Jeremy Warmsley: An Evening with Daniel Johnston
Interviews can be pretty predictable and boring, right? Inspired by the fact the music press was at its best when people like Chrissie Hynde were writing for the NME and more recently Andrew Bird's regular column for the New York Times, we asked literate troubadour and DiS board regular Jeremy Warmsley to begin the first of a series of artist-generated-content...
Hello. My name's Jeremy Warmsley and this will be the first of a series of columns I'm writing for the mighty Drowned in Sound. I like writing things and presumably you like reading things so we should get on fine, right?
So. Here goes.
Back in July 2007 – just over a year ago - I had the ridiculous good fortune to be asked to support Mr. Daniel Johnston (a figure much-loved round these parts). Of course I said "yes!" And I suspect it may be of interest to readers of this online magazine to hear a little bit about what that was like. If you're not interested in my arrogant name-dropping/boasting, please look away now...
Anyway, the lovely people at Pineapple Folk were putting on Mr. Johnston's show at the Union Chapel and decided to do a second smaller show on the day after too. If you get asked to support Daniel Johnston, they also ask you to play a few songs on stage with him, so they sent over a list of songs. Hmmm... do I know these songs? I don't really know the titles... I'm not the biggest D.J. fan in the world*, I guess, I only have a couple of records... I love the stuff I know of course... God, it's so unfair that I get to support him when other people a) deserve it and b) would appreciate it so much more... but then I'm hardly going to turn it down am I?? OK, google... dogpile... bit torrent. Yes, these are all very good songs and my life is better for knowing them. I chose 'Silly Love', 'The Beatles' and 'Hey Joe'. The middle one is, guess what, a pretty silly rave-up about his favourite band and the other two are two of the most beautiful ballads ever written. Nice!
So, anyway, we turn up ('we' being myself and Fay Buzzard, girlfriend of the time, who brings her video camera and, YES! documents the whole thing). We are all introduced in the shed in the garden of the Brixton Windmill that serves as a dressing room (I once heard Architecture in Helsinki singing close-harmony barbershop in this very room). Hands are shook (shook? shaken?). Time passes, I play my set about which I remember nothing other than that it was very unremarkable (so what's new, already, jeez), then Mr. Johnston takes to the stage!
He starts off solo: we get songs I half-recognise, songs I don't recognise, a very long meandering strange song on the piano (my piano! that's nice) called 'And I Love You So' which apparently is the Holy Grail of rare D.J. songs. Then it's time to return on stage... We somehow miraculously get through the first two songs OK even though I'm sweating like a arachnophobe with spiders in his cupboard... Then: Oh. Daniel's calling his guitarist onstage. Bummer, we don't get to do 'Silly Love'? His guitarist doesn't come. Like me, he thought we were playing three songs together. I have a quick discussion with Daniel, and explain I know another song. Daniel makes some quip about not even knowing who I am, which is a fair point. We play it anyway. It goes OK, I make loads of mistakes. D'oh. Most beautiful song ever? Possibly. The guitarist turns up. I get off-stage and attempt to dry myself off with my jumper.
(It's funny looking back at these videos. Why am I wearing that weird T-shirt? I must have been really nervous. Some people show their nervousness by laughing nervously, others run their hands through their hair. Me, I put on ugly clothes. Great! Also, I was wrong, we didn't end with 'Silly Love', we started with it. Memories! Tch. And man, I totally murdered 'Hey Joe'. Crap. Played 'Silly Love' OK though. The guy's name was Brett! I tell you one thing, people write their memoirs like they're dead certain of everything that happened and what everyone said. This was probably one of the most memorable things that happened to me in the last two years and I can't remember shit. Memoirs? More like made-up-moirs or something, not that that's funny or anything like that).
We get another thirty minutes of astonishing beauty. Don't ask me what they played because I can't remember and it doesn't matter, it was all brilliant. The guitarist is good, he carries Daniel when Daniel's not sure what's going on and frees him up to concentrate on his singing (which is a Good Thing). Then Scott from Pineapple Folk and some friends get onstage and back Daniel through some punkier, full band versions of his songs. It's good! Then Daniel does a couple of tunes solo (I think). AMAZING. Great gig, and actually quite a lot of stagetime from the usually elusive genius.
Later, we're heading back to the shed to get our stuff together and a nice chap is interviewing Mr. Johnston for, I think, The Times. Somehow a few of the audience sneak in too and it turns into 'An Evening With Daniel Johnston'. Sadly, I can't remember that much of what was said, I think I was possibly fairly inebriated by this point (presumably to drown the awful memory of how badly 'Hey Joe' went in front of people who probably love that song... you total cock!) but here are the things I do remember:
- "How's your love life?"
"Oh... not so good.... although I did meet a girl recently in church.... eventually I asked her out... and she said, 'Oh Daniel, you know, I'd better not...' 'Why not?', I asked... 'Because I'm only 12..."
- At the end of the night I gave him a copy of my album, which he attempted to sign and give back to me
- Brett and Dick were really, really nice guys
- Daniel seemed, inasmuch as it's possible to judge these things, to be happy, to be living life his own way, and generally to be OK with stuff.
-He has this funny habit of pausing in thought when asked a question, and then just totally zoning out completely, until his brother gently brings him back by gently prodding him and saying his name. (In my memory he even snapped his fingers to bring him back, but that can't be right. Memories? Tch.)
-The thing that really, really stuck with me was: he was explaining to the nice chap from The Times about how he would like to make a poppier, more polished record and to that end was trying to make time to practise a lot more - "I don't practise enough!" - and, predictably, some of the uber-fans who snuck in started protesting - "We don't want you to be poppy, Daniel, we like you just the way you are, we don't want you to get any better". Which made me think... wow... exploitative much? I mean, the guy is essentially saying he wants to rise above his limitations and you're telling him not to. Pow!
Then we went home and that was that. Great days. Anyway, that's all from me today. Stay tuned for more thrilling episodes!
Today I am mostly plugging: my tour, which starts in Hertford on Thursday. Full dates at jeremywarmsley.com
*Did you ever notice that "Funeral Home" has the same tune and some of the same lyrics as "Cadillac Ranch" by Springsteen? Then you lose the right to DiSs me.