Daniel Johnston: The Story of An Artist
by Jason Cohen
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In 1985, Daniel Johnston roamed the streets of Austin passing out cassette recordings of his primitive homemade songcraft to just about anyone he encountered. Someday, he told people, his music was going to make him famous. Really famous - beyond the simple wish that people hear his songs, he wanted the glory, the adulation, even the pitfalls, just like his idols (and occasional songwriting subject), the Beatles.
So far, things haven't quite worked out that way. On the cult level, Johnston has never wanted for attention. His career was only a few months old when he earned a slot on an all-Austin episode of MTV's The Cutting Edge. Since then, he has been a celebrated denizen of the underground, with a particularly impassioned following among fellow songwriters and musicians, from locals Glass Eye and Poison 13 to Half Japanese and fIREHOSE. Literally scores of bands have covered his work, celebrating what they consider to be Johnston's absolute genius: quavering, disarmingly honest songs that are - behind the crude execution - memorable, intelligent and prodigiously crafted.
But for all its power and singularity, Daniel Johnston's music has not been his sole drawing card. A manic depressive who is gentle, funny, good-natured and even sharp when at ease, Johnston is also given to spectacular flights of fancy and frightening violent spells. Hi How Are You, the tape that first brought him wide recognition, was recorded during a nervous breakdown in 1983. On the 1986 evening he appeared on MTV, Johnston was in the Austin State Hospital, having attacked his first manager amid bouts of increasing incoherence, the result of an acid trip that has had lifelong consequences. To many, Johnston is simply "that crazy guy," notorious mainly for his bizarre but ultimately tragic adventures that invariably end with him confined to the hospital or in the care of his aging, long-suffering parents.
Yet, ten years and countless crack-ups, arrests and hospital stays later, Johnston is, at least in his mind, closer to fame than he has ever been before. He has signed with Atlantic Records*, and his debut for that label, Fun, is the first time his work has been presented with full-fledged musical arrangements and better-than-average fidelity. To Johnston it's a long-awaited opportunity to earn a living from his art, and maybe even more than that.
But it could also be the worst thing that has ever happened to him. That's because Daniel Johnston's life and career seem to mirror the lockstep pattern of his illness. Excessive attention always sends him over the edge, the best times inevitable precursors to the worst. A recording session in Maryland was followed by an incident where Johnston chased a woman out her window because he thought she had the devil in her. On the way home to West Virginia after playing the 1990 Austin Music Awards, Johnston's erratic behavior forced his pilot father to distress-land his plane in Arkansas. For fans and friends the release of Johnston's first recordings in three years is a cause for joy. It's what comes after that's worrisome.
Move it forty minutes south and Waller, Texas could be a suburb of Houston, but as it stands this little town's welcome sign identifies itself as something quite the opposite: "The Gateway to Clean Living." Among its residents, however, is a man who often speaks of communing with the devil, for it is here, nestled a few miles off the highway and within walking distance of the local Church of Christ his family attends, that Daniel Johnston lives.
Until 1991 the Johnstons lived in West Virginia, where Daniel, the youngest by far of five kids, was raised, and returned to after his first hospital stay in '86. But several of the older children also migrated to Texas, so with retirement Bill and Mabel Johnston moved closer to their progeny, taking up residence in a ranch-style house with a spacious backyard and twin-garage. Imagine the inherent awkwardness of a 34 year-old rock'n'roll-playing son living at home with two highly religious seventy-something parents. Factor in Johnston's mental health, bullheadedness and eternal adolescence and the situation is even more potent.
But aside from the bleak environs of public institutions home is the only place where Daniel can be controlled, if only because his parents make sure he sticks to his regimen of medication. "Yeah, I take quite a few pills," he says. "Keep my moods down." His parents are less successful at restricting his junk food diet - he receives the highest possible dosage of Lithium because all the soda he consumes flushes it right out of his system, and over the years he's progressed from gawky to stocky to paunchy to fat from the combination of excess sugar and drug side-effects.
Daniel has half the garage as a sort of music area as well as his own bedroom; both are strewn with comic books and memorabilia from his various records. "Yeah, it's great, I just sit here and daydream all day, smoke cigarettes and write songs," he says. Today he's got an old Wings album cranked up in the garage when his mother announces his visitors. Immediately aware that there's a car to take him away from the house, he suggests going out in search of french fries. As he eats, and throughout the rest of the day, he chainsmokes his menthol cigarettes in partition-like bursts, nervously stubbing and relighting each one four or five times before he finishes.
Johnston's mental problems often lead people to believe, mistakenly, that his talent is the mark of a savant. In fact, on a purely musical level, Johnston's gift is a wholly natural one, divorced from the demons that occupy his mind and his lyrics. "He's got this amazing raw untouchable talent," Austin Chronicle editor Louis Black, who has known him since the early days, says. "One of the reasons I respond to him in a real way is it's like responding to Muddy Waters. You can't come up with an idea so abrupt and obscene that American culture can't homogenize it, make it its own in some period of time. But Daniel can't be tainted. Daniel doesn't know how to sell out and be a normal person, and that's his saving grace. What is pure about Daniel is still pure."
Johnston's childlike demeanor can make him seem simple, but he's actually quick-witted and highly self-aware: about his music, about his craziness and about what's expected of him as a semi-public figure. Stuck with total recall of his deluded mental excursions, he'll tell you, matter-of-factly about his "dream that everybody on the earth wanted to kill me," or how "a lot of my other selves walked out of my body and did a lot of things I was surprised at." Once he "believed that the Beatles evolved into roaches, and John and George would come out and scurry about when we got our smoke break in the mental hospital." Then, just as matter-of-factly, he'll admit, "I've just been talking weird, trying to make things interesting," and be done with it.
His songwriting is similarly self-conscious. He's written dozens of beautiful, innocent songs expressing his unrequited love for Laurie, a woman he met back in West Virginia. But at the same time, in "Grievances," one of the first songs he ever wrote, he declares, "if I can't be a lover then I'll be a pest," rendering his love from afar both real and unreal, genuine and neurotic at the same time. "The biggest nightmare," he says, "was I'd been writing songs about her all the time, and I saw this special on tv about this guy who had been plaguing this woman, and they said, 'why are you bugging this woman all the time. And he goes (with this Johnston's voice drops, his face turning grim) I love her. It blew my mind, because I thought, is that me? Is that what it's like [for her]?" Probably so, but the longing and sadness Johnston sings of is still as old and as real as the blues.
He can be just as savvy about the relationship between his problems and his career, having described himself as "a monkey in a zoo" long before he'd ever seen the inside of a hospital or heard the mockery of a skeptical club audience. Still, he exploits himself as well as any outsider ever could, even as he documents the sweat and confusion his self-pandering causes. "Well you heard about the time, I was in the insane asylum," he sings in A Lonely Song. "And you read the magazines/I've been wounded by folklore/but I bet you never knew what I went through/and what I had to do just to bring you/a lonely song."
He's certainly lonely in Waller - in Austin he knew dozens of people, and even the various hospitals offered comrades-in-arms and sometimes the occasional girlfriend. Here there is no one, except when Butthole Surfer Paul Leary hauled some instruments and a portastudio up to Daniel's garage to record the songs that would become Fun. For Daniel, it's just desserts - when he first began recording music in his parent's West Virginia basement, his mother harangued him mercilessly, Daniel's little tape recorder catching every word. Now those songs are part of a body of work, and the music he's recorded in his parent's new house is an Atlantic CD.
Daniel was brought to Atlantic by Yves Beauvais, an A&R VP who usually specializes in jazz and reissues. "I'm used to dealing with proven jazz artists and the cream of the crop of the Atlantic catalog - Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Ornette Coleman - people who have an immense body of work behind them, " Beauvais says. "When I ran into Daniel's music I felt like I was running into a similar body of work. I first bought one cassette, then two, then three, then four, then all of them. I thought this guy was an absolute genius. His great melodicism, and his use of everyday language in a very poetic and appealing way reminds me of Hank Williams." Beauvais actually heard Daniel via Love Defined, a dance piece by Bill T. Jones, set to several of Johnston's compositions and performed all over the world. In 1993 he brought Johnston's poorly recorded material to the attention of his fellow Atlantic staffers, presenting it sans fanfare or legend. Somewhat to his surprise, there was no hesitation from his superiors.
At the time, however, Daniel was on the verge of signing to another Time-Warner owned label, Elektra. His longtime manager, Jeff Tartakov, had even, much to the aggravation of Elektra's lawyers, gotten the contract to reflect Daniel's condition. Ordinarily artists are contractually compelled to produce a certain amount of work and cooperate with promotional activities in exchange for seeing their work released. But with Daniel, activity and attention are not good things. "When he gets on these highs it's scary, " Tartakov says. "People would say, I'm sorry he feels so bad, and I'd try to explain that he's feeling too good."
Unfortunately, this was one of those times. From the fall of '92, when Daniel played three rapturously received shows in Texas, till the spring of '93, he had been in the state hospital as often as he'd been in his own apartment. He'd gone missing for several days, clashed with police a few times and lit his own mattress on fire, which he then deposited, smoldering, in the dumpster outside. It was no time for him to be putting his name to legal documents. He also needed to sign a management contract with Tartakov, as they'd been working without a written agreement for several years. Terry Tolkin, the person trying to sign Johnston to Elektra, did not want to do so without Tartakov's involvement, feeling that Daniel could not be controlled without Tartakov around.
In fact, no one can control Daniel, but Tartakov had been trying for seven years, tirelessly serving as advocate, banker, friend and babysitter. Unfortunately, after years where he would harass or fire Tartakov as a matter of routine only to change his mind moments later, Johnston decided he didn't want to sign the contract, claiming that Tartakov was ripping him off and giving away tapes and drawings he should have been selling. Tartakov was actually doling money out to Johnston like an allowance, while keeping some revenue for himself to pay back the money he laid out. A standard managerial task really, and one that could be abused, but no one in Austin who knows either man believes Tartakov was anything but one hundred per cent honest. When I wrote about Johnston for the Austin Chronicle in 1992 and asked to keep a drawing provided as an illustration, Tartakov told me I would have to pay $75 just like everybody else. This year, over my protests, Daniel himself gave me half-a-dozen drawings for nothing.
The situation with Tartakov did not resolve itself. The Elektra deal went away, and one day Daniel walked into the offices of the Austin label Amazing, where he gave a tape to staffer Tom Gimbel. A few months later he asked Gimbel to be his manager. For a while Gimbel tried to mediate for Tartakov, but Daniel was resolute. He now credits his new manager with getting him the Atlantic deal "within two weeks, " when in fact it was something Tartakov had been aware of long ago.
So now Daniel Johnston records for Atlantic, and lives at home, a picture of relative stability. But it's very easy "to mistake stability for wellness, " Jeff Tartakov says, and he knows, because he's been guilty of it himself, along with everybody else close to Johnston. Atlantic is aware of how precarious the situation is, and they are doing everything they can by keeping him off the road and limiting his interviews. Still, it's easy to recognize the familiar tone of optimistic denial accompanying his care and passion when Yves Beauvais says, "I'm hoping that this situation enables Daniel to get better and be better, and hopefully remain healthy and get healthier, with better medical care, and an improved self-image through the work he's doing. We're giving him a chance that he's never had before - we've already assessed his high creative ability, and our job is to find musicians and make their work heard. Daniel is dying for that chance. Should we not give him that opportunity?"
It's the eternal, unanswerable question about Daniel Johnston - how do you give the work the exposure it deserves while preserving the health of its creator? Especially when the creator, for all his talent and brains, wants the exposure more than anyone else but can't be held entirely responsible for his own actions? No matter how carefully people proceed, Daniel himself finds a way to blow things up. And as usual, Daniel himself acknowledges this in his work: "To think of all/all the times/I felt so low," he sings in Going Down. "Every time I got feeling better/I got naive/and thought that it would stay."
"You get into an awkward question of what is the responsibility to the artist and the art," Louis Black says. "To both, in a sense, you have an obligation to promote it. Inherent in that is you're probably going to destroy the person, but where do you have the right to decide, no, we're not going to do this? Daniel's spent years thinking about music as a career. He can't handle the fame, but I don't think he can handle the rejection either.
"Everything feeds his sickness, the good stuff and the bad stuff, " Black continues. "He'll go further and deeper than anybody else. He'll just push himself off the side of the building and say, I don't care what happens." And as long as Johnston continues to respond to his notoriety in his usual fashion, Black believes, "he's going to end up dead. I just hope he doesn't hurt a lot of people in the process."
In fact, it's somewhat miraculous that Johnston hasn't done more harm, to both himself and others, than he already has. There's certainly a part of him that welcomes the image of tragic rock'n'roll hero suffering for his art, a "sorry entertainer," as the title of one of his most emblematic songs puts it. But on another level his suffering has nothing to do with his art. It's sad that the only way to keep Johnston out of trouble is to keep him under wraps, but the alternative is even less attractive.
So Daniel Johnston sits in his garage in Waller, smoking his menthol cigarettes, drinking his soda pop, already thinking about the double album he wants to make as his next Atlantic release. For now Johnston's music will have to do all the talking for him, and it would probably be best if that remained the case for a long time.
*Daniel is no longer recording for Atlantic Records.