With several of our compadres literally out to sea on the S.S. Bruise Cruise, we have to admit we weren’t feeling too great about being landlocked on the frigid tundra of Middle Tennessee (don’t even start with us, ex-New Yorkers, Canadians and other assorted Yankees — The Spin ain’t built for these temperatures). That is, we felt that way until we heard that outsider singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston was coming to town to play a free show at Lipscomb University.
We arrived at Lipscomb's Collins Alumni Auditorium around 7:45 p.m. to find the place already jammed full of people who would otherwise likely be quickly escorted from campus grounds. It was a veritable Who's Who of campus-code-of-conduct violations, with textbook definitions of “hairstyles, body-piercing(s), and tattoos … so outstanding or numerous that they become a distraction” overwhelming the scant few actual Lipscomb students in attendance. Which, frankly, is fucking awesome.
Daniel Johnston tottered out to the front of the stage right at 8 p.m. with a small electric guitar and a book of lyrics in tow. The thing you need to know about Johnston, which is something that has sadly come to define him as a performer, is that he is unbelievably fragile. He bleeds fragility on stage, so much so that it can be hard to watch. The tone of the audience was reverential in a way we've never seen — not just because of the magnitude of seeing a figure like Johnston live, but also because it felt almost like the collective conscious was thinking that one wrong move could break the poor guy.
In fairness, that feeling wasn't completely without merit.
After banging his way through “Casper the Friendly Ghost” and a handful of other tunes on his lonesome, Johnston retired briefly to let his one-night-only backing band of Lipscomb kids set up for what will assuredly be the coolest story they're ever going to get out of their college experience. The Spin would never encourage young people to drop out of college, but you guys should probably drop out of college.
As the night wore on, Johnston’s fragility became more and more evident. It started with a tremor in his right arm and ended with Johnston violently shaking the mic with both hands while his impossibly young band tried to keep up. We didn't hear “Devil Town” — which we'd like to believe is the song that the accordion player tried to steer Johnston toward — but over the course of 45 minutes, Johnston convincingly pulled off a slew of hits (in as much as Johnston has hits) like “Walking the Cow” and “Don't Let the Sun Go Down.” Our favorite moment was when he sang about how rock 'n' roll saved his soul in the middle of a university where dancing was once frowned upon.
After an encore of “True Love Will Find You in the End,” Johnston left the stage and, like that, it was 9 p.m. and the show was over. It was, like Johnston's songs themselves, a beautiful, erratic bummer of a show. We may not have had the religious experience some of the people in the crowd enjoyed, but damn, guys. Just ... damn. It's a good thing we spent 25 minutes lost on campus, trying to find our car, because this was the kind of show that needed processing.