by Everett True

Daniel Johnston

w/Panty Lions, Down Pilot

Wed May 21, Crocodile, 9 pm, $10 adv/DOS.

No. You don't understand.

I first heard Daniel's plaintive voice back in the late '80s. My old best friend was round at my house in London, and he wanted to hear something different. So we slapped on this odd-looking record with a picture of a bug-eyed frog monstrosity on its sleeve. Our first reaction: hysterical laughter. Here was a guy so deranged he couldn't sing properly, couldn't draw properly, couldn't write songs... and yet was allowed to make records. He sang in a slight lisp over a tape recorder that could be heard rolling, while his mother shouted in the background and an out-of-tune piano played tunes lifted from the Beatles. Oh, what a grand jape.

Days later, I listened to it again. My reaction: It reduced me to tears. Taken in solitude, his voice shook with almost unbearable loneliness and pain--his songs were naive and deeply moving. Not only that, but the way his voice wavered and shook with dysfunctional desire for females he might once have met on the street--and the need to fit into regular society--reminded me of my younger self

It was his songs--his simple, incisive, painfully lonely songs--that I couldn't stop playing. It was his voice that moved me, the high, almost falsetto quaver. Daniel loved the Beatles and Casper the Friendly Ghost (his alter ego) and was obsessed with Laurie, a fellow art student (since married to the son of a local undertaker).

Since that moment, Daniel has been sacred to me.

Listen to the tapes he recorded during the '80s, available from among his most haunting music. Love is all that matters--and from that belief all Daniel's hurt and anguish and inability to cope with the outside world flows. Listen to his two wonderful records on Shimmy Disc: 1990's 1990 (during the making of which, in Kramer's Noise New York studios, he had a breakdown) and 1991's Artistic Vice. Listen to his new album, Fear Yourself, with its warm, sympathetic production from Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous. The piano-heavy "Power of Love" spells it out: "Between the lies and laughter/Love is what everyone's after/Love is a drug that's faster/Love is the one and only master."

Daniel's childlike belief in LOVE comes through every time.

Herein follows an interview with Daniel Johnston, conducted in a faceless London hotel while a football match plays on a TV in the background. Daniel thanks the set every time the crowd breaks into applause. Daniel is a large, imposing man in his early 40s, with a laugh like Elmer Fudd. He repeats himself a fair amount--nerves.

When you're writing songs, do you think in advance what they're going to be about?

Usually it's a surprise if a song happens, 'cause I'm always trying. Get on the guitar and start strumming, you know, blah blah blah blah, something's calling--it just happens.

You've written a lot of songs--do you know how many?

Oh, I don't know the exact number. It's not like I'm able to count them all. Some make it, some don't. I'm always hoping I can get a new one. I feel like I'm blessed somehow, whether it's just an orange I ate, or a good cup of tea, or if I had a good mood and I'm able to do it. Sometimes I'm just not able to do a song.

Do you need to be in a happy mood to write a song?

It depends on your constitution. Sometimes you're not in a good frame of mind, but once you get into it, if you really try--like the Beatles, they really tried; they had a lot to say with what they played. It was like the gospel truth in their songs, like "We Can Work It Out." How does the song go? "Life is very short." All those songs: "All You Need Is Love." All the idealism that they projected--the ideas were so complete. It was so kind to present something on their albums--it's presented so well that no matter where it went it could entertain in such a way, like a ray of hope. It was a presentation that could help somebody--such kindness, not just like a box of chocolates, it really shined. Just about anybody anywhere would agree that it was all right. I'll never get over it--something that is just holy, and that came from the Bible.

When you're on stage, what are you thinking about?

I'm thinking I'm a lousy performer. I'm just kidding. I wish the world would forgive me. I've gotta improve in the wake of the Beatles. For the sake of the Beatles I've gotta improve.