Posted in music | tour dates | video on August 20, 2009

by Andrew Frisicano

Daniel Johnston @ BV-SXSW 2009 (more by Leia Jospe)
Daniel Johnston

These days, it's almost taboo to say anything critical about [Daniel] Johnston. This is incredibly patronising. For one thing, it makes any honest evaluation of his work impossible. He might wring out much beauty from his cartoon-like songs, but he is also capable of lewdness (bizarre, crude references to masturbation and orgasms are frequent) and incredible self-pity.

Johnston's former manager once issued a press release, begging journalists not to use the word "genius" to describe him, least it detonate the singer's own troubled ego. "I wonder if people go see him hoping to witness a nervous breakdown," Johnston's friend Gretchen Phillips told music historian Irwin Chusid. "Do they perceive him as their equal, or as someone they need to coax along and feel safe? As much as the audience may genuinely love his songs, I sense a lot of condescension. That's always bugged me." ["The myth of Daniel Johnston's genius," Guardian UK]

For all the valid issue-raising of the above article, it's important to note that not all "patronising" reviews of Johnston are positive. It's just as easy to write an undersupported negative review, like the take on his August 12th Madison, WI, show from 77 Square (writen by someone with a clear distaste for Johnston and his songs)...
But to what length are we willing to go to patronize genius? Johnston's guitar-playing is sloppy and halting. He cannot sing, often slipping off-key or warbling weakly. Mostly he hammers away at the lyrics tunelessly, as if just trying to get through it.

It's in the lyrics where his talent glimmers, but they don't always redeem his music as a whole. His words are raw and juvenile, high school poetry that shines with sweaty truth but gets dragged down with naive sentimentality ("No one knows the sorrow of a broken heart").

That gig was one of a just finished string of August dates around the Midwest. The video from that tour's stop in Ann Arbor, MI (below) shows Johnston playing confidently, tunefully, and to massive applause.

Johnston has shows scheduled through the fall. He'll be at this year's Austin City Limits Festival on October 2nd (the same city Daniel has spent much time in and that hosted his SXSW set earlier this year). After that, he'll be coming up north for a trip that includes a show at NYC's Highline Ballroom on Wednesday, October 14th. Also on the bill are The Capitol Years, who've played with Johnston as his backing band before, as in the video below. Tickets are on sale now.

Info on a new album is coming soon. In the meantime, IFC caught up with Daniel Johnston at SXSW in a segment titled "Daniel Johnston Goes Shopping." That video, other clips and all tour dates are below...

Daniel Johnston 1 Ann Arbor, Michigan's Blind Pig. Sunday August 16, 2009

Daniel Johnston 2 Ann Arbor, Michigan's Blind Pig. Sunday August 16, 2009

Daniel Johnston & The Capitol Years - Sun Shines Down on Me

Daniel Johnston - 2009 Tour Dates
2009-Sept 3 Portland, Oregon - Wonder Ballroom
2009-Sept 4 Seattle, Washington - Neumos
2009-Sept 5 Vancouver, British Columbia (CANADA) - The Venue
2009-Sept 7 Calgary, Alberta (CANADA) - Knox United Church
2009-Sept 8 Edmonton, Alberta (CANADA) - Meyer Horowitz Theatre
2009-Oct 2 Austin, Texas - Austin City Limits
2009-Oct 13 Washington, DC - 9:30 Club
2009-Oct 14 New York City, New York - Highline Ballroom / Irving Plaza
2009-Oct 15 Boston, MA - Paradise Rock Club
2009-Oct 16 Montreal, Quebec (CANADA) - UK Fed
2009-Oct 17 Toronto, Ontario (CANADA) - Mod Club
2009-Oct 22 San Francisco, California - Regency Ballroom
2009-Oct 23 San Diego, California - Caines
2009-Oct 24 Los Angelos, California - Henry Fonda Theatre
2009-Nov 1 U.K. - Brighton - Concorde
2009-Nov 2 U.K. - London - Union Chapel
2009-Nov 3 U.K. - Manchester - Town Hall
2009-Nov 4 U.K. - Edinburgh - Queens Hall
2009-Nov 5 U.K. - Gateshead - The Sage
2009-Nov 6 U.K. - Leeds - Brudenell Social Club
2009-Nov 7 U.K. - Cardiff - The Gate
2009-Nov 8 U.K. - Bristol - Trinity Arts Center
2009-Nov 11 The Netherlands - Den Bosch - W2



Comments (42)

He is way overrated. This guys music it pretty terrible imo.

Posted by Anonymous | August 20, 2009 12:31 PM

I agree 12:31

Posted by Anonymous | August 20, 2009 12:44 PM


the sun don't shine down on you boy

and your opinion sucks

Posted by Anonymous | August 20, 2009 12:53 PM

Thanks BV & Andrew for the post. The eccentric behavior of youth often does not age well.

Posted by drewo | August 20, 2009 1:05 PM

Not so into His music, but the issue being discussed is quite valid. So many parallels with Wesley Willis, I used to wonder How many folks were at his shows to enjoy his songs about McDonalds vs. spending money just to be some sort of mental health tourist. Are people's lives so boring and devoid of "drama" ? It'd be just if the folks who are there hoping for some sort of breakdown would have to actually watch someone they love or care for succumb to a mental illness.

Posted by Rw | August 20, 2009 1:08 PM

you idiot. you're comparing him to wesley willis?

ok, let's compare joey ramone and brandon cox b/c they both have marfa disease. man. wtf.

when i think of johnston i think of calvin.

Posted by Anonymous | August 20, 2009 1:19 PM

people like his music because of the back story. they can project some sort of "innocence" or "authenticity" onto his music because he once threw an old lady out a window.

that does not make him unique, it applies to a lot of music (like people dig Robert Johnson more because he sold his soul to the devil or whatever)

but the back story is what makes him so much more successful than the average 80s college-rock singer-songwriter.

Posted by Anonymous | August 20, 2009 1:21 PM

that fat fuck needs to take some more acid and stop eating for a couple of months.

Posted by Anonymous | August 20, 2009 1:33 PM

"you idiot. you're comparing him to wesley willis?

ok, let's compare joey ramone and brandon cox b/c they both have marfa disease."

Maybe I'm missing something, why is that not a valid comparison? Can you please explain? I'm not a fan of either Willis or Johnston, maybe you know something I don't.

Posted by Aaron | August 20, 2009 1:36 PM

wesley willis WAS a fat black dude. Daniel Johnston IS a fat white dude.

Posted by i'm not racist | August 20, 2009 1:39 PM

Posted by notveryhelpful | August 20, 2009 2:00 PM

I don't think it's wrong to say that what attracts many people to the music of Daniel Johnston is similar to what attracted people to the music of Wesley Willis: the "crazy artist" mystique. They have little in common beyond that, I don't think anyone was comparing the music. But the sad fact is that Johnston's mental health has become a cheap curiosity for some music fans in the same way Willis' was back in the day.

Posted by Anonymous | August 20, 2009 2:02 PM

Thank goodness for the literate BV commenters...and what the hell is marfa 1:19 anon? plural. And I'm the idiot right?

Posted by Rw | August 20, 2009 2:14 PM

if you want literate then join a book club. yes, you are the idiot.

Posted by Anonymous | August 20, 2009 2:16 PM

people are attracted to tortured artists in every genre, not just music. of course it makes their work appear more interesting. i don't understand why this is a revelation??

Posted by Anonymous | August 20, 2009 2:20 PM

Marfa is a town in Texas. Apparently Joey Ramone and "Brandon" Cox both have it.

Posted by Aaron | August 20, 2009 2:22 PM

When idiots like you say that DJ's music is "terrible," are you judging it at its best or at its worst?

Sure, at its worst the singing can be grossly out of tune, the guitar playing unlistenable, etc.

But at its best, you get "Living Life," "Some Things Last a Long Time," "Held the Hand," "True Love Will Find You in the End," "Go," "Story of an Artist," and many more.

These songs (and many others) are great in many, many ways: the singing (DJ has a beautiful voice when he's using it right), the melodies, the lyrics, the arrangements, etc. And they're great as pieces of music, period, regardless of the backstory.

If you criticize DJ's music without having listened to the wonderful recordings of the above songs, then you're an ignorant idiot. If you listen to these songs and you still think DJ's music is worthless absent the backstory, then, well, I guess your musical taste just plain sucks.

Posted by Anonymous | August 20, 2009 2:25 PM

more "interesting" than "genius" i guess.
im still into it.

Posted by Anonymous | August 20, 2009 2:28 PM

daniel johnston could learn a lot from the jonas brothers.

Posted by Anonymous | August 20, 2009 2:33 PM

Rw, ive heard of poverty tourism, but never mental health tourism. i like this concept!

Posted by sloweducation | August 20, 2009 2:56 PM

All this hate for Dan. WTF! his lyrics alone make his a genius. But I guess he's not as good as Animal Collective or whatever. give me a break!

Posted by Anonymous | August 20, 2009 4:12 PM

i pretty much feel what 2:25 said about DJ. i'm pretty indifferent to his music and think there's a bunch of it that's unlistenable, but then there are these songs that are just... WHOA

Posted by Anonymous | August 20, 2009 4:19 PM


Posted by Anonymous | August 20, 2009 4:25 PM

The WW comparison is soooo lazy. Cheetas Dick? I Smoke Weed? Win Amp? Maybe WW had moments of impressive insight, but he certainly didn't record them. Daniel is sick, sure. But there's something in that heart/voice of his, something aware and human and hopeful, that occasionally creeps out in his music. Point to one song in the WW catalog that accomplishes a fraction of what DJ's True Love or Story of An Artist or Laurie does in a single chorus.

Posted by Anonymous | August 20, 2009 5:42 PM

On top of everything, well respected musicians (such as Built to Spill) have covered Dan's songs. Not any of WW that I know of.

Posted by Anonymous | August 20, 2009 10:09 PM

there's not really any debate here. it was a dumb comparison. whatevs.

Posted by Anonymous | August 20, 2009 10:18 PM

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


Posted by Susan | August 21, 2009 7:46 AM

Absolutely clueless comparison...and The Capitol Years rule it in their own right.

Posted by Jebediah | August 21, 2009 7:48 AM

It's rather astounding that quite a few here can't differentiate between a situational comparison and musical comparison. At no point did I compare the Music of DJ and WW. Only those who would see either of them hoping for an episode. I'm guessing that most of you weren't around for this exact debate regarding WW's mental health. whatevs. Thought it was possible that some real discussion could come about in regards to the first topic discussed in this article, seems I overestimated the quality of BV's readership, with some exceptions of course. Good post though.

Posted by Rw | August 21, 2009 8:33 AM

"Thank goodness for the literate BV commenter"

"I'm guessing that most of you weren't around"

"I overestimated the quality of BV's readership"

= jerk

Posted by reallyhopeyoudon'tworkinthemusicindustry | August 21, 2009 9:00 AM

Okay. "stupid", "sooooo lazy", and "clueless" seem to have been the answer to my question, but I think the gist of it is that WW's music is juvenile and DJ's music is occasionally brilliant.

Two musicians with similar health issues are being compared. Saying that it is not even worth comparing on the basis of quality IS a comparison. To call the person comparing them an idiot is an attempt to shut down the conversation.

Do people go to DJ's shows for the spectacle or the music? With that question in mind, can we compare a pre-sobriety Catpower to Daniel Johnston? Can we compare Daniel Johnston to outsider artists? Is Daniel Johnston simply incomparable? And what about the movie? Has it attracted people more interested in Daniel's story than his music?

Posted by Aaron | August 21, 2009 12:15 PM

WEsley Willis/Daniel Johnson comparison is STUPID! Wesley had no talent whatsoever. It was total exploitation of a "crazy" guy. No redeeming artistic value AT ALL! Daniel Johnson, on the other hand, actually writes songs that have artistic merit. Obviously, it depends on what your definition of "artistic merit" is, but if you think WW fits this definition, then, in my opinion, you are an idiot.

Posted by Anonymous | August 21, 2009 1:27 PM

Daniel's shows are generally not spectacles. He's been known to tell a bad joke and, obviously, his playing is not so much about execution as it is his songwriting (words, melody, etc). He's 20 years past when he wrote some of his fan's favorites. They're not there to watch some slick young dude strumming away (mentally ill or not). Some might consider watching this guy to be a spectacle b/c of that; crackly high pitched voice, a bit off key, barely intermediate guitar playing. But again, it's the songs.

His shows are different than the pre-sober Cat Power shows b/c he doesn't cry. He generally does not break down.

Yes, he is comparable to other outside artists.

Yes, the movie is great and has attracted more fans worldwide.

I'm not deeply versed on WW's exact mental illness so I don't know how similar they are/were. I know musically they're worlds apart but I think we all agree on that. I imagine WW's shows were in fact more spectacle-like just from the rollicking nature of his whole "thing". Probably a good time too, depending on your comfort/discomfort level.

Posted by Anonymous | August 21, 2009 1:54 PM

Of course, because you are the art police 1:27. If you were to think about it for a second, the topic as it was trying to be discussed by myself and a few others is not the nature, content, artistic value or merit of either WW or DJ's music. In fact I think an artistic comparison would be very unfair to BOTH men. Quality of the music is irrelevant to this particular discussion. Forgive me if I though the above post would've attracted people to the comments who had thoughts on this issue or, just to continue being a "jerk" because this is the internet, thoughts at all.

Aaron, I concur I was also wondering what toll, if any, Having folks in your audience who are hoping to see you at your most vulnerable can take on a person, especially when it becomes common knowledge that the artist is dealing issues that are hard to understand or qualify and can manifest themselves in ways and at times that cannot be controlled by the affected.

Posted by Rw | August 21, 2009 2:24 PM

Okay, so let me spell it out for you:
-And they both wrote songs about Casper the Friendly Ghost. (I just learned this via Wikipedia.)

Obviously some people feel very strongly that DJ is a very talented musician whose soul is put into his music and Wesley Willis is merely a crazy guy who sang about Wheaties, etc. Quality is ONE of the issues at hand and to allow it be the only issue is frankly kind of pretentious. (This attitude = "The music I like is better than the music you like and you are an idiot if you dare to think otherwise.")

Oh, and I like Wesley Willis' drawings better than Daniel Johnston's.

Posted by Aaron | August 21, 2009 3:25 PM

Daniel Johnston had some good records when he was younger but I would never drop $30-40 just to hear some band play while he dribbles over their music.
Having said that, its good to see he turned out ok for the most part, because the dude is a wreck. You should check out his documentary, its worth watching.

Posted by Anonymous | August 21, 2009 3:37 PM

"Quality is ONE of the issues at hand" strangely enough I try to avoid quality discussions here because they always turn into a row with anons... but this is the internet and it can't be avoided I guess.
Big up Aaron.

Who doesn't love Casper the Friendly Ghost? But one thing about Casper that always creeped me out was, how did he die? and a cute kids show about a child ghost is pretty strange.

Posted by Rw | August 21, 2009 5:11 PM

I paid 15 bucks to see him a year or so ago. It was actually pretty tight, and he sang well.

Posted by Patmos | August 21, 2009 6:12 PM

I believe Willis suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, while Johnston is bi-polar. These illnesses have many similarities, but are not the same, and also the medications prescribed for these disorders are far from great either (side effects include feeling lethargic, weight gain to the point of obesity, among other things). I also paid $15 to see Johnston, and he was better when he was backed by his band and not forced to play the guitar.

Posted by Anonymous | September 30, 2009 7:34 AM

2:22 that was funny.

Posted by Anonymous | October 13, 2009 7:17 PM

Miranda Lambert, Revolution.

Posted by louis | October 17, 2009 12:31 PM

To many will demand some reason for wanting to be a fan of raw authenticity but I don't see the point. people just take it for granted that you have to like what they do..."what you don't like StaInd?" whats up with all these rednecks?
Daniel Johnston is an amazing artist I believe and I don't feel any regrets for my accepting this personal fact. Listen to what you want and I wont demand a reason. Music is what you perceive it. The rules of cool go out the door when what you like is challenged so just feel cool liking what you like and let others feel cool liking what they do. God bless.
P.S. I'm gonna go be a poser wanna be hipster in peace somewhere swell.

Posted by | October 18, 2009 7:33 PM

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