You can listen to these songs / Have a good time and walk away / But for me, it's not that easy / I have to live these songs forever. -- Daniel Johnston, "Peek-A-Boo"
"I hope we're not spreadin' it too thin," giggles Daniel Johnston over the phone from his parents' house in Waller. This has indeed been a banner year for the cult singer-songwriter -- there's an acclaimed documentary about his life in national release through Sony Classics, several of his drawings were selected for inclusion in the prestigious Whitney Museum Biennial in New York City, and he's just released three new CDs -- but it's still safe to say that Johnston is in little danger of becoming a household name. His story and his music are both as harrowing as they are compelling, and the sight of this hulking, chain-smoking man-child squeaking and rasping his painful yet tuneful songs of unrequited love is unlikely to ever be anyone's notion of a pop pinup. Still, the Johnston mini-juggernaut plows ever onward.
The most recent feather in Johnston's eccentric career cap is the brand-new rock opera Speeding Motorcycle, lovingly mounted by Houston's Infernal Bridegroom Productions. Two years in the making and funded by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, Motorcycle is a two-act musical narrative culled from Johnston's extensive body of work.
"I've been a fan of Daniel's music for a long time, so the idea of collaborating on the project was very exciting," says Jason Nodler, a founder of IBP who returned to Houston specifically to direct the production after a brief relocation to Rhode Island.
"One thing I can say is that I'm so glad that I'd gotten the play totally on track before I saw the documentary," explains Nodler. "If I'd seen the movie beforehand, it might've totally thrown me off."
The film in question, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, concentrates on the artist's outrageously troubled life, defined by the dangerous, violent outbursts and extended periods of immobilizing depression so often associated with bipolar disorder, the malady with which Johnston has been diagnosed. While the movie is poignant and disturbing, it is barely able to touch on the true reason people are interested in Johnston in the first place: his unique artistic vision.
Which, as it turns out, is exactly what Speeding Motorcycle does concentrate on, making it an ideal companion piece to the film. Johnston's huge catalog of songs ("I think there's something like a thousand," notes Nodler) tends to center on specific, recurring narrative and symbolic themes, making his work ideal for the rock opera treatment. Visual elements were also not hard to come by, as Johnston's "naive" Magic Marker drawings are every bit as distinctive as his songs and even depict many of the same characters and situations.
The prototypical Johnston protagonist is an everyman named Joe whose most unique feature in the drawings is the fact that his head has no top but is rather open like a large funnel, defenseless against the input of a hostile world. Joe is generally depicted as a boxer who fights against incredible odds but never loses heart. Other characters often sung about and drawn by Johnston include an innocent frog named Jeremiah and the famous (though highly distinct from each other) comic book heroes Captain America and Casper the Friendly Ghost, as well as the Fly Eyes, eyeballs with wings that hover about, monitoring the action. Many of the songs consist of quasi-mythological variations on Johnston's agonizing, never-ending, real-life collegiate crush on a girl named Laurie, who spurned his awkward affections in order to marry an undertaker, a love triangle filled with enough intrinsic dark humor and pathos to fuel, well, a thousand songs.
The "Laurie songs," in fact, provide the bulk of Speeding Motorcycle's musical meat. The entire first act of the show follows the travails of the lovelorn Joe (played simultaneously and compellingly by actors Cary Winscott, Joe Folladori and Kyle Sturdivant in a daring act of willful theatrical dissociation) as he hopelessly fights for the attention of his dream girl, tripping himself up tragicomically every step of the way and fixating morbidly on her mortician paramour (Laurie works at the funeral home as well). Joe finally realizes that, as one song pointedly puts it, "the only way you can get her to look at you is to die." At the end of Act I Joe "gets his head smashed" in a car crash. He spends the second half of the show as a ghost (though not Casper). Nodler -- who describes his theatrical sensibility as one part rock 'n' roll, one part Sid & Marty Krofft and one part theater of the absurd -- is clearly the ideal person to bring Johnston's colorful and guileless, yet utterly twisted, vision to the stage.
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Paradoxically, much of Johnston's best music was recorded on a cheap boom box with hiss and room noise often as loud as or louder than the sound of his voice and instruments. This, along with his odd, childish vocal delivery, has ensured that he will continue to elude mainstream success and remain largely a musician's musician. Indeed, from the start, his fan base has been made up largely of established rock stars from Sonic Youth to Pearl Jam to Half Japanese to fIREHOSE, who recognize (and often openly envy) his melodic and lyrical gifts, which shine like rubies straight through the sonic muck of those cheap tapes, especially if you know what to listen for. Over a decade ago, when Austin rocker Kathy McCarty recorded Dead Dog's Eyeball, a disc consisting entirely of Johnston covers, she was the first to publicly unmask the aching, Beatle-like beauty of his compositions for all to witness, and the disc was one of the indie hits of 1994. Similarly, 2004's Discovered Covered tribute found artists as respected, hip and disparate as Tom Waits, Death Cab for Cutie and Beck all taking shots at their favorites from Johnston's catalog to similar, highly accessible effect, demonstrating that Johnston's songs are strong enough to flourish in almost any context.
Which, happily, includes this blatantly theatrical setting. At a rehearsal last week, the tunes proved lilting, hilarious and heartbreaking, full of dramatic forward motion and tasty, haunting hooks. The choreography by Tamarie Cooper was expressive and surprising, a perfect complement to IBP artistic director Tony Barilla's sprightly, varied musical arrangements. The cast, even in rehearsal, all seemed to burn with the crazed emotional fervor mixed with near-cornball hamminess of Johnston himself.
Heck, Jeremiah the Frog even sang a song.
Daniel Johnston's Speeding Motorcycle will have a special preview party and performance on Wednesday, May 24. Party starts at 6:30 p.m., performance at 8 p.m. Keg beer and snacks will be provided, $35; show opens officially Thursday, May 25, at 8 p.m., $5.99; remaining performances will be on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. from May 26 through June 24, $15. All performances are at the Axiom, 2524 McKinney. For reservations, call 713-522-8443 or purchase tickets online at www.infernalbridegroom.com.