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‘Honey I Sure Miss You’ pays tribute to Daniel Johnston

| Friday, September 18, 2020

Jackie Junco | The Observer

Nirvana’s appearance at the 1992 MTV Video Music Awards was iconic for many reasons — Krist Novoselic tossing his bass on his face, Dave Grohl taunting Axl Rose and Kurt Cobain wearing a “Hi, how are you?” shirt. That last part may seem less important or relevant, but it gave Daniel Johnston the exposure he needed in order to keep making music. 

At the time of his death last year, he hadn’t gained much popularity but was seen as an artist’s artist. Over the years, other musicians have joined Cobain in supporting Johnston’s career. Lana Del Rey produced a short documentary about him, Cage the Elephant performed with him at Starry Nights in 2010 and hundreds of artists have covered his songs. The imprint of Johnston’s work on modern artists was never more apparent than during the Electric Lady Studio’s tribute to Johnston on the first anniversary of his death last Friday. The tribute, “Honey I Sure Miss You,” featured artists such as Jeff Tweedy, Maya Hawke, Beck, Phoebe Bridgers and more, all singing his songs and reading his poetry. The performances were each introduced with one of Johnston’s doodles.

The show brings new life to Johnston’s sound, filtering his lyrical honesty and command of melody through the performers’ own musical and life experiences. Johnston’s original work was raw and occasionally unfocused; it was a part of his charm. One lyric might ring of childish optimism, while the next sings of tragedy. Covers of his work sometimes offer clarity and musical elements that add new layers to his songs. Johnston’s experiences and struggles with mental health were retold, reimagined and remembered by artists who loved him and his work. 

The tribute was shared by the Hi, How Are You Project, an organization created in Johnston’s memory focused on ending the stigma surrounding mental health — a mission Johnston started simply by sharing his work. His music has a somber tone, often reflecting on death, memory, heartbreak and isolation. This tribute takes on the same tone. Between every soul-crushing lyric, there’s another insisting that the darkness is temporary and things will get better. 

Maya Hawke and Jesse Harris’ cover gives “Devil Town” a sweet sound that’s worth the listen. The Lemon Twigs add synths to “Scuttle Butt,” giving the piano ballad an even more upbeat sound. Johnston’s humor is evident in Waxahatchee’s cover of “I Had Lost My Mind,” where Johnston recounts the physical loss of his mind, as well as in Adam Green’s “Casper the Friendly Ghost.” Zella Day adds an eeriness to “Some Things Last A Long Time” with her candlelit performance. The song takes on new meaning following Johnston’s death, adding a new layer to the refrain concerning legacy. Lyrics like, “Time comes and goes all of the while / I still think of you / Some things last a long time,” offer the comfort of permanence amongst songs that largely deal with the impermanence of life and love. Day’s cover of the song is stunning, putting her in conversation with artists like Lana Del Rey and Beach House, who covered it before. 

Kevin Morby told a sentimental story about calling up Johnston as a kid, saying, “I felt like I was talking to a genius,” before he covered “Brainwash.” Phoebe Bridgers covered one of Johnston’s most literal and poignant songs about mental health, “Peek a Boo.” She offers a great cover, bringing Johnston’s words and experiences to a new generation of listeners. She uses her voice to share lyrics such as, “Please, hear my cry for help and save me from myself,” as well as a haunting last stanza, “You can listen to these songs / Have a good time and walk away / But for me it’s not that easy / I have to live these songs forever.”

Johnston’s honesty about performance and art may be one of the reasons so many artists connect with him. The performances end with Johnston’s most popular and optimistic song, “True Love Will Find You in the End,” sung by Beck. Beck has covered many of Johnston’s songs over the years, making both his performance and the song a fitting closer. The credits song, “Worried Shoes,” was the favorite song of Matt Johnston, Johnston’s nephew, before he passed away in 2012; it is sung by his surviving band members.

Their performance is preceded by a video of Johnston writing “When I Met You.” The camera, presumably propped up by Johnston himself, offers us a look at the artist hard at work. It reminds us that even if he’s gone, the part of him that lives in his music is still here to offer comfort during the darkest of times.

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