Daniel Johnston is a 47-year-old man who seems trapped in the mind of a boy. His simple, painfully direct songs are refreshing in the way that they cut through the self examination and other filters of maturity and nakedly reveal the most intimate thoughts and feelings. He is a remarkable example of a man who has, in many ways, capitalized on his limitations to further his chosen art form. Of all the things to be admired about this man, the first and foremost is that he has never been afraid of showing his art to the world.
While many artists will take three or four years to put out ten or twelve songs that are “polished enough to release,” Johnston is famous for getting his music out to the public as quick as possible, in any way possible. His first album, Songs of Pain, released in 1981, contained 20 songs recorded in his garage on an old boom box and then dubbed onto cassette. Johnston took the dubbed cassettes around to radio stations, newspapers and music clubs, saying, “I’m Daniel Johnston, here’s a tape of mine for you to listen to.”
At first listen, Johnston’s music is sure to put some people off, and others might simply hate it. However, for those who are willing to look past the sometimes shaky voice, the untrained guitar style and the often sub-par sonic quality of the recordings, the lyrics are a reward greater than most in music. They are not the complex rhyming genius of Dylan, or the hook-filled pop of Lennon and McCartney; they are simple, and in their simplicity, they are beautiful.
Between 1981 and 1985, Johnston recorded and released seven albums of his instantly recognizable material, with two more albums’ worth of songs recorded during that period released in 1987. In all, Johnston wrote and recorded more than 200 separate songs in those five years, the most prolific of his troubled life. In the intervening 20 years, Johnston has gone through periods of mania, delusions, and even forced incarceration in a state mental hospital.
Fortunately, when Listen Up Denver! caught up with Johnston at his home in Waller, Texas, he was in good spirits and was having a good day. “I’m doing a lot better today,” Johnston said, referring to the day before when several interviews had to be cancelled because he simply wouldn’t get out of bed to answer the phone.
For Johnston, public life has always been a rollercoaster ride. From the first time he was featured on the MTV show “The Cutting Edge” in 1985, right up through today, he has been unpredictable as he operates under the microscope of an ever-growing fan base. In addition to canceling interviews with no notice, he has been known to not show up on stage or to turn in an extremely brief performance before calling it a night while on tour. For those close to Johnston, it’s all par for the course.
These days, those close to Johnston have brought the Daniel Johnston brand literally “in-house.” Bill Johnston, Daniel’s 85-year-old father, took over management duties several years ago and Johnston’s brother Dick is currently running his website and handling several other facets of the business. “When my Dad took over as manager, I was instantly rich and I knew what was going on. We have releases coming out and I am happy about the way things are going right now,” Johnston said. “It’s a family thing and it’s going so well, better than ever before. All I have to do is keep on playing, writing and drawing.”
Though much of his time so far this year has been spent on the road, Johnston has been holding up his end of the bargain and has been busy writing new songs that occasionally pop up in his live shows. “I have a lot of new material, enough for maybe five albums,” Johnston revealed. “I was hoping to record some this year but it sounds like they are planning to put me on the road, so I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know if I’ll have time or be able to. I keep asking them, ‘Hey can we record?’ and they keep telling me, ‘Oh, if we get a chance.’”
In fact, Johnston hasn’t been spent any significant time in the studio since 2006. Over the past couple of years he has been well enough to brave the road again and has been booked on runs of a week or two at a time in the U.S. and Europe. In many cities his shows are sellouts, as hipster youths mingle with 30- or 40-somethings that came of age when Johnston was cranking out albums hand over fist. Maybe it’s the recent covers album, The Late Great Daniel Johnston, that attracts the kids, or maybe it is the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, but whatever it is that got them hooked, all these people are turning out for the same reason, to see a legend perform in the flesh.
Though life on the road is obviously exhausting for him, Johnston was quick to say that he really enjoyed the first leg of his 2008 tour. “It was a lot of fun, sell-out crowds, lots of people and it looked like everybody was having a good time,” he said. “There have been some really good looking girls out there, too, and I like it when they come backstage to talk to me.”
Johnston’s recent shows have featured guitarist Brett Hartenbach for a large portion of the evening. “Until we started playing together I hadn’t seen him for almost 20 years,” Johnston said. “I used to go to college with Brett. He was in a band that was great and I was their big fan. I was always trying to get them to hear my music and it really meant a lot to me when I finally got to play Brett some of my songs, because he was a heck of a musician. On tour, we are playing some of the songs that I wrote during that period. ‘Grievances,’ ‘Living Life’ and some others, I guess. It’s been a lot of fun to be on the road with him.”
It was those songs and the ones that followed that made their way into the hands and ears of many influential musicians and artists. From Kurt Cobain, who declared Johnston his favorite songwriter and famously wore Johnston’s “Hi How Are You” shirt onstage at the 1992 MTV Video Music awards, to Tom Waits, Beck and The Flaming Lips, who all paid tribute to Johnston on The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered, that was released in 2004.
It was, however, another kind of artist that gave Johnston’s career its biggest and most recent boost when, in 2005, Jeff Feuerzeig earned the Best Director award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival when he debuted his documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston. The film offers the viewer a candid and largely unbiased view into the life and career of one of the most troubled musicians of our age.
Though the process of making the movie seemed to be a little arduous for Johnston, he is largely pleased with the results. “I have seen it about ten times and I think it’s hilarious. It made all of us kinda stars,” Johnston said. “Because of the movie we are doing a lot better. We are able to play bigger places, things like that. It really made a lot of difference.”
Love him or hate him, it’s hard not to give this man some credit for standing up and believing in himself day in and day out. It seems that in his case, that’s all it took to make people realize that there can be genius in the most simple of songs banged out on a nylon string guitar or toy organ. For those who can look past the surface, the true beauty of this troubled soul will come shining through.
“Hold me like a mother would,
Like I always knew somebody should
Though tomorrow don’t look that good.”
-Daniel Johnston “Living Life”
Check Out Daniel Johnston If You Like:
- Tom Waits
- Harvey Pekar