The cavernous Art Deco of the Troxy might seem an odd choice for two indie troubadours who deal in stripped-down intimacy. In different ways, both Jeffrey Lewis’ and Daniel Johnston’s relationships to performance are characterised by reluctance, a making a show of the non-show, of their tendencies to deconstruct the rock star. However, when you consider that these are two artists whose image is inflected with mental breakdown, the Troxy, with its lightly crumbling frontage and sore-thumb incoherence with the chicken shacks and estate agents of Commercial Road, begins to make some sense.
Lewis has spoken openly in interview about his time in mental hospitals following his acid experiences. The title track of his first album, The Last Time I Did Acid I Went Insane, had him sing “Well didn’t you hear the song I played, about the time I went insane / …I played it til my fingers bled.” The title of his subsequent 2003 album It’s The Ones Who’ve Cracked That The Light Shines Through was something of a beatnik hymnal to the maniac.
Lewis is something less than maniacal tonight however, feyly shambling around with his homemade guitar, making light work of themes of brokenness and outsidership. His superior sense of fragility places him as the Neil Young of anti-folk, his squawking art-brut has him as the Jonathan Richman of Williamsburg, but he is of course unmistakeably Jeffrey Lewis. And Lewis is a canny showman, not just in his carefully-wrought fragility, but in his studied messing around with the folk format. Both of tonight’s standouts, his improvised Mosquito Rap and the anti-folk standard Back When I Four, translate their formal innovations to the stage with an exuberant sense of stoner wit.
While Lewis crafts, Daniel Johnston’s less calculating relationship with mental collapse stakes out a rarer territory. The seminal 2005 documentary The Devil And Daniel Johnston originated his myth as the slacker indie Brian Wilson. Those early albums – magnificently pure, indelibly lo-fi – are framed by the apocalyptic madness that followed. When he appears on stage tonight, to rapturous hollering from the large crowd, he sports a guitar without a headstock at the top, a physical reminder us of the threat of incompleteness Johnston carries as his legend.
He wheels through Hey Joe, still haunting and beautiful after all these years, before the BEAM Orchestra assemble on stage and strike up a jazzy instrumental rendition of Speeding Motorcycle. Johnston disappears out back for periods, building up anticipation, dramatising the possibility of his absence. He soon returns, guitarless, to croon Keep Punching Joe which becomes something like an uncanny version of Mac The Knife. As he holds the lyric sheet high, perhaps shaking a little more than necessary, the refrain to True Love Will Find You In The End is delivered with all the familiar sadness, of longing that just won’t disappear.
Because his music is simple, pure sweet love songs, Johnston has never been stickered with the genius tag. For those same reasons, he has not been accorded the brooding subjectivity usually associated with male singer-songwriters who grapple with demonic histories of mental disturbance; The Cashes, the Elliot Smiths, even the Mark E Smiths . Daniel Johnston’s pop image is, somewhat perversely, more akin to that of Mad Britney and Crazy Kerry whose confessional outbursts in books, in photos, on chatshow couches, seek to invoke a caring identification with their audience. Their victimhood, their courage, becomes their viewers’, just as Johnston’s becomes ours.
The difference being, that on the floor of the Troxy tonight Johnston showed us that these moral moments are better delivered outside the nexus of reality products and bad art. In the dark and with beautiful songs, Johnston creates something like a brief moral community – everyone here tonight cares, and they are together doing it. As he stands there singing like pop is the only source of meaning, Johnston, as real as it gets, stands for something much larger than himself.