Daniel Johnston: the Devil’s in the Details

Daniel Johnston is a genius; Daniel Johnston is a hack. He’s been called both. But only one thing’s been proven: Daniel Johnston is sick.

The singer-songwriter and artist, called the “greatest songwriter alive” by some and “that crazy guy” by others – whose songs have been covered more than 300 times by artists like Beck, David Bowie, Sonic Youth, Pearl Jam and TV on the Radio – has also just woken up when he picks up the phone at his parents’ home in Waller, Texas.

Truthfully, I’m just happy to reach him at all. When I called his father Bill a day earlier and asked about the possibility of chatting with Daniel the next day, he kind of chuckled. “Well, it’s possible,” he said. You’ll just have to call back and see.”

So I did.

“Are you looking for Daniel?” Bill asks after I identify myself.

“If he’s available,” I say.

“I’ll go find him.”

Two minutes later, Daniel’s on the line and, though he’s not comfortable being interviewed, he seems amicable to chatting.

“The problem is, I have a hard time concentrating,” he explains. “And when people start talking to me I lose track of what they’re saying, so I just go ‘yeah’, ‘uh huh’ and ‘yes’, you know?”

The 48 year old, diagnosed with bipolar disorder in college and the subject of the 2006 documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, recorded his seminal cassette, Hi, How Are You? at home during a nervous breakdown in 1983. He has since served varying stints in various mental institutions. In fact, it was inside one of those hospitals he met with the vice-president of Elektra records to discuss his first major-label deal.

The aftermath of a successful gig at the 1990 Austin Music Awards, where he played for 3,000 people, precipitated that stay. On the way home in his dad’s small plane, Johnston, who’d been surreptitiously ditching his medication, suddenly snatched the key from the ignition and threw it out the window. His dad ditched the plane in the woods. Everyone survived, but the record deal died soon after Johnston accused the label of being satanic.

He is probably the only singer to ever open for a band at New York’s legendary CBGB after being mistakenly released earlier in the day from Bellevue because of a clerical error.

His lo-fi music – like his art – is childlike in its directness and simplicity, seemingly  fuelled by his condition, rather than in spite of it. And, while his forthcoming album, Is and Always Was, is his first original material in six years, he has, in the past, been prolific.

“I wrote a lot of personal stories,” he says. “I pretty much milked anything that happened to me for a song.”

When I ask if he enjoys playing them live, he says, “No. It’s fun to go tour, because I get to go shopping, but as far as being on stage, as soon as I’m up there I’m thinking I gotta get off and just finish the show, get it over with, you know?”

So he likes to travel.

“Not over in Europe,” he says. “They don’t have any ice.”

While his simplistic take on things often elicits laughter, it’s unintentional. He’s not trying to be funny. He just loves Mountain Dew.

Presumably, cold.

There is, of course, a sideshow aspect to Johnston’s career. Would Johnston be as well-regarded if he wasn’t manic-depressive? Would people still buy his albums, artwork and tickets to his shows?

Maybe. But there’s no question Johnston enjoys producing and making a living from his art, even if it remains, for the most part, underground.

“It’s super great,” he says. “I love it. I used to be so poor … but I haven’t worked since 1996, so I’m happy.”

He wasn’t, however, so gung-ho about the title of that devilish documentary.

“It couldn’t be worse, he says. “The Devil and Daniel Johnston. That’s pretty scary. I can’t believe that title. I didn’t even know the title until a week or two before the show.”

But what about the subject?

“I think it’s hilarious. It’s pretty funny. Once you get past the shock value.

“I’ve seen it about 10 times.”

He’s also pleased with the piano virtuoso film producers have cast for a feature film about his life. “So he should be really good on the piano,” he says.

“His name’s Gabriel. I don’t know his last name.”

So is Daniel Johnston an artistic savant? Hard to say. After all, it’s been said that, while talent hits a target no one else can hit, genius hits a target no one else can see.

Well, almost no one.

“I must confess …” he says after I ask him if he thinks he’s a genius. “I believe in my work … because I think about it a lot.”

Regardless, he’s smart enough to realize that it can’t hurt being labeled as one.

“Hey, that’s great. For people to say that, it helps sell records.”

And for Johnston, well, crazier things have happened.


Story by Graeme McRanor originally appeared in the Vancouver Sun

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