Daniel Johnston

Why Me? Live Volksbuhne Am Rosa Luxemburg-Platz 6/6/99

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When Daniel Johnston first appeared on the scene in 1981 with Hi, How Are You, he was welcomed by the alternative rock community as the ultimate outsider -- at least in the U.S. He was the Howard Finster of music long before Beck even owned a guitar and learned how to milk being a geek for all it was worth. But as the years passed, Johnston proved to be an outsider whose songs, as prolific and profound as they were, couldn't support the fragile psyche of their creator. Each bit of progress was greeted with a new breakdown or another complete episode of mental devastation. In America at least, Johnston became a curiosity piece, and what was worse, being that he's intelligent as they come, he knew it -- which further fractured an already fragile person. But the truth of the matter is, Johnston is an authentic artist, not just an outsider. His songs accurately reflect who he is at any given moment. It seems that the Germans and other Europeans at large have always understood this, in the same way they understood Townes Van Zandt -- you'd never see anybody in Europe offer Van Zandt a drink, for instance. This show from 1999 in Germany reveals the depth of Johnston's talent, the dimension of his fragile mental state, and the total commitment of the German people to his art. With his father by his side, Johnston plays piano and guitar for over an hour, digging deep into his catalog (which features almost 400 songs) with a manic and tender energy that only Jonathan Richman is capable of, and just knocks 'em dead. The songs include "Bloody Rainbow," "Spook," "Love Is Like a Toy," and "Like a Dream." Johnston is an artist in whom there is no artifice, no pose, no front; he's as naked as a baby on the stage, allowing the songs to flow from the source, playing with a sincere desperation that this is a lifeline -- and both he and his audience know it. This music, these songs, are a poetry so simple that it's confounding in its depth, so tortured in its innocence and pain that if it weren't for the loving applause it would be unbearable to listen to. (Unbearably beautiful, that is.) There's something about suffering and a person's willingness to bear it and talk about it that is heartbreakingly beautiful -- just think of Van Gogh's paintings. This disc is perhaps the most important in Johnston's catalog, and is certainly his most poignant.

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