Adrian Crowley & James Yorkston present: My Yoke is Heavy – The Songs of Daniel Johnston.
This rekkid is released on Dec 6th through Chemikal Underground and comes as vinyl, CD, download.
By the age of 30, I don’t think I’d even heard Daniel Johnston. I must have, one way or another – surely Peel played him the whole time? I don’t remember it though, if so. I just remember a girlfriend telling me all about this guy Daniel Johnston and playing me tape after tape of this barely audible sonic mush with a high pitched whine on top. It didn’t do much for me at first, but she smiled away and persevered – listen again, listen again – until finally it broke through. Aye, this guy’s ok.
A couple of years later I was in Sweden playing a festival that Daniel Johnston was also appearing at. I saw him in the catering tent and I thought – Hey, that must be Daniel Johnston – and I figured I should go and say hello. Be friendly. Afterall, I was with my band and he was solo – he’d appreciate the company. I walked over, held out my hand and said –
But before I said anything he said to me You got any tomatoes?
I didn’t. I didn’t have any tomatoes. I still don’t. Well, I do, now – we grow them in the back garden – but then and there? No. No tomatoes.
He walked away from me and approached the dinner lady. He rasped at her You got any tomatoes.
I sat back down, embarrassed. Doogie, my bass player, asked What did he say to you?
He asked for some tomatoes.
Then we were quiet for a bit. Until –
Ah look, he got some –
I looked over and he had. Daniel was carrying a plate with 3 tomatoes on it. I smiled.
Later that day, Daniel was due to play. Doogie and I sat at the side of the stage and waited, smoking our cigarettes and drinking our pear cider. Just before the allotted time, Daniel Johnston walked onstage and started singing. He’d been given a few minutes to soundcheck his guitar and piano, but I guess he thought he was to go straight on and play as he launched immediately into his set, despite the P.A. speakers being turned off and thus no sound coming from the stage. All we could hear was a quiet and unamplified Daniel, hammering away on a virtually inaudible guitar and singing into a switched-off microphone, oblivious to the lack of volume. After a few minutes the soundman must have worked out that something was afoot as he turned on the P.A. and the sound of the Johnston flushed through the field. There was a cheer from the crowd but Daniel didn’t bat an eyelid, just kept on strumming through the rye.
A year or so after that, I was asked to open for him in the Barbican Centre in London. There was a whole host of other bands playing too – and we were all to play Daniel’s songs, as a tribute. Daniel was at one of the stages in his life where it was thought he wouldn’t be playing live much longer and this concert was organised as a show of love and support for him – a celebration of his talent. Up in Edinburgh, I vaguely practised a few songs on the guitar, but on the morning of the show I woke up in a bad mood and decided to ditch the guitar and play my set instead on bouzouki . On the train down, I didn’t regret it at all. Even when I reached the venue, I was still confident that it was the correct decision. It only felt odd when I arrived in my dressing room, took the bouzouki out of its case and realised I didn’t really have a clue how to play these half-learned songs on it. As a wise man, I decided a beer may help, but whilst walking up to the catering room I flung open a door which proceeded to swing all the way around and thump into my left hand, almost breaking and most certainly bruising the middle finger.
The sound check was good. Not for me, I mean, not my sound check, that was a little sore, unsure and worrying, but seeing Daniel playing Speeding Motorcycle solo on the grand piano – that was good. 10 years later, during the long damp Cellardyke winters, that middle finger still aches with an auld ladies arthritic twitch and I remember back to that respectful half-round of applause I was afforded and question if the trip was worth it.
More time passed during which Daniel and my paths remained uncrossed, until out of nowhere a young London promoter asked me to play in a band with Daniel – I mean, actually in his band, as a musician. I’m not really a player as such – I could learn a few Abba songs if needs be, but I’m no session musician, I’ve not got the skill or the patience, but heck – why not? So I said Yes. I’m your man.
Joining me to accompany Daniel was the singer-songwriter Adem. Adem’s a buddy of mine from years back and when I arrived at the venue – the Union Chapel in Islington – Adem had actually learned the songs, and more importantly, written out a few chord charts for me. This helped things along greatly. We had a quick run through with Daniel – we played each song until reaching precisely half way through before stopping and moving onto the next. We didn’t bother with endings and Daniel didn’t seem too bothered or even aware who we were or what we were doing, other than musicians playing his songs with him. It was a great gig though, at one point Adem and I playing duelling harmoniums. If this sounds like your sort of thing, the whole thing got filmed and is available as a DVD somewhere.
After the show, I met the promoter. He was wearing the exact same jacket as me, but was a full 15 years younger. I’m not sure who felt more daft.
Later that evening, I met Daniel properly for the first time. He was sitting at a table surrounded by young ladies. Upon request, he drew a cat for me. He was grinning away and seemed pretty happy.
I’m not sure how this CD started life. Fence Records used to run things called ‘Picket Fences’ where artists were encouraged to experiment and do something completely different. I’d already done two – one a 30 minute long collage made up of old songs, samples, remixes and such; and one a 35 minute 7 song jam session with myself and my old band, The Athletes. I’m guessing that either myself or Adro decided we should do a Daniel Johnston tribute CD for my next Picket Fence – which was to be a joint effort with Adro and myself. Fair enough. So, we recorded our parts and sent them back and forth across the Irish Ocean, adding arrangements, skewing vocals, noises, instruments – whatever we pleased. It was a braw thing to do. Very easy, rewarding and fun.
We promoted it a few times – at Fence events mostly, but also at a mental health festival in Glasgow. I remember that one well, as whilst onstage I attempted to explain to the crowd who we were and why we were singing the songs of Daniel Johnston. I said Adro’s a big fan of the guy to which Adro quickly replied I am not! It’s you! You’re the fan! And it transpired that really, none of us are really big fans of his. I mean, I love some of his songs, but I’m not an ultra Johnston. Is that what his fan-base is called? Maybe. Anyway, I’m not one of them. But, I appreciate his art, laugh and occasionally marvel at the lyrics, always watch and enjoy him when our paths cross.
And there, in an ideal world, my Daniel Johnston story would finish. But, unfortunately for me, there’s one last tale to tell. Myself, Adro and the singer Alasdair Roberts have done a few tours of Ireland together. As tours go, these ones work well, we’re all pretty self-sufficient and easy going. During one of these trips, in Galway, we’d had a reasonable evening playing and were standing chatting after the show, enjoying a few beers. We were horsing around – myself and Adro – winding each other up, being fools for each other’s entertainment. From stage left, a young guy appeared – my memory tells me he was around 5’10”, with blond hair, he seemed shy but started talking away to Adro, ignoring me. After a while he asked Adro if we had a copy of the Daniel Johnston album with us, as he’d heard of it and would love to buy it. Adro said No, I’m afraid not, unless James does? At which point the young man turned to me. I began to fish around in my jacket pocket, as if I were to pull out said CD, but instead of a CD, my hand emerged middle finger extended – flipping the bird – which I then presented to the entirely innocent fellow. What an erse, eh? What an idiot. A most unforgiveable thing to do whilst on tour or otherwise.
I know – it’s hardly a rock ‘n’ roll outrage compared to some, but as moments to be ashamed of go – well, that’s one of them. So, I’d like to apologise to that fellow, if he ever buys this recording, and dedicate my 50% of it to him – for his bothering to ask about an obscure Micro-label’s tribute release of a cult musician, played by two bottom-rung songsters. He deserved better than my shoddy reply.
Aye, onyhoos, confession’s over. I sincerely hope you enjoy the music and go on to explore more of Daniel Johnston’s songs.