With his painfully raw lyrical delivery and battles with mental illness, Daniel Johnston is one of rock’s ultimate loners. But for what may be his last concerts, he has found plenty of friends to celebrate his legacy.
In between stints in psychiatric care for severe manic depression, Johnston has given a new meaning to lo-fi with decades worth of homemade recordings in which he pours out stories of personal pain and unrequited love set to classic, Beatles-inspired pop.
The 56-year-old, who lives with care of his family in the small town of Waller in eastern Texas, has embarked on a tour that Dick Johnston, his brother and manager, describes as Daniel’s last.
The songwriter, who composes on piano and has traditionally performed on guitar, has put aside instruments for the tour and sings with bands that have taken inspiration from him and picked out setlists from Johnston’s 121-song repertoire.
Johnston closes the tour next month in Seattle and Vancouver with members of Built to Spill, the guitar-swirling alternative rockers, and earlier in Washington performed with artists from Fugazi, who helped define the late hardcore US punk scene.
In New York on Saturday night, Johnston was backed up by members of two art pop bands, Beirut and Cibo Matto, who brought a new texture to his songs with string interludes and thunderous drums.
Johnston — a world away from Waller, Texas at a theater in bustling Times Square — took the stage to a standing ovation after a screening of “The Devil and Daniel Johnston,” the award-winning 2005 documentary on his troubled but prodigiously creative life.
His typical unruly mop of hair now gray and cropped short, Johnston clenched the microphone with both hands and his arms shook incessantly out of apparent nervousness.
He belted out 14 songs in a little under 45 minutes, his voice as ever clear and robust in the high ranges, but with little traditional sense of keeping in-tune.
Staring down at notes on his stand, Johnston offered only cursory greetings and did not make even a moment of eye contact with the audience — who nonetheless applauded enthusiastically and quickly recognized his tunes, including the muffled snippet of home-cassette noise that presages the organ on his early song “Walking the Cow.”
The back-up band helped the solitary songwriter build the moods around his music — “Speeding Motorcycle” took on an apt rock feel, while “Like a Monkey in the Zoo” brought in a touch of the blues.
High-profile guests are not new for Johnston, whose songs have been covered by an array of artists such as Pearl Jam, Tom Waits and Beck.
His career enjoyed a major boost when the late Kurt Cobain appeared on MTV in one of Johnston’s T-shirts, leading to a surge of interest in the outsider artist who at the height of Nirvana’s fame was institutionalized.
Before the announced retirement from touring, Johnston had appeared to be in improving health and in the 2000s traveled to play in Europe and Japan.
A prolific sketcher, he has also found growing interest in his paintings with the latest exhibition taking place this month in Tokyo.
Johnston’s supposedly final New York performance was significantly less eventful than his first major trip to the metropolis in 1988.
Invited to record with alternative rockers Sonic Youth, Johnston punched the band’s drummer Steve Shelley and was forced into a hospital — only to escape and show up as an opening act at famed underground club CBGB.