I realized today that while I have told this story many times, I’ve never written about it.
It was December 2001, and we had been in Columbus for just under three months. We knew virtually no one, and were still just getting settled. Daniel Johnston, one of my longtime musical heroes, was playing at a now defunct club called Little Brother’s. I had never seen Daniel play, as he toured infrequently due to his suffering from various mental illnesses, primarily bi-polar disorder. Daniel was a major influence on my songwriting around this time; In recent years, I’ve found myself unable to listen to his music as much, as his lyrics have such despondent themes. As a friend of mine once so eloquently said, listening to his music is “Like watching a retarded kid get beat up.” Much like the experience of listening to his music, our meeting him was both pleasurable and disturbing.
We arrived early on the night of the show, at this point unfamiliar with the Columbus tradition of starting shows late. There were only a few people mulling around the club, and there was Daniel, sitting at the bar and smoking by himself. I walked over to the area where his merchandise was being sold, and nervously talked to his friend and handler (I don’t mean to be rude when I say “handler,” but that’s seriously how it is when he’s on the road, someone needs to look after him), Don. He could tell I was nervous, because I had never seen Daniel in person before. (Keep in mind I was 23 years old at the time, and hadn’t met too many “known” musicians before). Don told me that I should go say hi, so Mary Alice and I walked over to the bar where he was sitting.
“Daniel?” I said softly, as though I was trying not to frighten a small animal. ”Hi, I’m Pete.” He turned to face me. “Hi Pete!,” he said loudly. I nervously asked him how he was liking being in Columbus. He turned around in his chair, looked around the room, and knit his brow. “Where are we — Corpus Christi?,” he asked to no one in particular. My stomach dropped, and my butthole clenched. I anxiously turned to Mary Alice for help. “Daniel,” she said confidently, “We saw your spot on MTV2, it was really good.” Daniel seemed to perk up a bit. “Oh yeah, yeah…do you know any good place to buy records? Are they any good record stores around here?” I told him about Used Kids, a legendary Columbus haunt that had his “Hi, How are You” album cover art poster on their wall. “Do you have a car? Can you take me there?” I wildly answered “YES” on behalf of us both, Daniel asked Don for some record shopping money, and we were on our way.
Mary Alice walked ahead of Daniel and me on the way to the car, and I already was geeking out on him with questions about his collaborations with Jad Fair. We started on our way up High Street, us in the front and Daniel in the backseat. We made some small talk, and Daniel asked if we made music. Electric Grandmother was still exclusively a solo project at the time, and I had just started fronting a short-lived band called Upchuck Berry. I told him that I did, and he said “I could tell.” We drove past the Wendy’s restaurant on High, and Daniel let out a high-pitch shriek of “HI WENDY!” Mary Alice and I sat in silence for a moment after. We later passed Buckeye Donuts, and Daniel asked if we wanted to stop and have one. We parked the car, and headed on over. Daniel told me that they had seen a lot of pretty girls on tour. He was wearing an old California Angels baseball cap, and I asked him if he was a fan of the team. He told me he didn’t know who they were, and that he had bought the cap because the initials said “C.A.,” as he was a huge Captain America fan. I was well aware of this, as Captain America had been a thematic presence in both his drawings and songs. Though I was initially nervous at how he was acting at the bar, he seemed to be acting relatively calm and collected while hanging with us, and it put me at ease.
Daniel insisted on buying us donuts, as he playfully bragged how he was “rich.” We sat down together and engaged in musical small-talk. He seemed to go in-and-out some – there were moments where his attention would drift and he would say something bordering on nonsensical, but he would eventually come around. I asked him about his relationship with Matt Groening, and he acknowledged their mutual admiration for each other. He said to me, “Boy, I bet you didn’t know you’d be hanging out with Daniel Johnston tonight, huh?,” which I found cute, but made Mary Alice mentally roll her eyes a bit. Everything was going just swimmingly. Then he had to use the restroom.
“Miss? Miss? Miss?!” he shouted to the waitress. ”Do you have a restroom I can use?” She directed him to the restroom, which was occupied. Mary Alice and I sat and chatted while Daniel waited…and waited…and grew impatient. He knocked on the door. Then he knocked again, and then again. Then he began to yell.
“COME ON, YOU”VE BEEN IN THERE FOR AN HOUR!” he yelled, while furiously banging on the bathroom door. We sat paralyzed with terror and uncertainty. I thought about how I was going to have to tell Don that Daniel got in a fight, got arrested, and there was going to be no show. Moments later, an extremely angry Latino man emerged from the restroom, and said a variety of inaudible things to Daniel. He came back to his seat fuming. After Daniel finished, he stormed out of the bathroom still raving about having to wait. ”He was in there for an hour, singing and everything?!” he muttered loudly, as he walked obliviously right behind the still very angry man. I asked Daniel if he was ready to go, and I mouthed an apology to the man who seemed to accept it, and was starting to cool down. That’s what was so strange – I apologized for someone who I barely knew, who was essentially in our care, and it was Daniel Johnston. The guy understood that he wasn’t going to get an apology from Daniel, but was placated when I did on his behalf. It was kind of frightening.
We left the donut shop to go to Used Kids, but they were closed for the night. Daniel said, “What about the ‘Warehouse CD’ we saw when driving?” We were on our way back to the car to go to CD Warehouse, when I noticed that Daniel wasn’t walking next to us. I looked up, and I saw Daniel following a girl down the street. He had this goofy smile on his face, and had taken off his hat in what seemed to be a gesture of chivalry. ”DANIEL!” I yelled after him. “The car’s over here!” He did a 90 degree turn and walked back towards the car.
We drove to CD Warehouse, and they were closed too. There was a guy working at the counter on some paperwork. I so wanted to make Daniel happy, so I knocked on the door and gave him a “PLEASE” look. He shook his head no. Moments later both Daniel and I started knocking on the door. The guy turned around and began to silently yell at us through the thick glass. We decided it was probably time to head back to the club. Daniel remarked that the incident at the donut shop was “Something we’ll all tell our grandchildren about.” The wife and I had a hearty chuckle.
I apologized profusely to Daniel for not getting him to a record store, but he said it was ok. Once back inside the club, I chose not to tell Don about Daniel’s freak out. The opener was already on, and it turned out to be a fellow from Philadelphia named Adam Brodsky, who was playing these witty folk songs and making wittier banter in between. Long story short, we’ve now known Adam for almost 12 years and he played our album release show last year here in DC.
Some things I’d like to make clear about my telling this story:
I certainly have no intention of mocking or embarrassing Daniel Johnston. We saw him again two years later, and as expected he had no idea who we were. Daniel’s problems are well-documented, and the story I just told is like Christmas compared to other incidents in his life. This is a now forgotten drop in the ocean of his complicated life, but it meant a lot to us that he enjoyed hanging out with us that evening. This meeting occurred before the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston skyrocketed his popularity in the indie music world, so I’m glad we got to see him when we did. No mention of the donut shop incident in the movie. I hope that he’s really rich now.