Daniel Johnston's songs find new life in the rock opera 'Speeding Motorcycle'
Long ago in the Eighties, I was in a band called Glass Eye. We were a very popular and critically acclaimed band, but we never "made it." (If we had, I wouldn't have to tell you who I am!) When Daniel Johnston came to Austin, he decided that Glass Eye was the greatest band ever ("The Beatles of Now!"), and he came to all our shows and gave us his tapes.
His songs blew us all away, and he began opening for us. In a very short time, Daniel was opening for practically everyone, and tons of Austin bands began covering his songs.
Daniel was very upfront about his mental illness; he had very somberly told me and my Glass Eye bandmate Brian Beattie that he was a manic-depressive. He read us the definition from a medical textbook the very day we met him so we would be sure to comprehend. His illness didn't stop me from dating him briefly, and honestly, I should have known better: I was a mess myself at the time, and adding Daniel to the mix was a really bad decision on my part. We broke up.
We had to avoid each other for a little while, but I still counted Daniel among my friends, he counted me among his, and we got over it.
When Daniel had his really terrible nervous breakdown in 1990, it seemed like the world might never get to know his songs. He was ill and unable to write, due to his medication. So in 1993, with Brian, I made an album, Dead Dog's Eyeball: Songs of Daniel Johnston.
It's a great record, and it was nationally recognized as such, which was nice. With it I sort of played Joan Baez to Daniel's Bob Dylan: making his stuff a little more accessible so that regular people could "get it." While I was making the record, Daniel got a better doctor and started to recover. We both ended up releasing records at the same time, which was also nice.
Brian went on to become Daniel's producer for several years, traveling to Waller, Texas, to record him with a mobile studio. I went on to fall in love with, and marry, Daniel's best friend, the poet David Thornberry. (David is the guy Daniel is talking to on the MTV special when he says, "Look, Dave, I'm on MTV!")
Last September Daniel's ex-manager Jeff Tartakov enticed me to think about being in Speeding Motorcycle, a rock opera of Daniel's songs created by Jason Nodler for Infernal Bridegroom, a theatre company in Houston. The Zachary Scott Theatre Center had decided to give it an Austin run, and apparently Jason wanted me to be in it. It really didn't take much persuading; when I read the script, I was in awe. What Jason and music director Anthony Barilla had done was so perfect: They used Daniel's songs to dramatize the world inside Daniel's mind, using characters and symbols from his artwork. I said yes.
When rehearsals started in January, the Chronicle asked me to keep a journal of the experience. The world of theatre is a new one to me, but Daniel's world is not; How would they come together? Here are excerpts from that journal.
Thursday, Jan. 17: Meet & Greet
I am so uncomfortable meeting new people, the very phrase "Meet and Greet" fills me with dread. It usually takes me weeks to be able to tell people apart, and that always makes a terrible impression that you just can't explain away. But I get there, and it's not all new people! I see Bill Anderson and Terri Lord and Sheri Lane (musicians I know), and I feel much better. They are all going to be in the band, and they are awesome.
Tonight I learned what my role is to be, or rather not to be. Jason initially wanted to cast me as Laurie, Daniel's muse and the only female lead, and that's flattering and all – and, of course, I want as HUGE a role as possible and to be one of the big stars and everything! – but I don't think I am the Laurie girl-next-door type. I'm pushing 50 over here ... and I'm chubby and weird, and it would beg credulity to cast me as a college girl. Once they met me, I am pretty sure they thought I'm not right for Laurie, either. But what they said was (and I detected a bit of blowing smoke up my ass here), "Oh, we are going to give you a part that allows us to use you more than the Laurie part!"
We'll see. But even if I have the tiniest part, I still get to do the play ... and it is brilliant!!
Monday, Jan. 21: First Day of Rehearsal
We got the scripts today. There are a lot of songs that I am less than familiar with. It's fascinating how two people can listen to 400 Daniel Johnston songs and their list of 20 favorites won't overlap. Tony [Barilla] is going to make us all disks of Daniel's versions so we can learn the songs and his idiosyncrasies.
The girl who is to play "Laurie" had car trouble, so she's not here. I offered to read her part, but they had Adriene Mishler read it.
There is this song that requires a choir, and I am not the female soloist. It's Susanne Abbott. I think, "I am the professional rock singer in the room – the only one, I might add – so why am I not the soloist?" And then she sang.
Oh. My. God. Susanne has the most BREATHTAKING voice. I could never do the song as well! She's like a great gospel singer!
At every turn I am getting confirmation that Jason and Tony know what they are doing. It's their vision, not mine. I need to keep my yapper shut and let them do their thing.
Tuesday, Jan. 22: Second Day
I get to sing in the concert after the end of the show. Maybe that's where they are going to "use me," doing what I actually do, singing rock music. That won't be much of a challenge, but I am okay with it.
And what do you know? I am not the only professional rock singer in the cast, heh heh. Every girl here is a professional rock singer, and they all have bands! They all have CDs and gigs and everything, even Hannah, who is 16 or something. Are all the boys rock singers, too?
The part of Laurie has been given to Adriene. It seems like a strange decision to me because, as far as I can tell, Adriene can't sing. She's inaudible in rehearsal, anyway.
Jason asked, "How do you feel about dancing?" and I said I'd love to dance! I warned him though about my special quality, how I look completely uncoordinated, even if I am doing everything perfectly. He had no idea what I was talking about. Just wait! I look like I'm 5.
Wednesday, Jan. 23: Third Day
Today I put on the CD that Tony made for the cast. It has the songs that are in the show, in the same order, but Daniel's versions. Very helpful. It was a shock to hear Daniel's voice singing, "I had a girlfriend, made me scared of the world." I haven't heard that song since Daniel said, "I wrote a song about you," and played it for me in 1985. Hearing it today knocked the wind right out of me. Then I realized why I'm not so familiar with the songs in this thing: A lot are off Continued Story, the album Daniel made right after I broke up with him. I never listened to that one, because it made me feel so guilty and terrible.
It's weird and disturbing. I sort of want to say, "Hey, that song is about me, not Laurie," but at the same time, inspiring that song is not anything to brag about. (Oh, great, I made Daniel scared of the world – good going there, McCarty.) Plus it is kind of pathetic to be all: "Oh, that song is about me! And that song is about me!" There is just something wrong about being like that, like you want to bask in the reflected glow of celebrity, no matter what got you there. I should just keep some things to myself. (What is wrong with my personality that part of me wants to tell?)
Thursday, Jan. 24: Fourth Day
They have made my part bigger! They added the song "Hey Joe." Now I get to sing a whole song by myself. Maybe my role will grow and grow as they come to a greater appreciation of my natural S*T*A*R* Q*U*A*L*I*T*Y!
We started dancing today. As I danced, I could hear chortling from the directors. If I were self-conscious, I would have minded, but I'm not; I think my strange gracelessness is sort of interesting. Fortunately for me, they did not yank me out of the dance line for being ungraceful. They must be going for "cartoony" dancing. That makes sense, what with cartoon characters being in the show and all.
Cary Winscott, who plays one of the three Joe Boxer characters (who represent Daniel's fragmented personality), sang "Peek a Boo." It's amazing how he sounds like Daniel. His voice has that bit of Appalachian twang, just a little nasal – it's perfect. All three Joe Boxers are perfect in different ways. I'm glad that Jason brought them here from the Houston production.
Friday, Jan. 25: Fifth Day
The first day off, and I never quit working all day. Theatre takes up a ridiculous amount of time – about 30 hours a week. That's an awful lot, especially if you have a "real" 40-hour workweek, too. The house is a mess, the bills aren't paid, there is no food in the fridge, and everyone at home feels neglected. I only got about an eighth of it all done today. How do these theatre folk do it? They are hardcore.
Saturday, Jan. 26: Sixth Day
Rehearsal 1-8pm. All day I have felt really, really tired. Toward the end of the rehearsal, I could feel it: I am getting sick! No no no no, this is no time to get sick!
Sunday, Jan. 27: Seventh Day
I am so sick. It's the flu! Fever of 102, every single part of my body aching so badly that I can't even sleep and, of course, a splitting headache. And the fever is making the Daniel songs go around and around and around and around in my head like a horrifying acid trip through a carnival. I had to call in sick to rehearsal. They are doing choreography today, and I really need to be there, but I can't move. How will I ever catch up?
Monday, Jan. 28: Eighth Day
I can't miss more than one day of rehearsal, so I dragged my sorry ass to the theatre. Earlier tonight, it seemed unthinkable to sing and dance for four hours with my fever and everything, but working through the numbers actually made me feel a little better.
Jason wants the cast to go out after rehearsal all the time and get to be friends and drink. But I am too sick, and everyone is going without me. It will be forever before I am well enough to abuse my body with alcohol. By then they will all be friends, and I will be too late!
Wednesday, Jan. 30: 10th Day
Weep all day, go to doctor, cry some more, rehearsal. It's just a symptom, being weepy. It's not real, just flu germs poisoning my brain.
Now we are working on staging, and it's so great to see how things will actually look. The staging for "Mind Contorted" is brilliant! It makes the song. All the guys sing it together, each standing in his own spotlight. They all sing together, yet each man is alone.
Thursday, Jan. 31: 11th Day
Still dragging. In my "normal" world, I wouldn't even have gotten out of bed after four days with the flu. Man, I was so happy about doing this project, because it was going to be so much fun. My idea of fun right now is lying on the sofa with my eyes shut. I am missing out on the whole experience!
Friday, Feb. 1: 12th Day
Today is my birthday, and I am off! Dave was very sweet about the fact that my current idea of a fun birthday is lying on the sofa all day.
Saturday, Feb. 2: 13th Day
All-day rehearsal. I met with Andrea Ariel, the Dancing Mistress of the show, to go over the dances that I missed that Sunday I was sick. She is so great and sweet and energetic; she doesn't seem to think I am doing so badly; she even said she particularly enjoys watching me dance.
Tuesday, Feb. 5: 16th Day
I am starting to feel better! Finally!
I was totally wrong about Adriene! She sings beautifully; her voice is strong and lovely. She was just holding back in the beginning. She's better at being Laurie than I could ever be. On YouTube, I saw some Daniel footage with Laurie Allen in it, and Adriene actually resembles her. Dye her hair ash-blond, and they'd look like sisters.
They made my part bigger again today, which I love, of course! To make the "Man Obsessed" scene funnier, I am being more of a forbidding/comical Head Nurse. Everyone was laughing when I did the new stuff, and they swore it was hilarious. The Dancing Mistress wouldn't lie to me, so maybe it is funny.
But you know who is going to steal the fucking show? Adam Smith, who plays Captain America. He "did" his number today with all the stops pulled out, and he kicked the entire cast's ass.
Wednesday, Feb. 6: 17th Day
Relapsed. Couldn't get out of bed all day. Barely made it to rehearsal.
Thursday, Feb. 7: 18th Day
I had a realization today: What happened was Amy Downing said to Adam Smith, "It's all about you!" in a friendly joking way, and Adam cocked an eyebrow and said back (also jokingly), "You are just now figuring that out?" But there was some truth in it; you could hear it. You could hear it in his voice.
Now, in the world of music, most musicians don't want to be the frontman; it interferes with playing and having a good time. The frontman-type of personality that I have, where I want everyone to "Look at me! Look at me!," makes musicians glad to have me around. It takes the pressure off them, and they can concentrate on the music. I thought that everyone in the cast would feel the same way: happy to have me around to do my thing.
But when Adam said that, it struck me: In theatre, everyone is a frontman! Everybody is like me! Everybody wants more stage time, more lines, more songs, more more more!
In the theatre, it's not a good thing to throw yourself forward and shoulder more lines or tasks; it is gauche. There is this delicate dance going on, of wordlessly acknowledging that we all crave the spotlight. You have to be very, very polite and egalitarian and try to make sure you aren't being a big attention pig. It is hilarious that I just figured this out! I am a moron.
Friday, Feb. 8: 19th Day
Today I had my costume fitting. Daniel's idea was that every costume is one bright color, and every cast member gets to choose whatever color they want. But no one ever asked us our favorite color. So I think the costume designers just picked colors for us. I have been thinking, "Oh please God, not yellow or white. I am the heaviest woman on that stage; please let it be a slimming color and not yellow or white!!" So, naturally, I am in yellow.
Sigh. The costume looks like a yellow bag, with embiggifying horizontal stripes. On the bright side, it is comfortable, and at least everyone will look the same!
The nurses' outfits are fantastic! To go with them though are 6-inch-heeled shoes. I took one look and burst out laughing. I have never worn heels in my life! I am supposed to dance in these? I can't even walk in them (except like Frankenstein). I don't know if any of us will be able to dance in them. We can but try!
Tonight Joe Folladori (the third Joe Boxer) leaned over to me when the band was playing "Ain't No Woman Gonna Make a George Jones Outta Me" and asked, "Did you know Daniel around the time this song was written?" And I couldn't help it; I replied, "Uh, this song is about me." It was kind of a relief.
It's funny, hearing Daniel play that song when it was written used to make me feel so bad. But now I love to hear it, and it makes me laugh! I think his sense of humor was lost on me at that time, at least about our breakup. Now I can see he only meant to make me feel better, maybe even reassure me.
Doing this rock opera has made me hear Daniel's songs in whole new ways. I have to admit I have been a Daniel snob of a sort: "I prefer his early work," like someone who only likes the acoustic Bob Dylan. Hearing so many of his later songs, sung so heartfelt, makes me realize that Daniel's talent has never declined. I just got stuck in his "classic" period and failed to really hear his new stuff. He's great; he's just as great as he ever was.
Saturday, Feb. 9: 20th Day
We are really getting close to the opening all of a sudden. Today we rehearsed for 12 brutal hours. We are doing something called "tech," which consists mostly of Kyle Sturdivant having to stand or sit or lie down on the stage for interminable periods. Kyle is one of the Joe Boxers, and he is very serious about acting and very great. He can totally make you cry without doing anything but sit there.
Which is probably why he is endlessly having to sit there while they get the lighting right. It is bordering on ridiculous how they tell him to hold and then seemingly forget about him, trussed up like a turkey in his straitjacket, while they confer about the lighting. I think by the end he was ready to twist Jason's head off.
Sunday, Feb. 10: 21st Day
Eleven to 11 again! Full dress rehearsal today. It is great to get to see the costumes finally, especially Captain America and Satan and Casper the Friendly Ghost and Jeremiah the innocent frog. And we are getting kids – a slew of children! Most importantly, we get little girls to play Jeremiah! It's just as Daniel pictured it.
Very upsettingly (for me), the costumes of the other girls don't resemble mine at all! All the slender girls are in tight dresses of slimming colors like purple and teal, while I am in the yellow bag.
Wednesday, Feb. 13: 24th Day
Last rehearsal before we have an audience. We stayed until nearly 2am. I feel like the whole world has dropped away, and the only thing in my mind is The Production. I can't stop thinking about every little thing: how to make the frog head stay on, fixing Captain America's shield, the Coffin being too heavy to lift, and none of it is mine to fix ... I just can't think about anything else! This must be part of why theatre people love theatre so much: You are totally immersed in it, and it kind of makes the rest of the world go away.
I have all my songs and moves and everything down. NOW I am afraid I will make some insane error that I have never made before, some completely new and startling mistake!
Saturday, Feb. 16: Opening!
The theatre was sold out, and the show was a total hit! Just like I knew it would be. The audience laughed and clapped at all the right places and everything. They GOT IT. Jason and Tony are thrilled; everyone is smiling! Champagne! And food! And even though it is cold and rainy, everyone stays for the concert.
The whole time we have been in rehearsal I have not allowed Dave to see the script, and I have refrained from discussing rehearsal so he can see the production with a Clean Mind. When I found Dave in the crowd, he was beaming. He really loved it. He couldn't stop laughing. It is funny how a rock opera about a mentally ill guy who dies and has a funeral can be so funny and uplifting, can put everyone in such a great mood.
I asked him: "Isn't it unbelievable, watching it, thinking: 'This is about Daniel. Not only is Daniel famous, but people are making art about him.'?" He said: "But Dan always knew this would happen. He used to talk about 'when they make a movie about my life,' and 'when they make a rock opera of my songs,' even when he was a teenager. He just knew it.
"But watching this tonight," he went on, "we are in the same room with the characters from his drawings, we are walking around in his dreams and his nightmares. We are characters in his fantasy of being famous, which have all come true! It's just so surrealistic! The whole thing was so good, and the Joes just nailed it. But you know what? It made me miss him. I really miss that guy, that kid I knew back then."
Speeding Motorcycle runs through April 13, Thursday-Saturday, 8pm, Sunday, 2:30pm, at the Zachary Scott Theatre Center Kleberg Stage, 1421 W. Riverside. For more information, call 476-0541 or visit www.zachscott.com.