Frankenstein Love: Daniel Johnston
By Jonathan Durbin
"Woo-hoo!" Yells singer/songwriter Daniel Johnston out the passenger-side window before turning to his friend in the driver's seat, Don Goede. "Girls in New York are hot," he says to no one in particular, sucking on an A&W rootbeer candy. Johnston, a 39-year-old from Austin, Texas, is understandably excited. He's playing shows again after a long bout out of mental illness; his first new record in six years, Rejected Unknown, hits stores in September. His biography, Hi, How Are You? The Definitive Daniel Johnst'on Handbook, was just released on Soft Skull Press and two other projects -- Danny and The Nightmares (a Texan band Johnston's friends with) and Hyperjinx Tricycle (which includes both Goede and underground artist Ron English) -- are in the works. Adding to the excitement is today's main event: A confirmed comicbook fanatic, Johnston is shopping Gotham for some of his favorites -- King Kong, Captain America and Vampirella. And even though Goede's fighting Manhattan traffic, the rain and lack of sleep (lately he's been staying up all night with Johnston), he can't help but quip back: "Daniel, that's a mailwoman. She delivers the mail." Johnston, who so far hasn't let the weather dampen his mood or menthol cigarettes, considers this for a second, then shouts back out his window "Yeah! Speedy delivery!"
The songwriter's developed an underground following for both his music and his art. His fans include Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth, The Butthole Surfers, Jad Fair and even Johnny Depp, who covered Johnston's "I Save Cigarette Butts" on a hard-rock affair called P in the mid-90's. But it was Kurt Cobain who really cemented Johnston's legend by wearing a "Hi, How Are You?" (the title of Johnston's 1988 album) T-shirt to the 1993 MTV Music Video Awards. Less high-profile but equally illustrative was the retrospective of Johnston's artwork at CB's 313 Gallery last year, during which so many of his drawings were stolen off the walls the staff took them down and kept them in a book behind the bar. They printed up notices that explained why the drawings were no longer on display -- and then the notices themselves were stolen.
"I remember how Daniel once said to me with a completely serious look on his face, 'You know all my fans are insane,'" says Ron English, one of Johnston's oldest friends. "He was joking, of course, but everyone was taken aback."
Johnston's sense of humor belies an ongoing struggle with severe depression. His creative output moves in fits and spurts, through times of high productivity and no productivity at all. He's in a good phase now -- hopefully permanently -- due to new medication, but it hasn't always been that way. Stories of his depression are legendary, the worst being the incident with his father in 1989. Johnston's father is a pilot, and flying his son back from an Austin music conference to their West Virginia home turned into a near-death experience. As Tarssa Yazdani writes in Johnston's biography, "Daniel at some point became delusional. Believing his father was under the command of Satan and was taking Daniel to be executed, Daniel tried to wrest the controls [of the plane] from his father, forcing him to crash land in a field in Arkansas. . . Incredibly, they suffered only bruises and scrapes. The plane itself was totaled." Today, as we're approaching Manhattan Comics on West 40th St., Goede shows me Johnston's medication -- a serious hash of pills he takes three-times daily -- kept in a frosted yellow case. There's no evidence of an unbalanced character here, though English tells of how in less healthy times Johnston would confuse his father with Captain America. Father would only get son to take his pills by pretending to be the stars and stripes-clad superhero.
It follows, then, that Johnston's music and art be filled with Captain America and other fictional characters. But these archetypes reflect more an allegorical battle between the forces of good and evil rather than some frivolous devotion to pop-culture. His music is often child-like, usually just Johnston on an acoustic guitar or organ, with lyrics that run the gamut from touching to hilarious. His cover of The Beatles' "Live and Let Die," for instance, includes "I often thought that a store-bought product/ Had as much to give as any loved one/ But you know it's true/ [in falsetto] You know it is/ You know it is/ But then I found that life/ Was a bit more complicated/ Makes you give it a try/ Live and let die." When he's playing live, the effect is difficult to describe but extraordinarily uplifting. It's almost as if he's naked on stage, not disrobed but stripped of all artifice. There's a fine line between laughing with and laughing at; Johnston's quivery voice and vulnerable, kids-in-the-school-play sort of presence at once makes you feel embarrassed for him, yet also want to protect him. The combination works. During a recent show at The Knitting Factory, Johnston received a request for "Funeral Girl" from the audience by nodding his head and then launching into the song. The lack of velvet rope pretension lends him an extremely approachable quality.
Nevertheless, when he's comic shopping he won't be disturbed. As English and Goede wander through the store, Johnston rifles through Batman back issues, his tongue firmly planted against his upper lip. Less than 15 minutes later, Johnston walks out of the store with $105.50 worth of Weird Tales and Fantastic Monsters -- that's added to the $100 he spent before lunch on a huge King Kong bust and other flights of fancy. English says he's seen Johnston spend an entire tour's earnings in one afternoon at a comic store, so these days the money's rationed. But that was then and this is now. Walking back into the rain with a satisfied Johnston, the artist seems less like his manic legend and more like the straightforward songwriter who beautifully describes deeply troubling personal issues with one chord and a line of lyric: "I've been through some hard/ But I'm feeling so much better/ And I'm standing in your yard/ I could be there forever."