Memphis is a weird town. When Jack White was a visitor while mixing the Grammy® winning album Get Behind Me Satan at Ardent Studios, he was mostly ignored as he hung around the city’s midtown bars. I’ve often spied bands like The Hold Steady, The Black Keys, Dr. Dog, Lucero and many others enjoying a cold one at local dives without much fanfare. Musicians make up the fabric of our history which both helps and hinders us. There are so many great local bands; we sometimes forget to show up when national acts make their way to our town. We’re also very well known for our late start times for shows. 11:15 PM is known as hipster hour and rarely does The Hitone begin to fill up before then. It’s a late-night town, with the entertainment district serving alcohol until 5 AM, and there’re a couple of places I could steer you towards that will still be hopping at 9 AM Saturday morning.
That’s why I was so blown away by the turnout for Daniel Johnston’s performance at The Hitone on August 9th. I happened to be at the bar at 6:30 PM setting up an art installation, which some might say I set up on purpose, but I really hadn’t put two and two together at that point. I entered the building to see Harlan T. Bobo and his backing band on the stage with Harlan on drums, which was very out of the ordinary. I came to learn that Harlan’s group, whom he sometimes refers to as The Chimps, were going to be backing Johnston this evening, and I could tell that Harlan was pretty psyched about it. As we painted one of the back walls, my comrades and I stopped as Daniel came from the back room and took the stage for sound check. I confess, I’m no huge fan, but after seeing the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, I was certainly fascinated.
Dressed in a Sun Studios t-shirt, black pants and white leather sneakers he seemed less like a hipster icon than someone’s weird uncle that spent his days reading conspiracy theory magazines. He held in his hand a handwritten lyric sheet and he and the band ran through several songs. We watched momentarily and then went back to painting our wall. Around 7:30 I decided to run out to get takeout for my group so that we could eat before the doors opened at 9 PM.
As I exited the building I was in shock. It is rare to see a line in front of the Hitone; it is even more unusual to see one while the sun is still shining. As I made my way down the line of people that wrapped around the building, people shouted, “Is he in there?”
There were easily 50 people already in line for a show I wasn’t sure 50 people would show up for. Shows how much I know. As I pulled back into the parking lot after picking up our dinner, the line had easily doubled. I made my way through the swarms of people with our food and went back to the bar. As I sat and ate Harlan, and his cohorts practiced. Harlan conducted the group with great enthusiasm and suddenly my excitement to see the show shot up tenfold. After we had, eaten we went back to painting and got lost in time for an hour or so. When I came around the corner again, it was barely past 9 PM and the bar was half-full. I took my usual seat at the sound booth and watched the crowd continue to filter in. By 9:30 the sound guy, my friend Joel, began to be hounded by folks asking if he would help them get their friend in. I felt nature’s call and ducked into the green room to use the cleanest bathroom facilities.
In the back room, I found my friends Maggie and Drue hanging out and chatting up Johnston. I came and took a seat next to Maggie just as he remarked, “My, there are some lovely ladies here tonight.”
I introduced myself and shook his hand. I was then immediately sent to retrieve the Polaroid we had been using for our art installation and returned to take a photo of my friends and Mr. Johnston. He signed a drawing for Drue, and we then left him alone to prepare for the show. As we stepped back out into the main room, we felt the temperature quickly go up 10 degrees. The Hitone is not known for its air conditioning, and unless you have been living under a rock, you might have heard a little something about a massive heat wave rolling through the south this past August. The crowd had once again doubled and was easily at 400 in a room that fits 300 comfortably. Harlan and The Chimps took the stage and ran through a string of lovely numbers, including “One of These Days,” “I’m Your Man,” and my personal favorite “Left Your Door Unlocked.” Any other night this performance would have been thrilling enough. However, tonight the crowd was tense and lying in wait.
When Johnston finally took the stage, it was quite a feat. To make it there at this particular venue, you must walk through the middle of the crowd. Sweaty arms and hands reached for Johnston and patted him on the back. Good thing he has schizophrenia and not claustrophobia. The actual performance was of little consequence. The crowd loved him but if you were not a longtime fan you might have been confused as to what all the fuss was about. There were several songs that the crowd sang along to word-for-word about speeding motorcycles and Casper the friendly ghost. However, it still seems if it weren’t for a chance appearance on a long forgotten MTV show, Cutting Edge, about Austin’s underground music scene which featured Johnston and his homemade cassette tapes, folks like Roky Erickson and Kurt Cobain might have never become a fan. Some may recall Cobain wearing the in infamous frog/alien t-shirt that read simply “Hi, How Are You?” (also the name of one of his early recordings). If not for that show, he might never have been befriended by Gibby Haynes and covered by everyone from Tom Waits, The Flaming Lips, Pearl Jam and TV on the Radio. Personally, I have to admit that I was surprised by the man’s talent to encompass so many with his naivety and simplicity – but I guess sometimes the most interesting things are so merely because they are so unexplainable – which is the most accurate way to explain Daniel Johnston.