This talented but troubled man is an artist I’ve followed for years. Like Kurt Cobain, David Bowie and Matt Groening, I’ve felt some connection with the sweetness of Johnston’s singing and the vulnerability of his writing. His artwork, too, is a sort of window on the soul. I arranged this interview through his father, Bill, for The Word magazine in September 2006.
Below it is a brief review of his album Lost And Found.
Daniel Johnston is the middle-aged man-child whose songs and drawings have won comparisons to Brian Wilson and Vincent Van Gogh. Whether he really possesses their level of genius is debatable. What is undeniably true, unfortunately, is that Daniel has shared their mental instability. Manic depression has shaped the fractured style of his art – music that is crudely played but with an innocent beauty, drawings that are child-like yet full of anguish. In a high, plaintive croak, he sings these simple tunes about the girls he loved but who never loved him back, or how much he likes The Beatles, or about the monsters that patrol the edge of his consciousness.
You can see why so many musicians adore him: nobody would want Daniel Johnston’s life, but they might envy his utter lack of calculation, or reserve, or irony. He is real in a way that most artists would nowadays find impossible. Though Johnston has his demons, he’s uniquely free of self-consciousness.
A new documentary film of his life, Jeff Feuerzeig’s The Devil And Daniel Johnston, has appeared on DVD. It’s a compelling watch, very touching and quite disturbing. You’ll come away loving the tubby, confused, sweetly sincere character that it celebrates. But you will not forget the ominous statement that opens the story: ‘I believe in God and I believe in the Devil. There’s certainly a Devil and he knows my name.’
Johnston, who still lives with his parents, was born 45 years ago and grew up in West Virginia; his father Bill was a WW2 pilot and the kids were raised to be devout church-goers. Unlike his brother and sisters, Daniel proved a handful, obsessed by rock music and the comic book artist Jack Kirby. He made satirical home movies and liked to draw detached eyeballs everywhere. At college, his eccentricity turned downright strange. He met and fell for a pretty girl named Laurie – who, in failing to reciprocate, became the Beatrice to his Dante, inspiring literally hundreds of songs of unrequited love.
He joined a travelling carnival and fetched up in the Texan music hub of Austin. Here he found friendship with a local singer, Kathy McCarty, who would become the second muse in Daniel’s lovelorn writing. And he made the first in a series of lo-fi cassettes, Hi, How Are You: when he couldn’t dub copies, he simply recorded it all over again. He ambled onto the set of an MTV special and his reputation began to spread: early supporters included The Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth and, most famously, Kurt Cobain, who wore a Daniel Johnston T-shirt at every photo opportunity. By 1990 he was an authentic cult legend. David Bowie spoke warmly of him, as did The Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening.
But Johnston’s tale is pretty bleak, despite the acclaim. An acid trip played havoc with his delicate psyche, and his brain went AWOL. He attacked his manager with a lead pipe; he assaulted his brother at a family party; there were long spells in the asylum. And the evidence of his turmoil is all across The Devil And Daniel Johnston, in deranged tape recordings, or in DIY video footage of a swivel-eyed sufferer, pronouncing on Satanic possessions and military conspiracies, declaring his Manson-esque obsession with The Beatles’ Revolution 9. For a long time, he was too severely sedated to make any music at all.
In fact a recurrent challenge in Daniel’s case is to find medication that calms, without stupefying, and to ensure that he actually takes it. The most horrifying story in the whole film – and his quiet, stoical father weeps openly when he tells it – is of the day Bill Johnston flew his son home from a gig in their two-seater aircraft. Daniel, having secretly ‘ducked his meds’, looked up from his comic book, wrenched the engine key from the controls and threw it out of the window. As the plane went into a nosedive, his father summoned all his skill to contrive a survivable crash landing. There are photos of the wreckage and their escape was indeed miraculous. Going home, they marvelled at a church sign which read: ‘God promises a safe landing, but not a calm voyage.’
It’s actually Daniel’s parents who emerge as the real heroes in The Devil And Daniel Johnston. Elderly and tired, they look after their big, awkward son from morning until night. They’re un-complaining. Once a week they take him to the shops and on Sundays to church. They’ve protected his earnings in a business that’s culturally alien to them, and provided for his health care. Right now his life is stable and his career is booming. But the film ends with an apprehensive glance at the future, to a time when Mr and Mrs Johnston are no longer around.
By prior arrangement, I phone Bill Johnston at the family home in Waller, Texas, and ask for Daniel. I’m unsure what to expect of this interview, but Daniel comes to the phone and we’re away. It’s a disjointed but enjoyable conversation. The Daniel Johnston I speak to this morning is friendly and lucid. He talks a lot about girls and a lot about The Beatles.
It transpires he’s watched The Devil And Daniel Johnston several times, and is slowly warming to it: ‘At first I was painfully an eyesore, since I was so fat during the period that they filmed and it was all about everything negative that had happened to me. But eventually after the fourth time I saw there was a sense of humour to it because my friends went with me and they were laughing all the time.’
But it’s natural, I suppose, that a film will go for the most dramatic points in a story?
‘Of course. It was just embarrassing that every major downfall I had was the story of the film. But it is kind of funny. I was so fat, and I hope to lose weight. I used to be so skinny, and lots of girls would come round. I’ve still got the girls but not as many, so I’ll have to lose weight!’
He’d played a gig in Houston two nights previously, and confesses he found it tough: ‘I was having a hard time but I made it through a couple of songs at least.’ And though he can draw whenever he likes, and finds it easy, songwriting can be troublesome: ‘But I do hope to get more professional and I am making a living from it. And I’m very happy that I haven’t worked since 1986.’
You mean ‘worked’ in the sense of an ordinary job?
‘Right! I used to work in McDonald’s, that was the last place I worked.’
Do you enjoy your fame?
‘Uh-huh. Well I loved The Beatles and Paul McCartney and it’s a major influence on my life, I feel their spirit somehow looms over me. Though I listen to a lot of other different bands there is no one with such poignancy, honesty or hilarious humour that The Beatles had.’
What are you writing about now? Is unrequited love still one of your themes?
‘Well, I’m trying to write songs about different girls now. And I’ve got so many of those kind of songs already written that I never recorded. And what am I going to do with all these songs, because I don’t really feel that way any more. I’ve met some new girls and I feel hopeful. Things are going pretty cool.’
The only point where Daniel seems uncomfortable is when I ask about the Devil, and whether he likes having that word in the film title: ‘Oh man. They kinda snuck that title on me, a pretty strange title, you gotta admit. And in the movie I look like a psycho, I’m not really that way. I’m pretty sane. Honestly. Whether somebody would believe that or not… From listening to me they might think differently… I, er, er, I don’t appreciate the Devil. But the Devil ain’t real, it’s just a lie. It’s like, ‘If you sin, with a grin, it’ll do you in.’ Er… You’re safe from that sort of thing as long as you behave yourself. The Devil can’t get you when you behave yourself. So I’m not scared but that title was a real shock to me.’
How do your parents regard your career?
‘My Dad’s my manager now and ever since he took over I’ve been rich, flying all over the world, recording, every opportunity turned out real good. So I know what’s going on and I’m able to get along with a lot of fun.’
But he’s from a different generation. How does he like you singing the praises of marijuana, for instance?
‘My parents do listen to the music but I don’t think they noticed the marijuana reference, I got that past them this time. But The Beatles were definitely what got me going with music and as soon as I discovered them I was buying their albums left and right. When I came to Texas I probably had about $2000 worth of Beatles bootlegs. I had to take some back to get cash when I ran out of money but then I’d probably buy them back from the same store I sold them to. Just a few years ago I was listening to nothing but The Beatles, smoking and listening to The Beatles all day long. I’m Beatle crazy.’
It’s amazing that so much of your life has been recorded. On the DVD it’s like you’ve used a video camera or a tape recorder almost every day since childhood. Why is that?
‘Well, I think I was trying in my mind to be famous, so I wouldn’t have to work at the pottery.’
‘They have lots of potteries back in West Virginia, you know, for pots and dishes and stuff. I worked in a place for cups and saucers. It was a great luxury to have the radio on all day long but I had to get out of there. It took me a long time to make money on my art, but now my art sells on the website for a pretty good price. I have a lot of extra money to spend and I feel like I’m rich. I just go and buy albums and DVDs all the time.’
Are you a contented man now, Daniel?
‘So much has happened since that movie. Things are looking better. Things are happening. I just see that it could work out. So I’m happy.’
A review from The Word, June 2006:-
Lost And Found
It’s easy to feel suspicious of the Daniel Johnston phenomenon. This, after all, is a performer who suffers from authentic mental illness (as opposed to the ‘I’m ker-ray-zee, I am’ act that’s common in rock) and is yet a fashionable name to drop. Famously, this Texan singer songwriter was endorsed by Kurt Cobain and championed by David Bowie, while his cartoons – vivid, naive and often grotesque – are acclaimed by the Simpsons’ creator Matt Groening. There is something so strange about Johnston’s art that you’re compelled to investigate. But is our curiosity only a sort of voyeurism?
Well, the best antidote to such doubts is simply hearing his music. Like its several predecessors, Lost And Found abounds in touching, clumsy and often beautiful songs. Lo-fi rock and plonking piano ballads frame his fractured, pleading voice – the voice, you have to remember, of a middle-aged man who is still looked after by his elderly parents – as he hymns some unrequited love with artless sincerity. It’s a sign of Johnston’s lack of guile, I think, that his twin delights are The Beatles and Marilyn Monroe, honoured in The Beatles and Mrs Daniel Johnston respectively. A more calculating writer would surely have picked less obvious objects of puppyish affection.
These are scruffy performances (though the producer Brian Beattie adds some very sophisticated touches) but they are heart-rending. Witness the cruelly autobiographical Lonely Song: ‘I bet you never knew what I went through, just to bring you a Lonely Song… When I think I’ve won the fight, the monster comes back again.’ It’s a dispatch from some place few songwriters have been, and ought never to pretend they have.