Catching Daniel

Sean Carrillo Remembers

Originally published in Zoo Magazine (Germany) 2005

I first learned of Daniel Johnston around 1987 from my friend Tom Richmond. Tom was the DP on a movie called "Stand & Deliver" and I was working as a Set Dresser and supporting a family of five. Tom had impeccable taste in music and I was always interested in whatever he had on the cassette player, CD, turntable, or whatever he was humming.

Several years later my wife and I owned a coffeehouse in downtown LA called Troy Café. It was a modest operation by any measure and required that we work everyday. This restriction limited our opportunity to attend live shows. Fortunately, the coffeehouse was around the corner from the legendary Al's Bar. The owner Mark Kreisel and I were old friends. We met when I worked at the Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art (LAICA). At the same time he was across the street establishing the American Hotel and Al's Bar.

Every now and then if I wanted to attend a show at Al's Bar I could run over and catch a set and then hightail it back to the café without a noticeable interruption of service. The doormen and bartenders at Al's knew me so it was a quick in and out even if there was a line out front.

I had read that Daniel would be playing and I concluded that I could just make the show if I dashed over right when the first set began. The usual Al's crowd was a tough mix of hard-drinking, impatient and determined music lovers undeterred by the location. Loud and rowdy was their modus operandi.

As soon as I arrived I could tell this night was different. As the lights dimmed, the crowd, which had already assembled near the stage, began to push in even closer. Not in a dangerous way, but like a group of students about to listen to their favorite professor lecture. When Daniel took the stage the roar of the boozy crowd became a low rumble. By the time he sang the first note even Stacy the bartender had stopped serving and listened with rapt attention as Daniel made his way through the set list. For one night the rowdiest bar in town became a conservatory of music.

Sometime later Daniel was having an exhibition of his artwork at a gallery on the west side of town. The gallery listing suggested he would be in attendance but I don't think it was billed as a "gig." The gallery was ill suited to musical events and it seemed a strange place for a concert anyway. The room was blindingly white and lit up like Times Square. It seemed a challenge for any performer.

I spotted Daniel in one corner of the room. He was facing the wall the way a child stands when punished by the schoolteacher. Soon he placed a guitar over his head and for a moment I thought he might play with his back to the audience like Miles Davis.

At a certain point he turned around, the crowd huddled, in Johnston-like fashion, and he graced us with a short and beautiful set in this most unlikely of surroundings.

When it was over I debated approaching him and then decided that since it was going to be Beck's birthday soon I would try to get something autographed from Daniel for him. I bought a couple of cassettes and approached Daniel. I told him that my son was a big fan and really wanted to attend but was otherwise committed.

He signed the cassettes and I thanked him and made my way into the night on La Brea Avenue with "Sorry Entertainer" running through my mind. As I repeated the lyrics to myself I realized that Daniel was still an enigma to me. All I knew was that he may be many things but a sorry entertainer was not one of them.