Since the moment I first listened to Daniel Johnston, I was devoted, because the ache in his voice made it obvious that this wasn’t a choice. For him creating was a necessity and continues to be.

I don’t care how good of a musician you are if it’s not made out of necessity. I don’t care if your guitar or your voice or anything you touch is out of tune if I can tell the music is made because you need it. I am obsessed with those that create out of necessity. A good album is good even if recorded from beginning to end in the basement of your sister’s house on a old cassette recorder post-breakdown.

With so many of my infatuations, I know that they create out of the necessity, because you can tell that for some odd reason singing while strumming a guitar — even badly — makes them feel so much better. This is how music becomes art, because technique can be learned but the necessity is something you’re born with. For some the necessity makes it all better, then for some it makes it worse but it never leaves. It’s a twisted relationship that is often one sided. Necessity that is counter-technique, counter-following-rules, counter-structure, and I am fascinated by those like this because I am the same way. Structure overwhelms me. I could always see a similar restraint within Johnston’s music.

On Saturday, November 4 at the Herbst Theater in San Francisco, I got to see this necessity live. I got to see Daniel Johnston live during what they are calling his final tour. But first they showed the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which explores his career side-by-side with the worsening of his manic depression and schizophrenia. It allows us to see what many of us always knew: artists have pain, but without just the art and the myth. It’s a full visual of the painful life of Daniel Johnston and how mental health is not just a character quirk: It’s scary, dirty, and it's hard to look straight into when not hidden over a melody, pretty words, or paint. The documentary doesn’t romanticize, but it doesn’t demonize neither. It doesn’t use the illness as an upcoming attraction. It shows the reality of it. It proves Johnston’s necessity to create.

I had never seen the documentary before. I had wanted to, but I think I made a good choice in waiting. Otherwise I may have not seen it before seeing Johnston live, nor would it had been during a time where it’d would resonate so well. While I was feeling alone in the largest sense, and while going through one of the hardest mental years of my life. Daniel Johnston’s music means the world to me because of what it means to me during my rough moments. The innocence, the lack of fear of being strange, of sounding weird within Johnston’s music and pureness of pain is something that has held me throughout my early 20s.

The live show was backed by (Phono del Sol vet) Sonny Smith, Cass Mccombs, members of Heron Oblivion, and more. The stage was adorned with magnificent instruments that I do not know the names of other than the basics and a harp. Johnston sat front center, with a music stand, shaky hands, and a theater full of devoted fans. He broke into classic Beatles (his favorite band of all time) songs before going into his own. I had heard that the backing band of musicians whom he had inspired chose the songs, but even if that is a lie, they did a wonderful job of carrying the childlike innocence and the shadowing melancholy of Johnston’s music. They brought out the fact that Johnston is an amazing songwriter and cradled that. I wanted to sing along, but I didn’t want to ruin the moment for anyone, and especially not for myself. I wanted to be as present as I could, and by the lack the phones in the air, I could tell I was not alone in that. None of us knew if this was the final time we’d ever hear “Casper The Friendly Ghost” live (my personal favorite).

He ended the night with everyone’s favorite entry to his music, “True Love Will Find You in The End” and just as that song had comforted me into tears in the past it did the same to me then. We ended the night with a standing ovation.

I doubt this is Daniel Johnston's final tour, but even if his health makes it difficult, music and art are his necessity. It's what keeps him alive, and no one will ever take that away from him.

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