(Art photos by Yafi Yair)

Last night was a strange, sad and awesome one at Grand Central in downtown Miami. Daniel Johnston, the cult singer-songwriter and famous battler of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, was to perform in South Florida for the first time ever. But the evening’s main event was not his performance per se, which barely clocked 30 minutes, but the art installation filling several cubicles along one wall of the nightclub (the installation will still up for tonight’s Dan Deacon and Tanlines concert at Grand Central).

In addition to his distinctive songbook, Johnston is also an accomplished visual artist whose paintings and comic-book drawings channel many of the same anxieties, themes and images that recur in his music. Grand Central exhibited a sizable portion of it, as teeming crowds huddled close to the illustrations, imbibing their childlike simplicity, copious thought bubbles and sense of dark humor laced with paranoia.

Many great artists are crazy, and probably vice versa, with Johnston clearly channeling his illness into his various media – resulting in images like Superman standing atop a demonic popcorn puff and saying “Let’s kill Satan!” In “Please Help,” a black man is invaded on all sides by two-faced Toby mugs, cops, cats and …. Jews? Or is the Jewish star on the man’s sleeve supposed to a swastika? A baby Hitler turns up in another drawing, the top of his skull removed for easy excavation. The devil turns up quite a bit, as well as various and sundry animals of mystical origin. All of the women in Johnston’s art are foreign creatures themselves, with breasts beyond the reasonability of even the maddest plastic surgeon.

Hanging on adjacent walls were single pieces by a dozen artists from the Miami Art Movement, who created works inspired by Johnston’s. This resulted in some of the night’s cleanest, loveliest and most diverse work, from Richard Kurtz’s “Flash” and “Casper” to Floyd Higgins’ big and boldly colored “Rock With Daniel” (all three of them are pictured above).

(photo courtesy of Alexandre Lopes)

Johnston took the stage shortly before 10 o’clock, and the capacity crowd clogged the stage in anticipation for what will probably be a once-in-a-lifetime South Florida concert. The nine-song set list (posted below), which is typical of Johnston’s recent tour appearances, consisted mostly of sing-a-long favorites from his canon. Johnston read from a lyric book while an acoustic guitarist performed the music, but he wasn’t in the best shape to entertain. As he clutched the microphone, he shook like a Parkinson’s patient for the entirety of his concert – no doubt a result of medication, nerves or both. He was supposed to play a song on piano, but a problem, either with Daniel or the piano, prevented it from happening. And at one point, he spoiled somebody’s planned proposal to his girlfriend, saying into the mic something to the effect of “Now are there some people who are going to come up here and propose to each other?”

He had an appreciative crowd cheering him on every step of the way, shouting “you are an inspiration!” and thanking him for every number he performed. I was grateful to hear Daniel too, but found the experience a little heartbreaking, because I know what he’s capable of when he’s doing well. I saw him perform in Athens, Georgia in 2007, in one of the greatest concerts I’ve ever seen. It was divided into three parts, with Johnston himself playing guitar for part of it, plumbing his entire catalog for hits and electrifying a room for what must have been a solid hour or more. Based on that performance alone, you’d never get the impression Johnston was ill.

In addition to being a fascinating night of art and music – and, indeed, an inspiring evening – last night’s show was a sad reminder of how debilitating mental illness can be.

SET LIST:

There is a Sense of Humor Way Beyond Friendship

Walking the Cow

Living Life

The Sun Shines Down on Me

Life in Vain

Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Your Grievances

You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away (Beatles)

High Horse

True Love Will Find You in the End