The Barby and Daniel Johnston

Through the entire set he stood in front of his music stand, gripping the microphone with shaking hands, keeping his eyes on his songbook.

May 29, 2013 21:03
2 minute read.
Musician Daniel Johnston

Daniel Johnston370. (photo credit: Ben Hartman)


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A friend put it well, responding to a status I posted on Facebook last night about Daniel Johnston performing at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv: “I can’t believe El Al let him on the plane.”

He had a point. Johnston cuts a strange figure – unkempt white hair above a grimacing face, his belly pouring out of a blue Superman T-shirt and over a pair of black sweatpants. Through the entire set he stood in front of his music stand, gripping the microphone with shaking hands, keeping his eyes on his songbook.

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Whether in spite of or partly because of his haunting and strange stage presence, the 52-year-old Austin, Texas, cult musician with a history of mental illness (and subject of the 2006 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston) kept the crowd of around a thousand at the Barby at rapt attention, singing to the songs they knew and laughing at the bad jokes and awkward small talk he made on stage (“Where are we tonight? Belgium? You guys aren’t German, right?”).

At times, like when Johnston said “so you have an ocean right here in your back yard, that’s cool” and began rambling about getting lost in Tel Aviv the night before while going out for peanut M&Ms before a fan recognized him and called his brother, it wasn’t entirely certain if the crowd was laughing with him, at him or both.

Regardless, their response seemed to come from a loving place, from fans wanting to lift up a tortured soul playing deeply personal songs of love and loss.

Johnson was joined on stage by opening band “Soda Fabric” (or as he called them, “Soda for Nick? Is that close?”), who played the accompanying music for Johnson’s simple and honest songs – sometimes with just a piano, sometimes with drums, guitars and a flute.

Through the set Johnston played a dozen or so songs, most with his trademark lyrics of almost juvenile, innocent feelings, such as “you must be wrong if you think you don’t love me” (from “Silly Love”) or “it’s funny but it’s true/and it’s true/but it’s not funny/time comes and goes/all the while/I still think of you” (from “Some Things Last a Long Time.”

Towards the end he told the crowd “you broke the barrier for me here, I feel good up here tonight,” before singing “Devil Town” with no accompaniment. He then told the Israeli crowd: “I have a special Christmas wish for you, that you find true love in the end,” and closed the set with “True Love Will Find You in the End,” an often-covered song whose lyrics of fear and searching for love stretch just under two minutes.

Johnston grabbed his songbook and told the crowd, “Thank you for being so kind,” before he walked off the stage. As the crowd showered its love on him he came back out to play an encore of “Funeral Home,” before telling his final “joke”: “I’ve got some bad news: you’ll someday be going to the funeral home.”

Are Johnston’s songs hopelessly and painfully naïve, or brilliant and moving in their perfect simplicity and honesty? It probably depends on who you ask, but for one strange and moving hour in the Barby, a packed crowd enjoyed the presence of a singular, unique artist.

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