Monday, February 25, 2008
From the Beard archives: Daniel Johnston
Originally published in Beard #4, 2005.
Words: Neil Erik Jaques
Illustration: Kelly Dyson
The weary voice of Daniel Johnston’s octogenarian father crackles down the phone line as we make small talk and wait for Daniel to arrive. He sounds tired.
All of a sudden a fusillade of stomping noises can be heard in the background.
“We need to get another phone ‘cause this one is too cheap,'” wheezes an unmistakably clarion voice.
From photos and seeing him in concert, I picture Daniel as a pedomorphic Ignatius J.
Reilly (minus the bile and hatred), shambolically blustering around, knocking things over, sweating profusely.
“Hi, how are you?” he chirps cheerfully.
It’s an auspicious start, and I must admit that I approached this interview with trepidation. Looking back at his history and formulating questions about it was like driving a monster truck across a minefield.
He’s been through a hell of a lot: jail, manic depression, unrequited love, Satanic hallucinations (he crashed a plane his father was flying, believing him to be the devil), institutionalization, delusions of grandeur and religious guilt. He’s been cast as a laughingstock, a genius and a fool, and has suffered exploitative friends - not to mention bad acid and bad medication.
At 44, he still lives with his parents in Waller, Texas and earns his spending money from selling drawings to his Dad (“for cigarettes and soda pop and for DVDs and CDs and Kleenexes and art supplies and stuff“). He’ll soon gain more independence, as they’re building him a house next door.
In any case, most of his day-to-day life is spent in the garage. Converted into the ultimate recluse’s sanctuary, this is where he writes his songs, drinks tea, smokes cigarettes, watches horror movies and listens to the Beatles, one of his greatest loves. I’ve barely alluded to them and he’s off on a lengthy discourse on their importance, peppered with confusing expositions on how they inform his work. Eventually he calms down.
“When I started buying records myself at garage sales I got a bunch of singles and I played them all and I loved them all, and my two favourites were by Paul McCartney. So I was like, cool: Paul McCartney,” he says, brightly.
“Then I found out that Paul McCartney was in the Beatles and I got the Beatles stuff. I was like cool! Paul McCartney’s old band! I wonder if they are any good?”
He finishes the sentence with a snorting, nervous giggle.
Throughout our conversation, his voice will lurch from fatigued and hollow to febrile and joyous. His responses are either brimming with enthusiasm or truncated by curt monosyllables. Sentences stumble into each other, ideas are repeated, everything is punctuated by “y’know”, almost anything he’s done is described as “a lot of fun”, and he’ll answer simple questions with torrents of dialogue, uttered without drawing breath. He seems at his most guarded when I’m praising his songs or ability. He’s not, however, shy about his past.
“I had a great childhood,” Daniel says bluntly.
“I was so young and positive and everything was great! I had the best childhood, but when I was in junior high I had a nervous breakdown and then that’s when I became a manic depressive.”
There’s an uncomfortable, seemingly endless silence.
“I suffered so bad with depression for so many years, like five years, and my life was just ruined. I’ve been a manic depressive ever since. Life has been a real struggle between manic and depressive and in my childhood I was so happy. I had the perfect childhood. I was a real well-balanced and together person, y’know. In my childhood I was very happy.”
After all the emotional nadirs, institutionalizations and horror stories, the current incarnation of Daniel is far more stable. He’s on better medication, his profile is as high as it’s ever been, and, he admits, he’s never been happier.
“I’m doing pretty well, I feel like I’m climbing the ladder and that maybe someday I can really make it in the big time. Every day I’m making attempts at it. I’ve just got to keep the ball rolling,“ he pronounces, sounding bored.
For the most part, Daniel just does his own thing. He’s devoutly religious and plays regularly with a Christian band, Danny & The Nightmares (who have an album in the works); he’s planning to make a gospel album; he has four solo albums worth of songs and his next record, four years in the making, and due in September, will be “surprising, pristine and complex,” he informs me.
The past year has been a particularly eventful one, with the release of the acclaimed documentary, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, as well as a tribute album featuring an impressive roster of stars.
“The songs are just fine,” says Daniel laconically. “When I was first asked who I wanted, I was sayin’ Paul McCartney! Elvis Costello! The Who, y’know! But all these people [Tom Waits, Beck, Bright Eyes, et al] did just fine.”
The genesis of his extraordinary and vast songbook can be traced back to his college years. And, as is the paradigm for so much art, it can all be attributed to a woman.
Laurie has become so entangled with the legend of Daniel Johnston that anyone with even a passing acquaintance with his work will be familiar with her. To Daniel she’s a deity who kicked his ass and soul into life; to his fans she’s a metaphor for heartbreak and hope - indie rock’s equivalent of Gatsby’s amorphous green light.
“When I first saw her, it was the very instant I fell in love with her. She was beautiful. We became really good friends right away. If she hadn’t liked me, I would have been, y’know, just completely…I would have died,” he says, aghast.
“But she was polite to me right away and there was a certain charm about us, we were good friends, even though she already had a boyfriend that was a mortician, an undertaker. It didn’t seem to matter to her.
“She treated me just like gold,” he says, voice trembling with emotion.
“We were really good friends and, um, everything was funny, y’know, it just happened that way and I was writing songs and I played her some songs and she said, y’know, you do that well and I just freaked out! I was banging on that piano every day and I just went crazy about writing songs. She inspired me to the max and that’s how Songs of Pain was born.”
His songs from this period were taped using only a rudimentary tape recorder, and if anyone wanted another copy he’d have to re-record it, live, in its entirety. With their beatific faith in the redemptive power of love, these simple, timeless songs can tear your heart out, and are also some of the finest examples of melodic song-writing since McCartney cared.
He cut a strange figure, trundling around Austin in the early 80s, handing out fragile, ramshackle, but somehow perfect tapes to passers-by (“the pretty girls especially!”), convinced he was going to be a rock star.
Beloved, eccentric Danny was a local best-seller and his music was becoming a defining fixture of Austin’s fecund music scene. So when MTV came to town he was a natural choice to feature on their seminal music programme, Cutting Edge.
Things were looking up: the buzz surrounding the MTV show gave him the attention he craved and he was being lauded by both the musical underground and the music press. Cross-over success beckoned. Sadly, on the night of the broadcast, he assaulted his manager while in the throes of a bad acid trip. It was to have lasting repercussions on his mental state. All the pressure had taken its toll, and it is a sad reoccurring trend that when Daniel is most successful, his mind is at its most fragile.
During the next twenty years, despite his at times crippling depression, he continued to pen inchoate, beautiful and unadulterated musical missives to Laurie. Even though he was unsure she’d ever hear them he was determined not to stop dreaming or fantasising.
It wasn’t until recently that, as a complete surprise to him, they were reunited at Austin’s SXSW festival for the premiere of The Devil and Daniel Johnston.
“It was so great to see her,” he gushes effusively, words colliding as he tries to express it all at once.
“She was every bit more beautiful than ever. They [director Jeff Feuerzeig] invited her to come to the festival and she was so beautiful and every moment that we spent together they were filming it, filming us right and left and she was talking to the camera and talking about the songs, talking about the albums, and I couldn’t believe it!
“I’d never heard her talk so much about the albums or anything. I hadn’t seen her for like 20 years! She, uh, y’know, looked so beautiful, more beautiful than ever and, ah, it was unreal! It was so great, y’know. I was hugging her, kissing her, hugging her and kissing her more than I’ve ever done before. It was unreal, it was just like a dream. There’s hope for me now, there really is.”
At the very least you’ve rekindled…I begin to say.
“It really was strange,” he interjects, but is at a loss for words.
“It was really real! It was just like a dream, it really was. She…looked great.”
“She was more beautiful than ever.”
Is she still married to the undertaker?
“No, she’s not. She had another marriage but she didn’t act like she was married, y’know, I mean once I would hug her, she wouldn’t let go, you know what I mean? It was great! I couldn’t believe it, y’know. When I knew her before I only had kissed her once and only hugged her once. This time we were at it again and again. It was unreal!
For somebody who has written so extensively about the redemptive power of love and the hope and pain it entails, I put a question to him I’ve been dying to ask: What is love?
Immediately, he begins to sing a biblical excerpt from Corinthians:
“Love takes patience and time. Love is not arrogant or boastful.”
He trails off.
“Love makes you love, I guess.”
He laughs briefly and there’s another pause.
“Love is something that tastes good. Something perfect, something that strives to be good, or something that’s scary, something that’s….horror.
“It’s something funny,” he adds.
I can hear the clattering sound of a table being set in the background. He’s momentarily silent, then declares:
“Well I’ve got to go, we’re having supper right now.”