The Healing of Daniel Johnston

This story was originally published on November 3, 1994 in Issue 694 of Rolling Stone

ALTHOUGH DANIEL Johnston doesn’t agree with those who call him a musical genius, he accepts their designation. After all, he has been called worse. A decade ago, when Johnston was working at a McDonald’s in Austin. Texas, he spent every free hour and dollar on tapes he would record in his apartment. He would give away the cassettes on the street to pretty girls and anybody else who looked vaguely interested. He would also pester members of local bands to let him perform and play a few songs as their guest. His songs were almost frighteningly intense and painfully sincere; his stage manner was so nervous his knees would knock. He wanted desperately to be famous.

“Some people really liked me, and other people were making fun of me they thought I was a freak show,” says Johnston. “I was just all wrapped up in the middle of it like a total psychopath. Not like a killer or anything. More like a way-out teddy bear. … And if people were making fun of me, if they have a good time making fun of me, then that’s just as good, really. I’m entertaining them. Maybe I’m more of a comedian than they know.”

These days, Johnston is enjoying the last laugh. His new Atlantic Records album, Fun, fullfills a life’s ambition, one that has carried him on a roller coaster of emotional upheaval. Since the days when he was raised as a fundamentalist Christian in West Virginia, he has been a carnival runaway, an acid casualty, a mental patient under treatment for manic depression and the most ardent Beatles disciple on the planet.

In the process, Johnston became a beyond-underground musical hero whose work has been championed by Sonic Youth, the late Kurt Cobain and Yo La Tengo (with whom he recorded a single on a radio broadcast, during which he literally phoned in his vocal). Ballets in France and New York City have been choreographed to Johnston’s music. His low-fi home recordings received wider circulation through CD release on a couple of Homestead collections. Subsequently, he recorded a pair of studio albums for Shimmy-Disc — the Satan-obsessed 1990 and the light-hearted Artistic Vice — which documented the range of his emotional extremes.

Now that Johnston is edging toward the rock mainstream as the latest alternative to the increasingly generic alternative, his album is likely to fan the flames of debate that once raged through Austin. To put it bluntly: Daniel Johnston, genius or geek? Produced by the Butt-hole Surfers’ Paul Leary, the album features 18 Johnston compositions that run the gamut from romantic obsession (“Mind Contorted,” “Crazy Love”) to abject loneliness (“Life in Vain”), from comic-book heroism (“Jelly Beans”) to psychotic reaction (“Psycho Nightmare,” “Delusion and Confusion”) to rock & roll redemption (Rock & Roll/EGA”). With his quavering voice, childlike imagination and singsong melodicism, he sounds incapable of artifice.

Where Johnston’s rudimentary keyboard and guitar once provided his only musical hacking Fun fleshes out his material with support from cellist John Hagen (Lyle Lovett’s band), pianist Bobbie Nelson (Willie’s sister), guitarist Leary and Surfers drummer King Coffey. Leary recorded Johnston in the garage of Johnston’sparents’ home outside Houston — where he has been living since his release from the Austin State Hospital last fall — and then layered the studio tracks around hire.

“With Daniel Johnston being the musical and songwriting genius that he is,” says Leary, “it’s really fun as a producer to come in and have almost a blank slate to work with. You turn on a tape machine with Darnel and a microphone, and good things happen. And it’s pure Daniel Johnston. What you hear is what he is.”

And what Johnston is, is a 210-pound, 33-year-old kid — the sole inhabitant of his own fantasyland — who continues to idolize Casper the Friendly Ghost and Captain America (both of whom have made frequent appearances in his songs and drawings), who believes in parallel universesand the eventual return of John Lennon (whose Plastic Ono Band album profoundly influenced Johnston’s vulnerable, naked recordings) and who never developed the layers of emotional bark behind which most people protect their feeling.

“I forgot to grow up, I guess,” Johnston says with a hugh. “I’m a simple kind of guy, just like a child, drawing pictures and making up songs, playing around all the time.”

The purity of his artistic impulses is a large part of Johnston’s appeal, since he is as likely to give away his drawings (some of which have fetched as much as $300 from collectors, others of which illustrate Fun) and songs as to sell them. He depends on others to look out for his best interests when he isn’t always clear where his best interests lie. During last year’s stay at the state hospital, he was all but signed to Elektra Records, then decided to split from his longtime manager, who had negotiated the deal. Atlantic aggressively pursued Johnston, aware that the artist’s history of mental instability would likely prohibit touring or much press access and that the label could be seen as walking a thin line between promoting Johnston and exploiting him.

“I think the record speaks for itself,” says Yves Beauvais, who signed Johnston to Atlantic and worked with Leary on mixing and arrangements. “The music is so real, the songs are so strong, and the performances are so honest. The challenge was to maintain the homespun, innocent, raw feeling of Daniel’s home tapes and the spontaneity of his performance while bringing it sonically into something a little more user friendly.”

By coincidence the public will have a chance to experience a double dose of Johnston’s songwriting through Bar/None’s release of Kathy McCarty’s Dead Dog’s Eyeball: Songs of Daniel Johnston. McCarty formerly sang with Glass Eye, the post-punk Austin band that first shared its stage with Johnston in 1985. She began recording her labor-of-love tribute when he was in the hospital last year and the prospect of his recording his own songs remained in limbo.

“Most of the people who are big Daniel Johnston fans are other song-writers,’ says McCarty, who drew heavily from his mid-’80s tapes for her selection. “The first time I heard his cassette, it was like ‘This guy is an incredible, genius songwriter.’ You can look at some of his songs and go, ‘What a great arrangement, what a great middle eight, what a great turn of phrase!’ I never thought he was like a freak show or like ‘Listen to this guy have a nervous breakdown on this record.’ “

The challenge for Johnston and those around him is to keep him on an even keel through this career surge, since such overstimulation has frequently precipitated his hospital stay. There was a crash landing following his performance at 1990’s Austin Music Awards, when Johnston — convinced that he was Captain America — tried to wrest the controls of a private plane from his pilot father. There was an earlier episode in 1988 when Johnston attempted to exorcise what he thought was the devil in a 68-year-old woman (who broke her legs when she leapt out a window trying to escape). After his last public performances in Texas a couple of years ago, a restaurant battle with three policemen landed Johnston in jail before he was returned to the Austin State Hospital.

“It’s kind of like a Twilight Zone episode,” Johnston says of his hospital stays. “It was kind of fun there, all these loony people acting psychotic. In fact, they wanted me to go home three times, and each time I said, ‘I’ll stay a bit longer: I was involved with the people there and just didn’t feel that I could leave them.”

These days, Johnston’s parents are helping to make sure that he takes the drugs that are prescribed for him and stays away from the ones that aren’t. While hoping not to threaten his fragile stability, a major recording corporation is attempting to secure Johnston’s reputation as one of the most significant songwriters in modern music.

“There are no two Daniel songs that sound alike,” says Beauvais, “and songs keep gushing out of him from who knows where. This is a very different-sounding album than anything he’s ever done before, yet in my mind, it’s the truest attempt at a real studio record by Daniel Johnston. I think Paul took extreme caution in making sure this was Daniel’s record. When we were mixing Paul’s favorite statement was `Remember, Yves, we’re not doing this to Daniel. We’re doing it for Daniel.”

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