Dead dog laughing in the cloud
Legendary singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston is medicated and back on track
“Melodically his songs are brilliant and lyrically they’re funny and moving and authentic. He’s my favorite songwriter.”
—Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons
Daniel Johnston is overweight and middle-aged now. The once fresh-faced singer-songwriter began his career as a street musician in Austin, Texas, selling his own homemade tapes made on a ghetto blaster, and later became famous to rock critics and underground music circles as a songwriter of uncommon honesty and even genius. His warbling, childlike voice, echoing piano riffs, and Beatles-like melodies grace a number of his classic “outsider” folk albums, such as Hi, How are You?, Songs of Pain, and 1990, staples in hipster libraries throughout the early ‘90s.
Unfortunately, violent bouts with manic depression landed him in mental institutions throughout his 20s and 30s, and he retreated from the public eye to live with his parents in Houston. There, he continued to write songs and draw cartoons of his favorite characters like Captain America, skull-faced muscle women and alien slugs. Meanwhile, noteworthy celebs, from the Butthole Surfers to Johnny Depp, performed and recorded his work.
After being dropped from his major label (Atlantic) for failing to make money, Johnston and his fans finally have something to smile about.
Taking new medication that controls his panic attacks and outbursts, the agoraphobic Johnston is back to the creative grindstone and plans a major-city tour to coincide with the release of his new album, Rejected Unknown (see review this issue), as well as another re-issue of a classic recording featuring Daniel and Jad Fair (of Half Japanese fame) on Jagjaguwar Records. There’s also a new book available from SoftSkull Press, the Definitive Daniel Johnston Handbook, an analytical study of his work (with 250 of his illustrations) written by Tarssa English.
When I call Johnston’s home in Houston, Daniel’s father Bill, a retired WWII fighter pilot and devoutly religious man, answers the phone. The friendly Saturday-morning-cartoon voice that follows is unmistakable: Texas accent, goofy teen-like quality. Pure Daniel.
“Yeah, my dad’s my manager now,” he says. “Things are really starting to move for me.”
Born in Sacramento, Johnston isn’t familiar with Chico. His family moved to West Virginia early in his childhood, and though he’s traveled the country several times since, the name doesn’t ring a bell. At a certain point during his teen years, Johnston tells me, he “got real down and ran away to join the carnival,” where he was introduced to marijuana by some folks from Colorado—"that was pretty cool,” he says chuckling to himself. Later, a bad acid trip would leave him confused and paranoid and earn him undue comparisons to Syd Barrett, original Pink Floyd vocalist, who wigged out and dropped off radar.
Johnston recently returned from South Africa, where he was shooting a short film for one of his songs, “King Kong,” for use in “a museum or something.” He had a good time there. That’s the way Johnston describes things, in simple terms: “It was fun” or “It was wild.” No elaboration needed.
Today, what I get are short answers and a wary friendliness below the surface that feels almost fragile, as if a boy’s sensibilities were still trapped somewhere in that 40-year-old body. That’s undoubtedly part of his musical appeal as well—the emotional quotient. When Johnston has fun making music, it pours out of him with no pretense or irony. Likewise, when performing his cathartic songs of heartbreak, he experiences the pain as well. There is no separation between artist and material.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard the live recording of “Careless Soul” from 1990, an a cappella version during which Johnston breaks down twice into tears that silence the awestruck club crowd, some apparently not knowing whether to laugh or cry.
Is it hard for him to be so painfully honest when onstage? “I don’t know about honest,” he says. “I just sing the songs.”
Produced with friend and fellow musician Brian Beattie (of the noted Austin band Glass Eye), the new album is a triumphant return from a man able to pen classic songs like some people lose hair (as Dean Ween says, “Most songwriters would give anything to write one song as good as Daniel, and he has hundreds"). Johnston says he recorded enough material with Beattie—who transported equipment out to Houston over the weekends to record—to release another album for Gammon records, part of his two-deal contract.
With a host of instruments added by Beattie (including horn parts, string sections, organ fills and samples), the songs on Unknown are a mixture of sad and happy musings, many dedicated to his lost love—the brown-haired girl Laurie, who married a funeral parlor director years ago and became the unwitting muse for many of his songs. It’s a slickly produced album, but one that manages to maintain the humor and surreal, intensely private nature of Johnston’s early work.
Asked if he notices a certain kind of fan coming out to his shows, he answers, “Yeah, there is people at the shows. I get to meet them. They come backstage to say ‘I love you,’ you know [garbled words].” Sometimes, Johnston will invite interested fans to accompany him and his father to Denny’s after a gig.
He doesn’t say much about his recent work, though Johnston tells me that he still talks to Laurie every few years and that she always seems to find ways into his songs. He doesn’t know why. But he is writing a lot these days. Also, his alien-filled cartoons are selling out in art galleries in places like New York and Berlin.
While it would appear the slightly nervous underground legend may finally be ready for his 15 minutes of fame, if his past is any indication he will remain a cherished secret—the heartache and childlike purity of his personal visions to be shared on cheap boom boxes and anguished mix tapes by those searching for something real.