There is something unsettling about the adulation Daniel Johnston attracts. His music is prized for its honesty and emotional directness, yet it is clearly the product of a damaged mind: Johnston, who is 46, has struggled for many years with
He began distributing homemade recordings of his songs in the 1980s when he lived in Austin, Texas. Gradually a word-of-mouth cult grew up around him thanks to influential alt-rock supporters such as Kurt Cobain. He was offered a record deal in 1992 yet refused it because the label was also the home of Metallica, whom he regarded as instruments of Satan (the devil features heavily in his troubled imaginative life).
Nevertheless, Johnston’s renown continued to grow. He was the subject of a prize-winning documentary in 2005, The Devil and Daniel Johnston. His drawings were exhibited in New York last year: a small but healthy market has sprung up around them. In a culture that values authenticity and extremes of experience, the combination of naivety and darkness in Johnston’s work is irresistible.
The songs at this London concert drew on a range of Johnstonian obsessions: Caspar the friendly ghost, Captain America, a girl called Laurie with whom he became fixated at college. Sung in a high-pitched quaver reminiscent of a faded Neil Young and mostly played on guitar or piano, they sounded like a spindly, lo-fi echo of 1960s pop (The Beatles are another passion).
Despite a frail charm and striking lyrics, they were slight affairs, scarcely deserving of the “eccentric genius” tag that has been applied to their creator. A final song, which conjured a nightmarish vision of vampires and “living in a devil town”, seemed to stake out kinship with Johnston’s near namesake Robert Johnson, as if he were some strange sort of blues singer. It was a haunting moment, though the comparison cut both ways. Just as the blues were fetishised as a pure, primitive form of art, so too Johnston is the dubious beneficiary of an essentially romantic, voyeuristic view of mental illness.