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He is equally jazzed about his first tour per-diem. "I had $50 a day to spend on shopping, so it was great," he says. "Getting Beatle bootlegs and all kinds of records every day, so it was exciting." Making sure the amount he stated was in fact $50 a day, I repeated it back to him in question form. "Yeah! I had that much to spend. It was great! I was like ALL RIGHT!"
He's even found inspiration in the musical selection at our nation's truck stops. "We kept buying tapes at the gas stations and stuff and getting these weird tapes, like The Best of Bread and stuff. We loved it! The Best of Bread was one of our favorite tapes. And we just had all kinds of stuff, like Best of Black Sabbath; we had all these 'best of' tapes. We just loved it. We were living it for the moment. It was just really a gas."
The road stories commence. He encountered a female fan who wanted him to sign her bra. "She was so wild; she looked . . . she was acting like she was an animal or something, and I didn't know if it would be too safe." A vision of the shy Johnston being asked to sign a brassiere conjures another incongruous image: Has the outsider musician stopped to look at any of our nation's outsider roadside attractions? "Oh, you mean like caves or something, or taxidermists' animals? Not really."
He and Goede hit the road again this week. This tour, like his East Coast swing, will feature Johnston solo, just a guitar and that haunted voice. The man who once branded himself a "a sorry entertainer" in song, is one of those rare performers who can tap into pure innocence on command, even while he's wrestling with the darker side of psyche.
When asked why he seldom plays piano live, even though this is his native instrument, his response is skewed common sense. "I was wondering about that today, somebody said something like 'Why don't you play piano at your shows?' And I thought, that is strange because I play piano all the time, but usually when I play out, I play guitar. This is mainly for the fact that when I go to do the show, I can't really carry the piano with me everywhere."
Johnston adds: "There' s a lot of the songs that are in the show that I have had together for a number of years, songs I've been playing out for a long, long time that I would just do to get enough money, anytime I needed it, plus a lot of new songs that aren't on any albums, songs that I have written recently. Songs from Fun, some songs from Rejected Unknown, uh, some songs from a new album I recorded with Sparklehorse; that was about four months ago, I recorded a new album with Sparklehorse. And I have a couple of songs from that and some other selections."
Asked again about Phoenix on the eve of his first-ever show here, Johnston at last remembers something about our fair metro. "I think I've been there, no doubt," he says. "I used to travel with a carnival, I used to sell corn dogs. I worked for a lady that owned a corn dog stand, so I think I have been to Phoenix, Arizona, before."