and he may not use big words to get his point across, but the points he gets across are grown-up, the result of someone who's had his share of pain. To a novice listener, they may be difficult to get used to—and to be fair, there's no one who fits the title of "outsider artist" better than Johnston. But those songs are truly beautiful to most of those who have the patience, and there are certainly lessons to be learned from them, and words of hope to hold onto: "True love will find you in the end."
The last time Johnston performed in Tucson was May 2003, at Club Congress. After turning in a gorgeously fragile set, I spoke to him for a while. When he told me he didn't really like being on tour, I felt bad for the guy: He had to do it to make ends meet. We finished our conversation, and a few minutes later, a couple of female friends came back to me to report that he had gotten wildly inappropriate with them, using foul language and trying to coax them up to his hotel room. The light and the dark.
If you're unfamiliar with Johnston, there are two great places to start: The 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston will fill in a lot of the gaps of his life story, which is simultaneously inspiring and heartbreaking, much like his music. And the 2004 album The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered is a two-disc affair, with one disc featuring a greatest-hits, of sorts, of Johnston's songs, while the other features artists such as Beck, the Flaming Lips and Tom Waits covering his songs.
Or, if you're feeling adventurous, you can dive right in and go see Daniel Johnston perform a return engagement at Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St., on Saturday, Nov. 10. Phoenix's Reubens Accomplice opens the show at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 in advance, or $22 on the day of the show. For more information, head to hotelcongress.com, or call 622-8848.
YA GOTTA BELIEVE
Concert-promoters and club-bookers often get a bad reputation as being underhanded and unfair to the acts they book. And, let's face it: Sometimes, that reputation is warranted. Then again, it's often not.
Sometimes, a promoter will believe in an act so much that he keeps booking it, even though it doesn't have much of a draw. Before they broke big, the Avett Brothers played at the Rialto Theatre a few times, with the venue offering a money-back guarantee to anyone who demanded it—so certain were the Rialto folks that the band would deliver.
Similarly, when he was booking acts at Plush, Kris Kerry kept bringing Cleveland co-ed power-rock duo Mr. Gnome back, even though the audience size didn't really warrant it. But that audience grew each time, largely based on word of mouth—which is the best kind of advertising there is, really.
In fact, Kerry believed in the band so much that he, along with his wife, KXCI FM 91.3's Cathy Rivers, and composer/music publisher Dan Coleman, formed an entity to manage the band. With the release of Mr. Gnome's third full-length album, Madness in Miniature, released earlier this year on El Marko Records (they've also recorded two EPs), that dedication seems to be paying off.
And for good reason: The band's songs—anchored by drummer Sam Meister and the ferocious guitar-playing and lovely vocals of Nicole Barille—display a powerful grasp of soft-loud dynamics and pop hooks. Barille's voice effortlessly swoops from an ethereal whisper to a scream, and their songs have only gotten better over the years.
When they began performing in town, no one knew who the hell they were, but no one who saw them forgot them, either. Now, it seems, the rest of the world is catching up: Mr. Gnome has been garnering praise from mainstream media outlets like Rolling Stone, and selling out venues on their current tour, which brings them back to town this week.
Mr. Gnome performs at Plush, 340 E. Sixth St., on Friday, Nov. 9. The Cordials and Algae and Tentacles, both great up-and-coming local bands, open the show at 9:30 p.m. Cover is $8. For more information, go to plushtucson.com, or call 798-1298.
ON THE BANDWAGON
The 25th Anniversary Scooter Rally with Dave's Big Deluxe, Buck-O-Nine and Liam and the Ladies at Club Congress on Friday, Nov. 9; Typhoon and Laura Gibson at Solar Culture Gallery on Tuesday, Nov. 13; Lisa Otey's 8th Annual Boogie Woogie Blowout featuring Pugsley Buzzard, Bob Malone and Doña Oxford at the Fox Tucson Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 11; the David Liebe Hart Band at Tanline Studio on Friday, Nov. 9; Aaron Gilmartin, The Possibles and the Clam Tostada at Club Congress on Wednesday, Nov. 14; Spanish Moss and Ocean Void at Tucson Live Music Space on Monday, Nov. 12; Boo Boo Kiss, Sad Horse and Chariots of Failure at the District Tavern, tonight, Thursday, Nov. 8; Ashes of Love at La Cocina on Friday, Nov. 9; Nite Jewel at Opti Club at Club Congress, tonight, Thursday, Nov. 8; Bricktop, The Insurgence and The Besmirchers at Surly Wench Pub on Friday, Nov. 9; Super Water Sympathy at Plush on Tuesday, Nov. 13; The Simpkin Project and Grite-Leon at The Hut on Saturday, Nov. 10; When the Broken Bow, The Modeens and others at La Cocina, tonight, Thursday, Nov. 8; Jim Brickman at the Fox Tucson Theatre, tonight, Thursday, Nov. 8; Blind Divine, Race You There and Tiger Face at Plush on Saturday, Nov. 10; Otherly Love at Sky Bar on Saturday, Nov. 10; Blame Sandy at Abounding Grace Sanctuary on Saturday, Nov. 10; Naim Amor at Plush on Wednesday, Nov. 14; Veterans Day Tejano Show featuring Chente Barrera at AVA at Casino del Sol on Sunday, Nov. 11.