By: Andrew Bruss
Daniel Johnston has reached artistic heights most musicians spend their lives dreaming of. Daniel Johnston has also survived painful, emotional darkness most are fortunate to never know. His career has been earmarked by critical acclaim, memorable songs, an extensive fan base including many top tier songwriters, and a powerful film about his life, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, which won Best Documentary Directing at Sundance.
These things don't matter to Johnston. Much of his life has been an uphill climb, struggling with autism, bipolar disorder, romantic rejection and, through it all, the danger of his situation alienating those closest to him. However, recent developments in his life have been nothing but positive. His mental health has been seemingly stable. He has been touring regularly in front of adoring audience he describes as "pretty kind." And his brother, Dick, has been on the road with him to help keep his house in order. Given the darkness he has faced, it's fair to speculate that his current professional success is nothing short of a dream come true.
When interviewed from his home in Texas, where he currently lives with his folks, he says his favorite part isn't the fans or fame. "What I like about being on tour is comic book shopping and record shopping," says Johnston. "I make enough money so I just get pounds of stuff. It's really fun."
The childlike innocence in this statement speaks to the greater appeal in his music. The suffering he's been through, ever-present in his cracked vocals, is consistently counter-balanced by references to Casper The Friendly Ghost, Captain America, and a subtle optimism that shines through the darkness of his often-depressing lyrics. Johnston's optimism is a large part of his appeal. Given the success of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, most of his fans are well aware of his personal history, something Johnston isn't all that pleased about. But, as a result, his sun-will-come-out-tomorrow philosophy is what provides the triumphant sense of perseverance his fans find so endearing.
As renowned as his music has become in some circles, his drawings have become just as popular in art galleries around the world. His greater passion of the two seems to be his music, but his art serves a purpose as well. "I've been trying to play more music, and I do a lot of drawing because I can sell my art right away," says Johnston.
Unsurprisingly, the reoccurring characters in his songs consistently make their way into his art. "They're all there," Johnston says. "If you take a look at my art you'll see The Frog, and The Boxer. I still do my themes, but I'm hoping someday to put together a cartoon out of it all."
Of all the characters that have become stalwarts in his work, one of the most intriguing has to be Captain America. Johnston has written, sang and drawn about him to such an extent, it makes you wonder if he sees a bit of himself in that red, white, and blue character.
"I've written about Captain America forever," says Johnston. "I remember when I was just a little boy, I was buying a few comic books and the next week when I went to buy comic books there it was, like magic, Captain America! I don't know if Captain America was my hero or [if it was] the artwork, but it was so good. Everything about it just brainwashed me. But I didn't even know who Jack Kirby [co-creator of Captain America and X-Men] was. I called him Kroby. I loved Captain America. Jack Kirby is the greatest artist that ever was, in my opinion."
However, even with an understanding of Johnston's history with the character, his connection to it remained a mystery. When asked if he feels a connection to the patriotic superhero, he flat out distanced himself from any commonalities. "If I was a super hero, maybe I'd be someone like The Hulk," he says. "I get really mad every now and then when something bothers me, and I usually break something. That's not quite The Hulk but that's a super hero I identify with."
Johnston's illness has derailed his music career on several occasions, and when asked if he would do things differently if he could, he says, "I'd like to go back to the past and visit all my friends. It would be hilarious!"
No doubt, Johnston has a very unique outlook on things. His personal experiences, history and brain chemistry formulate a rare, and if anything, abnormal perspective. His music has been described by one JamBase reader as "simultaneously beautiful and terrifying," and can easily be characterized by the polarity of people's reactions. The bizarre intricacies in his well-built song structures draw listeners in with the appeal of a riddle that has no answer.
The simple nature of his songs should by no means be taken as a symptom of a simple man. Johnston is a complicated person, and has a very realistic understanding of his past. Painful events, such as hospitalizations, violent encounters with family members, and a near-death experience brought on by a manic episode have all been public knowledge since the release of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and this has been something Johnston has had to come to terms with.
"Yeah [it's hard] but there's nothing I can do. Even the title was a bit abusive. The Devil and Daniel Johnston? I never would have volunteered it for the title. But, it's such a heavy title, what am I going to do? It's like a nightmare. They just seemed to put me down a bit," offers Johnston.
However, as abused as Johnston felt by the filmmakers, he had no qualms with the way they presented the facts. When asked if they were fair to him, he says, "Yes and no. What they said was true, so there's not much I can do about it."
Regardless of what the film presents and how Johnston feels about it, his music remains inspiring and his legacy still firmly intact. Kurt Cobain's love for Johnston has long been a matter of record. Wilco and Beck have both performed phenomenal, yet-inferior takes on Johnston's "True Love Will Find You In The End," and Eddie Vedder's recent solo trek has found him performing Johnston's "Walking The Cow."
When it came time to discuss his legacy, Johnston spoke as though his death was something he had thought about far more frequently than most people. After the question was pitched, he took a long breath and said, "I just want to be remembered for my albums. When I die, I leave my albums behind."
But with Johnston, whenever he gives you something depressing to chew on, he's bound to follow it with something to pick up your spirits. Without missing a beat, he adds: "But I promise I won't be gone that long. I'll come right back!"
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