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"Phoenix, Arizona?" Johnston repeated, taken aback at the thought. "Hmm, I don't really know. Is that a big city?" When told it was the sixth biggest city in the nation, he repeated the fact with a slight modifier, as if trying to grasp that this could be possible. "It's one of the sixth biggest. Well, maybe so. I'll have to ask the guy that's arranging it -- I didn't even know too much about Phoenix, Arizona. I've heard of Phoenix, Arizona, but I don't know if that is one of the ones we were thinking about."
This response might jibe with some musicians' view of Phoenix as a fairly insignificant music town, but coming from Johnston, the quote has an entirely different meaning. There was absolutely no artifice involved in this response, no rock-star snobbery, no layered sarcasm. It was about the mystery that there could be a huge city out there in the middle of the desert, far away from Waller, Texas. To fully understand why Johnston's response was so obtuse and why the idea of him touring is so improbable, you have to know his background.
Johnston is a one-of-a-kind American musician, arguably the prince of outsider music, so original and real that no one could have dreamt him up. An adult wunderkind verging on genius, this 41-year-old man-child first gained attention in the fertile music community of Austin in the early '80s, on the strength of his ultra lo-fi solo cassette recordings. These early tapes, fashioned in various basements around Texas, painstakingly duplicated one at a time by Johnston himself, were recorded on a mono boom box and handed out to local bands in Austin.
The early cassettes, all adorned with childishly simplistic line art drawings by Johnston, were first embraced as a voyeuristic novelty in Austin. Similarly, club audiences in Austin were charmed simply by the riveting anti-professionalism of his halting, nervous gigs. His chilling, childlike voice, the emotional range a single confessional song could express, the simple melodies produced by pounding on a piano or chord organ, and the no-fi quality of his early recordings were at first sought after for their sheer strangeness. The songs are an honest portrait of a truly tortured soul, trying hard to grasp love and loss, God and the Beatles, King Kong and Casper the Friendly Ghost, sometimes all in one track.
Johnston's nearly 20-year "career" has seen him slowly ascend to the status of cult hero, with many bumps in the road. He watched his MTV debut (in a 1985 episode of the Peter Zaremba-hosted show, The Cutting Edge) from a mental institution. He was signed to a major label (Atlantic, which released his one bid for stardom: 1994's Fun) that didn't begin to understand his talent. He spent years grappling with very real mental demons, only recently restored to consistent productivity thanks to better living through chemistry. His music, still nicely escaping categorization, has been covered and/or championed by many industry heavy hitters, from the late Kurt Cobain (who constantly wore Johnston's Hi, How Are You tee shirt) to Johnny Depp. Recently, in a particularly strange pop-culture development, an ethereal female voice sings his song "Speeding Motorcycle" in the background of a Target commercial.
When his Valley date was confirmed, we called him back to see how the first leg of his U.S. tour had gone, and what was going on in his universe. Johnston truly sounds happy about his station in life. His high-pitched voice, which has lost some of its helium loopiness on record, still sounds like that of an excited boy on the telephone. The conversation, related with aw-shucks awe and punctuated with many giggles, is more self-assured than the last, with more command and presence.
Johnston has just returned from a one-off gig in Sweden, playing to an estimated 1,000 fans. He often speaks in the collective "we" as a means of including whomever he is traveling with, most recently his road manager, Don Goede. When asked how he feels about his music essentially taking him around the world, he enthuses, "It's great! Things are happening more than ever, traveling around the world and doing shows. And doing a lot of recording, so it's exciting."
The conversation is guided stream of consciousness, with Johnston frequently inclined to explain the same idea several times. Discussing the first leg of his American tour, Johnston suggests that getting to shop was the highlight of the experience for him.
"We had a lot of fun and playing every night, doing a lot of shopping and buying a lot of records, meeting a lot of nice pretty girls," he says. "It really was a lot of enjoyment on the road. Don Goede is my tour manager, and we just drove from town to town, and he really knew how to read the road maps and everything, I didn't have to worry about anything like that, so we just had a really great time."
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."