Sunday, February 10, 2008

Slow Down/Devil Town

This should be revised further. It is missing so much, and it doesn’t sing like I want it to. But, I wanted to get it up while it was still fresh in my mind. A shout out to R and Comoprozac (two of the four hipster/oldsters)—thanks for visiting on a cold February weekend. See you at T/F!

It is painfully cold as four aging hipsters hustle up 14th Street to stand in line with the youngsters waiting to enter Slow Down to see Daniel Johnston on an Omaha Saturday night. Without saying so, each is aware of the existential state the others are in. Is this going to be a train wreck of a show? Is this legend of independent art and music going to appear to them simply as a caricature? Will the effects of drugs, mental illness, and general ill health have taken too much of a toll on this man, a man some have labeled “genius?” Do these kiddos even know who Daniel Johnston is?

A pretty, straight-haired blonde girl snaps her gum in a Crayola red wool coat and beige Uggs in front of them. She looks 16. Behind them, a short crazy-haired girl in a thick wool cap smokes noisily, her head obscured by her breath and fumes. It’s hard to tell how old she might be.

At the door, the ticket guy sees the skull cap on one of the over-thirty quartet. It reads “Obama 08.”

“Did you go to the caucus today?”
“We’re from Missouri.”
“Oh, did you vote on Tuesday?”
“How’d you do?”
“Did he win?”
“Oh. Yeah.”
“Cool. I heard he was up like 70-30, here.”

Hipsters for Obama.

Inside, the place has that new club smell—no smoke, no urine, no stale beer. It’s clean and dark and black. Black-tiled walls, black-painted ceiling. It is deep and thin, opening out a bit wider in front of the stage, with a sunken floor area surrounded by a few tables. Hanging from the ceiling, a glow-in-the-dark tube sculpture breaks up the monotony of vents and metal rafters. A small upstairs area seats a few at tables and chairs.

It’s 9:15. They find a place near the top of the steps, about thirty feet from the stage. They are near the merch table—a couple of T-shirts for one of the bands, a few CDs and prints, a “Hi How Are You?” Johnston T-shirt—manned by a skull-capped, mascara-wearing dude with a long, thin nose and a two-day growth, who resembles a grungier, younger, more attractive Perry Farrell. Queuers at the table jostle the oldsters occasionally as they get their bearings.

It is a mixed sense they get from the place. It is too clean, too suited-for-the-purpose to feel real, but, at the same time, it is a change of pace not having to see a show in a 100-year-old former bank with water damage, graffiti on the walls, crumbling ceilings, broken toilets, and two city condemnation notices on the peeling front door.

At about 9:30, the first performer comes on—Jake Bellows (yes, Comoprozac, of Neva Dinova). Liz Stinson, of the Lincoln Journal Star, finds Bellows “amazing” and “understated.” A wood-grain Gibson Les Paul around his neck, and the de rigeur skull cap, scraggly hair, and beard around his head, Bellows hesitantly launched into several songs that had wandering tempos, or that occasionally stopped so that Bellows might correct a chord change. The songs would trail off or end abruptly, and they seemed to have extemporaneous lyrics about “beer breath” and “hiding away” one’s love (that’s a new idea). At one point, Bellows stopped a song in order to announce that he had neglected to put anyone on his guest list and to ask someone in the back to put Kelsey, Amanda, Lisa, Isaac, and Tammy on the list. No word on whether they showed up.

His last song of the night started out as K. the Frog’s “It’s Not Easy Being Green.” However, halfway through the second verse, Bellows forgot the words, and no one in the audience could help him out. He made a sincere apology to Jim Henson for messing up his song, thusly: “Thank you, Jesus, for killing Jim Henson early.” Amazing? Yes. Understated? No.

The second band, while having no possibility to be anything but better, really turned things in a positive direction. Flowers Forever had an excellent sound, classic instruments, a bruising drummer, and the gyrating, singing, arm-waving front man, Derek Pressnall of Tilly and the Wall, who turned out to be the merch-table dude. A highlight of the set—a song with a chorus along the lines of, “We’re waiting for some change. / We’re not fucking around anymore.” Why this isn’t Obama’s campaign song, I don’t know. Another highlight—a cover of Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit,” a song made popular by Billie Holiday. A lowlight of the set—a poorly arranged final song that employed saxophone. Kinda ska, kinda jazz, kinda crap.

At about 11, Daniel Johnston took the stage. Dressed in his standard gray sweat pants and a rugby shirt, his hair gray, he flipped his notebooks open beside a table full of water bottles. A few strums on his headless guitar, and he was ready to go. But, the mic was dead. A few snaps and clicks in the PA, and the mic was on. But, the guitar was not. Johnston handled it with aplomb, telling a joke in the first minute or two of the electrical problems. As the minutes dragged on, he admitted that that was the only joke he knew. Eventually, and without further issue, the technical difficulties were resolved.

Johnston played a few of his songs unaccompanied. It was sometimes hard to watch—he has pretty bad tremors—but he trooped on. His voice, while never his finest attribute, is certainly showing its age (prematurely, like the rest of him), but the spirit, the fire, is still there.

Joined by a guitar player, Johnston worked through a few more songs, including one of my personal favorites, “Grievances,” and a cover of the Beatles’ “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” (Did Bellows know this?) I was put in mind of later Johnny Cash—the “American” recordings—when a near-70-year-old Cash with a certainly limited technical vocal ability filled in the gaps with nuance and emotion. Johnston was trying that, and succeeding, mostly, but the Man in Sweats’ instrument has never been in the same category as the Man in Black’s.

When he returned for his final set, accompanied by a full band that looked like it was just going through the motions, Johnston’s voice was ragged. He valiantly plugged on, croaking through a half-dozen numbers, but, by then, for some, the thrill was gone. Many in the crowd exhorted Johnston to carry on, but the oldsters seemed to be hoping he would go have a cup of tea. He had done enough. He had shown that he still wore his heart on his sleeve, and, oddly enough, that his songs were more powerful when he was performing them, and he alone, than when he had a whole band to flesh the songs out. It’s just the nature of his songs and his persona.

Johnston eventually called it a night, taking his notebooks, and leaving the stage after thanking us all. He did not return for an encore.

The quartet of hipster/oldsters had split into two pairs, and the two up front moved to meet the two in the back as the band came out and invited the crowd to serenade Johnston with his own “Devil Town” as a show of thanks in lieu of an encore. Many of them did as our group bundled up and slinked back out into the cold to contemplate their own vampires and devils in the existential musings that the night had put murmuring in their private thoughts.


La Fashionista said...

This sounds painful and interesting in various ways. I see that Daniel Johnston is playing at the Black Cat here in DC on 2/23. Would you recommend?

Great post. And perhaps your longest?


monkey said...

I would definitely recommend going, AMVB. I think this would likely be the only opportunity you may ever have to see him, and I do think it is worth it. My two-cents

comoprozac said...

This was the post I would like to have written. You captured the scene just as I remember it. And you didn't piss anyone off. Nice post.

Thanks again for inviting us. It really was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see Johnston.

ATR said...


Check him out, really. You have good odds that Jake Bellows will not be there.


I think the only reason that I didn't piss anyone off is because my readership is limited compared to yours. You are an internets quasi-celebrity! Thanks for the compliment, brother.